Thriller, mystery, action adventure, suspense, or what?

What’s in a genre? More precisely, what’s the difference between the genres in the title? Are there any hard lines between them?

Action stories feature a lot of movement-heavy exciting scenes including but not limited to fights, shootouts, car chases, foot chases, explosions, fast flying helicopters – you name it – and more than one. Sometimes they feature one character, but more often an ensemble each with different functions or expertise.

However, these stories and films tend to have simple, obvious or sometimes hardly any plot, even huge plot holes and lack of continuity. The fun is in the fast and furious pace and in films, heart-stopping CGI sequences. such as Mission Impossible.

Adventure stories are essentially about an exciting experience or mission/quest at the centre of the tale and sometimes have old-fashioned tone as H. Rider Haggard’s classic stories, spy stories such as by John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler, or an epic one as in space opera  such as the Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon.

Such stories often feature exotic locales and several puzzles/riddles/challenges that may or may not be physical. A good supporting team  of trusty locals, comrades, experts and ‘elder statesperson’/guru is in the mix. The ‘good guys’ usually win, although there may be bitter loss or sacrifice along the way.  Confusion arises these days with the label if books are called ‘adventure’ when they may only be a day out or a family road trip; these are really dramas, I’d say.

Action-adventure is a hybrid in which both action scenes and puzzling challenges are combined. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of an action-adventure film since it contains both strong physical action scenes as well as a defined quest. Raiders includes fights, stunts and shootouts along with period settings, travel, historical puzzles and death-defying challenges.

Suspense stories have danger but not necessarily action. Much of the danger and tension come from the unknown or apprehension of potential danger. The protagonist acts in a state of excitement, misplaced hope, anxiety and/or uncertainty about what is about to happen. Readers often know something the characters don’t and hold their breath as the characters’ dread increases. Should a vulnerable, young character venture upstairs to find out what’s making those noises in the attic? We know they shouldn’t and we have a pretty good idea why they shouldn’t.  We may possibly know EXACTLY what’s waiting for them up there…

Mysteries have, er, mysteries, a puzzle or sometimes a seemingly impossible quandary to understand or explain. It often relates to a crime like murder, and includes hidden elements, a cover-up and a sleuth/detective, and the answer is revealed only at the end. Agatha Christie specialised in this. Traditional authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett mixed mystery and suspense. The best mystery stories often explore people’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the crime/mystery/thriller genres.

Thriller stories are more nuanced than action stories and build more on tension and complexity of plot. Traditionally, the plot appears more important than the characters, but the best thriller writers develop both equally fully. Often, something bad happens to the protagonist externally, e.g.they are mistaken for a criminal, kidnapped, attacked by ‘persons unknown’ or are betrayed by the authorities or seeming colleagues – anything to ramp up the tension. Equally often the only solution is for the protagonist to act alone at great personal risk or in certain danger. Internal conflict, illness and psychological pressure and self-doubt add to the tension.

Thrillers use plot twists and devices to create excitement, while action and adventure stories use their action scenes and risky situations. In crime thrillers, the central characters are involved in crime, either in its investigation, as the perpetrator.

According to International Thriller Writers (and who am I to argue?), a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

A few types of thrillers and some examples
Classics: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Count of Monte Cristo, both strip away civilisation and reveal cruelty of people to others, the first more of a psychological thriller, the second a story of vengeance and redemption.

Legal thrillers: Anything by John Grisham who has made the sub-genre his own.

Intellectual or pseudo-intellectual thrillers: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is a prime example. Using a professor as protagonist gives an essence of credibility (but not much), but it does attract readers by delving into a mystery most people would love to know about, and moves very fast.

Epic/high-concept thrillers: These deal with terrorism, trained assassins or space opera. A ‘pull out all the stops’, ‘save the world’ genre. Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders would be a good example of this.

Socio-political thrillers: Frederic Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal is one of my favourites!

Espionage thrillers: Le Carré is, of course, the master here with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as an excellent place to start. Mick Herron is another terrific spy story writer, with anarchic insight into his cynical protagonist Jackson Lamb and team of competent incompetents of Slow Horses.

Techno-thrillers: Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger. Both are fast-paced and with sympathetic and complex main characters.

Historical: My favourite is Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective Falco and the spin-off series featuring Flavia Albia. Ellis Peters’ 12th century Brother Cadfael series is a a well-loved classic.

What ifs: Fatherland by Robert Harris remains my favourite alternative history, although there are many more here. Oh, and there’s the Roma Nova thriller series with stories set in a Roman society in the 20th and 21st centuries full of betrayal, rebellion and ‘tough gals’… 😉


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Download INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Dublin Writers' Conference: 'Serious about series'

Although I’m not speaking at the conference this year. I’ve written a piece called ‘Serious about Series’ for the conference magazine. Delighted and honoured to be contributing virtually!

From the conference organisers…

‘Focused On Helping Authors & Aspiring Authors
Our expanded conference takes place at the Academy Plaza Hotel, just off O’Connell Street (map,) in the heart of Dublin’s city center. Our marketing sessions for writers will show you how you can find readers in a rapidly changing world. Our writing craft sessions will help you broaden your writing skills. Our pitch sessions could help you to sell your story to a publisher, to Hollywood or to readers.

Come for just the Saturday sessions or join us on each of the three days. Anyone who books to attend is also welcome to our opening session on Friday evening, where we will introduce the instructors and welcome you.’


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter.

Getting the 'feel' of your book's setting

Jennifer in Stirling Castle

Jennifer in Stirling Castle

This week’s guest is Jennifer C. Wilson, a marine biologist by training, who has developed an equal passion for history and historical fiction whilst stalking Mary, Queen of Scots on childhood holidays. (She has since moved on to Richard III.) Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east of England for work reignited her pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since.

In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and has been working on a number of projects since, including co-hosting the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle. Her Kindred Spirits novels are published by Crooked Cat Books and her timeslip novella, The Last Plantagenet?, by Ocelot Press.

She lives in North Tyneside, and is very proud of her approximately 2-inch view of the North Sea.

Over to Jennifer!

Have you ever been in the middle of a story, either reading or watching, when you’re suddenly jolted from your enjoyment, and find yourself thinking: “But you cannot get from there to there that way” or “That’s ridiculous, they’re miles from each other.”

We’ve all been there, usually when watching or reading about somewhere we know really well, either through living there or visiting, and although you might think it doesn’t matter to anyone other than those who know a particular place intimately, do you really want to shake your readers’ belief of your world?

Nobody is expecting you to necessarily be the academic expert in your particular field, but key facts still need to be correct, and one of the biggest areas for this is your setting. Even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, set in a ‘real’ location, e.g. the heart of London, world-building is vital to help readers lose themselves in your story, and this is doubled or tripled if you’re writing about far-flung places, either spatially or temporally.

In historical fiction, some of the ‘big hitters’ to get right include:

  • Travel methods and timings;
  • Location logistics; and
  • Technology / food.

For this post, I’m thinking particularly about location logistics. This ranges from small-scale issues such as which parts of a building were physically present at the time you’re writing, to larger issues such as towns and their connection with the wider world.

Staying at a smaller scale, it’s important to think about what a place was really like in the period you’re writing about. One of the best ways to get a feel for a place is of course to visit it, but with historical fiction, we can never truly see a location in the way our characters would have done.

One example of this I struggle with is churches. We’re so used to seeing our churches fairly plain, simple, white, with very little adornment, and yet, you only have to look at contemporary churches on the Continent to see how British churches may have looked prior to the Reformation. Likewise, when we visit castles, even if we stand in the very room in which our action took place, we must really stretch our imaginations to see, for example, the roaring fire in the hearth, the thick tapestries on the walls, or to breathe in the heavy smoke, squint in the candlelight.

However, visiting your locations is still the best way to get a feel for that other element of setting: logistics. When I visited the Tower of London a second time, knowing by then that I wanted to write a story set there, I looked at it from a different angle, thinking about distances between buildings, what direction you would turn when leaving through a specific door etc. Yes, internal décor may have changed, but you still cannot have characters turning out of a door and into a brick wall (although, with mine being ghosts, I did have some leeway there!).

Stirling Castle royal apartments

Stirling Castle royal apartments

But what if visiting your location is out of the question? If it’s been destroyed over time, obliterated by modern developments? Getting to somewhere similar can be a useful stand-in. So many places recreate their original settings these days.

Linlithgow, Mary Queen of Scots birth chamber

Last year, I visited Stirling Castle, where Historic Scotland had recently redone the royal suite to represent the time of Mary, Queen of Scots’ parents, James V and Marie de Guise. The rooms are beautifully done, with tapestries, furnishings and accessories made in line with what’s known from inventories and descriptions. You can get a real sense of how it would have been to walk into them.

The next day, I went to Linlithgow, which was used by James and Marie during the same period, but hasn’t been kept up to the same standards of Stirling.

However, thanks to the work done at Stirling, the grey-walled, roofless rooms at Linlithgow could come to life in the same way. Likewise, and more extreme, we can look around Hampton Court Palace to get a sense of how the now-lost Nonsuch Palace might have been appointed, both having been used by the same monarch, Henry VIII.

This, combined with maps, descriptions and paintings can work to give a solid idea what your setting would have been like during the time you’re writing about. Reading extracts of diaries, letters and notes can also give great insight.

The physical setting is only half of the picture though. When we visit ruined castles, or battlefields, we dress ‘appropriately’ for the way things are now. Trainers and jeans are perfect attire for clambering up and down spiral staircases, or wandering on semi-muddied paths to see where a particular regiment might have been for a main advance. But, consider doing the same wearing the ‘right’ clothes.

I’m personally not into my battlefields, but I have found my mind wandering when I’m strolling through a great hall, thinking how wonderful it would have been to saunter through the same space in a stunning gown, the candlelight picking out the gemstones along the neckline, and golden thread glistening. But then you have to leave the hall, and navigate the narrow passageway to your bedchamber, or descend the tightly-wound staircase to leave the building. Not quite as glamorous, and also makes you pause when you have your heroine rushing anywhere!

I read a post on social media just this week, saying how certain actions make us feel like historical heroines, such as picking up the hem of a long dress when walking up steps. I had this in Malaga a fortnight ago, wandering through the palace within the Alcazaba, having to lift my hem to climb a set of stairs into the palace. Immediately I was transported back in time!

We cannot all have the opportunity to physically try on period dress, but seeing others wearing it can go a long way to understanding how people would have actually made their way about your setting.

At least, with almost all of these research techniques, it involves a nice day getting out and about, always good for adding inspiration into the ‘pot’!

Connect with Jennifer:


Read Jennifer’s latest – kindred Spirits: York

In the ancient city of York, something sinister is stirring…

What do a highwayman, an infamous traitor, and two hardened soldiers have in common? Centuries of friendship, a duty to the town, and a sense of mischief – until they realise that someone is trying to bring chaos to their home.

Joining forces with local Vikings, the four friends keep an eye on the situation, but then, disaster strikes.

Can peace be restored both inside and out of the city walls?





Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter.

Anna Belfrage – Charting a course through the turbulent seas of imagination

Delighted to welcome long-standing writing friend Anna Belfrage back to the blog!

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17thcentury Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14thcentury England.  She has recently released Smoke in Her Eyes, the second in a new series, The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense with paranormal and time-slip ingredients.

Over to Anna!

Most writers depend on inspiration.

A snippet of conversation we’ve overheard, an article about sheep, two people engaged in deep conversation while drinking Turkish tea out of ridiculously small cups—it doesn’t take more than that for me, and suddenly my brain is in overdrive, throwing one image after the other at me.

I am a visual writer. I “see” images as I write. Taking my few examples above as a starting point, the two gents drinking tea never ended up in a book – but because of them, Turkey (more specifically Istanbul) plays a major, major part in my contemporary series, The Wanderer.

The drawback with visual inspiration is that we see things all the time.

Over the course of a day, my brain presents me with thousands of images, potential sparks of inspiration. As I sit here tapping away at my laptop, I have but to lift my head to gaze out the window. Two lemon coloured butterflies dance in the sunlight, and I file that little scene away for future usage. Not that I see any need for butterflies in what I am presently writing, but one never knows, right?

Writing, Leonid Pasternak, 1862 – 1945

Writing, Leonid Pasternak, 1862 – 1945

Thing is, too much inspiration becomes a distraction. Historical fiction writers experience that frequently when doing research. From considering just what flowers a lady of the manor might use to decorate her solar, our intrepid researcher might suddenly drown in fascinating depictions of medieval salads and the best recipe for a good pottage. Or said writer becomes so engrossed in how colonial people made soap that he/she just has to include a long, long description in her WIP, no matter that it has no bearing on the story.

Even worse, if as an author you like working on multiple WIPs simultaneously, inspirational flashes can overburden your poor brain. I am one such author: I have FIVE different stories under gestation. Five. Time-wise, they span everything from the 13thcentury to the 21st. One is set in medieval Spain. The other in England and France a century or so later than the Spanish story. A third plays out in the last decade of the 17thcentury. The fourth is very firmly set in the here and now. The fifth is a time-slip, taking the early 18thcentury as its starting point. I guess I do not need to point out just how easy it can be to confuse things here, right? (And now I am wondering whether lemon coloured butterflies fluttered in medieval Spain as well as in present-day Sweden. Or do they have them in 17thcentury Maryland? Hmm. Note to self: look up endemic butterflies)

So how do I cope with all this inspiration?

Girl Writing a Love Letter, Pietro Antonio Rotari, 1707 – 1762

Girl Writing a Love Letter, Pietro Antonio Rotari, 1707 – 1762

When I first started writing seriously, I handled this by keeping a note-book by the bed in which I jotted down Ms Inspiration’s every whisper (She tends to visit a lot at night). Most of it I culled, because what sounded so fab at three a.m. was more of a “meh” experience come the bleak light of dawn. However, at the time, I was obsessing over ONE story line, not five, so the note book thing worked. It doesn’t work when one has five different threads vying for attention.

What I have had to do is move from being a “pantser” to being a “plotter”. The “pantser” generally creates solely based on what he/she is inspired by. The “plotter” makes a plan, draws up an outline, has a notion of where things are going with the various stories. The “plotter” approaches writing as a profession, not a passion—which, I must hasten to add, does not preclude having intensely passionate moments while submerged in writing.

What this means is that depending on where I am at in my outline, I will react or noton the sudden surges of inspiration. In the case of my story set in medieval Spain, I have a clear idea of where it is going, who the protagonists are, what historical events I will portray. I am therefore restrictive when it comes to jotting down new ideas—I assume that once I start writing the story properly, inspiration will kick in anyway. I do, however, add notes along the lines of “R captured by Moorish pirates. N to the rescue. Pomegranate crucial.” Greek to you, dear readers, but not to me.

When it comes to my new time-slip, however, I am much more generous re Ms Inspiration’s contributions. Here, the story is not set in stone and I am still putting the building blocks in place, so I have to listen carefully to that inner voice of mine.

None of my notes end up in notebooks

I still have a notebook by the bed, just in case, but these days I quickly transfer my ideas to my laptop. Each WIP has a huge, messy outline, with some things in caps, some notes in red. It contains everything from characters to general plotline to settings, things I need to research. One contains an instruction to dig into the history of brocade. Another has a list of books to read related to the first Jacobite rebellion. Together, these outlines form a navigational chart, an overview of my ongoing creative process that allows me to listen to Ms Inspiration when she pops by but not always take her seriously.

Except, of course, I never tell her that: Ms Inspiration is a somewhat touchy lady!


Connect with Anna:
Amazon page,
Twitter:   @abelfrageauthor


Read Anna’s latest book

Six months ago, Helle Madsen would have described herself as normal. Now she no longer knows if that terms applies, not after her entire life has been turned upside down by the reappearance of not one, but two, men from her very, very distant past.

Helle Madsen never believed in mumbo-jumbo stuff like reincarnation—until she came face to face with Jason Morris, a man who purportedly had spent fifty lives looking for her. Coping with being reunited with the lover from her ancient past was one thing. Having Sam Woolf, her vindictive nemesis from that same ancient past join the party was a bit too much. Suddenly, Helle finds herself the reluctant heroine of a far-flung, time-transcending epic story, one in which pain and loss seem to play a very big part.

This time round, Jason and Helle are determined to make it to the happily ever after. Unfortunately, Sam Woolf will stop at nothing to crush them. That ride into the golden sunset seems awfully far away at times…

Second in The Wanderer series

Available from:


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter.

Denise Barnes – serial series writing

Denise BarnesThis week’s guest is multiple-named, multiple published author Denise Barnes. She’s sold lipstick in Denver, modelled in Atlanta, worked as secretary to the UN Narcotics Director in Geneva, chauffeured a Swiss multi-millionaire in Zurich, assisted a famous film producer in the UK, and cooked in a sanatorium in Bavaria. 

Although she set up and ran her own chain of estate agents successfully for 17 years she unfortunately sold  it to two conmen. Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business emerged as a warning on how easily one can be conned (Biteback Publishing 2013).

After self-publishing The Voyagers trilogy – a saga stretching from 1913-2012 – under the pseudonym Fenella Forster, she is currently writing her fifth novel for Avon HarperCollins, all set in the Second World War, under the pseudonym Molly Green.

Over to Denise!

Thank you, Alison, for inviting me on to your very popular blog as a guest. You and I have both written trilogies/series and we’ve often discussed the pros and cons of such a slippery project, and come to many of the same conclusions.

Not all trilogies and series start off as such. When I wrote my first novel. it was never intended to be a trilogy. In my mind were two heroines. I wanted to tell the story of Annie, a young woman in 1913, and her granddaughter, Juliet, in modern day. In other words, a dual timeline – the kind of novel I love reading.

However, it became a hefty manuscript of over 150,000 words, and no agent or publisher would touch it, particularly as I was an unknown author. Many professionals told me it was like two different books jammed together, and I remember being very upset because I’d already begun a sequel about Kitty, the daughter of Annie, so this time set in the Second World War.

The Voyagers

Depressed, I Skyped my CWP (critique writing partner) who happens to be Alison. She said, ‘Just pull the damned stories apart (she might have used a stronger adjective) and Kitty then becomes the third of a trilogy.’ As soon as she said the word “trilogy” I was excited. But it was extremely challenging and I wish I’d known all the following tips before I started.

Make all of them standalones
People don’t always buy books in the order you write them. It depends how the readers come across your books. So at least if they are a complete story you won’t leave the reader dissatisfied. You may think you should leave the ending open, so readers are tempted to buy the next one. Don’t do it! You will get some grumpy readers who spot that particular selling ploy, and they may not bother to read your next one.

Tie up the loose ends.
This is really important to give the reader a satisfactory reading experience. But there is an exception to this non-written rule if you’re writing a series. If you leave what appears to be a minor question pertaining to one of the secondary characters unanswered in the first book, you can choose not to refer to it again, or more interestingly, you can make it significant in the next book, and it will provide a nice link between the two novels.

Trilogies or series must link up
You should form connections in more than one way or you might as well write completely unrelated stories. If it’s a saga series, you might well be writing about different members of the same family. Or it may have the same setting. And even some of the same characters. But you would normally have a different heroine and hero, although again, there’s no set rule. You may think you’ve created a writer’s gift in that several familiar characteristics in the first novel are already in place that you can repeat in Book 2.

But be careful. You will have to describe the same settings and same characters in a fresh light so as not to bore your readers who’ve already come across these descriptions in the first book. But you can’t skip over them either by being too eager to get on with the story, or your new reader to the series will be confused when you make allusions they can’t relate to.

Keep meticulous fileson characters who will reappear in forthcoming novels, so they don’t end up with different eye colours, and worse, different personalities and goals.

The timeline is vital
Your characters should age correctly as the years move forward, and it will remind you of their birthdays, which might make a pivotal scene.

Examples of more links
A piece of jewellery, a diary, a bundle of letters, or a photograph might thread its way into two or more of the series. Or introduce a family secret such as a hidden identity, For something spine tingling, try an unknown name on a birth certificate, as I did in Kitty’s Story.

Trilogies or series don’t all have to be set in different period
My second and third series are chronological (set in the Second World War) but they all have many of the same characters. My ‘Orphan’ series has the same setting and many of the same children in a Dr Barnardo’s orphanage in Liverpool, thereby creating a strong link throughout.

In my latest ‘Linfoot Sisters’ series (first one: Flight Girl, due out this November), the overriding link is the three sisters, each one being the heroine of her own story. All three girls choose completely different ways of ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort, but they regularly meet in the three novels to keep the themes and links alive.

I’m sure you’ll think of many more reasons why it’s both frightening and exhilarating to write a trilogy or a series. As Alison will confirm, you really can have a lot of fun. I wish you the very best of luck.


The Orphan series
The Orphan series

More about Denise/Fenella/Molly on her website:
Follow her on Twitter:  @denisebarnesuk


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter.