Nancy Bilyeau moderates Historical Mystery Panel at Thrillerfest XI

Cover for The Tapestry

The Panel: MEDIEVAL, RENAISSANCE OR WWII? Historical Thrillers”, on Saturday, July 9, 2016, from1:00 pm - 1:50 pm.

Moderator: Nancy Bilyeau has written a thriller trilogy set in the 16th century: THE CROWN, THE CHALICE, and THE TAPESTRY, published by Touchstone/S&S. She is also the editor of The Big Thrill, the online magazine of the ITW.

Panelists:, Michael Gear, James Hockenberry, Alison McMahan,  Keith Raffel, Cat Winters, Reavis Z. Wortham.

Michael Gear Author Foto


Gear's writing was inspired by historical inaccuracies he encountered in reading historical fiction. "Irritated by historical inaccuracies in Western fiction, he swore he could do better. ...he read a Western novel about a trail drive.. [&] ... the historical inaccuracies of the story bothered him all night. The next morning... he hammered out his first five hundred and fifty page novel... It reads wretchedly - but the historical facts are correct!" Gear often writes with his wife, Kathleen O’Neil Gear.


James Hockenberry Author foto


Hockenberry is a career financial professional who left Corporate America and reinvented himself as a writer. He plans a "World War One Intrigue" trilogy dramatizing America's involvement in the Great War. The first book, OVER HERE,  interweaves three of Hockenberry’s passions: modern history, New York City, and his family’s German-American roots. It focuses on  the undeclared Germany fought against the U.S. in 1915-1916 . The second in the series, SO BEWARE, jumps to 1919 and the Paris Peace talks. It is scheduled for release later this year.

Alison McMahan Author foto


Alison McMahan writes scholarly work on film and historical mysteries for adults and young adults. Her award-winning book Alice Guy Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Bloomsbury 2002), a critical study of the which was translated into Spanish by Plots Ediciones. It was made into a play and now is the basis for a documentary.  She is also the author of  The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Hollywood (Bloomsbury 2005) and a historical mystery novel, The Saffron Crocus(Black Opal Books, 2014). She is currently working on a medieval spy novel.

Keith Raffel Author foto


Keith Raffel has a little trouble holding on to a job. He has taught writing to college freshmen, served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, founded a Silicon Valley software company, run the business side of a DNA sequencing company, and spent 2015 at Harvard as a an advanced leadership fellow (whatever that is). He became a published author in 2006 with Dot Dead, which theNew York Times deemed “worthy of a Steve Jobs keynote presentation.” These days he can usually be found tapping his laptop’s keys and power-drinking green tea at a café around the corner from his home in Silicon Valley.

Cat Winters Author Foto and Uninvited Book Cover


Cat Winters is an author of YA and adult fiction involving history, mystery, ghosts, hypnotists, and monsters. Her award-winning, critically acclaimed YA historical novels include In the Shadow of Blackbirds, The Cure for Dreaming, and The Steep and Thorny Way (Abrams). Her debut adult novel, The Uninvited, a WWI-era psychological thriller/ ghost tale, released in 2015 from HarperCollins, and her second book for adults, Yesternight, is a 1920s tale of past lives and untimely deaths, coming October 4, 2016, from HarperCollins. Visit her online at

REavis Wortham author pic


I've been writing since 1988 starting with a syndicated newspaper column that morphed  into ongoing articles for a number of magazines such as American Cowboy and Texas Fish and Game magazine, where I serve as the Humor Editor. 

My first novel, The Rock Hole was published in 2011, the year I retired from 35 years in public education. Kirkus chose it as one of the Top 12 Best Novels for 2011. Since then, there have been five more in the series set in northeast Texas in the 1960s, Burrows, The Right Side of Wrong ("A sleeper that deserves wider attention." The New York Times), Vengeance is Mine, and finally Dark PlacesUnraveled is scheduled for release in November, 2016. All have been critically acclaimed by reviewers and many gave them Starred Reviews.


Nancy Bilyeau Author foto

Nancy asks Cat Winters : Let’s talk about  time and place in your books.

When I see your work I see menace and suspense interwoven with historical detail. How do you get it? Instinctively or through revision?

WINTERS: history and suspense go hand in hand. I write about a very specific time period for a specific reason. Both In the Shadow of Blackbirds and The Uninvited are set in US 1918 for a very specific reason.  Spanish Flu pandemic – more people died from the flu than from WWI itself which was going on at same time. IN Blackbird the main character’s father  is arrested for treason for helping young men to avoid the draft. It's almost a dystopian suspense but it's all true, I include historical pictures so people can see these things really happened. 


Cover for Unraveled

QUESTION FOR REAVIS WORTHAM: at Craftfest lunch they had agent, high level editors, and they all talked about how much they loved voice. They aren't obsessed with plot, plot can be fixed, they want voice. Your main character says things like "I's half sick." "It scared the pee waddlin' out of me."

How did you come up with this voice?

WORTHAM:  the historical thriller mysteries are set in mid 1960s in northeast Texas. I do everything I can to be true to the people of the time. People who write about Texas who don't live in Texas, they all sound like they are from the Midwest. I wanted to be specific to northeast Texas, one of five Texan dialects. They came from Appalachia and settle on the Red River. Their speech is distinctive. In East Texas, "behind the Pine Curtain" their dialect is so different they would have to be subtitled. I’m  a natural mimic so voice comes naturally to me.. 

Cover for Sun Born

QUESTION FOR MICHAEL GEAR: The power of imagination. In historical mysteries and thrillers especially. Do you think of an action that needs to happen and then imagine what how it would happen hundreds of years ago, how do you do it?

GEAR: it depends on the book we are doing. In our book PEOPLE OF THE SEA, we went to an archeologist conference, heard a paper on butchered bear and butchered lions, and suddenly we had to set this story back eleven thousand years so we could use that.  Certifiable psychopath chasing her across a landscape in time and place. We worked with Forest Service archeologists, Chaco great house, built up the side of a mountain. The forest service pointed down and said "when the archeologist dug it up in 1922, that's where he found the charred bodies." Instantly we knew we had to write about it.

Cahokia. You stand on the site and absorb it, and ask youself, so what happens if we have a serial killer come in and knock off the elite of Cahokia?

Q:How do you get in touch with experts and get them to help you?

GEAR: Kathy and I are anthropologista and archeologists so we are in their network. But usually they are glad to talk about their field. Most historians and archeologists are absolutely dedicated to their sites, and anyone who wants to write about it they will bend you over backward to get you there.

NANCY BILYEAU: It is easier than you might think. Just sent an email to contact us and a month later a curatorial intern was sending me diet sheets of what people ate in 1550 in the cells.

Cover of A Fine and Dangerous Season

QUESTION FOR KEITH RAFFEL: In A FINE AND DANGEROUS SEASON you have a fictional character who was best friends with JFK in college and they meet again during the Cuban Missile Crisis. How do you mix fictional and historical characters? 

RAFFEL: It's little known fact that JFK was at Stanford as a special student. Little known part of his life. 75 years ago, but long enough ago to be historical.

The world we live in is not such a great place. I would prefer to live someplace else. So wouldn't it be fun to be friends with Jack Kennedy in 1940 and then see him again during the Cuban Missle Crisis? 

Cover for The Saffron Crocus



17th C Venice. Such an intoxicating time. Why that time?

McMAHAN: It was a chance encounter with a Young Adult historical novel that moved me to write THE SAFFRON CROCUS. I was in a bookstore, and I picked up this YA book set in 17th Century Venice. The writer had characters doing things that were not of that time period, like galloping across Venice in a carriage, and drinking absinthe.  I was really offended that young readers were being given an inaccurate picture of history, and I decided that I could do better. I also like that period because I'm an opera fan and that is when opera was born. 

QUESTION FOR JAMES HOCKENBERRY: Characters from the past have a different mind set. Do you take a universal truth about human behavior now and set it in the past, or take from the past and make it intelligible to modern readers?

HOCKENBERRY: Universal truth in all ages "man at his brink" theme in all his work, tend to be military.

For example, German sabotage in America during WWI. These mules will be poisoned with anthrax, a British vet goes onto the boats and says " do you realize you have a real problem, you have anthrax." 


My book was set more recently so I had diaries and letters to consult, went to JFK library in Boston, they have everything you need. Actual long hand words are so much more truthful.

Cuban Missil Crisis. People often say "people would never say that." JFK tape recorded everything and he just put it in his book.

QUESTION FOR MICHAEL GEAR: How do you find the human truth when you go back so far in time?

GEAR: It’s about the present and then what you've done to augment.

Human beings are essentially modern human beings, we've been around in our current form about two hundred and eighty thousand years.  Anthropologists argue what it means to be human. We all have the same basic wiring. Our needs aren't that different as they were twenty thousand years ago. The culture has changed, the techniques and developments, but the basic organism has certain needs: food, shelter, water, to procreate, and it doesn't matter what cultural system we are in, those basic needs are the same. How are you going to keep kids safe if your society is falling part? 

QUESTION FOR CAT WINTERS: Our society right now is in  a stressful place, historical fiction helps me get perspective on what we are going through now. CAT WINTERS, how were people different in your period?

WINTERS: Struggle of women finding their place, dealing with the big ideas, when I studied history in high school I always perked up when real people's stories came up.

One way historical fiction is relevant to modern readers, is that history repeats itself.

IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS and THE UNINVITED deals with paranoia of German immigrants in America, which related to fear of all immigrants. My books have suddenly become very relevant.

STEEP AND THORNY WAY is a retelling of Hamlet with rise of Klu Klux Klan in 1920s.

I like to show that these were real people, same emotion as nowadays. It’s easier to deal with hard issues when set in the past, ideas of modern society through the veil of the past. makes it a little easier to talk about.

QUESTION FOR REAVIS WORTHAM: Your books not so distant past. How do you bring readers in so they can understand your world?

WORTHAM: Everyone has always lived in stressful times. Whether in the past or now. I  wanted to revisit 1960s, people who were simply trying to wrest a living from the ground. I backed into doing the Red River Series, I had one story I needed to tell from my granddad who was a constable. Constables back in the 60s were the local sheriff. He would get on a tractor and plough and chop cotton, then he would put a badge on and go out and be the law.

In the early 80s he was retired, sitting on his porch, I recalled that when I was a kid there was something going on in the river bottoms, someone was finding animals and torturing them, flaying them alive. Every time he found an animal there was a piece of paper that told him what the next victim was going to be. Eventaully there were a couple of bodies. People started carrying their guns. 

Suddenly it all ended. As a kid I never knew what happened. So in the 80s I asked my grandad, do you remember those animal killings in the hollows? What ever happened to that?  And he said "sometimes folks just need killing." And that's all he said and never spoke of it again.

So the idea came to me, back in the day those old guys took care of the problem, their way, and Grandad was involved or he turned his head, so I wrote one book then got a series out of it. That’s led me to a new contract for a series with Kensington, which will be contemporary.

QUESTION FOR ALISON McMAHAN: Venice was in a post plague anything goes frightening time.  It’s almost comforting to think that things could be worse in a different time. How did you make character relatable?

McMAHAN: the girl wants to sing in Monteverdi's choir,  but only boys could do that; if they needed a soprano they would castrate little boys rather than let girls sing. The girl’s singing teacher tells her about this new form called opera where women can sing, but before the girl can get into that her teacher is murdered and she has to solve the murder. So, I made her relatable by giving her an experience we’ve all had, trying to get into a club that doesn’t want us.

QUESTION FOR MICHAEL GEAR: How to think about voice when writing prehistoric peoples? 

GEAR:I write with my wife, Kathleen O’Neal Gear. We think about people in the past  as modern human beings. They were as articulate as we are or more. For example when the French landed in the Americas they found the Heron had five tenses in their language that French didn't have.

We just assume they are human beings like us, communicating like us, and fight not to write anything to anachronistic, at least that won't pull the reader out of the narrative.

GENERAL QUESTION: Is there any time when you are doing your research you have to start because its overwhelming

CAT WINTERS: much easier to do too much, put too much in, then cut in, then not to have enough.

You can put it into another book. I had a whole subplot cut form Blackbirds and put it into Uninvited. Cat researches the whole time she writes. Does enough to start the story, then looks up as she goes along.


REAVIS WORTHAM: "less is more". Sprinkles things in as spice. A car with a push button transmission.  Party lines. It was always the old lady at the end of the line that listened in to everybody. That becomes a very small subplot. Rock and roll music as it evolved. Started out bubble gum in early 60s and became very dark in late 60s.

JAMES HOCKENBERRY: sometimes a question comes up in the writing that I has to research even further. When I need a new weapon, something like that. At some point you have to cut it off.

WORTHAM: sometimes you need to know something and can't find it. Wanted to do something on Las Vegas, what it looked like, remembered Elvis movie Viva Las Vegas and opening sequence shows what Las Vegas looked like at the time.

HOCKENBERRY: I refer to old postcards of NYC.

NANCY BILYEAU: Pacing: it took a long time in 16th C to get places, have to jump.

Q:How do you know what you don't know?

There are readers who just know everything about the Civil War era or the Elizabethan.

GEAR: we do know a lot about prehistory. We have tools and stuff. Where we run into problems is the social structure. Cahokia we have the site, we have pictures, but for the social structure we have to make guesses. Was it patrilineal or matrilineal?

How many souls did they believe are in a body? Most Native Americans believe 2, some tries believe 3, some 5.


You don't have to describe every single thing that is in a room. 17th C room has a parquet floor. You had to be rich to have that. It was slave labor. So who is in the room, how does he feel about his parquet floor? That's all you need to know.

END of panel