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[GUEST POST] William Petrocelli on The Challenges of Writing a Thriller Set in the Future (+ Giveaway)

William Petrocelli is the co-owner, with his wife Elaine, of the famed independent San Francisco Bay Area Book Passage bookstores. As a former Deputy Attorney General for the State of California and a poverty lawyer in Oakland, Petrocelli has long been an advocate for women’s rights. The Circle of Thirteen is his first novel. Visit WilliamPetrocelli.com for more information about the novel and Bill’s book tour, as well as essays, excerpts, reviews and a list of select independent bookstores to buy the book.

Fact-Checking the Future: The Challenges of Writing a Thriller Set in the Future

by William Petrocelli, author of The Circle of Thirteen (Turner Publishing, on-sale October 22, 2013)

Writing teachers say write with a strong sense of place. Little details can bring a story to life, and the historical setting can often place those details in the reader’s mind so that they don’t have to be spelled out. If the hero is “confronted by a man with a gun,” the context can fill in the picture. If the story is set in Tombstone 1881, Chicago 1927, or Berlin 1944, in your mind’s eye you’ll see a Western Sheriff, a Chicago mobster, or an agent of the Gestapo.

But what do San Francisco in 2056 or New York in 2082 look like? Writers of future-fiction don’t have to do much historical research, but they do something just as difficult: they have to create a historical context on the blank slate of a reader’s mind. The challenge is to merge your vision of the future with the visions of thousands of readers without jarring them to the point of distraction.

The closer a future scene is to the present, the more difficult it is to write. A story set well into the future operates under its own internal rules. No one really tries to fill in all the gaps between the present moment and some far distant time. But if you set a story in, say, 2017, readers might expect you to describe the next version of the iPhone, predict the World Series, or tell them who got elected President in 2016.

I wanted The Circle of Thirteen to be about the changing role of women, and I thought it best to tell it from a future vantage point. I chose the period 2032-2082, because that would place the story close enough to the present world to be relevant but not so close that I would have to update every bit of current trivia. But it’s never that neat. I may have started with a focus on the role of women, but history – even future history – doesn’t move in distinct packets. I quickly realized that I had to weave many other themes into the story, like global warming, economic injustice, and political violence.

How much does a society really change over a period of 30, 40 or even 50 years? Thinking back a few decades, I wonder how much of our present world I would have foreseen. I never would have guessed the Internet, but on the other hand commercial jet travel doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. Historical change is uneven, and things sometimes move in different directions. At one point in the book technical progress and social regression are both happening at the same time. That doesn’t seem to me to be at all unlikely.

The biggest challenge is to avoid what novelists call the “big data-dump” – adding in background facts that don’t fit into the flow of the story. Everything has to be seen through the eyes of the characters. It’s likely, for example, that our current obsession with social-networking will evolve in a technology that allows users to project their discussions onto walls in public places. I decided to introduce that future-fact in a scene where Julia, the protagonist, is racing to get away from the words surrounding her so she can concentrate on her own thoughts.

Another example involves Julia’s house-robot, Toki. He is seen through her eyes, and the reader shares her bemusement at how emotionally clueless he can be. In that case I decided it was better to have Julia be annoyed than the reader be bored.


GIVEAWAY: Win a Copy of THE CIRCLE OF THIRTEEN by William Petrocelli!

SF Signal has 2 copies of the The Circle of Thirteen by William Petrocelli to give away to 2 lucky SF Signal readers!

Here’s the book description:

In 2082, a catastrophic explosion rocks the dedication ceremony of the new United Nations in New York City. Security Director Julia Moro is on the job, chasing after the misogynistic leader of Patria, a long-disbanded international terrorist organization now being whispered about again on the streets. This dangerous, shadowy figure has been linked to several bombing attempts and vicious attacks on women, including the Women of Peace—an organization headed by thirteen bold women who have risked their lives to restore worldwide peace. As Julia’s investigation unfolds, a deep secret from her past threatens to strip her of everything she cherishes and plunge her into unrecoverable darkness.

The Circle of Thirteen’s gripping narrative weaves back and forth in time, from an act of domestic violence that created the disturbed personality of the Patria mastermind, to the two weeks leading up to the bombing at the UN, to events half a century before the bombing that directly influence it. The strong, relatable women and the unbreakable bond between them provide an emotionally grounded window into the future’s unforgettable history.

Here’s how you can enter for a chance to win:

  1. Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
  2. In the subject line, enter ‘The Circle of Thirteen
  3. In the email, please provide your mailing address so the books can be mailed as soon as possible. (The winning address is used only to mail the prize and, like all other address info, will be purged once the giveaway ends.)
  4. Geographic restrictions: This giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.
  5. The giveaway will end Friday, October 25th, 2013 (7:00 PM U.S. Central time). The winners will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.

Good luck!


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