Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thriller Writer Alan Jacobson Shares the Work Behind the Works

My guest blogger is Alan Jacobson, the national bestselling author of the critically acclaimed thrillers False Accusations, The Hunted, Crush, Velocity, and The 7th Victim, which was named to Library Journal's "Best Books of the Year" list. Alan's years of research and training with law enforcement have influenced him both personally and professionally, and have helped shape the stories he tells and the diverse characters that populate his novels.

Alan's books have sold internationally, and both The 7th Victim and one of his forthcoming thrillers, Hard Target. are currently under development as major feature films. He lives in Northern California.

Visit Alan Jacobson at and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about Velocity and the Karen Vail novels at

In the Trenches with the FBI Profiling Unit: First Female FBI Profiler Shines in Thrilling Series
By Alan Jacobson

Seventeen years ago, I was sitting in a room at the California Department of Justice with FBI agents, detectives, homicide investigators, and forensic scientists viewing blood spatter patterns. Gruesome crime scene photos filled the screen as the lead forensic investigator explained what we knew about the killer based upon how the blood was sprayed on the walls. I was beyond intrigued, and thus began my journey into the depraved minds of serial killers.

Before and after our blood spatter pattern instruction, I spent hours talking with one FBI agent in particular, Mark Safarik, who one day asked me if I'd ever fired a gun. I had -- a BB gun. I think he laughed -- and then said, "As a novelist writing about law enforcement, don't you think it's important to know what it feels like to shoot a gun?" That afternoon, he taught me how to fire pistols in the Department of Justice's indoor range. Though Agent Safarik was soon promoted to the FBI's elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, he and I talked often, for hours at a time. Months later, I flew to Quantico for my first visit to the Academy.

Over the next 17 years, I attended several FBI Behavioral Analysis training seminars; I made numerous trips to the Academy; I viewed hundreds of crime scene photos and watched interviews with serial killers; I shot an MP5 submachine gun at the Academy, then disassembled and cleaned it under the direction of the head firearms instructor; I edited four published FBI research papers on serial offender behavior; and I became good friends with Agent Safarik and his partner. Several years into my "education," I'd amassed enough knowledge to create compelling, credible characters whose lives were touched by the most heinous acts of person-on-person violence humankind has seen.
My first novel utilizing this material (and third book overall) was The 7th Victim,featuring Karen Vail, the first female profiler in the FBI: a daring, compelling, bright and sometimes troubled soul.

Those who are familiar with my novels know that my characters are often people touched by hardship or tragedy, with problems, obstacles and challenges woven into and through the story. My primary goal is to emotionally engage the reader; I want her/him to care about what happens. That was one of my prime concerns when I began writing the Karen Vail series.

Though I'd created Karen Vail early on, after my third visit to the unit I met Agent Safarik's partner, Mary Ellen O'Toole, who, in one of those jaw-dropping moments of fact meets fiction, looked and acted much like Vail. Subsequently, Agent O'Toole's insight became instrumental in understanding how a female fits in (or doesn't) to the FBI as a whole and to the profiling unit in particular. Mandisa Manette, one of the characters on Vail's task force, came from conversations I had with detectives I'd met at FBI training seminars over the years. In the early nineties, there were detectives who felt that profiling was unsubstantiated guesswork that carried little value. Although their opinions changed over time, I used that sentiment to create the Manette character as a foil to the assessments Vail makes when creating her profile of the Dead Eyes killer.

The 7th Victim debuted to rave reviews from critics and readers -- including those in the law enforcement community, who appreciated that I'd done my homework and cared about portraying them accurately. As the early feedback came rolling in on 7th Victim, my publisher told me I had to make Karen Vail a series character. I'd never intended to write more Vail novels. Although I loved writing her, I felt I'd written the ultimate serial killer novel. Robert Ressler, a founding FBI profiler, said The 7th Victim surpassed The Silence of the Lambs, "redefined the genre, and brought it into the 21st century."

So I sat down and thought. I gazed at the ceiling, I gazed at my navel. And then it hit me. The ideas started flying from my fingertips -- and the concept behind the second Vail novel, Crush, took shape.

A key element is that Crush brings Vail to the Napa Valley. To keep Vail fresh -- and me fresh writing her -- I had to remove her from her comfort zone, take her to places she'd never been, to an environment she wasn't accustomed to functioning in . . . and have her encounter a type of killer she'd never before faced.

Although I was extremely familiar with the Napa Valley, I spent considerable time there searching for the right locations; I spoke with area professionals to uncover insider secrets about the wine industry. In addition to well known wineries, I worked with the Napa County Sheriff's Department and related agencies in the region. The result was Crush, a twisting, one-of-a-kind story that is unlike any other novel set in the wine country. I was determined to make Napa a character in the story, and the response has been tremendous.

When I conceived of Crush, I realized the story was too big for one novel. I decided to split it in two, with a defined story arc that concludes at the end of Crush-- but with threads that continue into the follow-up novel, Velocity . Thus, Velocity picks up where Crush ends, tying together the loose ends left over from Crush while taking us on a journey unlike any Karen Vail has yet encountered.

The research for Velocity was once again complex. It took me three weeks to get clearance for the federal agency I needed to work with. They're careful of who they share their knowledge and procedures with because their work is sensitive and their agents in the field could be jeopardized if anyone mishandled the information I needed. Approval went all the way to a Congressional committee and was granted. To be certain I didn't compromise anyone's security, I sent my contact in their Washington headquarters the final manuscript to review.

Velocity is a terrific ride, one that takes Karen Vail from the vineyards of Napa to the monuments of Washington, DC, the wealthy beach enclaves of San Diego and the bright excesses of Las Vegas. Along the way, secrets are revealed -- secrets Karen Vail may not be able to live with. It's a novel Michael Connelly calls "Relentless as a bullet"; Publishers Weekly, in a coveted starred review, says Velocity "sizzles with nonstop action and startling details."

Working with Agents Safarik and O'Toole these past 17 years has been an enriching experience that has shaped me as a writer -- and enabled me to forge longtime friendships I'll always cherish. And it's allowed me to write a series of novels of which I'm extremely proud. I hope you enjoy The 7th Victim, Crush,and Velocity as much as I enjoyed writing -- and researching -- them.
© 2010 Alan Jacobson, author of Velocity

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