Douglas E. Richards, shares with us his journey to becoming a New York Times best-selling author and his approach to adding vivid details to his novels.
I may be the luckiest man on earth. I have a master’s degree in genetic engineering, and several years ago left a lucrative position as a biotechnology executive to pursue my dream of writing, penning a science fiction thriller called Wired. Several major publishers loved it—but just not enough for them to take a financial risk with an unknown writer. So after years of fighting the good fight, and of near misses, I threw the manuscript in a drawer, gave up on my dream, and returned to biotech.
But a few months later I decided to publish the novel myself on Amazon. It couldn’t have been simpler to do. And why not? I had put considerable effort into the novel, and it would mean a lot to me if even a few people managed to find it.
And that’s when I won the lottery (and left biotech for a second time). Because WIRED went viral, spending five weeks on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, a testament to my brilliant marketing strategy of doing absolutely nothing and scratching my head in wonder as I watched it all happen (I call it the “sit on your hands and hope you get really, really lucky” strategy).
Suffice it to say that even a handful of novels later, not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for being able to pursue my dream, or grateful to those readers who continue to support my work.
All of my novels straddle the thriller and science fiction genres. I developed a passion for science as a young boy, and this arose, not from the lessons I was taught in school, but from devouring science fiction novels written by authors striving to be scientifically accurate. Within these pages I encountered scientific ideas so awesome they were harder to believe than anything out of a Harry Potter novel. Concepts such as relativity, quantum physics, cosmology, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. Concepts that sent my imagination soaring.
So in addition to writing books that are fast paced, action packed, and full of twists and turns, I strive to include enough philosophy, ethics, and groundbreaking science to provide readers with plenty of food for thought. To examine possible scientific advances and how they might impact our lives and society.
And I’ve found that this recipe seems to appeal even to those readers who aren’t typically fans of science fiction. I suspect this is because science and technology are advancing so rapidly, are becoming such a critical part of our lives, that we all realize just how quickly near-future science fiction is becoming reality, and how important it is that we brace ourselves for its possible impact.
My latest novel, Quantum Lens, includes accurate discussions of human behavior, quantum theory, hypnosis, the placebo effect, biofeedback, the effectiveness of torture, something called "The God Theory," how a single fertilized egg becomes a human being, and so on. And for the first time I’ve included a note at the end that discusses which aspects of the novel are real, and which are purely fictional (hint—most of the science is real). I realized the need for this when my mom finished reading the first draft. “Wow,” she said, “it would be so cool if zero point energy were real.”
“It is real,” I replied. “I purposely had a character quote from an actual NASA article on the subject so readers would know it was true.”
“Oh,” she said sheepishly. “I thought you made up the NASA article also.”
When even my mom thinks I make up NASA articles out of whole cloth, I decided it was time to put a note about accuracy in the back of the book.
So how do I ensure accuracy? For each thriller I write, I read dozens of books, magazines, and journal articles on science, behavior, ethics, philosophy, and so on. But the really fun part of my job is when I get to do research by speaking with actual humans.
In fact, the best thing about being a New York Times bestselling author is that this credential opens doors, helping me to get accomplished scientists and others to chat with me. I’ve spoken with a scientist who goes into prisons and conducts brain scans on psychopathic murderers and rapists. For Quantum Lens I spoke at length with one of the world’s experts on hypnosis, a subject for which misinformation abounds, and learned that trances are real, and this can be proven. And also that you can’t make a subject do anything he or she doesn’t want to do, be it clucking like a chicken or killing a spouse—assuming this latter is something the subject is, you know, against.
But my favorite interaction was when I arranged to tour a water treatment facility to learn the most accurate way for a villain to poison a city’s water supply. I explained what I was after to the guy who ran the facility, half expecting a visit from Homeland Security afterwards, but he was as helpful as could be. I brought over four pizzas for him and his staff, and he gave me an hour tour, complete with helpful suggestions as to the best place in the process to dump my poison for maximum impact.
For my book, Amped, I wanted a character to ambush another character on a yacht. So I called up a marina in Orange County, explained who I was, and asked how the many yachts moored to their docks were protected, and the best way to set up an ambush on one. Seconds later I was listening to a dial tone. The marina expert had hung up on me.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Buy a guy some pizza and he’ll tell you how to kill millions. But even if you’re a bestselling author, people are very touchy about revealing the secrets of yacht ambushing.