Guest Post: Do You Want to Write a Medical Mystery or Thriller? by Dr. J.L. Greger

The Write on Sisters are pleased to bring you a very different author and post. Dr. J.L. Greger is uniquely qualified to write the many medical mysteries and thrillers she’s published. If you’ve ever wanted to write the next medical thriller blockbuster, this post may help you get there.

Maybe, the Ebola virus is a good thing. It’s gotten Americans to watch news on something besides crime and celebrity gossip. Has the news made you think about writing a novel on an Ebola epidemic somewhere in the U.S.?

The first step in writing a medical thriller is research.
This type of research needs depth and breadth. Not surprisingly, many medical and scientific thrillers have been written by physicians or scientists like Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Kathy Reichs, and myself.

Let me explain what depth and breadth means. Someone (If I tell you who it will ruin the mystery.) “poisons” a diet doctor in Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight. This toxin was the cause of a rash of real poisonings in New Mexico in the 1980s. I wove the information from two scientific articles into my tale of an intentional poisoning and set the novel in Albuquerque as an oblique clue.

To add authenticity to all my medical mysteries/thrillers, I reference key articles in the “Scientific Epilogues” of each novel.

How did I find such arcane articles? I read articles on science and medicine in newspapers and magazines and on line. I also read scientific journals, especially the journal Science, and look for trends. For example the dead diet doctor had been studying ways to modify the bacteria in the guts of obese subjects as a way to help them lose weight. I thought this research had humorous aspects and is a promising area of research.

Warning: interesting medical articles are just clutter if you don’t have a good way to locate them when you need them. I don’t know about your house, but mine doesn’t need more clutter.

The second step in writing medical mysteries is creating a filing system that allows retrieval of articles by several headings.
I cross-reference materials I stash in real and virtual files carefully. I note not only the medical or scientific issue discussed in articles but also the location (if outside the U.S. or in New Mexico) where the research was done and the possible social significance of the work.

For example, I’ve had files on Ebola and other tropical diseases from twenty years ago. No, I don’t plan to write a novel on Ebola, but I know these articles are good sources of information on the problems faced by health care workers during epidemics and the responses of citizens to quarantines.

I think Dengue hemorrhagic fever or Scrapie and the related transmissible spongiform encephalopathies could be developed into more surprising plotlines than Ebola.

Did you like those big words? No one does. You guessed it.

The third step in writing a medical thriller is basically scientific education.
It’s finding clear ways to explain complex issues in human terms.

Among the propaganda spouted by a Cuban tour guide in 2013 was the statement: Cuban scientists had patented a drug for cancer. When I got home, I investigated her claim and found researchers in Havana had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat a rather rare type of lung cancer (non-small cell). This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells. These immune cells then slay the cancer cells, but not the normal cells.

Okay that’s a heavy dose of science. What’s the social relevance? This patent demonstrates Cuban scientists are doing competitive science and understand the importance of commercialization of their research. I also discovered U.S. scientists were trying to augment existing scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, despite the embargo on Cuba. (Check out the editorial “Science diplomacy with Cuba” in the journal Science on June 6, 2014.)

I thought Sara Almquist, as an epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu and Ignore the Pain, would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba. The result is my thriller Malignancy. Of course, Sara gets involved in a lot more than science; it wouldn’t be a thriller without danger.

The most important step in writing a medical thriller is being accurate about details.
In my third novel, my heroine – epidemiologist Sara Almquist – learns laborers in the silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia carry little food or water into the mines. In order to endure the pain caused by thirst, hunger, and heavy exertion at a high altitude (13,000 feet), they chew coca leaves. The active ingredients in coca leaves and its derivative cocaine are not analgesics that dull pain. They are stimulants and help users ignore pain. Accordingly I named the book Ignore the Pain not Dull the Pain.

Is that a trivial detail? Maybe, but without accurate details a medical thriller is laughable and not in a good way. Think about the movie Outbreak, where the U.S. government plans to “bomb” the town with a rare viral infection out of existence. Ironically, the movie was supposedly based on the gripping and accurate non-fiction book Hot Zone.

So are you ready to start working on a medical mystery?

cover Murder- A New Way to Lose WeightCover Ignore the PainCover Malignancy

Picture With Dog-1


J. L. Greger is no longer a professor in the biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, instead she’s putting tidbits of science into her medical mystery/suspense novels. She and Bug, her Japanese Chin dog, live in the southwest. Her website is


Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Do You Want to Write a Medical Mystery or Thriller? by Dr. J.L. Greger”

  1. An-Marie,
    Thank you. You got the point of my writing. Making science interesting and entertaining with a twisted plot and quirky characters. Please note: I not saying this Cuban vaccine will succeed in clinical trails, but it’s a hot area of research that deserves attention.

  2. A great story and science education, all wrapped up in one package! I hope that books like Dr Gregor’s helps to engage the everyday person to understand more about science. Imagine the benefits of a more informed and science savvy public!!

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