Darren Sugrue: the art of crafting science thrillers

Science can be used for dramatic effect to take the readers by surprise

Darren Sugrue is an Irish author, based in Amsterdam, who loves to use science in the plots of his books. He has a background in biotechnology and has been working in science publishing for many years. In this interview with EuroScientist, he explains how his own experience of research inspires the twists and turns in his novels. A wordsmith with a great ability to focus on details, Sugrue knows how to use scientific facts to make his narrative compelling. Besides, his books take the readers on a journey where cultural differences between European nations–namely Irish and Dutch–are skillfully used to give his characters their depth. Find out about what influenced him to write these European science thrillers.

What was your motivation to include elements of science in your novels?

It was science that actually gave me the idea for my first novel, The Prediction. Back in 2001, I worked in a laboratory in Sydney, Australia, where I performed, what is known as “predictive genetic tests” on the BRCA genes. These are genes that can raise your risk of breast cancer or ovarian cancer if mutations are found in them. While performing these tests, I used to imagine what if science was also able to predict the actual day that you would die.

That idea remained dormant for years until one day I sat down at my computer and started writing a story. The story developed over the following five years, in between a full-time job and family life. When I completed it, I self-published it on Amazon. And I was pleasantly surprised by the–mostly–positive reviews it received. The book even managed to hit #4 in the bestsellers’ chart!

Who are your sources of inspiration for your novels?

In terms of writers, I can’t say I have one favourite author in any particular genre. I read a variety of authors; Donna Tartt, Douglas Coupland, John Banville, Stieg Larsson, J.K. Rowling. They could be American, Canadian, Irish, Swedish, British… the list goes on. In terms of inspiration, I love hearing how international bestselling authors started out. For example, John Grisham used to get up at 5.00 am every morning and write some chapters before going to work. That gives me inspiration to do likewise (not every day though).

My inspiration also comes from movies I watched throughout the years. I always got a particular satisfaction from films with twists in them; The Usual Suspects, The Crying Game, Psycho, The Sixth Sense. I’m not saying that my stories are like these, but the twist element is definitely a factor I consider for each novel, especially if it doesn’t feel forced and really takes readers by surprise.

Music is also an important inspiration when I’m writing. If I find the right music when writing a specific scene there is no stopping me. One of my favourite composers is Ólafur Arnalds and his soundtrack to the ITV series Broadchurch. I have written many scenes while listening to this music.

Can scientific concepts used in fiction help in managing lay readers’ expectations about the power of science?

I think the key here is finding the right balance. It’s okay to introduce a scientific concept with some genuine details. But if you get too bogged down with the facts, the reader will start to skim reading or even worse, stop altogether.

A good example is my third novel I’m currently writing–a psychological thriller–due to be released in 2018. I needed a way for a character to be able to read indented writing in a diary after the original pages had been torn out. My initial idea was for my character to lightly apply shade from a pencil. But I needed something more professional, more sensitive. I did some research and found what is known as ESDA; Electrostatic detection apparatus. This is a machine used within forensics for document examination. I read several scientific articles and watched videos on YouTube. Even though the description in my final book will probably only take up a few lines, I wanted to genuinely understand how this procedure worked. I think readers can see through you and feel short changed if you skimp on certain details.

How, as an author, do you resist the temptation to privilege dramatic effect to the detriment of scientific accuracy?

To be honest, I don’t think I do resist the temptation. I try to balance science with drama but I give priority to the drama part. After all, it’s a work of fiction and readers know that.

Any scientific inaccuracies should still be credible in the world you create. For example in my second novel, The Shattered Conscience, I came up with a “new” way of smuggling cocaine through customs. Even after extensive research, I haven’t come across it in real life. I also spent some time in researching if the drug would still function after it had been through the conditions I came up with. Nothing suggested it wouldn’t, so I used it.

How has your own experience influenced the way you shape up the backdrop for your stories?

The number one rule for writers is to write about what you know. My novels so far have been set mainly in Dublin and Amsterdam; two cities that I love and where I’ve lived most of my life. They are “in my blood” so to speak. I love to go to public libraries or cafés in Amsterdam to people-watch and write. If I need a feature or a way of behaving for one of my characters I just look around me. The city is full of interesting people.

That said; I always like a challenge! My third novel is following a scientific delegate attending a conference in the US. He visits a town where his girlfriend disappeared twenty years previously and discovers a clue to suggest that she may still be alive. But this is still touching on places and experiences I know. It’s set in a town where I spent a summer. I have also been to many scientific conferences in the US throughout my daytime science publishing career so I’m confident I can pull this off.

I guess time will tell!

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Sabine Louët

Sabine Louët

Editor at EuroScientist
Sabine has a passion for all things related to European research. A physicist by training, she has been covering stories in life science, the physical sciences, technology, policy and innovation for the past 20 years. She was previously the news editor at Nature Biotechnology. She was also involved in the creation of AlphaGalileo. She is the Founder of SciencePOD translating complex science and tech concepts into high-quality articles written in simple language.
Sabine Louët

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