Posted On January 26, 2012 by Print This Post

NYT Best Selling Author Shannon McKenna: The Making of McKenna Mayhem

Here at Romance University we pride ourselves on providing original content, but every once in awhile something comes along that’s worth repeating. In addition to working with RU, I also moderate Barnes & Noble’s Mystery Forum at Awhile back, SHANNON McKENNA – a longtime favorite of mine – wrote a guest blog for the forum featuring yesterday’s RU Visiting Professor ADAM FIRESTONE. I felt it was worth sharing her blog with writers as well as readers. Enjoy!

Shannon lives in Italy – her internet connection can be spotty, but she’s going to try to join us today.

“I Get By With A Little Help From My (very unusual) Friends”

Let me start with a little confession. I really am a rather shy, almost pathologically non-confrontational person. I pick up spiders on a piece of paper and put them gently out the window while praying they won’t scuttle up onto my hand. I hate hurting anybody’s feelings. I literally lose sleep over it.

It has been pointed out to me that this is ironic, considering the nature of my books. My heroes are always ready to kick ass, whipping out big guns and notched knives and grenades and claymores and God knows what all. My heroines usually start out rather timid (with one notable exception, in Tam Steele, ULTIMATE WEAPON) but by the end of the book, they always get their chance to strike a crucial blow for the cause, sometimes more than one. And my villains are unhinged psychotic head cases, slashing and hacking on their ruthless swathe towards world domination.

Do I detect the whiff of overcompensation here? Gee . . . ya think?

Maybe, but it works for me. I strongly believe in badding up the bad guys to the utmost. The badder the bad guy, the more studly, righteous and pure-hearted the hero and heroine have to be to stand up to him. Or her, I suppose I should say, since BLOOD AND FIRE does feature a couple of pretty scary villainesses.

But the choreography of violence is a hell of a job. It’s so hard to dream ones way through a violent scene. Things are supposed to happen so damn fast and hard. I keep hitting walls, stopping dead, perplexed and thrown out of the story. Sex scenes are so much easier. Whether it’s hand to hand, gunfights, knife fights, explosives, it’s all hard. I don’t do any of that guns and ammo and kung fu stuff myself. I just, ahem, fantasize about it. I’m more the yoga type.

But you need to be concrete about the details in a romantic thriller. Fortunately for me, I have a secret weapon–my good buddy, Adam. I met him at Yale University, which I attended some gazillion years ago. Freshman year, I met this guy from Brooklyn, an ROTC scholarship student who walked around dressed in olive drab. We had absolutely nothing in common—I had grown up in the deep backwoods of the Northwest, raised by hippies, and was a foo-foo musician singer literary type, all music and Chaucer and Shakespeare. He studied poli sci, a quintessential “guy” major (my apologies to all females who studied poli sci, but I never met any of them.) He would disappear on weekends periodically to do field training exercises to fulfill his ROTC obligations. And he knew absolutely everything about guns. We became good friends, and remain so to this day.

Some years ago, as I was beginning to write these romantic thrillers, and as they got more and more violent, it occurred to me that Adam could be a valuable resource. For instance, there’s this scene in BLOOD AND FIRE where Bruno, the hero, and Sean McCloud, one of the intrepid commando McCloud brothers, are trapped up a dead-end mountain road and have to singlehandedly come up with a plan to defeat a big SUV full of almost robotically enhanced super-soldier bad guys, bristling with cutting edge weaponry. Big problem.

In my initial draft, Bruno and Sean hid under the bridge over a dry creekbed that the baddies were forced by terrain to drive over. The vehicle is stopped by a heavy chain, and my first idea was, a car door opens for one of the baddies to get out and deal with the chain, and Bruno or Sean leap up and lob a tear gas grenade into the vehicle. I can justify them having one of those just lying around because Sean is a McCloud. If you ever read a McCloud book, you’ll know what I mean.

But then I watched some televised riot on CNN, and police were throwing tear gas, and I watched it trickling out oh, so slowly, uncurling dreamily into the air . . . far too slowly to incapacitate a bunch of super-soldiers. They’d zip right out of there, ready to overwhelm my hero and his pal. I could probably write it so that my guys prevail by sheer luck and bravura, because hey, it’s fiction, right?

But it was a stupid idea from the start. No way would a McCloud or any McKenna hero sign off on a bad plan. They had to think of something smarter. But damn. My heroes can’t be any smarter than I am myself. And if an SUV of baddies was rolling up a narrow mountain road towards my cabin, I would be toast. Cowering under a bush. Pink nose twitching, bunny tail trembling.

So I skype Adam, whose day job includes designing Tomahawk missile systems, when he’s not writing and lecturing about arcane historical firearms, and I throw my problem in his lap. He promptly nixed the whole scenario, and without even hurting my feelings. Solution: move the guys way back from the road, give one of them a good sniper rifle with a powerful scope that will magnify ambient light.

For the sake of the narrative, I needed at least one of the bad guys to live to fight another day, so no bombing the road a priori. New plan: chain stops vehicle. Bad guy gets out. Sean takes driver, bam. Bruno sets of flash-bangs (stun grenades) feverishly rigged at the last minute, with a cell phone. They go off all around the vehicle. Confused and disoriented bad guys boil out onto the narrow bridge . . .

Well, I won’t say anymore, don’t want to spoil the scene. Let me share with you a snippet of our skype conversation about the flashbangs . . . slightly edited to remove some of my more clueless remarks. Gotta safeguard my mystique, after all. (snort)

Check this out:

Shannon: How do you make the stun grenades all go off at once?

Adam: Let’s talk cell phones. You know how the phones have a vibrator? It’s really a slightly off balance spinning device.

Shannon: Um . . . ok . . .

Adam: If you were to cut a hole in the phone body near the vibrator (candy bar shaped phones work best) you could see the little metal spinner. Now imaging two wires were placed inside the hole you cut.

Shannon: I’m imagining.

Adam: When the spinner spins . . . the circuit would be completed.

Shannon: So these two wires are put inside, and they don’t touch until the vibrator starts to vibrate? How could the wires not touch?

Adam: On the other end, the wires lead to batteries, and then to electric blasting caps that are used in place of the regular grenade fuse. Grenade image coming your way.

The entire top assembly (with the long lever) unscrews, allowing access to the explosive content of the grenade. I’ll draw you a diagram. Give me a minute.

Shannon: So it’s a two phone thing. One phone is physically connected to a battery that will send the electronic impulse to the blasting caps once the hero calls from another phone, causing the connected phone’s vibrator to connect the wires. Or am I off?

Adam: Exactly. Diagram almost done. Sent. . .

And so on and so forth. I wish I could put the whole (very loooonnnngggg) conversation in, because I love this kind of thing, and I think he’s brilliant, but I’m over word count already! Over word count is my middle name, after all.

For the record, Adam consults for writers. Contact him at He’s a treasure trove.

And a big shout out to all the experts that I and all other writers consult to make our stories more real and therefore, more ultimately satisfying. Hurray and thanks to you all, for being the real deal.


Do you feel comfortable writing action scenes? What sort of problems have you run into?

Be sure to stop by tomorrow when author MELINDA LEIGH joins us!



I started writing my first romance novel in secret. I was working a temp job in an insurance office in Manhattan at the time, and the office manager had made it clear that even if there was nothing to do, I still had to look busy– never one of my big talents. I felt bad about the wasted time, though, and I needed something to round out my other chosen career, which was singing. Yeah, that’s right. Most artists choose a more practical Plan B to back up their improbable Plan A. Me? No way. “Long Shot” is my middle name.

So I sneakily set up a Document 1 and a Document 2 with a spreadsheet on it. If my Boss du Jour walked by I could quick-like-a-bunny switch screens, and whenever the coast was clear, I went back to my story. Not that I was slacking, mind you. If there was work to be done, I did it. The sneakiness felt familiar, though, because I’ve been teased about reading romances since I was a kid. I think the day I finally grew up was the day I stopped trying to cover up what I was reading on the bus, train or subway. Let people think whatever they like.

It wasn’t until I moved to Italy that I got serious about writing, though. I found myself with many long, quiet days alone with nothing to do, so I slogged my way bravely to the end of the manuscript and sent it out. Everybody rejected it-except for Kensington. I wrote for them for a few years, and then made a bid for an erotic novella for the new Brava imprint, and oh joy, they accepted it. Then I wrote BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. And so on, and so forth.

That’s how I started. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. I never knew it would be so scary, and so hard . . . all that solitude and silence, a blank computer screen, and no one to blame. But still. It’s worth it. It’s great.


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32 Responses to “NYT Best Selling Author Shannon McKenna: The Making of McKenna Mayhem”

  1. Good morning, Shannon! Although since you’re in Italy, I guess it’s good afternoon! Thanks so much for writing this fabulous blog, and for letting me share it again. I love it!

    Can you give us any hints about the book you’re working on now?

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 4:46 am
    • and thank you, Becke! I’m so glad to see you putting it up again! how gratifying. I’m working on Alex Aaro’s story right now, and it’s a bit different than anything I’ve ever done–well, not exactly, because I did have paranormal elements in FADE TO MIDNIGHT, but not as much as this one. I’m having so much fun with you, you cannot imagine. And I”m just about to turn it in. I’ll find you a blurb and post it.

      Posted by Shannon McKenna | January 26, 2012, 10:32 am
  2. Hi Shannon,

    Thanks for joining us today. Fab cover on BLOOD AND FIRE. I saw it in Target last weekend and it stopped me in my tracks. Really stunning.

    Great post, and thanks for sharing your secret weapon. 🙂 Loved reading that you refer to your work as “romantic thriller.” Do you get much feedback from female readers regarding the violence in your books?


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 26, 2012, 5:48 am
    • Tracey – Isn’t it a GORGEOUS cover? Shannon’s wonderful publicist sent me an advance copy, and I think I actually gasped when I took it out of the package. The story is really good, too!

      Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 9:53 am
    • Hi, Tracey! Am I the only one who talks about romantic thrillers? I never deliberately coined the phrase. Maybe I started with “erotic thrillers” and scaled down from there because I really do think it’s romance, not erotica. Super-hot romance, but it stays within the boundaries of what satisfies romance writers, ahem, like me. Linda Howard and Anne Stuart and Elizabeth Lowell freaks. I have gotten a lot of perplexed comments from my friends, who say, you’re such a nice, mellow person, how can you write such horrifying violent stuff? to which I just hem and haw and dig my toe into the ground. Gee. How does anybody think of anything? They’re certainly not for everyone, but the way I like to construct my stories is to create this huge imbalance, and then my hero and heroine must scramble, with all their brains, hearts and souls, to correct it and restore equilibrium. Long answer! I’m feeling talkative today. Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by Shannon McKenna | January 26, 2012, 10:36 am
      • Shannon – This cracks me up! I know Anne Stuart. She can be such a nut, but then I’ll read NIGHTFALL, MOONRISE and RITUAL SINS, and it’s hard to believe she has such dark stories in her head!

        Your stories are all pretty dark, too (love that!), so it’s been fun to find out you have a great sense of humor, too!

        Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 10:45 am
  3. Hi Shannon,

    I’ve been writing violent scenes for my paranormal books. I get a break from weapons because my characters have super human powers. Now I’m writing about a policewoman and guns are a big factor. Lots of questions have popped up.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 26, 2012, 7:00 am
  4. Hi Shannon!

    Every time I write an action scene, I think of those old episodes of Batman and words like biff, bam, pow that appeared in the conversation balloons coming out of Batman and Robin’s mouths. I think any scene involving body parts and action is a challenge.

    I know men read romance. 🙂 Have you ever received any feedback from men in regard to your books that contain scenes involving firearms, grenades and such?

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 26, 2012, 7:27 am
    • Jennifer – It always surprises me when my friends say their husbands read romance. I don’t know why it should – my own husband never would, but he DOES like romantic movies. Some of my friends who write romance tell me they have lots of male fans, so maybe this is new trend!

      Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 9:51 am
    • Hi, Jennifer! I have gotten only two or so responses from men, ever. I certainly write it specifically for women, though I couldn’t characterize why that is. I think it has to do with the intense focus on the play of emotions. Women seem to go for that more. So I don’t presume to get men to read me with my weapons research–I think I’d have to go a whole new direction to chase after a male readership.

      Posted by Shannon McKenna | January 26, 2012, 10:42 am
  5. Hi Shannon. Thank you for a fun post. I’ve always wondered how cell phones are used as detonators!

    I do have to write action scenes, but I’m lucky in that I have a few friends that can help me with the choreography.

    One friend is in law enforcement and whenever I think I have a great idea he says, “Nah.” Just like that. It’s really sort of amusing.

    Thanks for being here today.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 26, 2012, 7:38 am
    • Adrienne – I had just finished reading BLOOD AND FIRE when Shannon wrote this blog, so I knew exactly what scene she meant. I had to go back and read it again – knowing the background made it even more fun!

      Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 9:48 am
    • thanks to you! I consulted with this really nice homicide detective, and he was the same way, very dryly popping all my balloons. But what a great resource he was. YOu’re lucky to know someone personally! I sought my guy out through the Portland Police Bureau public relations department! And they obliged me! So nice of them. . .

      Posted by Shannon McKenna | January 26, 2012, 10:44 am
  6. Morning Shannon!

    Most of my action scenes seem to be more on the scale of Lucy and Ethel rather than Rambo and McClane, but there still needs to be an element of this-could-really-happen-this-way. I’m a physical…hubby can find me waving my arms about while standing on my computer chair to see “if this will work”….

    so far I’ve been pretty lucky and haven’t broken anything – except the chair arm. oops.

    Beautiful covers on your books – enjoy your time in Italy!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 26, 2012, 8:23 am
  7. Carrie – I’m cracking up at your description of your action scenes! I’ll be waiting in line the day your books go on sale!

    Shannon’s biography is fascinating – there’s more to it that we had room for. The reason she’s in Italy is SO romantic!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 9:47 am
    • . . . gazing mistily into the distance . . . yes, it was quite romantic! Italy is wild and crazy and unruly and fun. I recommend it to anyone.

      Thanks so much, everyone, for having me and asking your kind questions! Happy Valentines Day to everyone!

      Posted by Shannon McKenna | January 26, 2012, 10:48 am
  8. Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too! I was thinking about your bio, Shannon, thinking how your story probably is less romantic (to you) the longer you’re married. It still sounds pretty darn romantic to me!

    And Italy will always seem romantic to me, even though I’ve been there a few times and I know it has its gritty side, too.

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 26, 2012, 10:58 am
  9. Hi, Shannon –

    Love, love your books! Thanks for all the hard work you put into them.

    Besides Adam, do you have any other “secret weapon” resources you use to write such kick-ass stories?


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | January 26, 2012, 12:29 pm
  10. Hi Shannon!

    Looking forward to working with you on you latest opus….

    Take care,


    Posted by Adam Firestone | January 26, 2012, 1:40 pm
  11. Hi Adam! Thanks so much for stopping by today!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | January 26, 2012, 7:25 pm
  12. Shannon – Thank you so much for joining us. I’m eagerly awaiting your next book!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 27, 2012, 1:23 am

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