Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

A return appearance here by J. L. (Janet) Greger, author of the Science Traveler Thriller/Mystery series. In her life before becoming a fiction writer, Janet was a professor in the biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she likes to include “sound bites” on science and on exotic locations in her mysteries. Her books include Murder…A Way to Lose Weight (winner of 2016 Public Safety Writers [PSWA] annual contest and finalist for New Mexico–Arizona book award), I Saw You in Beirut,Malignancy (winner of 2015 PSWA annual contest), and the latest Riddled with Clues

 In Riddled with Clues, a hospitalized friend (Xave Zack) gives Sara Almquist a note, which he received just before he was severely injured while investigating the movement of drugs into the U.S. The note is signed by “Red from Udon Thani.” However, he doesn’t know anyone called Red, and the last time he was in Udon Thani was during the Vietnam War. After Sara listens to his rambling tale of all the possibilities, both are assaulted. Xave is left comatose. Sara must determine whether the attacks were related to events during the secret war in Laos fifty years ago or to the modern-day drug trade. As she struggles to survive, she questions who to trust: the local cops, her absent best friend (Sanders), the FBI, or a homeless veteran who leaves puzzling riddles as clues. 

The paperback and Kindle versions of Riddled with Clues are available from Amazon at  I Saw You in Beirut ( and Malignancy ( are also available from Amazon.

To learn more, visit her website: or her Amazon author page:

And to learn her tips on keeping characters realistic, even when not real, read on:


Are you like me? I think it’s a mistake to base a character too closely on real people. (I don’t want to be sued.) On the other hand, characters need to be realistic.

Interesting characters don’t have to be bizarre. I love Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but I don’t want to write a mystery with another neurotic genius. Let’s face it – most problems are solved by normal people, albeit sometimes smarter or more observant than most. However, the protagonist of a mystery needs a quirk or two to pique readers’ interests.

Sara Almquist, the lead character in my thrillers: Riddled with Clues, I Saw You in Beirut, and Malignancy, is an epidemiologist (a scientist who studies the incidence and control of diseases in populations). Her profession gives her legitimate reasons to pry into everyone else’s business and makes her a whiz at handling large data sets. She’s normal, but maybe a bit cranky and nosy. She’s also dotty about her dog, Bug. [Ilene here:  As is Janet.]

Realistic characters can be amalgams of several real people. I’ve done pet therapy at the VA campus in Albuquerque for almost ten years. My dog and I have met many veterans in rehab facilities. The veterans portrayed in Riddled with Clues are composites of these men. However, the character Bug in my novels is based on my real Japanese Chin dog, Bug. (He won’t sue me.)

Fictional characters can have real experiences. A medic in Laos during the Vietnam War in the 1960s shared his memoirs with me. I used his notes to create many of the clues mentioned by Xave Zack in Chapter 2 of Riddled with Clues. The real medic wants me to note he doesn’t resemble the character Xave Zack in my novels, but he did treat men covered with hundreds of leeches, a baby monkey, and Hmong children with yaws and vitamin A deficiency besides lots of wounded soldiers.

Vital characters need to grow and adapt to different situations. You could argue comedic or pathetic characters can violate this rule. However, major characters in a series become boring if they’re static and always predictable.

I don’t want to give away a subplot, but in this thriller both Sara and her special friend, Sanders, assess their past assumptions about relationships and what they value in others. It’s an opportunity for growth and mistakes.

Characters, at least in a thriller, need to act on their beliefs and concerns not just talk about them. However, action scenes are illogical to readers if they don’t understand the individuals’ motivations.

Now aren’t you curious about my characters’ motivations and actions?

Now it’s your turn. How do you create realistic fictional characters?




  1. For me, I do use characteristics of real people–not how they look, but personalities and how they act. Though once I did use the looks of a real person (in my Tempe Crabtree series), and this is an ongoing character. The real person called me and he’d read the book and didn’t recognize himself at all. Maybe because my character is handsome and the real person didn’t think he was.

  2. Ilene, thanks for hosting me.

    Marilyn, you make an interesting comment. Many people do not see themselves as others do. How nice that a handsome man didn’t know it. He must be a nice guy.


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