Writing the CSI Novels

MAX ALLAN COLLINS on “Writing the CSI Novels”

The CSI books are the most difficult tie-ins I’ve ever done — the process, at least as I’ve put it together, is fairly elaborate.

First, I’ve done two CSI: MIAMIs and six CSIs, with two more of the latter on the way. I’ve also done three CSI comic book mini-series (Jeff Marriote was one of the editors) (please don’t ask him if I was difficult) (I was). These became graphic novels for IDW, and Pocket is reassembling them as mass market pbs (I get nothing extra by the way).

Also have done two CSI jigsaw puzzles, two CSI: NY jigsaw puzzles in
progress, and have done the dialogue and most of the plotting for two CSI video games and one CSI: MIAMI video game…I can play none of the vids, and have to have my college senior son play ’em for me if I want to hear the real actors reading my dialogue. ”

Anyway, the novels. I had this instinct from the git-go that they should be longer than the average tie-in — that they should look and feel like books. I was contracted to do 70,000 words but I turned in 100,000 and Pocket liked the approach, and we’ve stayed with it, though they’re more like 85,000 or 90,000 now.

The first book took off. After the second book, Pocket followed my lead and started pubbing them as more or less “real” books, taking the cast off the cover and going with a designy look.

The process takes about three months per book. (Keep in mind I often do
movie novelizations in a couple weeks.) But I have an assistant on these, the wonderful writer Matthew V. Clemens, who does ALL the forensics research from a plot we develop in brainstorming sessions (though the basic story is always mine). He then does a story treatment — a kind of rough draft of about half the length of the book — and from that I write the novel.

Each plot has to be approved, and we often have to tweak the outlines to get approval, but it’s generally a benign process. The CBS/CSI producers I work with are nice and helpful.

It’s very important to reach for the tone of the show. But within reason — my emphasis in CSI is on dialogue (in the style of the show’s), character (going deeper than the show), real forensics (a little less outrageous than the show’s, more “real”), that kind of thing. A show as dominated by a “look” as CSI presents a stylistic challenge, and I could go nuts overdoing the descriptions of the blue lighting and glass-walled sets.

We (Matt Clemens and I) have done a lot with the reality of CSI life —
overtime, the difficulties of working nightshift, family strain, etc. – and now the show is doing the same. I believe that demonstrates that Matt and I have found if not the tone of the show, its wave-length.

MIAMI was easier to do, though I like Vegas better. MIAMI was more like a traditional crime/mystery yarn, with no A and B plot, just a story focussing on the Horatio Caine character. One story means somewhat lighter forensics, too. In CSI Vegas, I almost always do two stories, each with its own forensic needs.

Unlike the show, the B plot is equal in importance and length to the story. I try to link the plots thematically (or do something cute, as in COLD BURN, where a frozen corpse is found in the desert while a corpse that was burned to death is discovered at a winter conference back east). Now and then the plotlines converge (DOUBLE DEALER, the first book; and the forthcoming BINDING TIES).

CSI is all about putting in the stuff we normally leave out. Like the scene where your detective has the lab guy come up and say, “Here’s the results — no prints, but the blood type matches the suspect.” “Thanks, Barney.” In CSI? 7500 words.

One small thing I do is set the re-enactments (which are shot expressionistically on the show) in present-tense and italics. For the
comic books of CSI, the editors at IDW (our own Jeff Marriote being one of them) brilliantly came up with the plan of using two artists, one realistic for the main narrative, one expressionistic for the re-enactments and forensics “effects” (bullets tearing through flesh in close-up).

The books have sold very well, and have been on USA TODAY’s extended
bestseller list — I’ve always wanted half a shelf at the chains, but I
never thought it would be CSI novels.

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