It’s a Mystery!

When I was writing my first novel, a friend asked what kind of book it was. I said it was a cozy mystery, but she didn’t know what that was, so I explained, “It’s a mystery with no explicit violence, no explicit sexual content, and usually no profanity. After her cheerful, “I guess you realize there’ll be no audience” response, I pretended to smile. (I get that remark a lot.)

But then I got to thinking. Many, if not all, of Agatha Christie’s works fall into the category I had explained to my friend, as do Dorothy Sayers’ books. Why aren’t they considered cozies? So here I am, several novels down the road, and I wonder if I should revisit this whole genre thing.

* * * defines a mystery as “a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end.”

The search for a definitive list of mystery subgenres was more complicated than I thought it would be. Mysteries can be subdivided in many different ways depending on the point of view of the person defining them. I found an article I liked on the website of the Handley Regional Library System, and I’ve used that as a basis for this list. (Please note this is not intended to be an exhaustive description of the genre. I’ve combined some of my own opinions with those I’ve found in articles on the subject.)

* * *

Classic Mysteries can be exemplified by Agatha Christie’s works. There is a crime, usually a murder, and the story is concerned with identifying the killer(s). Classic mysteries, like cozies, generally don’t include any explicit violence or sexual content, and there’s usually no profanity. Some of the notable entries in this category are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Cozy Mysteries can be seen as a subset of classics. As noted above, cozies also don’t contain explicit violence or sexual content and rarely use profanity. The action usually takes place in a small village or on a university campus. Cozies almost always have an amateur sleuth who becomes involved in the case and may solve it. (But then, wasn’t Miss Marple an amateur sleuth?) Over the years, cozies have evolved, and current examples may include paranormal elements, animals helping solve crimes, or other unusual aspects. (This is why I wondered if my books are in the wrong category.) M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series and the Murder, She Wrote series are examples of this subgenre.


Hardboiled or Noir Mysteries – These two subgenres that were very popular in the 30’s and 40’s seem to be interchangeable. They’re often characterized by a no-nonsense detective who battles the creeps and criminals in an urban environment. According to the Handley Regional Library blog, “Noir protagonists are complex characters who are flawed, risk takers and often self-destructive.” Makes one immediately think of Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe: “I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Or Dashiell Hammett’s detective, Sam Spade. Michael Connelly is quoted as saying, “Chandler credited Hammett with taking the mystery out of the drawing-room and putting it out on the street where it belongs.”


Police Procedural Mysteries focus on the investigation process of a police officer or officers. There are several in this subgenre that I like: The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, the Bosch series by Michael Connelly, and The Dry by Jane Harper.


Capers are a kind of mystery where the reader is in on the crime. I don’t know a lot about this subgenre, but the description sounds like some likeable criminals who pull off a crime and fool the inept authorities. One example in this category is William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.


There are other subgenres that I discovered, including True Crime, Legal Thrillers, Howcatchem (the opposite of Whodunit), Historical, and Locked Room. But there’s so much crossover between subgenres that it’s hard to pigeonhole a book into just one area.

So I’m still not sure how to refer to my books. For now, I’ll just stick with Mystery.

* * *

So TKZers: What subgenre of mystery do you prefer? Who’s your favorite author or authors? If you write mystery, what subgenre are you in?


The Watch Mysteries: Books 1-3

What Preys on Your Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

Mrs. B and I like to start our mornings together, early, with a cup of joe and some talk. We take it in the front room where we can hear the early morning birds come out to sing. We have a nice aviary in our back yard—mockingbirds, blue jays, doves, even the occasional oriole. The mockingbirds always take the lead. After all, they can have up to 200 songs in their feathery breast.

One morning a few years ago, eerily concurrent with lockdown frenzy, the music stopped.

Cindy was the first to notice. “I don’t hear the birds,” she said.

We waited. No sound.

The next morning was the same.

We were flummoxed.

Then one morning I went out back with my AlphaSmart and a fresh cup of java. I was typing away when I heard a rustling in the trees. A squirrel jumped out and ran across our wall. Fast. Heading toward another tree.

Because a big old hawk was swooping down on the frightened ball of fur. I rooted for the squirrel. Who found safe haven.

The hawk then perched itself on the corner of my roof, where it had an unobscured view of my entire yard.

It just sat there. Watching.

Could that be the reason the birds were silent?

I went out again the next morning. No singing birds. But presently I heard the loud squawk of a mockingbird. Not in song, but in distress. I looked up.

There, on top of a telephone pole, sat the hawk. A few yards away, on a wire, was the mockingbird, screaming at the hawk in no uncertain terms to go away.

Which the hawk imperiously ignored.

The mockingbird intensified its screech. The hawk stayed put. My theory was that the bird had a nest nearby and was protecting its young.

Finally, the mockingbird kicked things up a notch. It flew at the hawk, flapping its wings as it went by, giving the predator a feathery slap.

The hawk looked puzzled.

The mockingbird flew at him again. And again. The fourth time, the hawk decided he’d had enough, and flew off.

Score one for the little guy!

It took some weeks, but eventually the hawk moved on. And the birds started singing again.

Which has me thinking: what hawks are there in our writing life that keep us from singing our best songs? Here are three:

Self doubt

Every writer goes through periods of self doubt—about whether they have the goods, whether the book they’re working on is good enough. Or maybe they’ve had some success and wonder if they can keep it going. A little self doubt can be a motivator to check your craft and see if you might improve something. But you can’t let it sit there like a hawk.

You will not be shocked to learn that the remedy is to write. Type words. As Dennis Palumbo says in his book Writing From the Inside Out, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.” When you’re writing, you’re not doubting. That is, unless this hawk is swooping:

Inner critic

“Danger, Will Robinson!” – Robot from Lost in Space

We all know this voice. “Hold it.” You’ve written a sentence. Or a paragraph. And suddenly you clutch. You want to go back and fix the thing. Danger, Will Robinson! (Boy, does that ever date me.) Listening to that voice leads to Writus Interruptus—the cessation of creative flow.

We all want to write in the flow state. Letting the words come out by following the James Thurber advice, “Don’t get it write. Get it written.” Go back and fix it later.

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.” (JSB)

If you find yourself prey to the inner critic, you need to get used to turning it off. Do that with the practice of morning pages. See my post on that here.

Risk aversion

Sometimes a writer chasing commercial success will choose a genre and then write safely within the conventions. The problem is, there is enough same-old fiction being produced that such a book will not stand out in any significant way. Heck, artificial intelligence can now spew out competent genre fiction. Are we going to let the machines make monkeys out of us? We need to bring our unique voice, heart, perspective, passion to the page!

Don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially in the first draft. You can always pull things back later, or polish the rough gems…but first they need to be there.

In that regard, I’d like to mention my new writing craft book, because it is all about the “extras” that we love to find in great fiction. It’s called Power Up Your Fiction: 125 Tips and Techniques for Next-Level Writing. It’s up for pre-sale on Amazon now at the deal price of $2.99 (reg. will be $5.99). If you’re out of the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BZ5WQVXD.

So flap your wings and chase away those birds of prey. Then sing your song.

What preys on your fiction?

Beta Reader Words of Wisdom

I’m currently waiting for feedback on my latest novel from my wonderful beta readers. I use them with all of my novels, as well as my novellas. Sometimes it’s just one or two betas. Other times, like this one, it’s a larger group of readers. The group can include another fiction writer. Especially at the start of a series, I find input from another writer can be very helpful.

Two of today’s three excerpts, by Joe Moore and Jodie Renner respectively, look at beta readers and how to help them give feedback which will help your novel become better.

Since many of us also give feedback on other writers’ novels, today’s third excerpt, by P.J. Parrish, provides advice on giving feedback. The full posts date-linked at the bottom of their excerpts, and are worth reading in full.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Joe Moore—June 26, 2013

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

  1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
  3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
  4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
  5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
  6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
  7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
  8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
  9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
  10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
  11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
  12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
  13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
  14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
  15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

– Which characters did you really connect to?

– Which characters need more development or focus?

Jodie Renner—June 16, 2014


A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.

Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.

Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.

Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.

Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.

Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.

Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

P.J. Parrish—September 10, 2019


There you have it, advice on working with beta readers, and on providing your own feedback on another writer’s novel.

  1. Do you use beta readers? Have you found them helpful?
  2. If you use beta readers, do you provide them with questions to answer, or things to look for?
  3. Have you given feedback on other writers’ novels? How do you approach doing so?

Reader Friday – Influence and Reciprocation

How to win friends and influence people.

How to make friends and sell your books.

I recently heard of Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, from a David Gaughran blog post. He discussed the book in the context of newsletters and convincing readers to take action. The book looks at the six facets of influence obtained from clinical research. The first is “reciprocation” – that nature and nurture character trait that makes us want to return the favor when someone does something for us or gives us something, including exceptional service.

Have you ever experienced service so exceptional that you wanted to give back something of value, as a way of saying “Thank you?” My wife and I experienced that Monday. We were sitting in our local branch of a large Ohio bank. Another bank we had used for decades had “merged” with yet a third bank, telling us that nothing would change, then began trickling out the truth. When we learned that basically we had to start all over with new accounts, new account numbers, and new checks, we decided it was time to move.

Our appointment with Jordan, our bank representative, was at 1:00. She was behind, still answering questions for a couple she was helping. The door was open, and from where we sat I could hear that a good discussion was taking place. And that’s a good thing. From my experience in a service profession, I’ve learned that people want you to give them your time and attention. They don’t want you looking at your watch, trying to hurry them out the door.

We waited patiently, knowing that Jordan would take time to answer our questions when our turn came. She ushered us into her office about ten minutes late, and did just that. Thorough, patient, going the extra mile. She must have read How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

When we finished, I realized that I wanted to give her a hand-crafted pen I had in my pocket and my writer’s card. She drooled politely over the pen, and listened patiently as I explained how she could go to my website and sign up for my newsletter, where she would find monthly opportunities to win other “legacy pens.”

We shook hands, then parted. But standing outside the door, and practically blocking our exit, stood an unhappy customer whom we had kept waiting ten minutes for her appointment. The unhappy one had apparently never read Dale Carnegie’s book and had the fiercest glare I had seen for a while, except in the movies. I said, “I’m sorry.” But the dragon kept her anger focused on Jordan.

My wife and I slipped out of the danger zone and determined that we would return for our next appointment with brownies and another pen.

  • Have you recently experienced service so excellent that you wanted to give back? Please tell us about it.
  • Or, have you met a dragon recently whose fiery breath you narrowly escaped? Change the name and the pronouns and tell us how you escaped.

And, Jordan, if you’re reading this, hang in there. You’re appreciated! And the next time the dragon comes visiting, hold out a plate (and a fire extinguisher) and say, “Would you like a brownie?”




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True Crime Thursday – Baby Formula Fraud


Photo credit – Pexels Public Domain

By Debbie Burke


When there’s a chance for profit, fraudsters never let a crisis go to waste.

One recent emergency was the 2022 shortage of infant formula, especially worrisome for parents of babies who have allergies or who need medical specialty formulas.

Vladislov Kotlyer, 43, of Staten Island, NY, saw the crisis as a profit opportunity. From March 2019 to October 2022, he collected $1.9 million from fraudulent claims to medical insurers and formula suppliers.

The Justice Department Criminal Division, the FBI, and US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York reported:

According to court filings, Kotlyar submitted forged prescriptions and medical records for specialty baby formula that was paid for by health insurers. Kotlyar obtained prescriptions and medical records for infants who were prescribed specialty baby formula and forged those records to obtain additional specialty baby formula. After receiving the specialty baby formula, Kotlyar fabricated issues with the shipments, including falsely claiming they were damaged or the incorrect formula in order to obtain additional formula at no additional cost. As part of the scheme, Kotlyar and his co-conspirators submitted more than $1.9 million in fraudulent claims to health insurers, including during a national shortage of baby formula.

On March 16, 2023, in federal court, Kotlyar pleaded guilty to fraud, agreed to forfeit $1 million, and pay more than $738,000 in restitution. He faces up to 20 years in prison for mail fraud. 

No word about what happened to the baby formula that he obtained as a result of his false claims.

The CDC cautions: “If you buy infant formula online, only purchase from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies (not individual people or auction sites).”

TKZers: Anyone want to guess what happened to the extra formula?

Donated to an orphanage?

Sold out of a car trunk in a Walmart parking lot?

A really splashy gift for a baby shower?

Or something else?



Anatomy Of A Book Signing

By John Gilstrap

With the publication of White Smoke last month, the third book in my Victoria Emerson post-apocalyptic thriller series–the past couple of weekends have been consumed with signing events. On March 11, I was lucky to be a part of the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival in Suffolk, Virginia. Hank Phillippi Ryan was the guest of honor, and I was one of 50 other authors representing every corner of the mysteryverse. Then, on March 18, I hosted a public signing at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. I am pleased and proud to report that I sold out of books at both events.

Having been in this business for a long time, I have some observations to share about the art and science of book signings. What follows are my own experience. Anyone who disagrees or sees things through a different lens are heartily invited to chip in.

The purpose of a live book signing has less to do with the author making money on the day of the event than it does about making the bookseller pleased and proud to have been involved in the event. Think about it from their point of view. Irrespective of how much of the promotional burden you choose to carry on your own (and that should be a lot–more later), the bookseller has to order the books in, promote it within the store and do whatever they can to build buzz. You don’t want them to feel as though they’ve wasted their time.

My book signings look a lot like cocktail parties. In the case of the signing at Four Seasons Books, since I’m new to the community, I bought a gorgeous charcuterie platter from Graze Ful, a local caterer, and we brought in red and white wines from Grapes and Grains Gourmet, a wine merchant located a block away from the bookstore. My wife is instrumental in making tables look lovely. To that end, we bring our own tables, tablecloths, napkins, glasses, trash bags and cleaning solutions. When the party is over, we want the bookseller to be left only with profits–not with a big cleaning chore.

I always bring extra books–especially for the first event with a new bookseller. It’s always hard to estimate how many books is the right number for a signing, and for reasons that make all the sense in the world, booksellers often underestimate. If they run out of their stock, they can dig into my author’s copies, which they sell at list price and then just backfill my copies with the next order from their distributor. This saves a lot of embarrassment.

Show loyalty to your bookseller. I have it on good authority that when John Grisham was just starting, trying to sell A Time to Kill out of the trunk of his car, only a handful of booksellers would allow him to do live promotional events in their stores. Among them, I am told, were That Bookstore in Blytheville (Blytheville, AR), Burke’s Books (Memphis), Square Books (Oxford, MS) and Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh). There might have been a couple of others. But here’s the cool part: after his career went stratospheric, those were the only stores where he would hold signing events. In the lead-up to his live event, he would sign (maybe he still does, I’ve never met him) thousands of pre-orders from each of those stores. Think of the windfall for the booksellers!

Now, I’m a mere bottom-feeder compared to that other JG, but I love the fact of his loyalty. So, now that I have settled into my forever home, I now have a forever bookstore. Anyone who buys my books through Four Seasons Books can get a signed copy mailed to them. I’ll even do personal inscriptions.

Promote, promote, promote. I’ve got something like 4,500 subscribers to my newsletter, and another 2,500 Facebook followers (presumably with quite a bit of overlap there). About two months ago, I sent out a save-the-date announcement. Two weeks before the event, I sent out invitations for the world to attend, and then a few days before the signing, I sent out yet another invitation, this time with parking instructions because street parking in Shepherdstown can be a bit dicey on the weekends. From all of that, I figure we had about 50 people come to the signing over the course of two hours. In addition to that, I signed a healthy handful of pre-orders.

You don’t need swag. As one of 50 authors at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, my job for the day (1-5pm) was pretty much to sit at a signing table and wait for attendees who paid $30 apiece to attend to choose which books they wanted to buy. As I mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to sell out, but the sales per unit of butt-numbness was pretty low. I had lots of time to observe my book-hawking colleagues, taking note of what seemed to work and what did not.

Three or four had massive, five-foot-tall banners with their book titles and the authors’ likenesses, which they set up next to themselves–as if their flesh-and-blood presence is somehow reinforced by a printed image. I don’t understand the theory. Frankly, I think it projects a weird desperation.

While everyone loves candy, I don’t believe that miniature Snickers bars–or even Twix, the gold standard for candy–have ever sold a book. I watched countless attendees snag candy out of authors’ candy jars without even slowing. Not once did I see an author use the passing instant of candy-grabbing to engage the grabber in conversation about their book.

Engagement is everything. In the mind of your readers, your status as an author makes you a celebrity. Because of your talent and hard work, you are engaged in an activity that others dream of performing, and that makes many people uncomfortable to even say hi. It’s perfectly normal, and extremely humbling. As the focus of a signing event–irrespective of the venue–the responsibility lies with you to engage with attendees. When I’m stuck behind the table signing, my wife works the room to greet people and make them feel comfortable. Would they like something to eat? A glass of wine?

The enormously talented Lisa Scottoline actually stands in front of her signing table and greets every fan personally, often with a hug. I’m not a huggy guy, so that won’t work for me, but it’s very impressive to watch.

So, is handing out candy your thing? Bookmarks, maybe? That’s fine. If you find yourself sitting at a lonely table in a big box store where people are avoiding eye contact so they don’t have to talk to the author they’ve never heard of, consider filling your pockets with the swag from your dish and personally hand it out to customers in the aisles. I do this with bookmarks. “Hi. I’m John, the author at the front table. No pressure. I write thrillers. Here are a few of my titles if you want to look me up. Have a great day.” Every single person went right to their phones to look me up. A few then went on to buy books.

Okay, TKZ family, what am I missing?



Why Are So Many
Historicals So Bad?

By PJ Parrish

My post today is going to sound a bit crabby, and for that I apologize. Okay, here goes: . I am not a big fan of historical fiction. I know there are many many truly great historicals out there, and a few remain among my favorites — Shogan, Beloved, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Underground Railroad, Perfume.

I’ve got my favorites from the historical mystery shelf as well — The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, Child 44, The Eye of the Needle, among others. I’m not a total philistine.

But most historicals I’ve tried leave me cold. And for the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why. I think it is because too many just try too hard to impress with…details.

Research is, as all writers know, very seductive. And sometimes, it shows.

To my mind, the best historical novels, first and foremost, explore the great themes of what we like to call popular fiction―crime, family, passion, betrayal― set against well rendered backdrops. The not-so-best of these, on the other hand, let the historical details overwhelm the story, choking the characters in layers of crinoline, stiff collar stays and stilted dialogue.

I’m crabby about this, I think, because the contest I am judging right now for a writers conference is coughing up a lot of historicals this week. I’m drowning in miladies, malingering lords, and gagging on the “sulphuric aroma” of gunpowder and the “foul hint” of stale tobacco. These manuscripts are far from bad; they are well crafted. But they are also boring because nothing is happening. And it’s not happening in numbing historically accurate detail.

I am also reading two historicals right now, and both are somewhat disappointing. I got Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for Christmas because the gifter knew how much I loved the TV series A French Village, a superb soaper set in a Nazi-occupied village. Hannah’s book is mildly diverting so far, but the 1939 France setting comes off a little post-cardy and I feel like I’ve met these characters somewhere before.

The second book I’m reading is Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. I love anything this man writes, truly. Two poor brothers struggle to survive in 1909 Spokane. Exquisitely detailed in its research and setting with a carnival parade of quirky characters. The writing is dazzling. Yet the book is very put-downable. I’m almost half-through and the story itself just isn’t gelling as a whole. It’s more picaresque than well-plotted.

So all this has me wondering why some historicals captivate while others capsize. I don’t have the answer, folks. I actually have written two historicals — fat family sagas with love and sex, one set in post-earthquake San Francisco, and another set in Belle Epoque Paris. You can find them both on Amazon for about a buck a piece. Heck, let me know and I will give you a copy. I have lots left.

My late friend Jerry Healy once quipped that I still write historicals because my Louis Kincaid mystery series is set in the Eighties. And yes, I had to be careful with my research as to when cell phones and DNA arrived, little stuff like that. But research never got in my way.

Maybe that’s all it comes down to — not letting the grinding machinery of research gunk up your plot or drown out what your characters are saying.

In 2003, Dennis Lehane was red hot. His Kenzie-Gennaro series had established his mystery cred. His blockbuster stand alone Mystic River was coming out as a movie. He had just published Shutter Island.  Where does a guy go from there?

He took a couple years off and in 2008 came out with The Given Day. It was a magnum opus historical set in post-war Boston. It clocked in at 720 pages. The New York Times called it “intensely researched” and I don’t know if that was a compliment. I found The Given Day hard going. It’s ambitious, sprawling and almost promiscuously sensual in its style, as in this sentence:

Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout between them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed.

I didn’t finish the book. After The Given Day, Lehane decided to go back to his Kenzie-Gennaro series with Mooonlight Mile. He told a British interviewer, about returning to genre fiction: “It’s ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? [The genre books] had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I’ve flirted with self-importance.”

Two years later, Lehane came out Live By Night. It’s a slimmed-down sequel to The Given Day, with the spotlight lazer-trained on one character Joe Coughlin. It has the same beautiful Lehane writing, but the ease is back. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watch the water turn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had happened in his life — good and bad — had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

The history is there in this gritty gangster yarn. The research is there, but now it’s background music for Joe Coughlin’s solo. Lehane finally won the Edgar that he should have gotten for Mystic River. I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. It broke my heart in the end.

Okay, thanks for letting me vent today. I feel less crabby now, and am going to give Jess and Kristin more time to win me over. History doesn’t have to be drag.

Would love to hear some of you weigh in who are more learned in historical fiction than I am. What did you read that worked? What fell short and why?

How To Read Body Language

As writers, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that even while silent, our bodies speak volumes. Nonverbal cues — body language — are the physical behavior, expressions, and mannerisms that communicate how we really feel.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our bodies are sending nonverbal signals when we interact with others. By analyzing gestures, posture, tone of voice, level of eye contact, etc., we can learn many things. Body cues enhance dialogue between characters.

Are you reading those same signals in the real world?

Members of the Animal Kingdom rely on body language to warn each other of potential danger. Crows are especially attuned to their environment. Just sayin’. 😉 I believe animals are our greatest teachers. We can learn a lot by studying how they interact with their environment and with different species. Matters not if a squirrel doesn’t speak crow, raven, or blue jay. That squirrel still knows how the birds are feeling, and vice versa, by reading their body language.

When we say one thing, but our body language says the opposite, the listener may conclude we’re being dishonest. And rightfully so. For example, we may say “yes” while wagging our head from side to side. Because body language is a natural, subconscious act that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions, the nonverbal signal is more accurate than spoken words.

Being cognizant of our own body language and perfecting how to communicate more fully is a valuable skill to learn for interviews, sales, book signings, video marketing, etc…anywhere we interact with others. Profilers and investigators rely on body language to help them dig for the truth.

Face Facts

The human face is extremely expressive, able to convey countless emotions without saying a word. Unlike other forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. Indistinguishable across cultures, facial expressions show happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust, to name a few.

Say Cheese

Not everyone smiles the same way. Some favor a close-lipped smile over a toothy grin. In general, when someone’s authentically happy, their whole face lights up and smile lines extend up to the corners of their eyes. On the flipside, a closed mouth smile may mean they’re masking their real emotion or appeasing their audience to avoid conflict.

Un-kissable Lips

Another mouth-related clue, pursed lips almost always indicate dissatisfaction or anger.

Eye of the Tiger

Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an important nonverbal body cue. The way we look at someone communicates many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s interest and response.

If you’re chatting with someone and they narrow their eyes, their body language portrays anger, confusion, or suspicion, and in some cases, deep concentration.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

When someone is being dishonest, they’ll look up to their upper right (your left when facing them). The right side of the brain is our creative side (as you probably know). That glance upward allows them to access that part of the brain, thus thinking more creatively while fabricating the truth. They may also pause—stall—to buy time while constructing a more convincing lie.

Can You Hear My Body Language?

Consider how you perceive others by the way they sit, walk, stand, or hold their head. The way we carry ourselves nonverbally communicates a wealth of information. This type of body language includes posture, stance, and more subtle movements (as shown below).

Hot Crossed Buns Arms

How someone holds themselves says a lot about what they’re thinking, especially when it comes to their arms. A closed-off position indicates self-protection and blocking out a negative source. When we’re comfortable or open to communication, we’re more likely to stand with relaxed arms.

Space Shot

Have you ever had someone invade your personal space? Made you uncomfortable, right? We all need physical space, though that distance differs depending on the culture, situation, or closeness of the relationship. We use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including intimacy, affection, aggression, or dominance.

If someone’s uncomfortable or disinterested, they may slightly turn away from the conversation—whether they realize it or not.

Footprints in the Sand

Take note of the feet. Subconsciously, we tend to point our toes in the direction of where we’d like to go. If someone’s enjoying your company, their feet should point toward you. But if they desperately want to bolt, their feet will likely point toward the nearest exit. One caveat to this research is pain. Hence why we need to consider the person we’re talking to as well as the context of the encounter.

Nervous Nellie

When someone is nervous, they’ll often sit with their ankles crossed. Surprising, right? One exception is when the rest of their body portrays openness. For example, lacing fingers behind their head, reclined, with ankles crossed straight out in front of them. But if they lean back with their arms crossed it signals objection. Hence why you may want to reconsider how the interaction is going. If you’re trying to win someone over, engage them with questions and see if they lean forward instead.

Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake, Baker’s Hands

Gestures are woven into the fabric of daily life. A wave, point, or animation of hands often express emotion. Interestingly, some gestures vary between cultures. For example, flashing the “okay” hand signal conveys a positive message, but it’s considered offensive in Germany, Russia, and Brazil, for example. Should we discuss raising the middle finger? Hand signals don’t get much clearer than that. 😉

Stroking the chin often indicates a high interest in the conversation. Likely that person will ask probing questions to learn more. If you spot this cue, you’ve piqued interest among a captive audience.

Reach Out & Touch Someone

We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the message behind a weak handshake, or a warm bear hug, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip of the arm.

The Nose Knows

Many people touch their nose, sniff, or breathe heavier when stressed. Breathing regulates the body, eases tension while we communicate, and helps us to regain composure. If we pay attention to these behaviors in others, it’ll help unearth the truth. Again, context is key. If someone is ill or has a health issue, we can safely disregard sniffing. But repetitive sniffing or quickened breaths indicate the person feels unbalanced or is trying to remain composed.

Watch Your Tone of Voice

Never is it a matter of what we say, but how we say it. When we speak, others read our voice while listening to our words. Timing, pace, volume, tone, inflection, and utterances that convey understanding, such as “ahh” and “uh-ha” are all good indicators to watch for. Think about how your tone changes when you add sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Keep in mind, body language is not always 100% accurate. The context of the situation as well as the individual we’re speaking to are both key factors to consider.

Writing aside, are you aware of body language in the real world? Funny stories always welcome!

On a personal note, I regained full control over my Mayhem Series. Woohoo! Created my own imprint and Indie pubbed all five books. What an amazing feeling! Book 6 is with my editor and I’m working with my cover designer now. Gotta share my new logo. You’ll get a kick outta it. 😉 Still waiting for Amazon to transfer my reviews. Other than that, I’m having a blast with my newfound freedom.


What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard

by James Scott Bell

I had a tough decision to make for this installment of JSB at the Movies. It came down to a choice between How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sunset Boulevard. After a night of tossing and turning, I chose the latter. I had to give the nod to Gloria Swanson over Annette Funicello.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1951) is an undisputed classic of the film noir era. It stars William Holden as a struggling screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as what she actually was—an aging star from silent films. Her performance is one of the most iconic in movie history. Indeed, she was the favorite to take home the Oscar, and she should have.

But in a quirk of fate, she was up against another all-time performance—Bette Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve. In a further quirk, those two probably split the vote, giving the prize to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Holliday is quite good, and in any other year would have deserved the gold statuette. But not over Davis, and especially not Swanson’s Norma Desmond!

Wilder originally wanted Mae West for Norma and Montgomery Clift for the screenwriter Joe Gillis. But Miss West, a true diva, wanted to change a lot of the dialogue. Billy Wilder would not stand for that, and a good thing, too.

Wilder also considered Greta Garbo (who was not interested in returning to the screen), Pola Negri, a great silent film actress (but whose Polish accent was troublesome), and the “It Girl” Clara Bow. But Bow turned it down, having considered her unsuccessful transition to sound and ill-treatment by the industry reasons to stay retired.

The director George Cukor suggested Swanson to Wilder, and how perfect she was. She had been one of the great “faces” of silents, and was the right age—50—for Norma. That’s when Wilder got the brilliant idea of using Cecil B. DeMille as himself, for he had famously worked with Swanson in the silent era and was still directing movies. Swanson would essentially be playing a version of herself.

Clift withdrew for one reason or another (there are a few theories) and William Holden was offered the role, which he gladly accepted. Another brilliant move. It’s hard now to think of the cynical, hardboiled voiceover narration in any voice but Holden’s.

Two other bits of casting brilliance. One is Erich von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s butler. He had been one of the most famous—or infamous, from the studio heads’ perspective—silent film directors and, like Swanson, had fallen into obscurity. The film Norma privately screens is Queen Kelly, which Stroheim directed in 1928.

Then there are Norma’s bridge partners, each a faded star from the silent era. Joe calls them her “waxworks”—Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner (who played Jesus in DeMille’s silent version of King of Kings, and Mr. Gower, the druggist, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life).

Frame Story

This is a frame story. We begin in the present, then the movie unfolds in the past; the last scene returns us to the present. It’s a fine technique, used numerous times in various genres. Stephen King’s The Green Mile is an example.

Only this opening frame was unique: it is narrated by a dead man! Joe Gillis is floating face down in a pool. The cops are on the scene. What happened? Joe will tell us from beyond…

Lesson: Using a frame is a solid choice, but only if you make it compelling in and of itself. Don’t just toss one in! Take the time to make it fresh and even bold.

Death Stakes

Joe is an out of work screenwriter desperately in need of a job. He’s behind in his rent and his car is about to be repossessed. He makes the rounds of his studio contacts, but can’t find anything—not even a quick rewrite assignment. When he confronts his agent on a golf course, he gets a kiss off. The stakes here are professional. If he doesn’t get work he’ll have to head back to Dayton, Ohio with his tail between his legs.

Driving back to his dismal apartment, he spots the repo men. The chase is on. Joe pulls into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard to escape.

Turns out the house is a decrepit mansion from the crazy 1920s. Inside he meets the faded silent screen star, Norma Desmond. Seems she’s been holed up inside for twenty years, living off past dreams with the help of her somewhat creepy servant, Max. Norma has been working on a screenplay for her comeback, a turgid scenario about Salome, a part she is clearly too old for. Joe hatches a plan. He’ll work on her screenplay to make some quick dough.

Lesson: If the death stakes are professional, make sure the reader understands how important it is to the character. Most of Act 1 is showing Joe Gillis in various stages of desperation for dough.

Doorway of No Return

But Norma has a plan of her own—while Joe spends the night in a little room over the garage, Max moves Joe’s things out of his apartment and into the room. Joe is furious. Then the repo men show up and take away Joe’s car, making him a virtual prisoner.

Lesson: Act 2 doesn’t start until the Lead is forced into the confrontation…and can’t go back to the way things were in Act 1.

Pet the Dog

When the Lead takes time from his death stakes struggle to help someone else, we become more invested in him. Joe helps a young studio reader, Betty (Nancy Olson) with a script idea. This relationship becomes more complicated as Joe and Betty fall in love, though she is engaged to Joe’s friend Artie (Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, whose personality in this film is the exact opposite of cop Joe Friday from Dragnet).

Tip: A love interest subplot should intersect with the main plot in a way that causes more trouble for the Lead. Boy, is that ever true here, as it leads, ultimately, to Joe’s death.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of the film we get Joe Gillis’s life-altering look at himself. Norma has attempted suicide because Joe has rejected her. Now, in her bedroom, we see on his face the choice: should he finally make a break, or stay on as her lover? The former choice would lead to his redemption, the latter to the loss of his individuality.

He stays. The rest of the movie will be about the price of that decision.

Lesson: The Mirror Moment sees all, knows all.

Sharp Dialogue

The dialogue in this movie is priceless. William Holden has the perfect voice and delivery for some of the best lines in all of noir. My favorite is when Norma is describing a scene from her mammoth and atrocious screenplay about Salome.

Lesson: Dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. Show an agent, editor or browser, on your first pages, that yours has zing and you are halfway home to getting the whole book read. May I modestly suggest a book to help you in that regard?

If you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard, I urge you to settle in with a bowl of popcorn and watch it. The adage “They don’t make ’em like they used to” certainly applies to this classic. (And don’t look at the clip below. Watch it in the movie!)

What better way to end this post than with one of the most famous closing images in cinema history:


To Speak Or Not To Speak

The title of my most popular talk is “My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters.” It’s as long or as short as I need it to be, depending on how much time they allow me to speak, but the framework is the same throughout.

I do a lot of public speaking, and travel across the Lone Star State to discuss books and writing. Listeners hear about my disastrous starter agent, issues with my first novel, and the loss of a movie deal.

The presentation begins when I’m ten years old, touches on adventures and misfortune in elementary school, high school, and jumps to the first time I was published in a newspaper and finally my first novel.

Sounds dull and lifeless here, but, and I hope this doesn’t come across as conceited, it’s fun, entertaining, and informative all the way through.

When I first started this writing thing, no one ever told me I’d have to stand in front of crowds ranging from twenty people to several hundred and entertain them. I thought we were supposed to just write a novel, get it out there on the shelves, maybe do a couple of signings, and lean back to rest until it was time to write another one.

But signings, panels, and book clubs, are required for high visibility. It’s part of the job.

It comes natural to me. Maybe because I taught school for ten years and then became the spokesperson for the (then) tenth largest school district in Texas. Every time I turned around I was on the television, radio, or being interviewed by usually suspicious newspaper reporters.

Talking to folks is a barrel of fun, and almost every time I finish a presentation, at least one person comes up to tell me they enjoyed what I had to say, and that I’m “one of the best speakers they’ve ever had.”

Yeah, it sounds pompous, I don’t mean it like that.

Maybe that comes from that abovementioned 35-year career in public education, where I endured hundreds of dry, boring speakers who left me wanting to stick a log in my eye for relief. Staff once hired guy to speak for three hours in the morning and another three in the afternoon.

By ten o’clock, my boss was cleaning out her purse on the front row. She fired him by eleven that morning and we improvised for the rest of the day.

The worst presenter is the individual who stands in front of a crowd and reads to the assemblage in a long, droning voice. But, here’s that oddity in nature, it worked for one of my college professors who walked into the classroom, opened a three-ring notebook full of pages in plastic sleeves, and read some of the most fascinating American history anecdotes, facts, and information I’ve ever heard. His mix of styles kept us fascinated all the way through, and it was one of the few classes I truly enjoyed.

That may be where I learned public speaking, because it sure wasn’t in another college course where I drew a D in Speech and was glad to get it. I’ve been told I’m a natural storyteller, and it might have come in part from the old men I listened to up at our country store, but also from a high school history teacher (history again, hummmm), who again blended fact and stories.

So when it’s time to step in front of a crowd, I want to entertain first, and then bring the information they’ve requested. Audiences hear personal experiences that relate to them and I usually manage to do that with humorous stories from my childhood that tie into their memories or experiences. That mix of old recollections usually makes them smile, and I have ‘em.

More than once I’ve heard, “Your story reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid. I’d forgotten until you said something. Thanks for reminding me of those/that wonderful time(s).”

Here are a few things I’ve learned through the years, and they might be useful to those of you who are just starting out, or who don’t really like to speak in public in the first place.

  • People want to laugh, but don’t try to be funny by telling jokes. Only do that if you’re really, really good at it. Wait, never mind. Don’t tell jokes, period.
  • Don’t talk at your audience. Don’t preach. A conversational approach to storytelling and teaching is the best. Again, draw on your own experiences to make it more personal to the audience.
  • Make eye contact. Don’t forget to look front, left and right. Find that person who’s engaged and talk to him or her, then find someone who out there with a blank look on their face and speak to them, no matter how uncomfortable you feel. (Lordy, I remember a guy on one Bouchercon panel who leaned back in his chair to expound one some subject, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and talked for a good five minutes to the ceiling. Gilstrap and I wanted to flee the scene and find a bar, and would have if I hadn’t been on that panel and sitting right beside the guy. Gilstrap got the giggles while I had to maintain at least a little composure.)
  • Which brings me to speaking on panels. Years ago I was on another five-person panel seated on chairs above a crowd of about two hundred. Our discussion went well until the moderator asked the gentlemen on my left to talk himself and thrillers. He rose and stepped to the edge of the stage leaving an empty seat between myself and Texas author David Wilkinson, cleared his throat, opened the book he was hawking, and read to excess. I mean it. He read for days. And as usual, the mischievous kid in me awoke after a while and I leaned across the empty seat and introduced myself to David. We shook as if we were sitting at a livestock auction, and talked among ourselves and to the other panelists while the author droned on to what felt like the end of his novel.
  • Be energetic. For the love of God, be energetic!
  • But don’t talk too fast. I was watching one of my favorite movies the other day, A River Runs Through It, and listened carefully to Robert Redford’s cadence. It was slow, but not plodding, and his inflections kept my attention, making it feel like he was talking to me.
  • Don’t dump volumes of information on your audience. They’ll retain little of it unless they’re born note takers. I usually get them to laughing, throw in a bit of important writing info, and then slide into another story or something they can relate to, and then back to technique before another story that usually occurs to me on the spot.
  • If you’re inexperienced, start out talking to book clubs. They’ll be forgiving, then polish your “act” in front of local civic organizations and clubs who are always looking for speakers. But remember, small groups are sometimes hard to engage. I’ve found that the larger the group, the more fun we all have.
  • I avoid power points. I don’t use technology. It defeats me. Simply visiting with the audience as if we’re sitting in a living room makes it easier and I don’t have to lug around a heavy thumb drive, hoping someone has the equipment to project the image from a laptop.

There are thousands of pages of information out there on public speaking. You can join Toastmasters or some such club or organization that teaches the steps and techniques to stand before a crowd, but it might not be for you.

If not, outline your program, then practice in front of a mirror until it comes smooth and effortless.

Sounds simple, don’t it?

Practice, practice, then practice some more. It’ll pay off in the long run.

For example, last month in front of large group of Dallas writers, I realized I’d spoken to them before. Something different was necessary to avoid picks and torches as they stormed the lectern, so I tried something different. I began my presentation near the end, but realized the whole structure was built on earlier parts that were linear in construction, so the next thing I knew, I found myself doing the entire presentation backwards, and it worked!

They all remembered I’d been there eight years earlier, but more than one attendee said they loved the presentation because it was chock full of writing advice…and I was best speaker they’ve had in years.

But it was the same talk, and I wondered as I left, if I’d just competed with myself.

Who knows, but at least they were entertained, and learned something about writing, and that’s why I was there.

Gads, how pretentious this all sounds, but it’s the only way I know to get this point across. I apologize for my perceived arrogance and hope this helps you in front of a room full of strangers who want to learn and be entertained at the same time.