A Cynical View Of Titles & Cover Art

By John Gilstrap

As I read Reavis Wortham’s excellent post regarding titles and covers last Saturday, my first thought was, Hey, I’ve got a different squint on such matters. I think that’s what my post will be about on Wednesday!

My second thought was, Wait. I already wrote that post.

And, as luck would have it, on the day when I should be writing new material for this post, I’m swamped with Life Stuff and don’t have time to pen a whole new post. So, here we go with a post that first appeared on TKZ on November 4, 2020:

Whoever coined the trope that you can’t judge a book by its cover had to have been an academic. Certainly, the trope-coiner was not a reader of novels. Yes, it is true that some great novels come encased in ugly wrappers, but few of them find a broad readership.

What follows is based on zero research and even less science, but it reflects quite a few decades of personal observation.

People buy books in steps.

First, they have to know to look for it. This is the unicorn hair in the mix. I don’t know what drives me to look for a book. Certainly, there’s word of mouth, and I read a lot of books for blurbs, but I don’t remember the last time I went into a bookstore blind–without a target I was looking for–and scoured the shelves, hoping to be attracted to a cover. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in the virtual world, where online bookstores are not, in my opinion, very browsable.

Next, there has to be an instant attraction. Perhaps it’s the author’s name—which highlights the importance of “branding”. But that instant attraction is just that—instant. It’s fleeting. There and gone. This is where the cover comes in, highlighting the reason that genres exist in the first place. The title is important here, too. A thriller has to look and sound like a thriller. Ditto a romance or horror novel. In that brief second of instant attraction, the artwork makes a connection and causes the reader to move to the next step . . .

They read the plot description. In just a few words, the pressure is on to pull the reader into the story. To make them gamble their hard-earned money that the ride you’re going to provide is worth the money. How do they make their final decision?

They read the first pages. Yesterday, PJ Parrish posted a terrific primer on the elements of a good opening. Here’s where that pays off. Boom! Decision made, one way or the other. There’s neither the time nor the real estate to flub the opening and make it better later.

So, where is the cynicism?

Okay, here it is: The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. Some examples from my own work:

Hellfire is the Jonathan Grave book that hit the stands back in July. What does Hellfire even mean? The story is about two kids who are kidnapped to keep their mom from revealing a terrorist plot after she has been arrested. The word itself–Hellfire–is an oblique reference to an air-to-surface missile system. And it sounds cool. It positions the book properly in the minds of readers who generally enjoy the types of books I write.

The red cover makes it distinctive on the shelf–unless or until red becomes the cover du jour for the current crop of cover designers. It also lends itself well as a Facebook cover image. But if you really look at the image and its various elements, it could be for a reprint of All’s Quiet On The Western Front, or it could be a story about Satan.

Other examples from my oeuvre (today is Pretend-I-Know-French Day): The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it. The cover of Friendly Fire features the White House, yet neither the president nor his team are involved in the story. What we wanted to do is establish the book and its author as being “inside Washington”.

My point here is that storytelling and marketing are entirely different skillsets, with only distantly related goals. As an author, my job is to entertain my readers by giving them a helluva ride. To get that chance, I need to convince them (trick them?) into picking out my book from among all the others on the shelf.

Your turn, TKZers. Do you have any tricks you’re willing to share about how you convince readers to take the plunge?

Rewriting: Keep Your Eyes
Open And Your Ego Closed

“It is easy to be wise after the event.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of my old stuff lately. It’s all in prep to get the last of our backlist titles re-packaged and up for download. What a chore — and eye-opener — this has turned out to be.

First, it’s a lot of grunt work. Some of our books are so old they hail from the dark ages of Word Perfect. (For the record, the BEST word processing system ever designed). There is no manuscript that I can feed into the Amazon maw. So here’s the primitive process:

  1. Dig around in the dusty bins of the house to find an old paper copy of the book
  2. Send it to our book scanner (Blue Leaf in Ballwin, Mo). Our guy Brad then rips the book apart, scans it, and sends us a Word document.
  3. The manuscript comes back surprisingly clean. But it has quirks. The spacing is off at times, “t” often comes out “st” and Louis’s name is sometimes Louie. So I have to CAREFULLY read every single line. This is hard to do because:
  • I am a bad copy editor.
  • Reading for typos is like taking three Ambiens.
  • I get caught up in the story and miss the typos. This is sometimes a good thing because I hit a passage and think, “Damn, I’m good!” This is sometimes a bad thing because I hit another passage and it’s, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Once I have a clean manuscript, I ship it off to my sister Kelly who has mastered the art of formatting. (If you don’t know how to do this, hire someone who does. Please. If you are self-pubbing, one of the biggest turn-offs to readers is shoddy formatting. It screams amateur.) So, Kelly makes it pretty with perfect chapter breaks, drop-caps, correct page numbering and a table of contents. We write new backcopy and design a new cover  (you can’t use your original publisher’s).

Covers, as we’ve talked about here, are important. Again, hire a pro! If you have series, it’s best to brand them with linking graphic devices, type faces and colors. We chose black backgrounds and an odd type face. Here a sample of the covers, original and new, for book we’ve just finished.


The left one, from our publisher Kensington, was adequate. But it looks dated now (design trends mutate!). I always disliked it because the only image is a nondescript (purple?) house that had no relation to the story. In our re-branding new covers, we’ve used a human figure on every book because we think it gives the reader a person to begin to bond with, be it a victim, protag or villain. (Also the necklace the dead girl wears turnss out to be a big clue).

So Thicker Than Water is available in ebook and very pretty trade paperback. Click here.  Now we take you back to our regular programming.

I’d like to return to my first point, way back in the first paragraph. Because this is what I really want to stress for you guys out there who are struggling with getting your first book out there in the world.


That is my biggest take-away from this experience of getting our old stuff back out there. Because no matter where you are in your writing, rewriting or editing process, you have to be willing to have your eyes opened. And your ego closed.

You really have to be ruthless in rewriting. You have to make hard choices, sometimes about passages or whole chapters that need to be cut. You have to recognize that your plot foundation might be shaky. Or that your characters are cardboardy. I always tell folks one thing, going into a new story:

Write the first draft with your heart. Then write the second, third, tenth or twentieth draft with your head. We’ve now re-published ten of our old books. Yes, we did some rewriting on all of them. The first one, Dark of the Moon, we have yet to re-publish because we believe it has fundamental problems that need more than a normal rewrite can solve. Here’s some of the things we learned in this process with our freshman effort book:

We got preachy. Our protag, Louis Kincaid, is biracial. The issue of race is, at times, important in the plot but more often than not is tangential to the story. Still, a couple times we allowed Louis to sound pedantic. Here’s the thing about themes: The more dramatic your theme, the more you need to underwrite. Go at your theme — be it bigotry, spouse abuse, environment, gay rights — obliquely, and always through the lens of your characters, not through your writerly narrator. You can make your point but you can’t be didactic.

We fell prey to stereotypes. Dark of the Moon is set in a small southern town in 1983. Our dialogue was too dialect-dependent. Our characters came across as one-dimensional. And we managed to have nothing positive to say about the town itself. Remember: your setting is a character. Treat it with respect.

We lost track of “book” time. This was an issue in our first two books, wherein we didn’t account for lapses in time. We neglected to tell readers that X-days had passed or we didn’t account for holidays like Christmas. (Hey, readers notice that little stuff). The sequence of events must be clear in the reader’s mind. We now use timeline boards and chronologies.

We didn’t know what we wanted to say. I’m going out on limb here and say all good books have themes. I don’t think we understood this until about book 4. Yes, you want to entertain readers. But beneath the grinding gears of plot, even light books can have something to say about the human condition. A romance might be “about” how love is doomed without trust. A courtroom drama might be “about” the morality of the death penalty.

We missed the theme in Dark of the Moon. Only now, as we rewrite it, are we understanding that the theme is every person’s search for home. For Louis, it was literally going back to the southern town where he was born and then understanding that it wasn’t “home” at all. The entire series now has a theme — Louis, a man who has walked uneasily in two racial worlds — trying to find his spiritual home.

I know you’re tempted to dismiss theme as mere enhancement. Le cerise sur la gateau, as the French say. But it’s essential. Try this experiment: Write the back copy for your work in progress — three paragraphs at most. Ha! Can’t do it? Well, you might not have a grip on what your story is about at its heart. Now often your theme doesn’t show itself until you’re well into your plot. Well, that’s okay. But when it begins to whisper, listen hard. Good fiction, Stephen King says, “always begins with story and progresses to theme.”

Eyes open, crime dogs.

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

Micro Fiction For Your Writer’s Brain

by James Scott Bell

Want to have some fun? Write micro fiction.

Micro fiction is a story under 500 words (some put the limit at 300, but there is no governing authority calling the shots). Flash fiction is up to 1,000 words. After that, we’re into short stories.

I love all three forms, but micro is the most fun.

First of all, it doesn’t take that long to write. You don’t have to make a major investment of creative energy (which you mostly want directed at your full-length work).

It also trains your writing muscles. It teaches you to get into a scene in medias res—in the middle of things. That, in turn, will sharpen your skill at chapter openings.

It makes you characterize immediately, primarily through dialogue, a skill every writer should have.

And the best micro story has a twist or snapper ending. That skill comes in handy not only for the end of a novel, but also for scenes and chapters as well.

Getting Ideas

There are dozens of ways to get ideas for micro fiction. A few I’ve used are:

  • Writer Igniter 
  • Storymatic
  • Reading a news item, adding a weird element, and asking “What if?” (especially good for playing with spec fiction)
  • Opening a dictionary to a random page and riffing off the first noun I find
  • Jokes

Writing Micro Fiction

Usually, a micro story is going to have:

  • One setting
  • 1-3 characters
  • Action focus
  • Minimal description
  • Lean sentences

Take your idea spark and think about a set up, what characters might be involved, and a central conflict. For example, I just now took out two random Stroymatic cards: attention-seeker and reunited. I thought about it for five seconds and came up with: what if an attention-seeking narcissist is reunited with his high school girlfriend at the 50-year reunion, and she doesn’t remember him?

At this point I prefer to think of a possible ending, and write toward it. Of course, you can start writing and see if an ending presents itself (I call this “micro pantsing,” not to be confused with the mini-skirt craze of the 1960s).

But here’s the nice thing: whatever course you choose you will reap the benefits of writing micro fiction. And you haven’t invested a lot of time.

I can already hear a rumbling out there. It sounds like Why not use ChatGPT for all this?


I say this not as a Luddite; the uses of ChatGPT have been widely discussed, here and all over the place.

The reason I don’t recommend it for micro or flash fiction is that the whole purpose of these forms is to work your writer’s brain, keep it supple and creative. If you let a machine do the creating for you, you gain nothing. Indeed, your proficiency in that arena will begin to atrophy.

But it you do the work yourself, your mind will develop the capacity to do some wonderful things.

Like the other day, I was just walking through the house when an idea—unbidden and fully formed—popped into my head.

I sat right down and wrote it. Then published it to my Patreon community.

(Pause for commercial. It’s free to sign up and gain access to all my content on Patreon, and there’s no contractual commitment. So I say, give it a look risk free!)

What to do With Micro Fiction

There are places that pay for micro and flash fiction. You can check some of them out here.

My short fiction goes to Patreon, always free to my members.

I’m also thinking that in the future I might publish micro fiction to my email list.

You could also use micro fiction as a regular feature on your blog, or as a reader magnet on your website.

But again, the main benefit is what it does for you personally. And it’s fun, like doing the daily Jumble.

Here’s the micro story that came me complete. It’s 217 words.

The Confession

Bob looked at Ed. Ed looked at Bob. Bob hated the way Ed looked at him, with that penetrating gaze. They’d been walking along the beach. The day was cold and misty. Bob had stopped to pick up a piece of driftwood.

And now, with Ed’s inquiring eyes, Bob knew he couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll spill it. I have to. Just listen. Let me get it out. I did it. I killed her. I took a knife and I did it. Was it a fit of rage? I tell myself that, Ed, but I know deep down I’d been planning it for months. After I did it, I wrapped her body in plastic, I tied ropes around her and attached two cinder blocks, put her in the boat and went out beyond Anacapa Island. Right out there, I can point to the spot. And that’s where she is now. I set up an alibi, somebody to lie for me, but I can’t lie to you, Ed. I never could. So there it is. And hey, you know what? I feel better now. I really do.”

Ed just stared at him. Those eyes!

“Okay,” Bob said. “You win.”

Bob hurled the piece of driftwood into the waves.

“Fetch, boy!” Bob said.

What about you? Ever play around with micro or flash fiction?

That Thing

I was signing with Don Bently (bestselling author of the tom Clancy, Jack Ryan Jr, the Vince Flynn Mitch Rapp series, as well as his Matt Drake novels) in Alpine, Texas the weekend before Thanksgiving. During a lull, we settled back at our tables and visited with the owners of Front Street Books about all things writing.

We decided that next year we needed to add a couple of other authors to the mix and expand the signing into a mini-conference held during their art walk, complete with a panel. Names came up, and a plan began to gel. The conversation then turned to what we were reading, and someone handed me a new novel by an author I’ve never read.

The cover immediately caught my attention, and that skewed our topics to That Thing that causes authors to gnash their teeth.

The Cover.

Yep, That Thing which should attract buyers’ attention, but it often lost in interpretation. We all have “cover stories” to share. Many are filled with frustration, angst, and downright anger. As Don and I traded war stories, patrons collected around us and the discussion widened. We all agreed a cover should reach out and grab readers by the shirt, yanking them close to the shelves so they can pick up what authors worked so hard to produce.

“I often buy books by the covers,” one lady commented.

“That’s how my Bride sometimes buys wine,” I added.

Someone shouted huzzah, and a glass of wine appeared in my hand. The signing was definitely on the upswing and we settled in to swap ideas and our favorite book jackets.

As a new author well over a decade ago, I didn’t realize there would be so much to argue about, and that I’d have so little input. The original cover for The Rock Hole is still out there for some reason, because as you all know, nothing ever vanishes from the internet. They floated this one out there and I found unspeakably odd.

Standing up on my hind legs and argued with them. “I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s your cover.”

“It looks like someone skinned a flamingo’s head and neck. I don’t remember including flamingos in my novel.”

“It’s a blood smear.”

“From a flamingo?”

“No, from…something.”


“Well, first time authors don’t usually have a lot of say in what our artists produce.”

“Then I won’t say a lot. Different art would be nice.”

We volleyed for quite a while until they came up with something more suitable and I kinda liked the bloody shoelaces.

Other covers came and went for that series, though none of them excited me. It wasn’t until Laying Bones came out that I thought they understood what I was doing. They finally got it right on the re-release for The Rock Hole.

I’ve heard authors say the covers of their books had nothing to do with the contents, and they had to push back also. And I should have known the importance and argued even more in those earlyyears, because my first job was shelving books in a public library and I knew what caught my attention even back then. They called us pages, funny on several different levels, but I always noticed covers as they came through and still recall several novels I read, because the art was so good.

Then there were those earlier years, when I bought books off the spinning rack in the drugstore, or at a tiny independent bookstore near my house for sixty cents. It was always the cover that caught my attention, then I’d read the back.

It’s the same today, and due to reduced shelf space, many times only the spine is exposed. Whenever a book is placed outward, the dust jacket will either catch someone’s attention, or fade into the background.

I didn’t buy the first edition of Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, when it released in 1985, because I didn’t like the jacket. People told me how great that novel was, and I finally bought it, despite my original revulsion at the depiction of a cattle drive.

When Florida Roadkill, by Tim Dorsey, released in 1999, I snatched it off the shelf and have been a fan of his work ever since.

Which leads me to another important part of marketing. The title. There’s always a lively discussion at my house whenever I’m coming up with what to call the latest work in progress. With the help of my Bride, we hit upon something that works for us, but doesn’t always tap the button at the publishing house.

More discussions ensue. For example, my first traditional western will release on April 23, 2024 under the title of The Journey South. The working title was Hostile Territory, which I loved. However, my editor called to say they’d already assigned that one to another author.

“Blankety Blank already has that title.”

“But I like it. My book takes place in the Indian territories. It’s perfect.”

“You’re right. It was perfect, for Blank’s book.”“

But I want it.”

“Your character’s taking a prisoner south from the territories to Texas.”

Going South?”

“A movie that starred Jack Nicholson.”


We cussed and discussed ideas until settling on the new one. Then they sent their concept and I agreed.

The Only Saloon in Town is in the can and I’m waiting on the cover art. It’s kinda nail biting, because I already have an image in my head that won’t be anything like their art department comes up with,but that’s half the fun of this job.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.





Reader – Writer – Friday, The Sacrifice Fly

Allow me to use a sports analogy for today’s post. And, if you suffered through watching football games all day yesterday, let me apologize and reassure you that today’s analogy is from baseball.

A sacrifice fly occurs when a batter hits a fly-ball to the outfield or foul territory that allows a runner to score. If the ball is caught by the outfielder, the batter is out, but he has sacrificed his opportunity for a hit (and his batting average) in exchange for the greater good of his team scoring a run.

Now to the writing side of the analogy: If you travel to a relative’s house for a holiday, or have family or friends for an extended stay at your house, it may be difficult to disappear for an hour or two to get in some daily writing. If grandkids are involved, you may need to coral the wild mustangs to prevent chaos and property damage, and that may require constant supervision. That’s the sacrifice.

Now, the greater good: Maybe you’ve discovered some ways to advance your writing, even if you can’t physically write. Has cousin Clifford given you an idea for a new character? Has Uncle Harold inspired a new villain? Has the travel (if you traveled) inspired a new setting? Has a particular dinner dish given you an idea for how to poison a character? You get the idea. These new ideas to advance your writing are the greater good.

So, the questions:

  • What ways have you devised for advancing your writing when you can’t write?
  • What ideas come to mind now for hitting a sacrifice fly for your writing?
  • How do you record your ideas until you are back in your writing space?

True Crime Thursday – Assault with a Deadly Turkey

by Debbie Burke


True Crime Thursday always falls on Thanksgiving Day. That gives me a great opportunity to search out crimes related to the holiday.

Here are the top six crimes committed on/around Thanksgiving:

  1. Domestic violence – Long-simmering family tensions, often combined with alcohol, can turn violent, like this case of a woman who stabbed her half-brother with a two-tined carving fork.
  2. Speeding and traffic offenses – Although the period between Christmas and New Year’s sees the most traffic, Thanksgiving comes in second with an estimated 55 million travelers on the road.
  3. Driving while under the influence – Binge drinking often starts on the appropriately named “Blackout Wednesday” and continues over the four-day weekend.
  4. Theft – Retail thefts and thefts from vehicles spike during the holidays but cargo theft also rises. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a particularly busy day for thieves because truck drivers often leave loads unattended while they go home for the holiday.
  5. Disorderly conduct – While most of us are eating the bird, some are flipping the bird, which could mean a charge of disorderly conduct in Texas.
  6. Vandalism – This crime category includes egging cars and houses, graffiti, breaking windows, stealing or destroying decorations, and other low-grade mischief most commonly committed by juveniles. Kids, please stay home and have another piece of pie instead.

In case your turkey doesn’t thaw in time to cook, here’s a great alternate use for a frozen bird:

In 2008 in North Carolina, a man stole money from a gas station then assaulted a woman while trying to jack her car. A Good Samaritan grabbed a frozen turkey from the woman’s groceries and clobbered the attacker on the head several times. The attacker fled with the woman’s car and crashed into several vehicles. He was later arrested, treated at a hospital for serious head injuries, and charged with numerous felonies.

To wrap up on a positive note, here’s a photo of volunteers working to ensure a Happy Thanksgiving for service members during the annual Turkey Drop at Fort Lewis McChord Air Force base in Washington.

Annual Volunteer Turkey Drop
Photo credit: Joint Base Lewis McChord

Hope your Thanksgiving is crime-free!

TKZers: What are you thankful for?

I give thanks for TKZ’s community that generously shares their knowledge to help other writers!


A Very Happy Thanksgiving

A Very Happy Thanksgiving
Terry Odell

Thanksgiving turkeyTomorrow is Thanksgiving. In our household, most of the traditions have revolved around the food. For us, this year will be different. Not quite as different as the pandemic made it, but our son is going to spend the holiday with his girlfriend’s family. Daughter #1 lives in Northern Ireland and she’ll do her own thing with friends there. She’s been teaching them a lot about our traditions. Daughter #2 opted to go back to school in North Carolina for her doctorate (two masters degrees weren’t enough, apparently), and will be celebrating with her husband’s kids and their kids, who live nearby.

Which leaves me, the Hubster, and our son-in-law. What will we do? What we do any year there aren’t enough people around. We eat out. The food’s great (it’s our backup plan restaurant), there’s no prep or cleanup. No leftovers, either, but we can work around that. We’re leaving the country in ten days, so that’s all right with us. Some “off” years, I’ve picked up a turkey on the ‘day after Thanksgiving sales’ and cooked that just to have it. Not this year, I don’t think.

If you are cooking the traditional bird, here’s a turkey tip from my chef brother that’s served us well for decades. No matter your “recipe” for the bird (unless you deep fry), start the cooking at 450 degrees (or 425 if it’s 16 pounds or more). After 30 minutes, lower the temp to 350 (or 325). Continue to cycle the temp up and down like that every 30 minutes. This moves the juices up and down inside the turkey, and even the leftovers are juicy.

A tradition of ours is listening to “Alice’s Restaurant.”

And here’s an interesting article – Arlo Guthrie’s thoughts on the 50 year anniversary tour of Alice’s Restaurant.

We’re in the midst of some tough times. Let’s hope for peace on this day of giving thanks. We should all take a moment to find something to give thanks for.

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Dead Right – Guest Post by Dr. Betty Kuffel

by Debbie Burke


Dr. Betty Kuffel

In 2004, a small plane carrying Dr. Betty Kuffel, her husband, and their dog crashed into a remote, snowy Idaho mountain, leaving her leg crushed and dangling with bones exposed.

Where most people would be consumed by helpless panic, Betty stayed calm.

With her husband trapped in the inverted cockpit and the frightened dog circling the wreckage, Betty eased herself through the broken windshield to the icy ground.

She used the radio headset and wires to align her multiple fractures and tied the wires to hold the leg in place.

Yeah, she set her own broken leg.

Yeah, she’s Superwoman.

(Happy ending—all were rescued and survived.)

This example is one of many reasons why Betty has been my trusted medical advisor, critique partner, and dear friend for 30 years. Today, I’m happy to welcome her to TKZ with her guest post entitled:

Death and Dying for Authors

I had a plan for killing someone in one of my novels and wanted to make the death look natural with no discernible cause even with detailed postmortem forensics. To validate my plan, I called a forensic pathologist friend and said, “Dale, I want to kill someone, and I need your help.” He laughed, listened to my scenario, and confirmed my plan was correct. The cause of death would be indeterminate.

Writing accurate medical scenes is as important in fiction as it is in nonfiction. You can’t “just make it up” and make it believable. Research may save you from deadly reviews. Some experts may initially be taken aback by your questions but, in my experience, they love to help.

My background is ER medicine, wilderness hiking, climbing, dog sled racing and flying, which provided personal exposure to gruesome injuries and medical emergencies. Writing some scenes is easy because I’ve observed emotional reactions of patients and families affected by a heart attack, severe trauma from violence, gunshot wounds, and even bear mauling victims. But many writers may not have that firsthand experience.

Understanding “normal” body functions as a baseline is a great help to writers when designing a health-related scene.

First, identify your goal. Are you looking for a health challenge for your character to make him unique, a chronic disease perhaps? Or does your storyline require something acute, painful, or disfiguring? Or is this a climactic scene of violence and death?

To write the end, you need the beginning.

Basics of Life:  Average adult vital signs are a blood pressure of 120/80, heart rate of 70 beats per minute, respiratory rate of 15 times per minute, and temperature 98.6 F. Blood volume: 5 liters for about a 150-pound person. At a heartrate of 70/minute with a stroke volume of 70 ml (volume pumped with each beat) = 4,900 ml ~ 5 liters. This means the entire blood volume is pumped each minute.

Basics of Death: There is wide variation in vital signs with normal activity. With smart watches and wrist exercise monitors, most writers know exercise or stress change the baseline measurements. Running up a flight of stairs will spike both heart rate and blood pressure, but they normalize with a few minutes of rest. What if they don’t normalize? How long will it take to die without oxygen, or to bleed out? You need to know some details to write an accurate life and death scenario.

Having norms in mind for comparison, you are ready to alter them to your character’s detriment and your scene’s enhancement.

It’s time to create a crisis involving (A) the airway, (B) breathing, (C) cardiac function or (N) Neuro/Brain function.

Anyone who has taken a CPR class knows these ABCs. Interruption of airway, breathing or heart function can create a crisis. Brain injury can maim or kill. So, what do you need in your scene?

A Few ABC Scenarios

Airway and Breathing:

Airway obstruction using a ligature around the neck takes moments to interrupt blood flow to the brain and cause loss of consciousness: if not released, it causes death. It’s silent and fast. A shoelace, cable ties, fish line or luxurious silk scarf will do.

The scene can start calmly but quickly change to deadly, requiring immediate interventions to save a life. During a romantic candlelight dinner in an elegant restaurant, choking causes chaos in public and brings paramedics to the scene. Is it an unexpected aspiration of a bite of steak that occludes the airway? Or did the perpetrator know about the victim’s deadly allergy to penicillin and slipped it into their food, causing death from airway swelling and hypotension?

A penicillin-sensitive person who has intercourse with someone who has taken penicillin can result in anaphylaxis and death. The lover with that knowledge can turn a romantic interlude into murder.

Drug overdoses, sedatives (ex. Valium, Ativan, Xanax) and opiates (ex. heroin, fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone), slow respiratory rate, leading to unconsciousness, airway compromise, and death. The drug Narcan (naloxone) can be given as a nasal spray or injected, reversing opioid effects within minutes. So, from unconsciousness and near death, a victim can become alert and fighting medics.

However, Narcan does not reverse the effects of sedatives.

Rapid breathing of 40 times a minute or more can be caused by a collapsed lung, chronic lung disease with failure, asthma, fright and panic attacks. All have unique causes and need interventions to control the symptoms. Some are scary but not fatal. Others are life threatening. Symptoms with impending death include rapid breathing with gasping, holding the chest or throat, being unable to speak. Skin may be mottled and bluish followed by unconsciousness.

Blood Pressure

Lowering blood pressure is an easy way to cause loss of consciousness due to reduced blood flow to the brain. Without reversal this will be fatal.

Hemorrhagic shock can result from a stabbing or gunshot wound. How long will it take to bleed out?

Hemorrhagic shock is determined by volume lost. A blood donation is Class I shock. Class II is 750-1500 ml and is initially treated with high volume IV saline, but as loss progresses fluids and blood must be pumped in. Class IV occurs when 40% of blood is lost. Unless blood loss is stopped and high-volume blood is transfused, loss of consciousness occurs. The pulse becomes rapid, then fades as the blood pressure drops into the 70s. The skin pales, pupils dilate, and the heart stops.

Here’s another way to reduce blood pressure:

The victim takes an erectile dysfunction drug like Cialis and the killer slips a few nitroglycerin tablets into his wine. He loses consciousness during intercourse because this deadly combination results in irreversible low blood pressure, shock and death. Who would know but the perpetrator?

Heart Function

A cardiac arrest means the heart stopped beating. This can result for many reasons. It is not a “cause of death.” Even young healthy athletes drop dead, but the most common cause of sudden death is narrowing of the coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood.

Heart muscle cells become unstable with lack of adequate oxygenated blood. The irritability results in loss of an organized rhythm and no contractions to pump the blood. CPR with external compressions of the chest and rapid use of an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) can save lives which is why AEDs are available in public venues like malls, airplanes, and football fields.

Cardiac arrest is the most likely scenario to result in death or brain injury due to lack of oxygen.

What does sudden death look like?

No matter what the cause–a blow to the chest or a heart attack from cholesterol narrowing of a heart artery–when the heart stops, symptom onset is abrupt and often follows this pattern: Slump, fall, with rapid total muscle relaxation; a generalized seizure due to lack of brain oxygen; mouth and eyes may be partially open; no pulse; no breathing; skin, pale, then lips and nailbeds turn blue; no movement; pupils dilate widely, fish-eyes.

Rapid Ways to Kill

A few drugs that work rapidly are easily available in medical facilities, veterinary clinics, and ambulances: Succinylcholine is a paralytic. Potassium intravenous stops the heart. Nitroglycerine overdose under the tongue drops blood pressure. Intravenous insulin overdose results in unconsciousness and death.

Drug or alcohol intoxication and exposure to cold that causes hypothermia hasten death.

Strangulation with hands or a ligature is close, personal, fast and quiet.

Slashing through neck vessels and trachea results in airway interruption and rapid hemorrhagic death.

Ways to do research:

Interview experts such as physicians and even morticians.

Google reputable sites such as universities and NIH.

Consider going on ambulance and police ride-alongs for firsthand information.


A writer doesn’t need to include too many details or the story risks sounding like a textbook. Choose the means of death, then incorporate enough information to be accurate but not overwhelming. 


Betty, you “killed it “with that comprehensive overview. Thanks for sharing your extensive knowledge! 


TKZers: Does this post help you write about dying and death? Will the information alter how you commit fictional crimes?


Dr. Betty Kuffel is a retired ER physician who lives in Montana. Medical and wilderness experiences, flying, dog sled racing in Alaska, and surviving a plane crash in the mountains of Idaho fuel her writing. She writes across genres, including a medical thriller series and True Crime.


Something To Do …

This season of Thanksgiving calls to mind a quote by the 18th-century Scottish writer Alexander Chalmers:

“The three grand essentials of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”

For those of us who write, we can be grateful that the “something to do” part of that is pretty well covered.

* * *

Every now and then, a friend will stop by our home and venture into my office. They’re usually surprised at what they find there. Books are standing or lying on bookshelves in some kind of semi-organized chaos, and the three-door closet is covered with Post-it notes I’m using to plot my next book.

The desk is a riot of papers, laptops, to-do lists, notes, and more books. Whiteboards lean against walls that are covered with pictures and papers, and the back of the office door has more lists taped to it.

Invariably, someone will ask, “How do you get everything done?” The answer is simple: I don’t.

One of life’s greatest blessings is, I think, to have more to do than one can possibly get done. I’m happy to tell the story I’m working on as well as I can, aware that there are many more in the future. I’m like a kid in a magnificent toy store, captivated by the puzzle I’m trying to put together and excited by the endless supply of new and shiny artifacts yet to be tackled. I am so grateful, and I’m reminded of another wonderful and timely quote, this one by a 13th-century theologian:

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” –Meister Eckhart.

* * *

So, TKZers: Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for all the wisdom shared here over the past year!

Do you have more to do than you can ever accomplish? What things in your writing life are you grateful for?

I’ll be traveling today, but I’ll check in whenever I can to respond to comments.

* * *


Private pilot Cassie Deakin has something to do: find the culprits who assaulted her beloved uncle. But can she accomplish her mission before she becomes the next victim?  Buy it here.