Reader Friday: Share a 2020 Victory

Success comes in many forms. No two writers view success in the same way. Sure, if we’ve had a film adaptation of our novel, then I think we can all agree that’s a success story.

That said, I’m a big believer in celebrating small victories along the road to success (whatever that means to YOU). Celebrating smaller victories helps to keep us focused, grounded, and moving forward in a positive way.

Please share one victory for 2020. I know it hasn’t been an easy year, but that’s why it’s more important than ever to celebrate each new hurdle you’ve jumped. A victory can be anything, from completing a manuscript to hiking a mountain for inspiration to a successful virtual book signing to Hollywood knocking at your door.

Let us celebrate your success!


True Crime Thursday – Police Stop

Photo credit: dwights ghost, wikimedia creative commons

By Debbie Burke



Today’s True Crime tale is set in Detroit, dateline 2009. This three minute video chronicles a harrowing police stop with charges that include speeding, grand theft auto, and murder.

As a bonus, it offers a master class in storytelling by author Dan Yashinsky of Toronto.

Here’s Dan!


TKZers: Did you learn any techniques from Dan’s video to use in your own work?




Last day for introductory price of $.99 for Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff. Here’s the buy link.


Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light
Terry Odell

Light and Color

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Light is important when we’re writing—and I’m not talking about having enough light to work by. I’m talking about how much we can describe in our scenes. One of my critique partners questioned a bit I’d written (yes, it’s from one of my romantic suspense books).

She stepped inside and closed the door behind them. Placing her forefinger over her lips, she shook her head before he could speak. She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. Then walked her fingers to the second, sliding the disc through the slit in the fabric. Then to the third, then the next, until she’d laid the plaid flannel open, revealing the tight-fitting black tee she’d seen at the pond this morning when he’d given her the shirt off his back.

His comment: “It’s night. Do you need to show one of them turning on a light?” Maybe. More on that in a minute.

In a book I read some years back, the author had made a point of a total power failure on a moonless night. There was no source of light, and the pitch-blackness of the scene was a way for the hero and heroine to have to get “closer” since they couldn’t see.

It didn’t take long for them to end up in bed, but somehow, he was able to see the color of her eyes as they made love. I don’t know whether the author had forgotten she’d set up the scene to have no light, or if she didn’t do her own verifying of what you can and can’t see in total darkness. Yes, our eyes will adapt to dim light, but there has to be some source of light for them to send images to the brain. If you’ve ever taken a cave tour, you’ll know there’s no adapting to total darkness.

In the case of the paragraph I’d written, the character had seen the man’s clothes earlier that day, so she’d probably remember the colors, especially since the tee was black. And you’ll note, I didn’t say “red and green plaid shirt.”

I won’t delve too deeply into biology, but our retinas are lined with rods and cones. Rods function in dim light, but can’t detect color; cones need more light, but they can “see” color. (All the “seeing” is done in the brain, not the eyes.)

We want to describe our scenes, we want our readers to ‘see’ everything, but we have to remember to keep it real. This might mean doing some personal testing—when you wake up before it’s fully light, check to see how much you can actually ‘see’. The ability to see color drops off quickly. So even if you see your hands, or the chair across the room, or the picture on the wall, how much light do you need before you can leave the realm of black and white? What colors do you see first? When it gets dark, what colors drop off first. Divers are probably aware of the way certain colors are no longer detectable as they descend.

Here’s a video showing what happens.

And another quick aside about seeing color. Blue is focused on the front of the retina, red farther back. This makes it very hard for the brain to create an image where both colors are in focus. It’s hard on the eyes. For that reason, it’s probably not wise to have a book cover with red text on a blue background, or vice-versa. You can look up chromostereopsis if you like scientific explanations. For me, I’m fine with “don’t do that because it’s hard to read.”

How do you deal with light and color in your books? Any examples of when it’s done well? How about not well?

Heather's ChaseI’m pleased to announce that my upcoming Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available for preorder at most e-book channels.

(If you’d like to see some of the pictures I took on my trip, many of which appear in the book, click on the book title above and scroll down to “Special Features.”)

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


The Power of Poignancy

Old Yeller movie poster, public domain

By Debbie Burke


Recently I read an article by Daniel Pink in the Saturday Evening Post extracted from his bestselling book WHEN—The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. According to various studies he cited, people like happy endings in books and films. No surprise there, especially in the current troubling times. Happily Ever After (HEA) in fiction fulfills a deep human longing because most of us wish for that in our real lives.

But the main point of Dan’s article was, while happy endings are good, the most resonant, memorable endings have sadness connected to them. The addition of bittersweet adds an important layer of emotional complexity beyond mere joy. He writes:

“The most powerful endings deliver poignancy because poignancy delivers significance. Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it.”

The power of poignancy is why the endings of some stories stick with us for years, while other HEAs disappear from mind as soon as we close the book.

Dan’s article started me thinking about which books and movies still resonate in my memory years later.

Warning: spoiler alerts ahead.

I saw Old Yeller when the movie came out in 1957. A couple of times since then, I watched it but stopped before the climax (warning: grab a box of tissues before clicking this link). That scene remained seared in my mind. I didn’t want to start weeping again.

A boy, Travis, and his dog share an unbreakable bond until Old Yeller is bitten by a rabid wolf while saving the boy’s life. When Old Yeller is infected, Travis must shoot his dearest friend to keep him from suffering. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done and may well be the hardest thing he’ll ever face in his entire life.

To soften the blow, the movie wraps up when Travis bonds with a new puppy from a litter sired by Old Yeller.

Consider this alternate ending: What if Old Yeller still saved Travis from the rabid wolf but walked away unscathed? Travis and Old Yeller trot off into the sunset, trailed by Yeller’s adorable puppies? Pure HEA, right?

Would the story still evoke the strong feelings it does more than six decades after I first saw it and bawled my eyes out? Probably not.

Charlotte’s Web had the same emotional power. Additionally, the first line is one of the greats in literature:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said.

Charlotte the spider dies after saving Wilbur the pig’s life and making him famous. The blow of her death is tempered because she left behind generations of children and grandchildren to keep Wilbur company for the rest of his days.

Alternate ending: What if Charlotte didn’t die but continued her friendship with Wilbur until, one peaceful night, they both passed away from old age? Would the ending be as memorable? Nah.

Witness (1985) with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis is not only a cracking good thriller but also a love story. Philadelphia detective John Book must protect Samuel, a young Amish boy who witnesses a cop’s murder.  In the process, Book falls in love with the boy’s mother, Rachel. In the climax, the villains are thwarted and Samuel is safe. Mission accomplished. But Book must leave Rachel because, despite their love, he could never fit in her world and she could never fit in his.

Alternate ending: Book stays with Rachel in the idyllic Amish community and they share a blissful, if improbable, life together.

If screenwriter Earl Wallace had opted for the HEA above, would he have won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? I doubt it.

Photo Credit: Edgar Brau, Creative Commons

Perhaps the most famous bittersweet ending in film is Casablanca. Rick gives up the woman he loves and watches Ilsa walk away with her husband, not because Rick wants to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Alternate ending: Ilsa tells Victor Laszlo to go back his resistance work without her and she and Rick share a passionate kiss in his saloon while Dooley Wilson reprises “As Time Goes By.” 

With that HEA, would Casablanca have become an icon in movie history? Unlikely.

The examples cited above are all legendary. As authors, we can aspire to that status but most of us are happy if readers enjoy our stories, remember them, and want to buy more.

Mickey Spillane, who sold 225 million books in his career, famously said,

“Your first line sells the book. Your last line sells the next book.”

How does an author make endings satisfying and memorable enough to convert a reader into an avid fan who wants more? One way is to inject poignancy.

Here are several tools to help you add the bittersweet component.

The Wound: The hero ends up damaged. The wound doesn’t have to be physical; it can also be emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

During the journey, the hero suffers greatly. By the end, she is triumphant in achieving her goal, vanquishing the foe, solving the mystery, or righting the wrong. That’s the HEA part.

But her success comes with a cost.

She may have lasting effects from a bullet wound, PTSD from emotional and psychological wounds, or undergo a spiritual crisis when the belief or value system she’s always depended on collapses.

The wound can happen to another character, someone she cares deeply for. That loved one’s pain or death causes her to question if her success was worth it.

Disappointment: The hero may have worked his butt off to attain his desire but, once reached, he learns it’s not what he really wanted after all. Wiser after his journey, he must let go of his dream. The HEA can spring from his epiphany that there is a different, sometimes better, reward than the one he originally sought.

Sacrifice: The hero prevails but must give up someone she cherishes. She does the right thing at great personal loss to herself. The HEA stems from her satisfaction that her loved one is happy or safe.

Can you think of other tools to achieve poignancy? Please share them in the comments.

When an author successfully balances bitter and sweet, the reader feels the resonance to their core. In fiction and in life, there is no sweet without the bitter. 

By tempering a happy ending with sorrow, joy may emerge as the dominant emotion but the complex feelings you evoke in a reader make the story more memorable and lasting than one that only taps into happiness.

Dan Pink concludes by saying:

“Endings can help us elevate—not through the simple pursuit of happiness but through the more complex power of poignancy. Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”


TKZers: Please share examples of your favorite endings in books or films and why they stuck with you.

What techniques do you use to inject poignancy into your work?




A high-stakes gamble. The winner lives. The loser dies.

Please check out Dead Man’s Bluff, Debbie Burke’s new thriller here. 


Parsley Poop – The Cozy Writer and the Conundrum of Keeping It Clean

Today, I’m delighted my pal, multiple-Agatha winner Leslie Budewitz, stopped by to visit. Leslie and I are often found in Montana cafes, noshing pastries while plotting someone’s demise. In this guest post, Leslie discusses how cozy authors can avoid explicit language but still have fun playing with words. Welcome, Leslie!

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

A recent thread on the Short Mystery Fiction Society discussion list on language—captioned ”Swearing Bad, Murder Good”—prompted me to talk to myself, on my morning walks, about why cozy mystery authors work hard to keep our language clean. You weren’t there that day, so thanks to Debbie Burke for inviting me to share some of my thoughts here.

First, what is a cozy? It’s a subset of the traditional mystery, which itself has quite a range, from the lightest of cozies (Krista Davis, Laura Childs) to historicals (Victoria Thompson, Rhys Bowen) to more psychological drama (Lori Rader-Day, Laura Lippman, Hank Phillippi Ryan). Generally, there is no graphic or gratuitous sex or violence. The killer and victim often know each other, or at least come from the same wider community; these are not stories of serial killers who prey on a certain type of victim or anonymous bombers wreaking havoc on marathon runners and those gathered to cheer them on. Typically, the traditional mystery involves an amateur sleuth, though there are exceptions; Louise Penny’s books are considered traditional mysteries though Gamache and his crew are police officers, aided by locals.

Reading a cozy is a walk on the light side. Think Jessica Fletcher and Murder She Wrote, or Midsomer Murders. The cozy is the comfort food of mystery world, and who doesn’t love a little mac and cheese now and then?

The murder is the trigger, the inciting incident, while the other characters’ response is the story. A bit of an oversimplification, and it’s crucial, in my opinion, to make sure we get to know and care about the victim, and to show how the murder disrupts the community. The estimable Carolyn Hart asks what’s more uncomfortable than murder in a small town where everyone is affected? And she’s absolutely right, though the same is equally true of urban cozies, which focus on a community within a community.

Ultimately, the cozy is about community. The sleuth, usually a woman, is driven to investigate because of her personal stakes. She wants justice, for the individuals and for the community. The professional investigators—law enforcement—restore the external order by making an arrest and prosecuting, but it’s up to the amateur to restore internal order, the social order, within the community. (I could go on about the elements of a cozy. Another time.)

So, what about the language?

Cozies tend toward clean language. SMFS members have pointed out the contradiction in readers who accept murder but dislike cursing or vulgar language. It is a contradiction, a bit. But then again, it isn’t. Murder happens in all social strata—among drug dealers and religious zealots. The murder in a cozy is typically off-stage; we don’t see the blood and gore—a character might, but she isn’t going to describe it for us.

Nor are most cozy settings and scenarios places where you’d expect swearing. Most of us, even if we cut loose now and then, watch our language at a street fair, in a tea shop, at a community theater rehearsal or on a tour boat headed to a clam bake. We might be freer of tongue at home or with close friends, but we know when to watch our language. So do cozy characters.

Who are the characters? Does the language fit them?

A frequent criticism by other writers about deliberately clean language is that it isn’t realistic, that a mobster won’t say “gosh, darn it” or “oh, firetruck.”

Nope, he sure as sugar wouldn’t.

But it goes both ways. Reality isn’t one size. Some people choose not to swear, from personal preference, out of moral or religious conviction, or for other reasons. TV broadcasters train themselves not to swear in private because one accidental “f*ck this sh*t” on the nightly news could cost them their jobs. (Credit for that insight goes to Hank Phillipi Ryan, a TV reporter who writes about them.) Retail shop owners, with some exceptions, watch what they say on the shop floor because most customers don’t want to be surrounded by curse words when shopping, especially if their kids are with them. I gave one of my series protagonists the word “criminy,” borrowed from a former legal secretary who chose it as her dastardly expression when she taught kindergarten; I doubt she knew it’s a contraction of “Christ Almighty,” but the word has long slipped the bonds of its blasphemic origins.

A sleuth who runs a bookstore or bakery and is investigating to right a wrong and restore the social order of the community she loves is not going to suddenly open her mouth and make sailors blush. “I swore under my breath” or “I’d never heard David swear before” makes the point just fine.

Tone matters.

Cozies often involve humor, as the titles make plain. Crime Rib, Assault and Pepper, Chai Another Day are a few of mine. The word play continues as a Spice Shop owner named Pepper says “parsley poop” when she learns a troublesome fact or calls an annoying customer a pain in the anise. The creativity fits and it’s fun.

But what about the killer? They aren’t all little old ladies wielding knitting needles.

No, they aren’t.

In traditional mysteries, including cozies, the killers are often opportunistic, motivated by emotion and injustice. They may strike out in the spur of the moment. Some act from the conviction that the victim needed killing. Others plot and plan, though pure evil and psychosis are the exception, not the norm. Still, planning a murder doesn’t necessarily equate to a potty mouth. With some exceptions, cozy killers come from the same community as the rest of the characters. They run bars and restaurants, work as TV cameramen, winemakers, and veterinarians, collect movie memorabilia, captain tour boats, and drink good coffee.

Many cozies are written in first person. We see the killer through the protagonist’s lens, although of course, they speak their own truth, sometimes spelled with four letters. When and where killer and sleuth meet might affect the language, too. For example, in one of my books, we first see the killer at a memorial service held in an upscale art gallery, where mourners are wearing linen and silk and sipping sparkling rosé. Not a crowd or a place for vulgarity—though if it did erupt, we might have a sudden silence, followed by a hubbub as the offender is escorted from the scene, all good action for a cozy. Later in the same book, we see the killer prowling around a darkened antique store, aiming to confront and stop my sleuth. The dialogue is limited, as they taunt each other while trying not to give away their locations. Swearing could happen; it doesn’t.

In my latest book, the killer and my first person narrator see each other several times, but only meet face-to-face once, outside a hospital. Again, it’s a place where swearing could happen, but isn’t essential—this isn’t the docks in the dark of night, and their conversation is a battle of wits. The protagonist, a spice shop owner, has no objection to swearing, but rough language isn’t going to help her tease out the killer’s motives or get him to feed her the info she needs to break his alibi. Vulgarity isn’t going to help him convince this pesky woman that he’s the wronged party, that he only did what anyone in his position might have done.

Last, consider the audience.

Cozy readers may be young teens, old ladies, and anyone in between. They are reading to meet the characters, get to know a place, eat good food, and learn about the subject of the book. They are there to see justice done and community restored. Why make them uncomfortable without good reason?

Language affects tone and characterization; it reflects plot and theme; it contributes to setting. If a well-placed “f*ck” or “sh*t” would advance any of those without pulling the reader out of the story, go ahead. Use it. Swearing is just another tool in your writer’s box. But in the well-written cozy, you won’t have to.


Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries, set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. The Solace of Bay Leaves, her fifth Spice Shop Mystery, is out now in ebook and audio; paperback coming in October 2020. Leslie is the winner of three Agatha Awards2013 Best First Novel for Death Al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery; 2011 Best Nonfiction, and 2018 Best Short Story, for “All God’s Sparrows,” her first historical fiction. Her work has also won or been nominated for Derringer, Anthony, and Macavity awards. A past president of Sisters in Crime and a current board member of Mystery Writers of America, she lives and cooks in NW Montana.

Find her online at and on Facebook at

Pepper Reece never expected to find her life’s passion in running the Seattle Spice Shop. But when evidence links a friend’s shooting to an unsolved murder, her own regrets surface. Can she uncover the truth and protect those she loves, before the deadly danger boils over?



More about The Solace of Bay Leaves, including an excerpt and buy links here:


Do a Best Day and Worst Day For Your Characters

by James Scott Bell

Back when I was first learning how to write fiction, I concentrated on plot and structure. These were the parts of the craft that were most mysterious to me. I had no idea how the writers I enjoyed came up with twisting, turning plots that held delightful surprises and satisfying endings. I thought they just sat down and started typing, and therefore had an inner genius I lacked. I’d been told as much in college: “You don’t have any inner genius, Mr. Bell.” Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but it was implied. I was certainly told I couldn’t learn how to write great fiction. You either have it or you don’t, they said.

I apparently didn’t have it. So I went into a much more stable profession—acting. Then I got married (see last week’s post) and decided a steady income was actually a good thing, so I went to law school.

Some years later I saw Moonstruck and had to find out if I could, after all, learn to write.

It took me a year of study to get a handle on structure. During that year I was concentrating on screenwriting. My primary text was Syd Field’s Screenplay. I still remember the joy I felt when I finally started to see what was going on structurally, and then added to the mix my formulation of the “doorways of no return.”

So I wrote a screenplay (my fourth or fifth effort) based on what I learned. An up-and-coming Hollywood agent consented to read it.

I sent it to her.

And vividly remember the phone call. She told me the plot was good, but the script didn’t do it for her, because “the characters don’t jump off the page.”

After retrieving my heart from my shoes, I sat back and thought about her comment. Intuitively, I understood. After all, the movie that re-awakened my desire to write, Moonstruck, is full of characters who “jump off” the screen. Even the minor ones.

That’s what was missing in my screenplays.

So began another course of study to figure out characterization.

As usual, I got some craft books and re-read a few favorite novels with great characters. I studied and practiced and, lo and behold, landed a book contract. After a few years I began teaching workshops and writing my own books on the craft.

Here’s the new one: Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page. (See below for pre-order info).

I’ve included a number of my workshop exercises in the book. One of my favorites is “Best Day, Worst Day.” I got this idea from the hit comedy City Slickers. Remember? Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby play three friends: Mitch, Phil and Ed. They are almost 40 years old and have come to a point where they look at their lives and think, Is this is as good as it’s ever going to get? Mitch is stuck in a job he hates. Phil is stuck in a terrible marriage. And Ed is stuck in a macho image hiding his insecurities.

So the three decide to get away from it all and go out West for a “real” cattle drive. They join with a few other tourists. And then meet the tough trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning turn).

The superb script (by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) is an example of what I call “orchestration.” You cast your characters so they are different enough from each other that conflict can naturally occur. This is especially important for your allies (characters on the same team).

At one point the three friends are riding along, and Mitch tells about the best day of his life (his father taking him to Yankee Stadium for the first time) and his worst day (the day a lump was found in his wife’s breast). Then:

Phil: All right, I got one. My best day—

Ed: This isn’t the one about Arlene and that loose step, is it?

Phil: No, my wedding day.

Mitch: What!

Phil: Yeah, remember that day? Outdoor wedding. Arlene looked great. Those water pills really worked. You guys were all smiling at me, and my dad, in the front, gives me a little wink, you know? I mean, he’s not the warmest of men, but he winked. I was the first one of us to get married and have a real job and I remember thinking, I’m grown up, you know? I’m not a goofball anymore. I made it. I felt like a man. That was the best day of my life.

Ed: What was your worst day?

Phil: Every day since is a tie.

Then the question is asked of Ed, who at first refuses to answer. But then:

Ed: I’m fourteen and my mother and father are fighting again, you know, because she caught him again. Caught him! This time the girl drove by the house to pick him up. And I finally realized, he wasn’t just cheating on my mother, he was cheating us. So I told him, I said, “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you. I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you anymore.” And he made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. And he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

Phil: What was your worst day?

Ed: Same day.

That is just flat-out great dialogue. But for our purposes, it is also a fantastic exercise for deepening your characters before you render them on the page. The nice thing is you don’t have to put the material in your novel (though you certainly may). Just knowing it for yourself will automatically give you a better, more complex character. So brainstorm away, be ye plotter or pantser. You’ll be glad you did.

You’ll find more exercises like this in Writing Unforgettable Characters, which you can pre-order here:




A print version will be also be available soon.

Why don’t we play half this game today in the comments? What was one of your best days or favorite memories?


Historical Fiction in the Adirondacks

By Mark Alpert

Question: Which U.S. president was the most prolific writer?

Answer: Teddy Roosevelt.

Surprised? According to Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman, TR wrote 37 works of biography, history, and public policy, the most notable of which was his first book, The Naval War of 1812, which was published when Roosevelt was only 24. In the popular imagination, TR is remembered as a great adventurer, but he was also an inexhaustible writer.

My wife and I have a soft spot for Teddy. About 15 years ago we joined the Theodore Roosevelt Association. We visited his childhood home, a townhouse on East 20th Street in Manhattan. (The building is actually a reconstruction of the original home, which was demolished in 1916, but it’s decorated with many of the original furnishings.) We also toured Sagamore Hill, the beautiful Long Island mansion that was Roosevelt’s home for most of his adult life and served as the Summer White House when he was president. And we trekked across the North Dakota Badlands to see the site of the cattle ranch on the Little Missouri where Teddy sought solace after the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884.

We love TR because he was an ardent conservationist, and because he was such a big-hearted optimist. His best book, in our opinion, is Letters to Kermit, a collection of the letters Teddy wrote to his second-oldest son, who was away at boarding school when his father was president. While TR struggled with the greatest issues of his day, busting trusts and building navies and negotiating peace treaties, he still found time to write chatty letters to Kermit, sometimes adorning them with charming drawings of elk and horses.

Of course, love is complicated, and as we learned more about TR — by attending conferences with historians such as Douglas Brinkley and Candice Millard — we discovered that parts of his political philosophy weren’t so appealing. He was a bit too fond of war and conquest, and he had some noxious notions about “race suicide” and America’s destiny to dominate Asia and the Pacific. For this reason, I support the recent decision to take down the statue of TR in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Because this statue shows Teddy on horseback next to an African and a Native American walking alongside his horse, it highlights his imperialist and racist attitudes. All in all, though, he was a remarkable president who certainly deserves his hallowed place on Mount Rushmore.

What’s more, the story of TR’s life is fertile ground for historical fiction. Last week, my wife and I drove up to the Adirondacks for a weeklong vacation, and while we were there we paid a special visit to the starting point of Teddy’s Midnight Ride to the Presidency.

So let’s go back to September 1901. Let’s picture President William McKinley shaking hands with the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. A man with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief approaches; he’s an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, and his handkerchief hides a .32-caliber revolver. He shoots McKinley twice in the belly before being tackled by police detectives and onlookers.

McKinley is rushed to the hospital, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt hurries to Buffalo. But the operation to repair the gunshot wounds appears to be successful, and in the following days McKinley seems to get better. This is a great relief to many bigwigs in the Republican Party, who had encouraged Roosevelt to run as McKinley’s Vice President the year before partly because they’d wanted to stow him in a position where he would have no practical power. (TR greatly upset some of those bigwigs during his earlier stint as New York’s governor.)

Once it looked like McKinley would recover, Teddy — who could never sit still for very long — decided to go hiking in the Adirondacks. He went to a tiny village called Tahawus, which is also the Native American name for nearby Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York. (The name means “cloud-splitter.”) Roosevelt set off to climb Mt. Marcy with a few companions, while his second wife Edith and their children remained at the McNaughton Cottage in the village.

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, McKinley took a turn for the worse. Gangrene festered inside him. The president’s advisers sent a telegram to Tahawus, urging TR to return to Buffalo as quickly as possible, but the vice president was off the grid, camping somewhere in the High Peaks. A band of wilderness guides dashed into the woods to find him, firing their guns as they neared Mt. Marcy. Teddy heard the gunfire and guessed that someone was looking for him. After rendezvousing with the guides, he swiftly hiked down the mountain and reached the village of Tahawus long after nightfall. He couldn’t spend the night with his family at the McNaughton Cottage; instead, he embarked on a desperate 35-mile ride, traveling on muddy roads in horse-drawn buckboard wagons to the town of North Creek, the closest train station. He arrived there at 4:46 a.m. and learned that McKinley was dead. At some point during that midnight ride, TR had become president of the United States.

Today, Tahawus is an Adirondack ghost town. Nothing remains except a few abandoned blast furnaces (the area had been an iron-mining site in the mid-19th century) and the boarded-up McNaughton Cottage, which has been purchased by a preservation group that’s in the process of restoring it. After some poking around, my wife and I found the cottage (see photo above). We also hiked the same wilderness trail that TR used, passing the place where the Hudson River pours down from Henderson Lake (see photo below).

It was inspiring and gratifying to visit yet another place that was important to Teddy Roosevelt. Someday, maybe, I’ll write a piece of fiction that reimagines one of his adventures. But not yet. Even after all these years of studying his life, I feel like I’m still getting to know the man.


How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0

As a retired police officer and now starving artist writer, I pay attention to others who write true crime and crime fiction. I read (actually skim) more for craft than story because I’m still very much in the learning curve when it comes to writing. Like the investigation business, I think a writer never stops discovering new techniques and benefiting from mistakes. A regular flaw I see in reading some crime publications—the writer just doesn’t know how to speak cop.

Every vocation has its lingo. In my shadow life, I’m a ticket-holding marine captain. An old boat skipper. I know Sécurité, Pan-Pan, and Mayday-Mayday-Mayday. They’re common emergency calls in the airplane world, as well. Industries like film production have their unique terms like Rigger, Gaffer, and Abby Singer Shot. And the sex trade has… well…

I think that in writing convincing crime stories, whether true or false, it’s critical to get the cop-speak right—specific to the specific location (as variances exist). Part is not being scared to use to F-word because all cops and crooks swear. The trick is using it sparingly and not mimicking a realistic alcohol-fueled-end-of-the-night party at a truck loggers convention. Trust me. I’ve been to one.

Setting profanity aside, there are day-to-day conventions in police terminology. Some writers get it right. Some don’t. The difference is in research, connections, understanding locality, and personal experience. Here are the basics in how to speak cop. Version 1.0.

Radio Procedure – The Ten Code

I’ve never heard of an English-speaking police department that doesn’t use some sort of ten code on the radio. Some officers are so indoctrinated that they write tens in their reports. The reason for a ten code radio procedure is brevity. It’s not for secrecy. That’s a whole different matter with encrypted devices and mission-specific codes. Here are the most common ten codes that seem to be universal.

*Note – 10-Codes greatly vary between jurisdictions. These are the most common ones*

10-1 — Unable to copy

10-4 — Copy, Yes, Affirmative, Acknowledged

10-6 — Busy, Occupied, Tied-up

10-7 — Stopped, At scene, Out of vehicle

10-8 — Back in service, Available for calls

10-9 — Repeat, Say again, I didn’t understand

10-10 — Negative, No, It’s BS

10-12 — Stand by, Stop transmitting

10-19 — Return to, Go back

10-20 — Location

10-21 — Call by phone

10-22 — Disregard, Fuhgetaboutit

10-23 — Arrived at Scene

10-27 — Driver license info requested

10-28 — Vehicle plate info requested

10-29 — Check person/vehicle/article for wanted

10-33 — Emergency! Officer Down! Officer in Peril!

10-60 — Bathroom Break

10-61 — Coffee break

10-62 — Meal break

10-67 — Unauthorized listener present

10-68 — Returning to office (RTO)

10-69 — Breathalyzer operator required

10-100 — I have no f’n idea what you’re talking about

The Phonetic Alphabet

I see this screwed-up so often. Some attempts are quite creative. Amusing, if not hilarious. “Bob” for B is real common. So is “Dog” for D. But, I’ve heard “Banana” and “Dillybar”, and I’ve heard “Limmo” for L, “Monica” for M, and more “Nancy” than I can count. Then there’s “Sylvester-as-in-Stallone”, “Tattoo”, and “Ugly”. Here are the right phonetic alphabet radio calls (worldwide):

Note: Phonetic alphabet pronunciations vary in regions. These are the universal ones that international transportation uses.

A — Alpha

B — Bravo

C — Charlie

D — Delta

E — Echo

F — Fox or Foxtrot

G — Golf

H — Hotel

I — India

J — Juliet

K — Kilo

L — Lima

M — Mike

N — November (not Nancy)

O — Oscar (not October)

P — Papa (not Penny or Pork Chop)

Q — Quebec

R — Romeo

S — Sierra

T — Tango

U — Uniform

V — Victor

W — Whisky

X — X-ray

Y — Yankee

Z — Zulu

The Rank System

There are two main ranking systems in the western police world. One is the constabulary like used in British Commonwealth countries. The other is military which is common in U.S. jurisdictions. Both are top-down rankings where they start with an omniscient power that oversees minions. Here are typical organizational charts for the two structures.

Constabulary Commissioned Officers


Deputy and Assistant Commissioners



Constabulary Non-Commission Officers

Staff Sergeants




Military-Style Police Officers


Deputy Chiefs






Military-Style Police Rank & File


Detective Sergeant




General Cop Speak

I see a lot of crime books where the protagonist is a high ranking police officer like a DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) or a Precinct Captain. These sound good and powerful, but the reality in police investigations is the grunts do most of the work. Detectives, Beat-Officers, and Constables go out there and arrest suspects, interrogate them, and then get their butt roasted in court.

Commissioners are politicians and serve at the pleasure of their master. Superintendents, Sheriffs, and Inspectors are budget-driven paper-pushers. Most Staff Sergeants and Captains spend more time on HR matters than criminal overseeing. It’s the Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Corporals that supervise the police workhorses—the deputies, constables, and officers.

I could go on about cop-speak like surveillance terms. “R-Bender”. “Stale Green”. “Crowing”. “Taking Heat”. Or, administrative stuff that takes up most of the time. “Per-Form”. “C-264B”. And, “Leave Pass”.

Cop Speak Resource

I’m steering you to B. Adam Richardson. Adam is a still-serving detective with a Southern California Police Department. Adam can’t reveal his true name or actual location because of security reasons, but Adam runs two Facebook sites dedicated to helping crime writers get it right. Here’s the link to Writers Detective and his FB rules:

“There has been some discussion in this group about what the rules are. Since my day job is all about enforcing rules, I wanted to let this group grow on its own and develop its own feel without me having to create rules.

I have seen other groups that are nothing more than mean/cynical replies to honest questions and spammy book promos. I hate those.

For the most part, I have been quite happy that this has grown into a very supportive group. I want our atmosphere of support and the celebrating of writing milestones to continue.

Although I am the one that started this group, I don’t own this group. You do. The intended purpose of this group is for writers like you to find the law enforcement related answers you’re looking for. I try my best to keep up with the Q&A, but I can’t answer every question. The beauty of this group is leveraging the collective experience and/or research of the membership. So, allow me to clear something up:

Anyone can post a question or an answer in this group.

We have a wealth of collective knowledge and experience in here. I know our members include a former CSI tech, a criminal defense attorney, a former MP, a former Coroner, and a ton of crime-fiction writers with solid research into serial killers, forensic science, and criminal psychology. That’s just the members I know about and that doesn’t even include the cops in the group. You do not need to be a cop to answer questions in here.

Yes, the quality of the answers will vary. I want to recognize that everyone offering an answer is doing so to help a fellow writer and spark discussion.

Many have come to this group seeking answers from a cop’s perspective and we’ll continue to offer that. I fully admit that answers coming from a cop’s perspective aren’t always right either. (Just ask a defense attorney.)

Often, the reality of how things play out on the street is very different from how textbooks and courtroom testimony portray things. We (the cops in this group) do try our best to give you the truth of what we’ve seen and experienced. I just ask that you recognize that our answers may differ from what research into a subject indicates. Research, textbooks, and courtroom testimony often paint things in black and white, while reality is a blur of varying shades of gray. Recognizing these differences are key to identifying and capturing realism for your own stories.

Sure, there may be answers posted that are solely based upon what someone saw in an episode of Miami Vice or CSI…but I’d prefer to not censor answers, especially when the poster’s intention was to be helpful. It is up to you to figure out what is relevant, factual, and useful for your own writing projects.

I propose we start using our Like buttons to act like a Reddit/Quora style “up-vote” on best answers to a particular question.

There may be some debate over answers, but that is to be expected. We can all learn from civil discussions about the issues at hand. These debates happen in criminal justice all the time; it’s the very basis of our judicial process.   ~ Adam”

Adam R. also has a FB site at Writers Detective Bureau. Check out this link:

So, that’s it for How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0. Anyone interested in a more detailed post… Version 2.0 ?

— — —

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner. Now, Garry has re-invented himself as a writer with a based-on-true-crime series on cases he was involved in. Check out Garry Rodgers on his Amazon Author Page, Twitter, Facebook, and his website at DyingWords.

Garry’s newest book in the true crime series, On The Floor, will be out in mid-August 2020.


Firehouse Slang

By John Gilstrap

I might have mentioned a few dozen times in this space that I spent 15 years in the fire and rescue service, at a volunteer department that ran over 14,000 calls per year. My name is on thousands of those reports. I’ve been burned, shot at, and threatened by one very large knife. I ran two plane crashes, uncountable car crashes, delivered two babies and performed CPR hundreds of times. In the end, I saved more lives than I lost, and I never got paid a dime for any of it. That’s a point of pride to me.

Every line of work has its own vocabulary–rhetorical shortcuts that relay information that others might not understand, but mean very specific things to insiders. I thought I’d take you inside the firehouse for a peek at our peculiar dictionary. (Warning: Some of what follows is . . . insensitive. If you’ve never been an emergency responder, it might be hard to understand, but trust me when I say it is entirely possible to be compassionate and insensitive at the same time. Sometimes, the humor is the only good part of a really crappy day.)

Now, in no particular order . . .

FNG: The full pronunciation of effing new guy, aka rookie. Also known as a red hat, because in my jurisdiction, FNGs wore red helmets on the fireground. I wanted them to wear cowbells, but they refused. We also called them wheel chocks, even though real wheel chocks always knew what they were supposed to do, and they never did stupid stuff.

Blue flares: There is no such thing as a blue flare, but FNGs didn’t know that. It was always entertaining to send them over to the farthest-away fire station with orders to bring back a box of blue flares. Of course, when they arrived at the target station, those folks would have just given them away to another station, miles away of course. That fun could go on for hours. It was like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Smoke shifters (either left-handed or right-handed) could be used in lieu of blue flares.

Box o’ Rocks: The intellectual assessment of someone who, say, didn’t catch on to the blue flares gambit after two or three stations.

Ticks: The name paid firefighters used for volunteers, purportedly because we were annoying and always hanging around. The fact that said volunteers built the firehouse and purchased all of the rolling stock they rode on and furniture they sat in often went unacknowledged.

Squirrel: This one had at least two meanings. One was another derogatory term for volunteers, but another dealt with enthusiasm. To “squirrel a call” meant either to drive to the scene in your POV (privately owned vehicle) or to respond from the firehouse with a spare piece of fire apparatus.

Paid maids: In the early days, this was the volunteers’ term for paid personnel. Among their daily tasks was to clean the kitchen and the bathrooms. (No, the two sides of the house did not always get along.)

Big eye: Have you ever encountered a challenge that was so huge and so out of the ordinary that you kind of vapor locked and didn’t know what to do first? That’s the big eye. When the world is on fire or people are screaming for assistance, it’s a bad thing to get. FNGs get the big eye a LOT.

Fireground: The general term for the scene of any emergency involving fire and rescue apparatus. In my jurisdiction, the senior OIC (officer in charge) of the First due (see below) wagon (see below) was in overall charge of the fireground, while the senior aide (see below) on the ambulance was in charge of patient care.

OIC: Translates to officer in charge, but is not necessarily tied to rank. In my jurisdiction, the OIC of any piece of apparatus was the person in the shotgun seat (right-hand front seat). If, for example, a captain was driving, but a sergeant was in the seat, the sergeant would be in charge of the fireground. It was a great way to train up-and-coming officers.

Fireground Commander: For larger incidents, command would be passed to a chief officer. Chiefs were the senior officer of their respective fire departments, but they rarely commanded individual pieces of apparatus. Chiefs had their own buggies but rarely wrested command from the first due OIC. It was, however, customary for the OIC to offer command to the chief, who then decided whether or not to take it. To be relieved without first offering would be a slap in the face.

Bugles: Fire officer rank insignia. Lieutenants wear one bugle on their collar points. Captains wear two . . . chiefs of departments wear five.

Wagon: This has changed in many jurisdictions, but where I ran, every fire station housed two pumpers (what you think of when you think “firetruck”). The first one out the door on a call was the wagon, and the second was the engine. Together, both the wagon and engine were called an engine company. Thus, Wagon 14 or Engine 14 were individual vehicles. Engine Company 14 was two vehicles, and when they were on the road, it was time for the fire to be very scared.

Aide: The OIC of the ambulance.

First due: The area to which a department or a specialty vehicle (ladder truck, hazmat truck, etc.) is dispatched first. The next closest is second due, and so forth. In my jurisdiction, for a commercial alarm, the dispatch would sound something like this: “Box 1404 for the structure fire. Engine companies 14,13 and 2, Trucks 14 and 13, Squad 2, Ambulance 14.” The first number of the box number (in this case 14) indicates who’s first due, the second part is a rough idea of how far the call is from the station. (Fire station 14 sits in the center of box 1400. Ditto every other fire station.)

Smells and bells: I can’t begin to imagine the number of dispatches that started with “odor of smoke” or “fire alarm sounding.” These calls got the full boat (full alarm assignment–see below), rousted a bunch of people out of bed, and left the beleaguered first due engine company officer with a complex report to fill out.

Working fire (or a worker): A real fire with real flames. The opposite of smells and bells.

Second alarm (or third . . .): Different types of structures have different alarm assignments. In my jurisdiction, a single family house fire had an alarm assignment of two engine companies, a truck (ladder truck), a heavy squad (think rolling tool box with lots of cool toys) and an ambulance. At the top of the heap, the hospital had an alarm assignment of four engine companies, two trucks, two squads and (I think) three ambulances. When the fireground commander strikes a second alarm on a fire, he’s ordering up a duplication of the first alarm. Remember this when you hear about a four-alarm fire.

Special alarm: Say the fireground commander only wants one more engine company or one more truck. That would be a special alarm, not to be confused with an additional alarm (see above).

Scratch: I think this one’s unique to volunteer departments. A piece of apparatus scratches when it fails to mark responding within three minutes after dispatch. When a house scratches, the next due piece of apparatus will be dispatched in its place. There is no greater humiliation.

Second (or third, or fourth) call: These happen quite a lot during weather events, when everyone is running their wheels off. Let’s say Wagon and Ambulance 14 are already running a call, when the station gets hit again for an incident. Dispatch knows that Engine 14 and Ambulance 14-2 are in the station, but they have no way of knowing if they are manned. So the dispatch would sound like, “Box 1425 for the auto accident. Engine Company 14 (your second call), Ambulance 14 (your second call), Engine Company 2, Ambulance 2.” Whoever got out first got the call.

To cut numbers: Occasionally, someone would walk into the station with an injury or illness, or we would wander up on something while in service (see below). In this case, because the dispatcher has no idea that there’s an incident, we’d radio in and ask them to “cut numbers” on a new incident, and we’d give them the address. This would make the incident official and take the appropriate vehicle out of service.

In service/out of service. This is counter-intuitive to a lot of people. A piece of apparatus is in service when it is available for a call. When on a call (not available for another call) it is out of service. It was common, when we were assisting an ambulance with a medical call, for the dispatcher to ask us if we could “go in service for a call.” If we were, then there no second calls would be needed.

Bidding a call: Say that Ambulance 14 is just clearing the hospital (which is in Station 13’s first due) after dropping off a patient when a call comes in for, say, an auto accident in Box 1313. If Ambulance 14’s OIC thinks he’s closer, he can bid the call. It would sound something like, “Ambulance 14, Dispatch. We’re closer. Put Ambulance 13 in service.” It’s kind of humiliating for Station 13. In the old days, on rare occasions, there were bidding wars, where neither vehicle agreed to go in service, so there’d be a race to the scene. Whoever got there first, got the call.

Tapped (or tapped out): To be dispatched. “We got tapped last night for a wreck on Walker Road.” “They tapped us out for worker at the Bates Motel.”

Putting a good stop: When a crew extinguishes a fire quickly and with minimum damage, they’ve put a good stop on the fire.

Cellar saver: Exactly the opposite of a good stop. When the roof ends up in the basement (i.e., the structure is a total loss), the fireground commander is credited with saving the cellar. That’s . . . bad.

Snot-slinger: A big fire. Aka, the big one.

Teeth-hair-and-eyeball: The kind of incident where the most useful pieces of equipment are body bags and tweezers.

DRT: Dead right there. (A play on DOA.)

Federal Q: That wonderful siren on the front bumper that sounds like an air raid siren on speed. Melting the Q meant to have it spun up really high. Combined with the air horn in rush hour, melting the Q created lanes out of stopped traffic where cars had nowhere to go. I had a driver for years who would melt the Q at oh-dark-early, shouting his mantra out the window: “If I gotta be up, you gotta be up, too!”

I’m sure there are many I’ve forgotten, but this is a good start. So, what about you, TKZers? Y’all come from interesting backgrounds. Give us a peek into your secret dictionary.


One last thing. If you’re a teacher or if you’re with a book club, and you’d like me to Zoom with you, drop me an email at