Reader Friday: Research Rabbit Holes

Writers often veer down one research rabbit hole after another to find answers. Sometimes, it’s the topic that keeps us digging. Other times the answers we seek are buried under mountains of other stuff.

Which topic took you the most time to research? Did you have to leave the house, or did you find the answers online?

Do you have a favorite research topic?

True Crime Thursday – Artificial Intelligence

Photo credit: Laurenz Kleinheider, Unsplash


Debbie Burke


Check out the photos of people on this website. Facial expressions change. Body movements and gestures look natural. Yet these “people” aren’t real. They were created by artificial intelligence (AI).

Previous iterations of computer-generated models had telltale signs that gave away their artificial nature.

However, a Japanese company called DataGrid, Inc., founded by three brilliant twenty-somethings, appears to have perfected the technique of creating realistic humans generated by artificial intelligence. This recent article in Forbes describes DataGrid’s process. Here’s the link.

How do they achieve this? They pit two AI systems against each other in a competition called “generative adversarial networks” or GAN. One creates an image from databases, the other critiques it, tweaking the tiniest details until the creation is indistinguishable from reality.

DataGrid plans to license this technology to the fashion industry to showcase clothing lines with created models of the desired size and shape.

But a writer’s imagination explodes with possibilities.

What real-life crimes could be spawned by AI technology? Here are a few ideas:

An innocent person is framed because their created double appears on video committing a crime.

What happens to eyewitness testimony? Whom did the witness see? An actual human or a model?

A head of state is kidnapped/killed and a double takes over, changing the course of history.


The late, great comedian Redd Foxx used to say, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Who are we gonna believe? How will we know if our eyes are lying or not?


TKZers: Let your imaginations run wild. Share crimes you envision from the nefarious use of AI.

What do you think will be some of the unintended consequences?


Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Stalking Midas, contains no characters created by AI, only ones dreamed up by her imagination. Available in Kindle or paperback.

Violence Smells Bad

By John Gilstrap

Sue Coletta’s excellent post on Monday took us into the reality of murder.  When I finished reading it, I wished I could un-read it.  That’s no insult to Sue.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Good writing makes you squirm.  (Or laugh, or cry . . .)  I read the piece to the end out of respect not just for the author, but for the victims.  It’s important for people to understand what those young ladies endured in their final moments (or, God help us, final hours).

If that same scene were included in a novel I was reading, though, written by someone I didn’t know, I’d have closed the book and banned the author from my shelf.

Having been a first responder for 15 years, I was eyewitness to the aftermath unspeakable acts of cruelty.  I’ve tucked in protruding viscera and I’ve bagged a few heads.

I’ve comforted the bereaved, but that was the part I hated the most.  I was fire and rescue, not police.  My job was to bring order to chaos–to stabilize dangerous situations–and then go home.  No one ever died on my watch or in my ambulance because back then, only a medical doctor could pronounce death.  Thus, people were either victims who were clearly dead when I arrived at the scene, or they were patients receiving life-saving care when I delivered them to the emergency room.

I was then–and am now–something of a Pollyanna.  There’s always a way to win, always a route to a positive outcome.  All I need to do is never give up.  If the first strategy doesn’t work, you throw that aside and try something else.  And then something else again.  If the positive outcome does not arrive, it won’t be because I didn’t do everything I could.  It’s a theme that drives my fiction.  There’s always a way for the good guys to win.  Or they die trying.

When I was researching my nonfiction book Six Minutes to Freedom (2006) and I finally got permission to talk to the Delta Force operators who performed Kurt Muse’s daring rescue, there was a common theme that drove every interview.  To a man, the operators I spoke with told me that come hell or high water, they were bringing Kurt home.  If he stayed, they stayed.  When Operation ACID GAMBIT was done, more than a few of those operators were shot to pieces–one of them amputated his own foot to escape his crashed rescue chopper–but they never stopped fighting.  And they delivered Kurt to his family five days before Christmas.

Victimhood makes me uncomfortable.  I have no desire to read torture porn, which is one of the reasons why I don’t like reading about fictional serial killers.  Those scenes with the suffering victims are all about hopelessness.  Yes, it happens in real life, and if I want access to real-life case files, I can gain it with a phone call.  It’s a call I’ll never make.

In reality, violence smells bad.  It’s sticky and it’s ugly.  It’s unnerving.  When I commanded a horrific auto accident or occupational injury, my standing order to my crew was, “If it’s ugly, cover it up.”  No one functions well in the presence of mangled people.  I bring some of that to my fiction, and I get occasional hate mail as a result, but that level of reality–the reality of the aftermath–doesn’t push me beyond my limits.

The irony is not lost on me that I write violent books, and that good guys occasionally die at my hand.  I can’t define where my breaking point is on how much is too much, but there’s a line there somewhere.  The knee-jerk response is to say that violence against children is the line not to be crossed, but I cross that all the time.  I don’t do it gratuitously, though.  At least I don’t think I do.  I will not write a scene with sexual violence against women.  Come to think of it, I don’t write much about sex at all.

What are your thoughts, TKZ family?  How much squirming are you willing to endure when reading books?  At what point do you send a book sailing?

How To Be Your Own Co-Author

By PJ Parrish

The most common question I get from readers is how do my sister Kelly and I manage to write books together without killing each other.  So here’s a little dramatization:

Chapter 1

The first hurricane season of 1987 season, called Alina, left the beach a mess. Ex-cop Louis Kincaid walked along the beach in front of his Captiva Island cottage, watching the shell collectors who were picking up their post-storm prizes.

KELLY: Wait a minute. You really want to open your book like that? You only have a couple pages to get readers’ attention.
ME: What’s wrong with this? It’s tight. It gives reader info. Sets the weather.
KELLY: Elmore Leonard says never open with weather.
ME: But I have to open with it. The story has to open after the hurricane because Louis is about to find something cool on the beach which gets the case going.
KELLY: I get you. But weather has to mean something. It can’t just lay there. What about the prologue you wrote where that woman dies? Can you make it relate better to that?
ME: Wait…let me try again.

Her name was Alina…

KELLY: Better. Now we think this is the dead woman.
ME: Her name was Alina. The first hurricane of the 1987 season was…
KELLY: No no…good idea but you didn’t do anything with the image. Take it another level. Treat Hurricane Alina like a human being.
{{{ME: Fingers frozen over keyboard}}}
KELLY: Don’t think. Just write.

Chapter 1

Her name was Alina. She was born during a sultry summer thunderstorm somewhere near Mali, a thing no one cared about in a place few had heard of. In Senegal, she inhaled the cool ocean breezes, and in the Cape Verde islands she found her fury. By the time she reached Hispanola, she was a killer.

The first hurricane of the 1987 season turned out to be the most deadly in decades, littering the beaches of Haiti with fishing boats and bodies. Then she slammed into the southwest coast of Florida and turned due north. Finally Alina died, drifting away as a depression somewhere over Chesapeake Bay.

And now the shell seekers were out, celebrating her wake. Louis Kincaid watched them as they walked the beach.

KELLY: Now there’s a book I’d read. It’s got a hook. It sets the tone of the book. It has atmosphere and it came from YOU.
ME: Me?
KELLY: Yeah, you. You listening to your passionate writer self but taming it with craft.

Okay, the skit is over. This is pretty much how Kelly and I work. It’s not easy having a co-author. Most writers don’t want to share their vision. Or their royalty checks. But that means you’re very alone.

How many of you feel alone? How many of you paint yourself into corners with plots? Procastinate. Lose confidence? Beat yourself up? Re-read to the point of paralysis?
My whole author persona is based on co-authorship. But something evaporates when you are going alone. You feel like your safety net is gone. You feel like you have no one you can trust to tell you the truth, the good or the bad. You alone are responsible for what is on the page. And who do you turn to when you’re at your lowest? Mother, spouse, friend? Who will push you to finish when you can’t stand looking at the Thing That Is Consuming Your Soul?

How, if you are alone, can you get beyond this? Maybe if I try to explain how it works for us, maybe you can learn to listen to your inner co-author.

It all starts with an idea. But not all ideas are created equal. How do you know when you’ve got a good idea for a book? For us, we toss around plot ideas and decide whether they work for our character Louis. Not all do. Ask your inner co-author: Is this story juicy enough? Has enough meat to carry 300 pages or is it just a short story? Is it fresh? If your hero or story is not new, is it at least a different angle? Don’t chase a trend, especially if you don’t care about it.

Inner co-author voice: Meh. I think John Sandford wrote this story ten years ago. And does the world really need another alcoholic detective with a thing for Thelonious Monk, Rooster ties and redheads in leopard leggings?  And if you even think about writing an unreliable girl book, I will never speak to you again.

Okay, so you’ve got a juicy idea and you’ve written those heavy words CHAPTER ONE. Now what? Did you start your story at a prime dramatic moment?  Or is your beginning just a lot of throat-clearing? Like, did you lard in a couple pages of your protag’s backstory? Did you open with paragraphs of scene-setting description because you didn’t really KNOW where to begin the action? And why are you wasting so much time and valuable pages on some minor character who isn’t even important to your story?

Inner co-author voice: I think you need to start over. See that little black key at the top right of your laptop — it says DEL?  Press down hard and don’t let up til your screen is clean again.  Don’t worry. It only hurts for a minute or two.  You’ll thank me in the morning.

Well now. You’re on your way. You’ve got a fresh idea and a cool protag no one has seen before. You’ve figured out the best moment to open your story. You’re ten chapters in and roaring along. Then…you hit the wall. Or the muddy middle, as I like to think of it. You’re being sucked into the sand like that poor kid in Lawrence of Arabia or sinking in a  swamp in the trunk of a ’57 Ford like Marion Crane in Psycho.  How do you make the story’s middle come alive?

Inner co-author voice: There’s a bunch of cool tricks you can use! Create a rift in the team, like the three guys in Jaws.  Give one of your main characters a big secret that when revealed, sends the story in an unexpected direction. You don’t get what I mean? Go read William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.  Introduce a new character, but make darn sure they deserve to be on stage.  Better yet, kill someone off! Just don’t make it the dog.  OR…now don’t get mad at me because I know how much you hate this: STOP AND OUTLINE!  Stop yelling at me.  I know you’re a free spirit who goes where the muse leads you. But sometimes, you have to stop at the Texaco station and ask for directions. You don’t have to follow them. But the exercise of STOPPING AND THINKING AND WRITING THINGS DOWN might show you where the road begins again.

Ah, lookie here. You finished the manuscript! Seven months have gone by. Maybe seven years.  It’s time to take the baby out for a stroll and get all the ooohs and aaahs you’ve been waiting for.

Inner co-author voice: Are you nuts? You finished the first draft, Buckie! Now the hard work begins.  No, no…don’t even think about writing a query letter to Meg Ruly. Print out the whole messy thing and — stop it, just stop it. You have to do this. Print out the thing, take it to Starbucks or your favorite bar with a pencil and a bad attitude. Cross out all the stupid words, flabby dialogue, florrid descriptions.  Look for plot holes and fix them. Make your character’s motivations deeper.  Cut that dumb prologue. And while you’re at it, you use a passive voice too often.  Voice is like being good in bed. Think about that.

Whew.  You made it. You rewrote the book, at least three times. It’s 2,000 words shorter and you’ve shined it to within an inch of its life.  Now you have to send it out and get…probably ignored, very likely rejected, maybe even mauled. This is part of the process.

Inner co-author voice: Huh, you got another rejection letter? And you’re sitting there, sniffling and reading it for the hundredth time trying to find its hidden meaning. There is none. A rejection letter means 1. Your book wasn’t quite ready.  2. The editor recently accepted a manuscript too similar to yours. 3. You queried the wrong agent or editor for the genre you’re writing. 4. The agent has too many clients already. 5. The editor’s slate is too full.  So what? Query someone else and then more. Send out as many queries as you can stomach because it’s a huge waste of time to send out ONE query and wait to be asked to the prom.  Oh yeah, and while you’re waiting the eight weeks or more it takes to get an answer, start writing the next book. And remember: No one is rejecting YOU. They are rejecting your story, often for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Do. Not. Take. This. Personally.

One last thing about having an inner co-author. You really need to listen to them closely. Because they will tell you the truth. And they will keep you going when you feel like giving up and getting a job driving the cart at the airport.

Inner co-author: Don’t give up. We can do this. Have some faith. Work hard. Word harder. But when you do something well, when the words come together, pat yourself on the back. In the immortal words of Stuart Smalley. You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it, people will like your books.


A Real-Life Monster Will Soon Walk Free

By Sue Coletta

Back in 2017, I shared the story of the Toolbox Killers on my blog. I’m reposting it today to help bring attention to the case, because one of the men in the deadly duo dubbed the “Toolbox Killers” is scheduled to walk free this year.

Halloween night, 1979, 16-year-old Shirley Lynette Ledford made one fatal mistake — trusting the two men who offered her a ride. Forty-eight hours later, a jogger found her naked remains on a random front lawn in Sunland, California. Posed with her legs apart, her mutilated corpse lay in an ivy patch.

No one could have imagined the horror she endured.

If you’re at all squeamish, you may want to stop reading. The following is a true account.

It all started in 1977 when 29-year-old Roy Norris met 36-year-old Lawrence Bittaker while incarcerated at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. The two men — later dubbed “The Toolbox Killers” — shared sexually violent fantasies, which led to a maniacal pact. Upon release they planned to rape, torture, and murder teenage girls. Specifically, one girl of each teenage year from 13 to 19. Two years later, they teamed up on the outside and bought a silver 1977 GM cargo van, nicknamed “Murder Mack.”

From February to June 1979, this murderous duo picked up more than twenty female hitchhikers, not to assault but to practice luring girls into the van. They also used this time to search for a desolate locale. In April, they discovered a secluded fire road in the San Gabriel Mountains. Crowbar in hand, Bittaker snapped the lock on the gate to the fire road and replaced it with his own.

All they needed now was a victim.

On June 24th, 16 year-old Lucinda Lynn Schaefer left her Presbyterian Church meeting in Redondo Beach. She couldn’t have known the evil that awaited her.

After Bittaker and Norris finished constructing the bed in the rear of the van, beneath which they placed tools, clothes, and a cooler filled with beer and soda, they drove to the beach around 7:45 p.m. Lucinda was walking down a side street, and Bittaker remarked, “There’s a cute little blonde.” But their first attempt to entice her into the van was unsuccessful. Bribes of marijuana, beer, and a ride home didn’t work. So, they drove past her and parked alongside a driveway, where Norris exited the vehicle, slid open the side-door, and leaned into the van with his head and shoulders obscured from view. As Lucinda passed by, she exchanged a few words with Norris before he pounced, dragging her into the van.

That moment sealed her fate.

With bound wrists and ankles, her mouth duct-taped, Lucinda had no way to defend herself. Despite her initial scream, the only thing she could control was denying these monsters the satisfaction of witnessing her pain.

“She displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions of which she had no control,” claimed Bittaker in a written statement. “She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.”

With the radio volume at full-blast, Bittaker drove to their pre-arainged spot in the mountains. Norris remained in the back of the van with Lucinda. Once on the fire road, the two men took turns raping Lucinda while the other “took a walk.” The only thing Lucinda asked for was “a second to pray” before Norris attempted to manually strangulate her. Forty-five seconds in, and he became so freaked out by her protruding eyes he ran to the front bumper of the van and vomited.

Bittaker remained unfazed. He wrapped his vice-gripped fingers around her neck, her body slowly wilting to the ground. When the convulsions started Bittaker snaked a wire coat hanger around Lucinda’s throat and squeezed it tight with pliers — an act both men would repeat again and again.

The Toolbox Killers - Lawrence Bittaker

Lawrence Bittaker at his trial in 1979.

Norris and Bittaker rolled Lucinda’s dead body in a plastic shower curtain and tossed her into a canyon, where they expected wild animals to cover their heinous act.

A similar cycle occurred two weeks later when the murderous pair spotted 18-year-old Andrea Joy Hall hitchhiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. After raping and torturing Andrea, they forced her to pose for Polaroids. Sheer terror shone in her eyes as she pleaded for her life. Neither man listened. Instead, they drove an ice pick through her skull, strangled her, and then tossed her lifeless remains off a cliff.

On September 3rd, Jackie Doris Gilliam and Jacqueline Leah Lamp waited at the bus stop near Hermosa Beach. Luring the two girls into the van with marijuana and a free ride worked remarkably well. Until the girls noticed Bittaker wasn’t heading toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Rather, he drove toward the San Gabriel Mountains. When 13-year-old Jacqueline slid open the side-door in an attempt to escape, Norris slammed her over the head with a pre-filled bag of lead weights, knocking her momentarily unconscious. He then bound and gagged 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam. But Jacqueline regained composure and again tried to flee. Sadly, she was no match for Norris, who wrenched her arm behind her back and dragged her back into the van.

The Toolbox Killers

Roy Norris shortly before his arrest.

Meanwhile, Bittaker, noting the struggle was in full view of potential eyewitnesses, slid the shifter into park, climbed in back, and sucker-punched Jacqueline in the face, then assisted Norris in binding and gagging the two girls.

They finally arrived in the San Gabriel Mountains, where Jackie and Jacqueline were held captive for nearly two full days, repeatedly raped and forced to pose for pornographic Polaroids.

Bittaker tape-recorded the first time he’d raped young Jackie, telling her to “feel free to express your pain.”

At trial, Norris claimed he buried the cassette in a nearby cemetery, though it’s never been recovered.

These poor girls were tortured in unthinkable ways, including having their breasts punctured with an ice pick. Norris also tore off one of Jackie’s nipple with pliers.

Even death didn’t come swiftly. Bittaker drilled an ice pick into both of Jackie’s ears before strangling her to death. He beat Jacqueline with a sledgehammer, strangled her for fun, beat her again, and then strangled her to death. The Toolbox Killers tossed both bodies over an embankment into a California chaparral.

From the grave Shirley Lynette Ledford, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post, ignited the strongest emotional response in the jurors and courtroom audience. The prosecutor played 17 grueling minutes of a tape recording that showed the amount of terror Shirley endured before death. The transcript of which you can find here. Before you click that link, I need to caution you. This isn’t easy reading, nor is it easy to listen to the first few minutes of the accompanying video, where Shirley’s blood-curdling screams carry through closed courtroom doors. This sweet, young girl endured masochist behavior at the hands of pure evil. Proceed at your own risk.

Some say 16-year-old Shirley Ledford accepted a ride on that fateful Halloween night because she recognized Bittaker from the restaurant where she’d worked as a part-time waitress. Apparently, Bittaker was a regular.

Moments after Shirley climbed inside the van, Bittaker drove to a secluded side street while Norris drew a knife. He then bound and gagged Shirley with barricade tape.

The nightmare had begun.

Bittaker traded places with Norris, who drove aimlessly for over an hour as Bittaker tormented Shirley, ordering her to “scream louder. What’s the matter? Don’t you like to scream?”

On tape, Shirley pleaded with Bittaker. “No! Don’t touch me!” To which Bittaker replied, “Scream as loud as you wish,” and then bludgeoned her with a sledgehammer, punched her breasts in order to “beat them back into her chest.” As Bittaker raped and sodomized Shirley repeatedly, he tortured her with pliers, tearing her insides till she was no longer “rape-able,” according to Norris.

At trial, Norris described “screams … constant screams” from the rear of the van.

“We’ve all heard women scream in horror films … still, we know that no one is really screaming. Why? Simply because an actress can’t produce some sounds that convince us that something vile and heinous is happening. If you ever heard that tape, there is just no possible way that you’d not begin crying and trembling. I doubt you could listen to more than a full sixty seconds of it.” ~ Serial Killer Roy Norris

Don’t be fooled by that quote. Norris has an IQ of 135. So, even though he tried to downplay his involvement during his testimony, he still switched places with Bittaker to torture and sexually assault this young girl. Norris was also the one who switched on the tape recorder to memorialize their sadistic treatment of Shirley. Both men were equally vicious. They had no empathy for the victims or their families. In my opinion, Norris deserved equal punishment, but he was able to cut a deal by testifying for the prosecution.

Shirley Lynette Ledford

Back in the van, Shirley saw Norris grab the sledgehammer, and screamed, “Oh no! No! No! No! Please, no!”

Norris struck her in the left elbow, shattering the bone. Shirley begged him not to hit her again, but he didn’t listen. Norris struck that same broken elbow 25 more times.

When he finally stopped, he glared at Shirley, who was sobbing, shaking, and terrified.

“What are you sniveling about?” he said.

“Please, just do it! Kill me!”

After two solid hours of unfathomable torture, Norris finally killed Shirley by strangling her with a coat hanger, tightening the wire with pliers. Bittaker opted to pose her body on a random lawn in Sunland to gauge the public’s reaction. Norris agreed. So, under the cover of darkness, Bittaker played look-out as Norris posed Shirley’s mutilated remains on an ivy patch. Not wanting to waste his last chance to humiliate this poor girl, he wrenched open her legs.

Death by lethal injection is too kind for these two, IMHO. They deserve to die like Shirley, Jackie, Jacqueline, and many others.

The autopsy revealed extensive blunt-force trauma to Shirley’s angelic face, head, breasts, left elbow, with her olecranon (the bony tip of the elbow) sustaining multiple fractures. Torn genitalia and rectum was caused in part by Bittaker raping her with pliers. Her left hand bore a puncture wound and a deep slash mark scarred the finger on her right hand. At trial, Bittaker claimed the tape recording was nothing but a threesome, but added that toward the very end Shirley Ledford pleaded for death.

Can you blame her? There’s only so much pain a body can endure. I’d probably pray for death, too.

Investigators eventually found the remains of Jacqueline Leah Lamp and Jackie Doris Gilliam in the San Gabriel Mountains. The bodies of Lucinda Schaefer and Andrea Hall have never been found.

As for Bittaker, an initial execution date was set for December 29, 1989, which Bittaker appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision and set a new date of execution for July 23, 1991. And again, Bittaker appealed. Only this time, on July 9, 1991, the court granted a stay. As of 2017, Lawrence Bittaker remained on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

In total, police found 500 Polaroids and identified 19 missing girls, but Norris only admitted to five murders before he stopped talking. The parole board denied his request for release in 2009. But this year, 2019, he will have served his full 45-year prison term. The worst part? He promised to “have a little fun once he gets out.”

Let’s all take a moment to remember these innocent victims who died way too young, way too brutally. Hug your children a little tighter tonight. This monster will soon walk free.

How to Build a Long-Term Writing Career

by James Scott Bell

I’m going to assume arguendo (every now and then I trot out my legalese, especially if it’s Latin, because it makes me sound so authoritative) that you want to be in the writing game for the long haul. Further assumption: you would like your fiction to create a river—or at least a stream—of income. You nod your head in agreement with blogmate Laura Benedict when she describes success as, “I’m still here. Readers still read my stories—often paying for them—and I still write them.”

There used to be only one way to go about this: get a contract from a publishing house and sell enough books so you get another contract.

Now, of course, there is the viable alternative called indie publishing.

Jane Friedman recently interviewed two literary agents on the topic of establishing a career as a traditionally-published author. Two takeaways:

1. Many writers crave a large advance for a first novel.

2. That may not be a good thing to crave:

Maybe that big-advance book doesn’t get as many pre-sales as the publisher wanted, or gets mediocre reviews, or underperforms in its first quarter. A publisher at that point might re-strategize, or they might cut their losses, and the author ends up never earning out that big advance. That can hurt in the long-term. When it comes time to sell the next book, a publisher may use those figures against them by offering a lower advance or passing entirely. Publishers want to see that an author will make them money.

Thus, a modest advance is not a bad thing:

Depending on the publisher’s budget, the house might want to keep the advance lower to give the author an opportunity to earn out and also apply some of those funds to marketing. The biggest advantage to a smaller advance is that it’s easier to earn out. If your first book/contract earns out, that gives you a much better chance at a second contract.

But what if you fall well short of earning out? The publishing world is littered with the bleached bones of careers that didn’t make enough green for the house and were cast outside the gates of the Forbidden City.

Now, of course, dem bones can get up and walk around (now hear the word of the Lord) via indie publishing. If these authors can get the rights back to their published books, so much the better. [Though publishers have wised up to the asset value of backlists. So get wise yourself, trad authors: huddle with your agent and negotiate a realistic reversion clause tied to a minimum of royalty income.]

My advice for authors seeking a long-term traditional career is as follows:

  • Don’t expect a big advance.
  • Don’t expect the publisher to give you a big marketing push.
  • Get to know the basics of a book contract, but also know that your leverage in negotiating a first-book deal is about the same as Shirley Temple on a seesaw with Oliver Hardy. But even a Shirley should stamp her feet in seeking fair reversion and non-compete clauses.
  • The key to your career is not your first novel. It’s your second. You’ve labored long, and in love, on that first manuscript. You’d better be ready with a second book that’s just as good. And get it in by the deadline! Publishers have to schedule releases long in advance. If you’re late with a book you’ll gum up he works.
  • Ditto books 3 and 4. If you’re making good money by book 5, you can call yourself “established.”
  • If your subsequent books don’t earn enough (or, as sometimes happens, your editor leaves and you are left an “orphan” inside the house) you could get dropped by the publisher. That sucks. It also sucks that dismal sales numbers follow you around as you knock on other doors inside the Forbidden City. If this is the case, you may need to consider indie resuscitation, thus:

My advice for authors seeking a long-term independent career:

Finally, for all writers looking to make this gig a career: be patient and resilient. Success rarely happens right out of the gate. It takes years to get established. Setbacks are more frequent than bestsellers. But the only true defeat happens when you stop writing.

So don’t stop.

Other advice is welcome in the comments.

Perchance to Dream

Photo by Donovan Reeves courtesy

(This will be a short post today as I am hosting the most adorable granddaughter who ever walked the face of the earth and her friend for a sleepover. Pizza Hut stock may go up a point or two. I will still be answering comments though I may be somewhat late in doing so. Thank you.)

Regular visitors to TKZ on alternate Saturdays are probably aware that I am somewhat dream-conscious. I’ve written here and there about dreams inspiring my writing. They do more than that, however. Occasionally they scare me. Badly. 

I had an extremely frightening one this morning. The duration in dream time was extremely short. The entire dream consisted of me opening my front door to find the Angel of Death standing there. No “Hey-how-are-ya,” no “Are you making as much money as you wish you were?” or “Would you be interested in selling your home?”… no nothing. It just filled the doorway and I was swallowed up in blackness. Badda-bing-bang-boom! I woke up shouting, and, of course, couldn’t get back to sleep. I may not be answering the door for a few days. Or weeks. Maybe not until after Halloween.

The flip side of this concerns my favorite commercial of all time. It ran on MTV for a while in the late 1980s. Death played a prominent role. Even if you never watched a second of MTV or any music video you might almost certainly appreciate how clever it is/was so I have ever so thoughtfully included it here.

So…what has been the most recent dream that you have been able to recall? Do any of your dreams bother you? Have they ever come true? Have you used one or more for inspiration? Jack Kerouac made an entire book out of his. Please share if you are so inclined, and thank you as always for stopping by. 


True Crime Thursday – Elder Fraud…And a Book Giveaway

Courtesy of Pixabay


Debbie Burke


Today’s true crime is personal. My adopted mother, Ruth, was a victim of elder fraud.

Estimates of losses from elder fraud range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion per year. That’s billion with a B. Every single year. 

After doing considerable research into elder fraud, I was shocked to discover dirty, little-known secrets about indifferent banks, lack of prosecution, and impotent enforcement.

Here’s what happened to my mother:

Ruth, a widow, was fiercely independent and insisted on living alone in her own home in San Diego. After a medical crisis in 2016, Ellie (biological daughter) and I (adopted daughter) tried to convince Ruth to move in with one of us—Ellie in L.A. or me in Montana–or to have another relative live with her. Ruth flatly refused but finally consented to a visiting caregiver three times a week.

For several years, Ruth’s older sister had been taken care of by a woman named “Jane,” (not her real name for reasons that will soon become clear). The sister’s adult children vouched for Jane. The situation seemed ideal since Jane was already familiar with the family and could drive our mother to visit her sister.

Fast forward to 2017 when a catastrophic stroke left Ruth unable to speak or swallow. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego to care for her.

While we were there, Ruth’s credit card bills arrived in the mail…showing balances of more than $15,000 for items Ruth clearly not had charged.

Ellie called Jane and asked about the charges. Jane broke down and admitted she had been using Ruth’s credit cards. She had also been intercepting mail so Ellie would not find out about the bogus charges. After their distressing phone conversation, Jane sent numerous apologetic texts, promising to pay back the money.

But more evidence of fraud kept turning up, like:

Months before, Jane had changed the address for the cable TV, redirecting the service to Jane’s own home, and set up auto-pay from Ruth’s checking account to pay for it.

While we were at the hospital, a neighbor saw Jane snooping in Ruth’s mailbox, evidently trying to intercept more bills.

Jane had written checks to herself for large amounts of cash that Ruth had signed.

We notified Ruth’s local bank. They closed the checking account and turned the case over to their fraud department.

Ellie called Discover and they immediately froze Ruth’s account. They provided photocopies for the past year and we quickly identified many bogus charges Jane had made.

Now for the first dirty little secret: Your bank may not protect you from theft.

Ruth also had accounts and a VISA at a different Big-Name Bank. Ellie and I visited the branch to report the fraud. We explained Ruth was in the hospital and Ellie brought a copy of her power of attorney giving her authority on the accounts.

A bank officer told us the account could not be frozen nor would they provide copies of suspicious charges…until after Big-Name Bank’s legal department reviewed Ellie’s POA, which could take ten business days.


The POA was simple and straightforward. Because of this mindless policy, the bank left the account wide open to more bogus charges. For the time being, all we could do was destroy the card and pray Jane didn’t have a duplicate.

Next, we called the police. Two detectives from the elder fraud division interviewed us. They copied the texts where Jane admitted the theft. We gave them paperwork showing the bogus charges from Discover and from the local bank where the auto-pay accounts had been compromised. They agreed the evidence was more than enough to recommend prosecution of Jane.

Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday. At the funeral, we heard the first hints of suspicion from the children of Ruth’s sister (who had died a few months earlier). The sister’s jewelry was missing and other money had mysteriously disappeared while Jane was caring for the sister.

Meanwhile, Jane had apparently fled to Arizona.

People don’t like to talk about fraud. They don’t want to accuse someone without proof. They’re embarrassed they didn’t catch on sooner. They feel foolish. Therefore, fraudsters have free rein to continue their crimes.

Ellie and I returned to Big-Name Bank where the POA was supposedly under review by their legal department. We were told that, since Ruth had died, the POA was no longer valid and they refused to help, even though Ellie was executor. Fortunately no additional charges had been made.

We then followed up with the police detective. He said he’d tried to interview Ruth but couldn’t locate her because she’d been moved from the hospital to hospice. Not that an interview would have helped—she couldn’t talk and was comatose.

Then came the biggest shock of all.

The detective said that, since Ruth had died, the case against Jane would not be prosecuted because the victim could not testify. The text messages where Jane confessed the theft plus the paper evidence of fraud were not enough.


Thanks to Discover and the local bank that acted quickly, Ruth didn’t suffer a significant loss. Discover reversed all charges. They were responsible about protecting their customer who’d been a crime victim. I feel bad they had to write off thousands of dollars.

However, my heart doesn’t break for the loss incurred by Big-Name Bank that refused to freeze Ruth’s VISA.

After that account was finally closed, Big-Name Bank then tried to claim Ruth’s estate owed them more than $5000, despite irrefutable proof the charges were fraudulent. The lawyer for the estate finally convinced them it would be a cold day in hell before they collected a cent.

What lessons did we learn?

First, it’s hard to prevent predators from taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Be aware and suspicious of allowing outsiders access to a loved one, even if their references seem valid.

Second, no one is immune. Ellie works for a superior court judge whose own brother was victimized.

Third, encourage your family member to share their financial dealings with a trusted relative or friend. Understandably, many seniors resist because they fear they’ll lose control of their money. Too often, sadly, they instead lose control to a smooth-talking fraudster.

Fourth, glaring loopholes in the law allow scammers to slip through and move on to their next victim.

Fifth, there are no easy solutions.

If Ruth had consented to live with Ellie or me, would this have happened? No.

But if we had insisted on imposing our good intentions on her, we would have disrespected our mother’s proud, independent spirit. We loved her too much to do that. 

We thought we were making her life safer and easier by hiring a caregiver. Instead, we inadvertently opened the door to the henhouse for the fox.

How do you respect the rights and autonomy of loved ones while protecting them from those who would take advantage?

I don’t know. Dammit, I wish I did.


Life imitates art. More than a year before my mother’s incident, I had been writing Stalking Midas, the second book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

The theme?

Elder fraud.

After this experience, I rewrote parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate some hard lessons learned. Although the story is fiction and very different from Ruth’s, I hope readers will find truths within the book to protect themselves and their family.

Justice never caught up with Jane. Her successes with Ruth and Ruth’s sister probably emboldened her to victimize others. That makes me sick.

However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page……

And I did!


I’m happy to announce the launch of my new suspense thriller, Stalking Midas.


Charming con artist Cassandra Maza has cornered her prey, Moe Rosenbaum, an addled millionaire with nine cats, until investigator Tawny Lindholm disrupts the scam. Tawny suspects elder fraud and won’t stop digging until she finds the truth.

Cassandra can’t allow that. She’s killed before and each time it’s easier. Tawny will be next.



Stalking Midas is available in ebook and trade paperback.

Especially for TKZ readers, I’m giving away a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be selected at random from comments on today’s post.

For discussion: Have you or a loved one been a victim of elder fraud? What lesson did you learn?


Evolution of a Cover: ISABELLA MOON

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since my first novel was traditionally published in 2007, it’s that a writer needs to be flexible and amenable to change if they want to be successful. My definition of success? I’m still here. Readers still read my stories–often paying for them–and I still write them.

ISABELLA MOON was first published by Ballantine Books, and was/is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. It’s about a woman living in hiding from an abusive husband, and she’s contacted by the ghost of a child who went missing two years earlier. Why am I so attached to my first novel? I wonder if I would even think about it much if the ebook revolution hadn’t happened. Without ebooks, I doubt I would have bothered to republish it once the rights reverted to me. Just think of all the books that (often deservedly) are lost to time because they were published in paper–paper that wasn’t acid-free. The existence of non-expiring digital content, combined with easy access to book resellers, means that pretty much any book can now stay alive a long, long time.

But tastes change. Markets change. And there are always potential new readers to attract. I confess I’m often guilty of picking up a book because I’m drawn to its cover. Thus I feel compelled to update the covers of the few books I re-publish myself.


Cover 1, Ballantine: Hardcover (2007)

This is a beautiful cover. If I’d been a more experienced writer, I might have pushed to have it look a bit edgier. It has a mysterious, dreamlike, feminine, rather timeless vibe. Yet the book has several horror elements.

Cover 2: Trade Paperback, Ballantine (2008)

I love the fuzziness of the title, particularly since the book is a ghost story. The size of trade paperbacks appeals to me.

Covers 3 and 4: Hardcover, Trade paper (export edition) William Heinemann, UK (2008)

The yellow color in this photo is a bit deceiving. It’s actually more of a pale cream, with a glimmering, matte sheen to it. It’s truly stunning, and thematically dead-on.


Cover 5: Ebook, Gallowstree Publishing  (2011) (My publishing company, freelance designer)

Looking back on this one makes me go Hmmmm.  It definitely has more of a horror vibe, and is certainly unsettling. The adult protagonist is obviously in danger.

Cover 6: Ebook, Gallowstree Press (2015?), freelance designer

This is the most literal cover: Ghostly font, ghost, photo of moon. Not sure why it’s basically 3 colors. I think it would make a terrific paperback.


Covers 7 and 8, Gallowstree Press, my designs

I’m going to experiment with two covers for this next update that’s coming in a week or two. One cover has a mystery feel to it, and the other that of a dark thriller. I’m considering adding a horror short story to the edition with the flower cover to differentiate it at the retailers. We’ll see how that works.

Between Vellum, and Canva, and many other helpful sites, it’s shockingly easy to make changes to all of my owned content. And, really, I have little to lose by making those changes. As these last two are for ebooks exclusively, my goal has been to make them great thumbnails. I would love to sell ISABELLA MOON in my own print-on-demand versions, but there are PLENTY of hard and softcover versions available out in the world. No need to add to the world’s post-consumer paper glut.

Why the wide selection of cover styles? ISABELLA MOON is one of those stories that crosses genre boundaries: thriller, crime, gothic, horror, mystery. It’s tough to classify. I’ve always felt that the original cover, though beautiful, put it off on the wrong foot in the market. There’s strong language, sex, and plenty of violence between the covers. The reviews are polarized, so I had to stop reading them.

Of course, I should’ve done all this revamping well before my most recent novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, was published back in February. There’s lots to do: update the excerpts in the backs of the books. Update the blurbs, and add my most recent four books to the interior bibliography. Oh, and update my author photo. Though I wouldn’t mind being eternally forty-five.

Note: The images in the two latest covers came from Istock. I will have to purchase extended licenses to use them as part of salable content.

TKZers–tell me all your cover successes and woes. And ask me anything!