True Crime Thursday – Invasion of the Body

By Debbie Burke


Photo credit: atimedia – Pixabay

What if a device measures your heart and respiration rate, body temperature, and blood pressure from almost 200 feet away without you ever knowing it? What if that intimate information is collected into a database? Who uses that information and what do they do with it?

Is this the premise for a dystopian/sci-fi/horror story?

Nope. It’s reality.

Pandemic drones created by the Canadian company Draganfly can do all that and more. In a video interview here, Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell claims the software will help public safety officials (in other words, law enforcement) track and prevent spread of disease.

Huh? Cops are now in charge of public health?

On April 21, 2020, Westport, Connecticut police announced implementation of pandemic drones that measure people’s body temperature, heart and respiration rate, and coughing and sneezing. Drones are already being used for enforcement of social distancing in New Jersey, Florida, and elsewhere.

The next day, the ACLU filed a protest statement saying, “Towns and the state should be wary of self-interested, privacy-invading companies using COVID-19 as a chance to market their products and create future business opportunities.”

Following public outcry, on April 23, Westport reversed its decision to use pandemic drones.

Is sneezing, coughing, or running a temperature a crime?

Does invasion of a person’s body by technology constitute unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

TKZers: What do you think?





Drones play a sinister role in Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, available here

Focusing on the Writing

Focusing on the Writing
by Terry Odell

Focus on the Writing

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I was supposed to be on a photo tour in Croatia today, but that’s been put on hold, so let’s talk about dealing with writing routines in times of distraction.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about how they’re having trouble focusing on their writing. Distractions abound, and the writing gets set aside. Guilt sets in.

It’s okay to be distracted, to flounder about. Writing less is acceptable. For me, I find the following techniques helpful. I’ve used them when coming back from vacations, when it takes a while to find my writing groove, and they work as well for me in these crazy times.

Get rid of chores that will nag.
If you are going to worry about cleaning house, paying bills, going through email, take the time to get the critical things dealt with. Otherwise you’re not going to be focused on your writing. If you’re a ‘write first’ person, don’t open anything other than your word processing program.

Do critiques for my crit group.
This might seem counterproductive, but freeing your brain from your own plot issues and looking at someone else’s writing can help get your brain into thinking about the craft itself.

Work on other ‘writing’ chores.
For me, it can be blog posts, or forum participation. Just take it easy on social media time.

Deal with critique group feedback.
Normally, I’m many chapters ahead of my subs to my crit group. If I start with their feedback on earlier chapters, I get back into the story, but more critically than if I simply read the chapters. And they might point out plot holes that need to be dealt with. Fixing these issues helps bring me up to speed on where I’ve been. It also gets me back into the heads of my characters.

Read the last chapter/scene you wrote.
Do basic edits, looking for overused words, typos, continuity errors. This is another way to start thinking “writerly” and it’s giving you that running start for picking up where you left off.

Consult any plot notes.
For me, it’s my idea board, since I don’t outline. I jot things down on sticky notes and slap them onto a foam core board. Filling in details in earlier chapters also helps immerse you in the book.

Figure out the plot points for the next scene.
Once you know what has to happen, based on the previous step, you have a starting point.

And don’t worry if things don’t flow immediately. Get something on the page. Fix it later.

What about you? Any tips and tricks you’ve found when outside world distractions keep you from focusing?

And one more thing. On Friday, May 1st, you have a chance to Ask Me Anything. I’ll be on a Draft2Digital Spotlight podcast talking with Mark Leslie Lefevbre. It’ll be broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. You can bookmark the links and you might be able to set up a reminder.
Time: 10 Pacific, 11 Mountain, 12 Central, Noon Eastern. It’ll be my first video appearance. Yikes!  The program is 45 minutes long, with the last 15 minutes for Q&A. I hope to meet you there.


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.

My Brief Life and Tragic Death – First Page Critique  

 By Debbie Burke



Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Please welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for a story entitled:

My Brief Life and Tragic Death

Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins

I met Frank and survived an assassination attempt between lunch and teatime.

I suppose it started with the whistling. I had the palace library all to myself, as usual. The hush was shattered when a boy walked in, whistling. He caught sight of me and approached. It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it. When he reached my table, he stopped whistling and stood smiling at me. It was a good smile. It invited me to smile back, which I didn’t, of course.

He was a handsome boy of about thirteen, a year older than myself, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

His smile and likability made me uncomfortable. I gave him a cold stare. “This is a library, you know.”

He looked around in pretended astonishment.

I added, “You can tell from all the books? At least, I hope you can.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Hey, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a sweet little girl named Flavia.”

I placed a bookmark and closed my book. “Are you being irritating on purpose?”

“Of course I am. How about you?”

I was taken aback. “Why?”

“Look, babe, do you know where Flavia is or not?”

“I’m Princess Flavia.”

“Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.” He stuck out his hand.

If you ignored his actual words, he was wonderfully well-spoken, especially for his age. He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends. I was a bit regretful when I said, “Princesses don’t shake hands.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I’m not a princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “But I am.”


First impressions:

Let’s start with the title: My Brief Life and Tragic Death.

It implies the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Princess Flavia, is apparently already dead. Is this fantasy? Magic realism? Is it similar to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, told by a murdered teenager watching her family deal with the repercussions of her death?

I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m intrigued.

The first line drops a provocative bomb about an assassination attempt. That definitely qualifies as a disturbance in anyone’s life. But the tone struck me as too casual and matter-of-fact. I can’t imagine a 12-year-old girl, even a self-possessed princess, being this blasé about someone trying to kill her.

Next, the scene flips back to earlier that day. Flavia is alone in the palace library when her reading is interrupted by the entrance of a whistling boy who’s looking for her. This also qualifies as a disturbance, although on a much smaller scale than an assassination attempt.

Foreshadowing and disturbances, major and minor, kick off a good start, enticing the reader into the plot. Nice job, Brave Author.

Setting and Time:

The mention of teatime suggests the locale is the British Isles, so a haircut from the California side of the gateway sounds exotic and faraway to the cloistered Flavia. Although the haircut and the gateway aren’t clearly defined yet, that’s okay. Longer descriptions could bog down the forward momentum at this point. I’m willing to wait for more explanation.

The time period isn’t defined. Physical books in a library could be contemporary but might also indicate a past before digital books. Again, I’m willing to wait to find out.


Right away, Flavia’s character interests me. She sounds much older than her age. She’s alienated from people and may be lonely but won’t admit it: I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

She doesn’t react in predictable ways: His smile and likability made me uncomfortable.

And she’s irritated by her reactions, as if she can’t control her own mind: I liked him at once, which annoyed me.

The author raises questions: Why does Flavia react like this? Why does she expect herself to be detached from normal human emotions? As a princess, is she pressured to behave a certain way? Does she secretly want to rebel against those conventions?

Flavia is a character in conflict with herself. Already she’s presented enough complicated psychology to make a reader want to learn more about her. Well done.

Her observation of Frank is not superficial. Like a normal adolescent girl, she notices he is handsome but she also digs deeper, probing into his character.

Frank is brash, cocky, yet charming. She’s interested but, for some unknown reason, can’t allow herself to like him.

Brave author, in a very few lines, you’ve skillfully painted a picture not only of Frank’s appearance but also his personality. 

Flavia quickly sets Frank straight that she is a princess who won’t tolerate being called “babe.” Frank isn’t at all fazed by being put in his place and goes on to eloquently charm her, while at the same time giving readers a quick sketch of what Flavia looks like: Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. 

In first person, it’s difficult to find effective ways for a character to describe herself without resorting to cliches like looking in a mirror. This was a nice blending of dialogue and description that didn’t sound forced. 


The humor works well. The banter between aloof Flavia and smartass Frank is entertaining. They keep trying to one-up each other, competing over who gets the last word. That creates ongoing tension between them. The reader wants to find out who wins the verbal jousting.

The author also nicely juxtaposes that humor with Flavia’s wistful longing for connection with another human.

The following is my favorite sentence:

He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends.

That really pins down both personalities and poignantly conveys Flavia’s loneliness.


Flavia’s age indicates the target audience may be Young Adult. Overall, I like her voice, even though she sounds much more mature than an average 12-year-old. I know intelligent, articulate, well-read kids like her so she comes across as unusual but still realistic.

Line editing:

What if you rearrange the order of the first sentence like this?

Between lunch and teatime, I met Frank Barron and survived an assassination attempt.

Switching the assassination attempt to the end of the sentence creates a more dramatic punchline. 

Another thought about the first line: it could come off as a gimmicky ploy unless the author delivers a payoff within a few pages.

Is Frank the savior who thwarts the attempt on her life? That creates a compelling reason for an ongoing relationship between them.

Or is he the would-be assassin?

Because Flavia already knows what happens (even though the reader doesn’t), she could foreshadow a little more.To raise tension, perhaps she wonders how he got past security into the palace library.

The phrase If you ignored his actual words confused me.

Here’s what Frank says: “Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.”

His “actual words” show a sophisticated command of language so I don’t understand why Flavia talks about ignoring them. Maybe delete the phrase: If you ignored his actual words, 


Overall, this first page works well. The characters are likable, multi-dimensional, and complex. There’s conflict, tension, and suspense.

Additionally, the author proof-read and submitted a clean page without typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.

YA, fantasy, and magic realism are not genres I’m terribly familiar with. But the Brave Author did a good job of pulling me into this intriguing submission. Thank you for sharing it!


TKZers: What do you think of Flavia and Frank? Are you interested in the premise? Any suggestions for our Brave Author?

First Page Critique: Manuel’s Revenge

Happy Monday! (even though it’s starting to feel like everyday is like Sunday…)
Today I have a first page critique which illustrates the challenges in grounding a reader right from the start. My comments, and recommendations follow.  I also look forward to getting you input for our brave submitter after this first page submission.
Manuel’s Revenge

They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven,” she would say. They would cry and grieve and she would find someone else.

When he opened the door, the apartment smelled of greasy chicken and diapers. Earlier in the evening he told her he’d be at Jerry’s Bar and Grill. Julie was furious, of course, so she and the kids had gone to visit her sister for a few days. He and his wife had exchanged harsh words, but Manuel felt relief. She and the kids wouldn’t be home. They wouldn’t see the carnage.

The scotch having fixed his resolve, Manuel made the call.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he crossed the frayed carpet, opened the closet door and removed a plank near the back wall. He hadn’t used the weapon in years, a nine millimeter Smith and Wesson that felt strangely familiar. From years on the streets he knew how to use the gun, but only killed when necessary, always in self defense, never for pleasure—unlike the monster who murdered his brother.

After prison, Manuel truly believed he could change, but his mind never stopped playing that endless loop. His brother’s face—the pleading, the tears, the anguish—would never disappear. Graven into his memory like etchings on a gravestone was the leering face of the thug who pulled the trigger.

Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him.

Replacing the plank, Manuel eased along the wall to observe the rendezvous point from his perch three stories up. On the street below, his brother’s killer would step into the alley expecting an easy exchange. Bills for baggies. No problem.

But when Manuel looked down on the scene, his fists tightened around the pistol. Cops were erecting a barrier and a tarp-covered body lay in the middle of the alley.

A crime scene.

Two uniforms conversed under a streetlight. The lights of a patrol vehicle rotated across the dark bricks of nearby tenements.  In the shadows something moved, something barely perceptible. Even from this distance, the thick man in the sideways baseball cap shifted easily from light to darkness, watching.

Then into the shadows the thug disappeared. The meeting would be aborted. The man who killed his brother would flee. Then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night.

Main Comments

This first page had some good things going for it, right from the get go. It was written in clear, direct prose, and was immediately personal. The reader could easily grasp that the stakes, at least for the main protagonist, were going to be high and that this story was going to be about avenging the murder of the protagonist’s brother. That helped create some nice tension right from the start, but for me, this first page suffered from a lack of specificity and grounding, that made the story, even though it was going to be high stakes and personal, feel almost generic.

In terms of lack of specificity, I wanted more detail about the main protagonist to set him apart. I wanted to be able to picture him, get a hint of intrigue (why had he been in prison for example?) and to hear a more realistic internal dialogue that made him feel like a real person – one I immediately felt sympathy for, and whose story created the kind of dramatic tension that could sustain a novel.

In terms of grounding, I wanted more details to be able to picture the apartment and the building – especially as it seemed such an easy vantage point from which he could have killed the ‘thug’ in the past (had he tried before? – this wasn’t clear).

Specific Comments/Feedback

Having mused over the best way to provide constructive feedback regarding this first page, I decided that providing further comments/notes in bullet form as I read the first page was probably the most useful. So here goes:

  • First line – ‘They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones’ had me intrigued. But then, just as I was thinking about the children (and we never find out how many or their names, or ages), the comment ‘they would cry and grieve and she would find someone else’ suddenly seemed cold and rather flippant. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his children and their mother (who was, I assumed his wife) but was a little put off already.
  • We get a brief description of the apartment but nothing more. I wanted to be able to visualize the place, and feel grounded in the surroundings. Where are we? What is the socio-economic background of this family? (they sound poor but then he drinks scotch in the next paragraph which doesn’t seem consistent with this initial impression). I’m assuming Julie is his wife but why had they exchanged harsh words – was it because he was always at Jerry’s Bar and Grill (and here, the name is specific but seems unnecessary since I have no other information or context regarding all the other surroundings). Also ‘carnage’ is a very strong word and it makes me think of a large scale, mass killing.
  • Now Manuel makes the call – but I’m not sure what this means as we haven’t got the backstory or context yet – but I’m willing to go with it.
  • Then we have a paragraph about him getting his weapon out and again, we get specifics about it (9 millimeter Smith & Weston) but few specifics about his past. He always killed in self-defense? Why? How did he know the monster who murdered his brother killed for pleasure? I need more here to be invested in this story.
  • ‘After prison’ – again, we get a hint of a past/backstory but no details, except about his brother (who, as yet, remains nameless). The line ‘graven into his memory…” would work better if I had more details so I could really visualize the scene.
  • ‘Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him’ – Why, if he’s shooting the man from the vantage point of a window three stories up, would Manuel have to die? This didn’t quite make sense without more context and information on what Manuel was planning. It sounds like he wasn’t going to be the one going to make the exchange below (as he is upstairs) but how is the exchange supposed to work exactly (?) – and how did Manuel know all this (had he set it up? I couldn’t tell by the end if he had, or if these kind of exchanges were just a frequent occurrence in the alley and Manuel had finally got the courage to try and kill the ‘thug’ this time (?) (again, this reveals lack of grounding and specificity to me).
  • Now, when Manuel looks down on the scene he sees cops…but didn’t he hear sirens or see the flashing lights as he walked across the dark room towards the closet in the previous paragraph?
  • So it’s a crime scene, but we have no context for it – and now a man is watching from the shadows but the police are clueless(?) There’s a reference to nearby tenements but again I can’t picture the scene, as I haven’t got any description or point of reference for where we are.
  • The final paragraph has the ‘thug’ disappear (which seems too easy given the police presence), and ‘then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night’. I really liked this last line, but it still confused me as I don’t have context for his previous attempts or the past that links him to the thug and the circumstances surrounding his brother’s murder.

As all these comments reveal, this first page really needs more specific details and a clear description of place, backstory, and characters to come to life for me, and to create the tension needed for me to turn the page and keep reading. That being said, the scene itself is a compelling one – a man risking everything to avenge his brother’s death – and our brave submitter no doubt knows all the details that could easily be added to bring color and tension to this story. Overall, most of my comments/recommendations are a relatively easy fix and I think once we get the specificity and grounding we need as readers, this first page could be the start of a something good.

So, TKZers, what comments or feedback do you have for our brave submitter?


A Lot Has Changed, But Reading Remains

by James Scott Bell

The other day I woke up and felt like I was in Groundhog Day. Truly. When I tweeted about it, someone replied I should add I Am Legend and Swiss Family Robinson to the mix. That was brilliant. The streets of my city—Los Angeles—do look like the zombie apocalypse. And our homes are like tree houses in this urban archipelago.

And it’s like that every dang day.

Maybe you’re feeling something similar, wondering what to do next within the confines of your domicile.

Or what to read next. If that’s the case, I’ve got your back.

First off, ebooks are suddenly the coin of the realm for readers. With bookstores shuttered, print purchases have slowed considerably. I’ve also heard that audiobooks, once the growth slice of the publishing pie, have stalled. Why? Because no one is commuting to work!

So for homebound readers hungry for entertainment and escape, the ebook is fast and reasonably priced. As a recent BookBub post put it:

This is a turbulent time for the publishing industry. Many bookstores, publishers, and authors are facing significant challenges due to the impact on their print sales from store closures. However, one thing that seems clear is that people are still seeking out your books to help them learn, escape, find solace, and cope at this time. 

In that regard, I give you some new pulp fiction of my own — LAST CALL:


For call girl Keely Delmonico, having a client die was a new one. Now she has to avoid the cops and all their nasty questions. She manages to get out of the fancy hotel free and clear. But lurking in the shadows is another danger, a deadly one—a killer who is determined to make Keely’s next step her last call.


What possessed me to write a book from (mostly) the point of view of a call girl?

The challenge! Writers need to stretch if they’re going to stay on top of their game. As Kris so eloquently explained in her post on Tuesday, sometimes you just have to take a risk, knowing that at the very least the resulting book will:

  • Help you grow as a writer.
  • Make you stronger.
  • Help you find your way to your next story.

This book actually started some time ago when I sat down before a blank screen and asked myself what sort of book would I probably never write? A book about a call girl came immediately to mind. So what did I do? I wrote a first chapter. And liked it. I liked the character that was forming in my mind. Naturally I had to add a killer. From there I plotted and planned, and eventually wrote the thing.

Now, some of my loyal readers may be wondering if a) I’m off my rocker; and b) if the book has, um, well, racy parts.

As to a), I’m a writer. Of course I’m off my rocker.

And b), heck no. The content of the book is what would have been acceptable in a 1960s episode of Mannix or Mod Squad or Hawaii Five-O. The action takes place in L.A. and Las Vegas. Pre-pandemic. But I felt I had to handle that issue in the book. How did I do it? With a couple of Easter eggs I will not reveal here.

What a rat!

I know, but I want you to have the book as pure, lockdown reading pleasure. That’s why I’ve priced it at the lowest end of the Amazon scale—99¢—and will keep it there for the next few weeks. You can order in here.

So here we are, friends, deep into the shutdown. Lots of things have changed, but reading remains. I wonder, though, have you noticed any changes in your reading habits and/or preferences over the last six weeks? Do you think they will carry over when we get, finally, to the “new normal”?

True Crime Thursday – Crazy but True Laws


By Debbie Burke


Criminal Kissing
Photo credit: Vera Arsic – Pexels

In Elko County, Nevada, the law requires people to wear a mask at all times.

Since Covid 19, many cities and counties have enacted similar ordinances requiring masks so what’s strange about that?

Elko County’s law has been in effect for a century. It was passed at the time of the Great Influenza Pandemic in 1918-1919. No one got around to repealing it so it’s remained on the books all these years.

As of April 13, 2020, the Elko City Council considered passing a new ordinance requiring employees of businesses to wear masks and gloves. Maybe if they dust off old records, they’ll find they’ve already had such a law…for the past hundred years!

While they’re at it, legislators should consider repealing a late 19th century law in Eureka, Nevada, that prohibits a man with a mustache from kissing a woman. The lawbreaker in the above photo is reportedly still at large, armed and dangerous. 


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since 1961, it’s been illegal in Gainesville, Georgia to eat fried chicken with a fork—only hands are permitted. That law actually makes a lot of sense because it’s “finger-lickin’ good.”




In Florida, it’s illegal for a man to wear a strapless dress in public—no mention of other dress styles. It’s also illegal to sing in public while wearing a bikini or bathing suit.

A widely-circulated urban myth is that Florida bans sex with porcupines. Actually Florida’s 2011 law prohibits sexual relations with any animal, not singling out porcupines. However, a couple of Russian tourists decided to challenge that law…with predictable results.

Also in Florida, you cannot legally ride a skateboard without a license.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Speaking of skateboards, on April 16, 2020 in Los Angeles, a front-end loader filled the Venice Skatepark with beach sand to prevent Covid 19. Hmmm.




Photo credit: Pexels


My home state of Montana has its share of unusual laws. For instance, it’s illegal to drive with a sheep in the cab of your truck unless you have a chaperone.




TKZers – What crazy but true laws does your state have? What is the weirdest law you’ve heard of?

The Hardest Writing I’ve Ever Done

By John Gilstrap

Allow me to share the first paragraph of an email I received yesterday from my editor regarding my new book, Crimson Phoenix (March, 2021): “I finished the ms at 1 am.  What a page-turner. It sure was eerie reading about a post-nuclear apocalypse while being held hostage by a global pandemic.”

Tell me about it.

Over a year ago, I signed a two-book contract to create a new thriller series.  This one features Victoria Emerson, a member of the House of Representatives, whose world is turned upside down when U.S. Army Major Joseph McCrea shows up on her doorstep one night and announces that CRIMSON PHOENIX is active.  That means the USA is inches away from nuclear war.  McCrea is there to evacuate Victoria to the United States Government Relocation Center, a bunker in the mountains of West Virginia that is meant to house the entire legislative branch in the event of Armageddon.  She cannot bring her family.

A single mother, Victoria refuses to abandon her three teenage sons. Denied entry to the bunker, they nonetheless survive the nuclear onslaught that devastates the country. The land is nearly uninhabitable. Electronics have been rendered useless. Food is scarce. Millions of scared and ailing people await aid from a government that is unable to regroup, much less organize a rescue from the chaos.

With Major McCrea’s help, Victoria devotes herself to reestablishing order—only to encounter the harsh realities required of a leader dealing with the violence wrought by desperate people . . .

I think the book turned out great, but never have I struggled so hard to put words on paper.  When I pitched the book back in 2019, the economy was booming, people were happy and the idea of citizens reverting to their feral instincts seemed like a fun diversion.  Over the last two months, writing from quarantine, every fictional act of self-preservation and confrontation I wrote felt all too possible–especially in the early days of the madness when the panic was most vibrant and threatening.

Early on in the pandemic–facing an immovable April 15 deadline with 30,000 words to go–it felt as if my imagination had been switched off.  Writing about the collapse of infrastructure and the moral relativism that it triggers really troubled me.  I am not a man prone to pessimism or depression, but for that first week or more, there seemed to be no light in any day.  To make it all worse, even the weather conspired against me in those early weeks, when every morning, it seemed, dawned cold and cloudy.

Then I wrote a bit of dialogue that allowed light back in.  In a discussion with McCrea, who’s worried that Victoria’s children won’t be tough enough for what lies ahead, Victoria says, “Just because every bit of infrastructure is broken, and just because people become desperate is no reason to dismiss kindness and understanding as some kind of a curse. Kindness is a blessing, not a liability.”

I don’t know if this makes sense out of context, but that bit came out of nowhere, and it changed not just the arc of the story, but it lifted my mood.  Victoria and her crew are the lucky ones.  They’ve survived the destruction that killed millions.  From that moment on, Crimson Phoenix ceased being about how they would survive, but rather about how they can help to fix some of what has been broken.  How to work to help make people less miserable.

Forgive me if I am rambling, but I’ve never before experienced the phenomenon of my work lifting my spirit in such a direct manner.  I am not a victim of this pandemic, nor am I a survivor.  I am an author with a job to do who’s living in strange, difficult times.  None of us knows what tomorrow might bring, but I know that today I am healthy.  I started celebrating the weird repetitiveness of each day.  For the first time in a very long time, my wife and I cook every meal together and eat it together at home.  In the evenings, we sit together and binge-watch Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Then we go to bed, get up and do it all over again.  I realize now that when this awfulness lifts, I’m going to miss the relative ease of these days.

As for the book, the words started flowing.  Think fire hydrant–easily ten pages a day.  I had a new focus, and now knowing what the book is really about, I created a story that was substantively different–and, I believe, far better–than the one I set out to write.  It’s not about victimhood, it’s about leadership.  It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s still very much a thriller, and I think it may very well be the best thing I’ve ever written.  Of course, mine is the least important opinion on that last point.

Have y’all ever had your fiction make a profound impact on you like this?


On an unrelated note, I’ve added another video to my YouTube channel.  This one talks about what to look for in a publisher. Just click on the picture.


Making Mistakes: It’s a
Mistake Not To Make Them

Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. — John Cleese.

By PJ Parrish

I’ll never forget this piece of advice I got from my agent: “No one is waiting for your stand alone thriller.”

Immediately, my hackles went up. (As I wrote that, I realized I didn’t really know what a hackle even was so I Googled it. It is the hairs on the back of dog that shoot up when he’s angry).  I said nothing to the agent, but hackles erect, I hung up the phone, and opened the laptop to finish my stand alone thriller.

See, we were eleven books deep into our Louis Kincaid series at the time, and the series had done pretty good thus far.  We had a loyal fan base who really loved our character. We’d won some awards and cracked some bestseller lists. But here’s the thing: I had this idea for a serial killer book set in Paris and I couldn’t let go of it.  The bad guy — a professional cellist — haunted my dreams at night and kept my imagination afire during the day. I couldn’t get anything done on the series book.  The stand alone was a siren call.

Would it crash us on the rocks? Well, maybe. At the time, we were coming up on a contract renewal with our publisher and they were expecting a new Louis book. But Louis was, well,  being sort of recalcitrant. The story wasn’t moving along because he just wasn’t talking to me.  We clearly needed a vacation from each other.

So I took up with the killer cellist. The book poured out of me, uncharacteristically. (I am a really slow writer). And it was really good. I’m not being immodest here. Every writer just knows when they’re onto something.  it was solid plot-wise, filled with cool pretzelly stuff. It had a haunted protag, a prickly side-kick woman cop, and a charming villain who just had a hangup about garroting women with e-strings. It also had Paris’s catacombs, Miami’s decaying art deco hotels and crumbling Scottish castles.

What wasn’t to love?

The publisher grudgingly put it out.  No promotion, small press run and an ugly cover. (see above left for original cover and right for new cover when we re-issued it). It got some nice reviews and didn’t sell well (though it sells fine now as a back list title).  It remains one of my favorite books. We were dropped by the publisher not long after that.

Did I make a mistake?

My agent was probably just trying to tell me that we didn’t have the star-power name to write whatever we wanted, that we needed to rely on the safety our our serial reputation. Stay with what brung you to the dance, right? But no, I don’t think it was a mistake. Here’s my take-away for any of you out there who might be struggling with the fear that you might make a mistake:

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Okay, that’s not my words. Albert Einstein said them. But I believe them. If you write in fear of doing something wrong, you are doomed. Whether you are venturing into a new genre, experimenting with a different plot structure, or trying to write a short story for the first time, or just switching from the comfort of first person to third, you can’t be afraid to fail.

I had to write that book. I just had to.

But how do you know when you’re onto something good? How do you trust your instinct to stay with a story when your brain might be telling you to jump on the neo-fem-jeop bandwagon? (female in jeopardy but with a new twist, of course).

That’s a hard one. No one can answer that one except you. It’s part of that chimeric thing we call voice. Why would you want to be a poor man’s Jeff Deaver? Or another sad clone of Gillian Flynn? Write the book that only you can write.

Here’s something else to chew on: Sometimes doing something the wrong way is the only way to find the right way. Writing fiction is not a straight-forward process. Yes, there are basic tenets of what makes a story work — plot structure, dialogue, all the craft stuff we talk about all the time here. But even if you follow every “rule” to the letter, there’s no guarantee you’re going to succeed. If you concentrate on what is safe, what is trendy, what is sell-able (revelation: No one really knows what will sell) you will produce junk.

Maybe, after all your work, no editor will want to publish your book. Maybe, after you work hard to get it up on Amazon yourself, not enough readers will find it. Was it a mistake?

  • Not if it helped you grow as a writer. Maybe you rushed your book into print before it was ready (ie not well edited or formatted). Sloppy doesn’t cut it.
  • Not if it made you stronger. No one is ever going to be harder on you and than you are. Rejection comes with the business at every turn.  Mistakes help you grow a shell.
  • Not if it helps you find your way to your next story. And there always had to be a next book.

So, what’s my final takeaway from all this? What did I learn from my mistake of writing the stand alone thriller that no one was waiting for?

Don’t write the book you think might sell. You have to write the book that is tearing at your insides to get out.

Write the book that keeps you up at night.


Word Porn


It’s fun to see how words change over time. Their meanings transform, expand, and even metamorphose into a whole new meaning. These changes occur gradually over time. I find it fascinating how one word used by our ancestors means something totally different today.

While researching my historical “ladies” (female serial killers) for Pretty Evil New England, I ran across numerous differences in spelling and definitions.

The process of words changing over time is called semantic narrowing, which is a type of semantic change by which the meaning of a word becomes less general or inclusive than its earlier meaning. In other words, any change in meaning(s) of a word over time — also called semantic shift, lexical change, and semantic progression.

Common types of semantic change include bleaching (where the semantics of a word reduces while the grammatical content increases), broadening (when the semantics of a word becomes broader or more inclusive than its earlier meaning), metaphor, and metonymy (a figure of speech or trope in which one word or phrase is substituted for its closely related cousin, such as “crown” for “royalty”).

Semantic change may also occur when foreign speakers adopt English expressions for use in their own social and cultural environment.

“We say that narrowing takes place when a word comes to refer to only part of the original meaning. The history of the word hound in English neatly illustrates this process. The word was originally pronounced hund in English, and it was the generic word for any kind of dog at all. This original meaning is retained, for example, in German, where the word Hund simply means ‘dog.’ Over the centuries, however, the meaning of hund in English has become restricted to just those dogs used to chase game in the hunt, such as beagles…”

“Words may come to be associated with particular contexts, which is another type of narrowing. One example of this is the word indigenous, which when applied to people means especially the inhabitants of a country which has been colonized, not ‘original inhabitants’ more generally.”

— Terry Crowley & Claire Bowen, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2010

Etymologically, a hound dog translates to dog dog. 🙂

Another prime example of semantic narrowing is mouse and bookmark. Rather than an animal and a device used in place of a dog-earing a page, these words also refer to a computer mouse and online bookmark.

Where’s the Beef? (A nod to JSB’s post, Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less 😉 )

If you were a vegetarian in Anglo-Saxon times, you still ate meat. In Old English the word mete referred to food in general. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the meaning of meat began to narrow to mean animal flesh. Even though meat still refers to the contents of a nut (i.e. almond meat) that’s not the first image that springs to mind.

The original sense of meat survived in sweetmeats, an old term for a type of candied treat.

Girl Power

The word girl (historically written as gurlegrile, and gerle) meant “a child” or “young person” of either sex. Today, of course, girl refers to a young female, though women of all ages use the word to refer to close friends. “Girl, you’re not gonna believe what he did this time.”

Along those same lines, woman comes from the Old English word wīfman, which literally means “wife-man.” I know, ladies. Just let the sexist definition roll off your shoulders. After all, I’m referencing a time when man meant any human.

Strangely enough, wife stems from the Old English word wīf, meaning any “woman, female” instead of today’s meaning: a married woman.

Doe a Deer, a Female Deer

When we think of the word deer, we imagine graceful animals, with or without antlers, who frolic in the woods. The word, however, stems from the Old English word dēor, meaning “beast,” especially a four-legged animal unlike a bird or fish. By the 1400s, deer morphed into its current Bambi-like designation.

Should we strive to be an awful writer? 

Don’t answer too quickly. In the 1200s, awful meant “full of awe.” It also meant “inspiring awe” or “reverential.” Later, awful referred to “causing fear and dread,” which contributed to the current meaning of “bad, unpleasant.”

Awesome evolved in the opposite direction, from “inspiring awe” to “great, excellent.” Though in some cases, its original meaning still holds true.

My, What an Egregious Gentleman

Sounds incorrect, doesn’t it? But back in the early 1500s, egregious meant “distinguished” or “eminent.” It comes from the Latin word egregius, meaning “preeminent” with a literal sense of “[standing] out from the flock.”

Naughty Villain

First recorded around 1340-1400, naughty meant “wicked, evil.” It also meant “poor, needy.” Naughty is formed from the Old English naught, meaning “nothing” or “wickedness.” It wasn’t until centuries later that the word transformed to refer to a misbehaving child or an adult engaged in risqué behavior.

Reserved Seating for Vulgar Only

Sometimes semantic narrowing can lead to a negative connotation, a process called pejoration. If I said the word vulgar, you’d immediately think I was referring to someone (or something, as in a painting, photo, song, or language) who acted in an inappropriate manner. But vulgar stems from the Latin word vulgaris or vulgas, meaning “common people” or “ordinary.”

Over to you, my beloveds. Write a sentence that includes two or more of these words with their original definitions. Bonus points if you include more than five!