Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

TKZ is delighted to welcome Marcia Talley, the Agatha and Anthony award-winning author of eighteen mystery novels featuring sleuth Hannah Ives. Her short stories appear in more than a dozen collections and have been reprinted in several of The Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories anthologies. She is a past president of Sisters in Crime, Inc. Marcia lives in Annapolis, Maryland, but spends the winter months in a quaint Loyalist cottage in the Bahamas. Previous titles in the popular Hannah Ives series include Footprints to Murder, Mile High Murder and Tangled Roots. www.marciatalley.com

March, 2020. The pandemic caught up with me at Cocoa Village Marina in central Florida, locked down with my husband on a forty-two foot sailboat where we shared a space about the size of your average American bathroom suite.

The first half of my eighteenth Hannah Ives mystery, DONE GONE, had been written in a quiet corner of the marina’s spacious lounge—bottomless coffee pot! ice machine! microwave! restrooms! — but that luxury abruptly ended with the virus. Forced by stay-at-home orders to retreat to the boat, I set up office in the V-berth which was as far away as I could get from the computer where my husband was fighting off boredom by alternating between playing Civilization and binge watching Versailles.

At that stage of my writing, it’s usually time for a road trip to gather first-hand details on my locations.

Ha ha ha. Good luck with that.

Fortunately, the marina had a robust wireless connection, so I fired up my laptop and began to explore its possibilities by tapping keys.

Browsing through my bookmarks just now, I see that I Googled:

A Fleetwood Mac concert on October 24, 1997 at the Hollywood Bowl
Sending encrypted emails to the New York Times
The private company responsible for security at Hancock Airport in Syracuse, NY
Floor plans of the Cowley Shock-Trauma hospital center in Baltimore
Creole sayings popular in St Kitts
High end gas ranges
Suspension bridges in Ithaca, NY
Folk art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico
How to repossess an airplane
to name but a few.

This time, however, my Internet research needed to go way beyond Googling what kinds of flowers would still be blooming in a Maryland garden in late November. Or, determining whether it would still be light enough at 5:45 for Hannah to see someone skulking about outside her window, or would I have to position that person under a street lamp?
Google Street View turned out to be a lifesaver. It allowed me to “drive” from the Hampton Inn near the Syracuse airport to the house where Mary lives on Snowshoe Trail and be able to write with confidence that if I got to the overhead power lines, I’d gone too far. It helped find a town house on Clinton Street in Brooklyn in need of rehab, and after rehab was done, Zillow gave me a look inside that house, all the way from the ultra-modern penthouse bedroom suite down to the wine cellar.

Vacationers posting 5-star reviews to Travelocity assured me that the Carrier Circle Hampton Inn still had bathtubs in their guest rooms and, yes, you could make your own waffles at the complimentary breakfast bar.

To meet Dicey for the first time, Hannah needed a friendly coffee shop. Yelp obliged, and I found myself taking a virtual drive down College Avenue in Ithaca, past the bike shop and the 7-Eleven and parking in front of Collegetown Bagels where I could see from the street view images that I’d have to use the Park-and-Pay machine to do it.

A local newspaper database informed me that if I planned to have someone leap off a suspension bridge at nearby Ithaca College, it had better be before 2013 when the town suicide-proofed all the bridges with high-tensile steel mesh netting. ‘The students called the suicides “gorging-out” Dicey is able to lament.

While Google Street View offers just that, views from the street, switching to Google Earth gave me a super power I didn’t know I had: zooming in over Prince George Street in Annapolis from outer space. Is there enough room in Trish’s back yard to plant a colonial garden? Yes, indeed, but mind the wall at Cumberland Court.

I’m particularly grateful to the passenger who posted to You-Tube a video of her flight on a small, private plane out of Martin Airport near Baltimore, soaring over the magnificent twin spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. And to the poster of another video of a perfect winter landing on the runway at Hancock Airport in Syracuse. The executive terminals at those two airports are run by Signature Flight Services whose helpful website photos of their passenger lounges allowed Hannah and her sister, Georgina, to relax in comfortable loungers and know exactly where the coffee machine was located. And, bonus! In Syracuse, they even have a gas fireplace!

But most of all, I have to thank Mr Pegman from Google Street View, who, unencumbered by stay-at-home orders, was able to do a lot of the legwork for me.

The Creative Energy of Crowds

by James Scott Bell

I miss crowds.

I miss a packed Dodger Stadium in the bottom of the ninth, the fans on their feet, stomping and screaming and willing a hit.

Or the Hollywood Bowl on a summer evening, be it jazz or Beethoven, as long as I’m there with my wife, a bottle of wine, and lots of people.

How about a Broadway theater? Nothing like being front row, center, for a hit like Chicago with the legendary Gwen Verdon (as I was one night long ago.)

Heck, give me Langer’s Deli at lunchtime as I munch their famous #19 pastrami on rye, with the chatter of random conversation all around me.

I miss the bustle of the streets in downtown L.A. and midtown Manhattan. Now those places look like something out of I Am Legend.

Will crowds ever come back? Will people ever rub shoulders again without masks or hypochondria?

Will big cities recover their beating hearts?

There’s a split of opinion on this. In a post that went viral, investor James Altucher says the New York he loved is dead, and will not rise from the grave:

Now [NYC] is completely dead. “But NYC always, always bounces back.” No. Not this time. “But NYC is the center of the financial universe. Opportunities will flourish here again.” Not this time.

“NYC has experienced worse”. No it hasn’t.

A Facebook group formed a few weeks ago that was for people who were planning a move and wanted others to talk to and ask advice from. Within two or three days it had about 10,000 members.

Every day I see more and more posts, “I’ve been in NYC forever but I guess this time I have to say goodbye.” Every single day I see those posts. I’ve been screenshotting them for my scrapbook.

This sentiment rubbed one Jerry Seinfeld the wrong way:

There’s some other stupid thing in the article about “bandwidth” and how New York is over because everybody will “remote everything.” Guess what: Everyone hates to do this. Everyone. Hates.

You know why? There’s no energy.

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place.

You ever wonder why Silicon Valley even exists? I have always wondered, why do these people all live and work in that location? They have all this insane technology; why don’t they all just spread out wherever they want to be and connect with their devices? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why.

Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City. Feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again.

I get the part about energy. As a writer who spends quite enough time alone at the keyboard, I love the electric current of crowds. Sometimes I want people around me—people I don’t even know, people who are just there at the coffee house, the park, the restaurant, the beach. There’s scientific proof (“The science!”) that such activity is an aid to creativity.

Yeah, I can fake it a bit with Coffitivity. But that’s no substitute for the vibe of a crowded ITW bar (especially when Gilstrap is present). I want to be able to sit in NY’s Bryant Park at twilight, and people watch. I want to nosh chop suey in L.A.’s Central Market at noon as the life of the city churns around me.

It would be nice to someday see faces again, too.

Alas, even when large halls and stadiums finally open up, they’re sure to be tightly regulated. (The power to tightly regulate is a drug not easily kicked.) In anticipation of this, I’ve composed a new song to sing at Dodger Stadium during the seventh inning stretch:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the few.
Buy me some peanuts and Handi Wipes,
Keep me away from the talkative types
As I root, root, root in my face mask.
To sneeze or cough is a shame.
So stay six, eight, ten feet away
As I watch the game!

Do you miss crowds? Think they’ll ever come back?

Reader Friday: Where Will You Hide the Body?

You’ve just committed the perfect murder (all that research finally pays off!), but to be successful the cops can’t find the corpse. Your DNA, a stray hair, fibers, or fingerprints might lead them back to you.

Where will you hide the body?

Hint: it’s the location of the book you’re reading. Get those creative juices flowing! Where in that location will you stash the evidence?

Are you dumping the evidence (latex gloves, murder weapon, etc.) with the body?

If no, what’s the distance between the evidence and the corpse?


True Crime Thursday – Poor Choice for a Getaway Vehicle

by Debbie Burke


Photo from Wikipedia


Not enough evidence exists to declare a new crime trend but, from time to time, thefts of motorized shopping carts make the news.

Battery-powered carts are intended for customers with physical disabilities. Yet some thieves—often under the influence—use them as getaway vehicles.

Since the top speed of the typical cart is two miles per hour, none has been involved in high-speed pursuits. So far, the success rate of clean getaways is zero.

But hope springs eternal.

In May, 2009, thefts of motorized shopping carts occurred in two separate incidents. A Florida man was caught riding a stolen cart not far from the store. Two South Carolina men attempted a similar caper. Because the carts were valued at $2500, all were arrested for felonies. If they had stolen regular, non-motorized carts instead, the charges would have been misdemeanors.

In September 2014, a 46-year-old woman from Fruitport Township, Michigan, couldn’t get a ride and didn’t want to walk. So, she put six bags of allegedly stolen clothes, worth $600, in a Walmart motorized cart and took off. She was apprehended two miles away by police who ran her through the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN), along with the man accompanying her. Both had outstanding warrants.

In January 2015, a Eunice, Louisiana man, age 45, who claimed to have a broken foot loaded up a Walmart cart with a half-gallon of vodka, Mardi Gras cups, and other items and headed across the street to a truck stop parking lot. Surveillance video confirmed he had not paid for the items. When police arrested him, the party was cancelled.

In November 2019, a different Louisiana man, age 32, realized he was too drunk to drive his car and worried he might get a DWI. His solution: drive a Walmart motorized shopping cart instead. A Terrebonne Parish sheriff deputy spotted the scooter parked between two cars at a bar a half mile away. After further investigation, he arrested the suspect. The man was charged, not for DWI, but “unauthorized use of a moveable”, a felony.

The above cases might have had better success if they’d chosen a vehicle like Bonnie and Clyde’s V8 Ford for their getaways.

Bonnie Parker – public domain

Clyde Barrow – wikipedia










TKZers: What’s the most unusual getaway vehicle you’ve heard of? Was it successful?

Take A Long View on Research

By John Gilstrap

Some of the most common questions I encounter about the writing process involve research: Some version of “How do I find out about . . . ?”

We’ve talked in this space about ride-along programs for police agencies and other emergency response groups. There are some great conferences (when conferences are allowed to happen again) like Writer’s Police Academy, and many writer’s conferences feature tracks where technical professionals share details with the assembled group. But let’s be honest. The programs that have been cleared by the public affairs office are probably not going to give you the real scoop that you’re looking for.

Most people are afraid to speak on the record these days, especially to a writer. The fact that I’m not a journalist–people are never on the record with me–doesn’t necessarily loosen tongues, especially because the kinds of things I usually want to know are the things that public affairs offices specifically don’t want me to know. Still, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of Special Forces operators, federal agents, cops, intelligence officers, ex-cons, doctors, politicians and a host of other interesting people who will answer their phones when I call.

I thought I’d share my strategy for collecting sources.

Be 100% Trustworthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. In fact, I list it first because it is the only element of my research rules that is inviolable. These folks take a risk when they share inside scoop, and trust is as fragile as one misplaced word. I never drop names among my friends, and the Acknowledgements pages in my books never include sources who helped me unless I have received specific permission. More than a few of the names provided for those acknowledgements are are different than the ones I know them to be, and I never ask which is the pseudonym.

Try to meet everyone. True confession time. My personality meets the clinical definition of an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this bit of advice comes more easily for me than it will for many writers who exhibit the more typical introverted tendencies of an artist. But it’s doable.

Here’s the secret: Everyone is the hero of their own story in their minds, but most folks get few opportunities to talk about their jobs and their hobbies. And in my experience, most people are delighted to be asked. Just recently, I needed to get a document notarized on a Sunday evening in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The only notary we could find was one of the local bail bondsmen. I realized that I knew nothing about that business, so I started chatting him up. Given the hour and the day of the week–he left an evening with his family to help us out–I took a business card, gave him a challenge coin, and got permission to call him later if I had any questions. Two weeks later, he spent a half hour on the phone with me, explaining the ins and outs of being a bondsman. Fascinating.

When I chat with folks, I always tell them that they should free to push back if I ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, and I make it clear that we are never on any record–I’m just interested in what they do. With the exception of a couple steps too close to national security issues, no one has ever pushed back. (And there are ways around the national security push back, too.)

Avoid the cliches. Say you’re meeting a mortician. If you start with, “Eew, how do you work with dead people all day?” the conversation will likely be short and shallow. When I shared a hotel bar with a mortician a few years ago, I asked him why, at the last funeral I’d attended, the decedent’s fingertips had started to turn blue. He explained that there were several possible reasons, and that led to a broader discussion of embalming best practices. I’ve never had occasion to use any of that, but I still have his card, and I send him an email every time a new book comes out. I presume that if I call him sometime in the future, he’ll remember our chat and he’ll talk with me.

Hang out at the bar. When life returns to normal, find an excuse to hang out at a local hotel bar. Not the local watering hole where you know everyone and everyone knows you, but a bar where transients bide their time between the work day and bedtime. Sit at the bar–not at a table–and start a casual conversation. Something like, “Where are you from?” or “Stay away from the fried shrimp.” Sooner or later, if the spark of a conversation turns to something real, you’ll get around to “What do you do?” Bingo. You’re in.

They might not have a job that’s earth-shattering, but there’s something interesting to glean from everyone. Years ago, I was at a bar with a nurse who was attending a conference, and I asked, “What’s you’re most disgusting bedpan story?” It caught her off guard, she laughed and she shared an unprintable tale that involved geriatric incontinence and a slippery floor. I doubt I’ll ever put in a book, but at least I was more entertained than if I had sat there by myself.

Listen more than you talk. Back when I had my Big Boy Job, and more recently as I tour, I’m usually alone. Many others in a hotel bar are not. They are either part of a crowd, or they’re waiting for someone to go somewhere else. When two or more people are talking, there’s nothing wrong with eavesdropping. If what they’re talking about is interesting, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Do you all really work for Space X?” They’ll either shut you down or be complimented. In my experience, there’s not much middle ground.

On the other hand, if the people having the conversation are very engaged with each other, and telling interesting stories, become invisible. A few years ago, I attended a week-long class in Arizona on pistols and carbines. The sessions were all taught by former Special Forces operators from various agencies, and after they got a few drinks down their gullets, they started reminiscing about past operations they’d been on. They were aware of my presence, I suppose (I was sitting in plain sight, after all), but they’d either forgotten or they didn’t care. The stories themselves were interesting in their own right, but those weren’t my big take-away. I absorbed the banter among these guys, and how much they adored what they did–and some still do as private security contractors.

Never take notes. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s no reason to take notes on a casual conversation. The presence of a tape recorder or a note pad is a quick way to get vectored back to the public affairs officer. You can always make notes to yourself after the fact.

Take the long view. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the best research is often passive. You don’t have to limit your efforts to the project you’re working on. Rather, always be in data collection mode. Never be afraid to learn more about people and what they do–who they are. Use your accidental audience with interesting people to talk about things you would never find on Wikipedia or from the public affairs folks.

Hand out and collect business cards. Back in the days of my Big Boy Job, I carried two sets of cards. If I was doing association business, I only handed out that card–even if the inquiry was about my books. I’d tell them to visit my website for more information. In every other event when a card exchange seemed appropriate, I exclusively handed out my I’m-a-writer business cards.

Lock in the contact with a friendly email. At my first opportunity after meeting an interesting person and collecting their card, I write them an email telling them how much I enjoyed learning from them, and I double down on my intent to maybe one day call them.

What say you TKZ family? Any research tricks you’d like to share?



Five Easy Fixes For Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Back in my newspaper days, I applied for a job at the Miami Herald. I was working at the rival Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, but was flattered to be courted, so down I-95 I went. My portfolio was filled with sample clips. Great honking investigative stories. Profiles of the rich and famous. Thoughtful think pieces. Sitting in a big office overlooking Biscayne Bay, I watched the two big cheese editors as they flipped through the pages. Then they stopped and read. One guy looked up:

“I love this story. Was it your idea?”

I craned my neck to read the headline: TEN PLANTS EVEN YOU CAN’T KILL.

I nodded. “I’ve got a brown thumb.”

“We need more of this kind of stuff in our features section,” big editor said. “We’ll definitely be in touch.”

I didn’t get the job. But the experience did teach me that when it comes to getting someone’s attention, keep it short and sweet. Or as Jeff Goldblum says in The Big Chill about his job as a writer for People Magazine: “We only have one editorial rule. You can’t write anything longer than it takes your average person to take an average crap.”

So today, for a change, I’m going to write a short post. But I hope you find something useful in it. You don’t have to read it in your bathroom.


1. Use More Paragraphs. Many of us, when we write, let the words just flow and flow onto the page. It’s emotional, that first draft. But slow down and take a hard look at what your sentences look like on the physical page. A page that is full of big similar-looking blocks of type looks old-fashioned and well, intimidating. That’s okay if you’re Dickens or Donna Tartt. The rest of us should keep things more eye-appealing. On the other hand, a page of one-sentence paragraphs can look contrived, like you’re trying too hard to be neo-noir or the next James Patterson. (But please don’t ask me to explain what compelled William Faulkner to include a chapter in As I Lay Dying that consisted entirely of one line: My Mother is a Fish.) Be in charge of your readers’ emotional reactions to your prose. Use the occasional longer contemplative graph but break it up with short ones. Writing is like music — one note, either long or short, is boring. I wrote about this subject in length a while back. Click here. 

2. Don’t Use Stock Character Descriptions. Getting readers to picture characters the way you do in your head is important. And it’s hard. Heck, all good description is doubly hard because it comes from your own consciousness AND it has to be filtered through the prism of your characters’ consciousness. Whenever I read something like this: “She looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor” my teeth ache. That’s lazy and obvious. Plus, you can get in trouble if you use culture or age-specific references. ie: He was as hunky looking as Ansel Elgort (That’s Ansel above. Who knew?). You must find a fresh and point-of-view-specific way to describe your people. And if you ever EVER use “handsome,” “sexy” “gorgeous” or, God forbid, “green-eyed vixen” I will hunt you down and confiscate your Acer.


3. Get Rid of Useless Dialogue. The exact words you put in your characters’ mouths is precious. But it’s hard to write because great dialogue is essentially a sleight of hand. (or ear?) You have to convey the FEELING of real conversation but without all the dumb and dull stuff we say in normal life. So to that end, never waste space on mundane stuff that is best conveyed in simple narrative. Don’t write:

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Joe.”

“Yeah, I know,” Joe answered. “It’s been a while since I felt like coming back to the station.”

I nodded. “Things been tough?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered. “Had some family issues and been a little under the weather.”

{{{Yawn}}} Sometimes, narrative works better, especially if you can convey some backstory via a character’s thoughts (and illuminate your narrator!).

Word around the station was that Joe had some problems at home. I knew his wife Clara. We had dated years ago and I knew that when it came to men, she had the attention span of a five-year-old in a McDonald’s ball pit.  I knew Joe, too, and in the red of his eyes I could see the bottom of too many glasses of Jim Beam.

4. Ferret Out the Weasel Words. We all have them — awful crutch filler words that seem to come unbidden from our fingers as we type that first draft. They take up space, make our narrative wishy-washy. Here’s a quick list: Just. Some. Most. But. Very. And my personal favorite — Suddenly! Take the word out, and if the sentence still makes sense, well, you’ve killed a weasel. (Caveat: Sometimes a weasel word is needed in dialogue). Watch, too, for wasted action phrases or words i.e. She raised a hand and slapped him across the face. No, she slapped him. Also, look out for weasel words in description or feelings.

Don’t write this:

He saw the car coming toward him down the dark alleyway. He realized there was no room to move, maybe only ten feet wide, and there was no time for thought. He could only react.

Write this:

Headlights coming fast toward him, blinding him. A screech of tires, the crash of the fender as it hit the trash cans. Two second at most, that was all he had.  He jumped for the fire escape above.


5. Don’t Overstate The Obvious. This is a common problem I see in many of our First Page Critique submissions. The scene is full of tension; something dire is going on. Good! But you have to then trust the reader to GET IT the first time. The more emotional or action-packed the scene is, the more you need to keep things under control. Sure, you can write this:

The sailboat was being tossed by the churning green waves like a bottle lost at sea. Maggie gripped the tiller harder, her heart racing. She squinted into the driving hard rain, trying to make out what Chuck was doing up at the bow, but she could barely make out his form in the darkness. She thought he might be trying to pull the jib down, but she couldn’t be sure. She shivered and was afraid for a second she was going to be sick. She was so afraid, and she thought again that they never should have ventured out two hours ago when the sky had been so dark and threatening.

First, note how this looks on the page: one long paragraph composed of equal-length sentences. But this is an action scene! Time for short and choppier rhythm, right? (See No. 1) And don’t gild the emotional lily. Maybe something like this:

Maggie couldn’t see a thing through the knife-slashing pelt of the rain. Two hands on the tiler now, too afraid to risk even a quick wipe across the face. She squinted toward the bow but Chuck was just a blur of gray against the mad-flap white of the jib. The sailboat groaned and pitched to starboard and she choked down another rise of nausea. Why the hell had they been so stupid? She had seen the low black clouds as they set out two hours ago. She had been stupid. Stupid to trust Chuck.   

Remember: The more emotional or tense the scene, the more controlled the writing should be. Don’t let your writerly emotions swamp your story boat.

And after that awful last sentence, I should probably add a Number 6 tip here about straining for metaphors, but I promised I’d be short and sweet today.


Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part II

And we’re back with Part II of Tiny Creatures deconstruction. In Part I, we looked at characterization, plotting, pacing, and the importance of raising story questions. In this segment, let’s narrow in on story structure, scene development, character arc, word choices, and story rhythm.

First, a quick review of Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part I to allow you to see the full character arc. Within a four-part story structure, each Part of the character arc equals 25%.

Part I: The Setup

  • introduce the protagonist
  • hook the reader
  • setup 1st Plot Point through foreshadowing and establishing stakes
  • establish empathy for the hero

In the first quartile, Tiny Creatures introduced the viewer to our tiny hero in an empathetic way and we bonded with her right away. We also learned about Raven, who we believed was the villain. And the writer setup the 1st Plot Point — a life or death chase which defined the stakes.

Part II: The Response

  • protagonist reacts to new goals/stakes/obstacles revealed by the 1st Plot Point
  • hero doesn’t need to act heroic yet
  • she retreats, regroups, experiences doomed attempts
  • remind the reader/viewer of the antagonistic forces at play

Tiny Creatures excelled in this area as well. Remember when Raven chased our tiny hero around the cabin? That scene established the life or death stakes, and Miss Rat reacted by fleeing. She also feared the human. Which is exactly how she should act in the second quartile of the character arc.

Part III: The Attack

  • Midpoint information/awareness causes the protagonist(s) to change course
  • hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed
  • not merely reacting anymore
  • hero also ramps up battle with inner demons

A perfect example of this occurred in Tiny Creatures when our tiny hero summoned the courage to face her fears and freed the raven from the fisherman’s trap.

Now, let’s return to the deconstruction. Keep in mind, we’re still in Part III of the character arc.

Tiny Creatures, Episode 6 Deconstruction Part II

Once released from the trap, Raven cocks his head at the rat. Their gazes lock, linger. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky.

The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn Miss Rat to get out of sight (Remember all those intriguing characteristics of the raven we learned in The Setup? Now they take on new meaning. Raven’s intellect actually compliments Miss Rat’s strengths, and together they morph into a winning team). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.

As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + story questions. Will our heroes face this beast?)

Camera pans out to a body of water in the Everglades, cleverly disguised, and we’re not sure why. (We’ll keep watching to find out. Which expertly demonstrates why it’s important to withhold information.) “But some animals aren’t always welcome. An exotic species introduced by humans, the Burmese python doesn’t naturally belong in the Everglades. Despite this fact, it has everything it requires to multiply and dominate these delicate waterways.” (Notice the harsh “dominate” paired with “delicate.” Perfect word choices send subtle clues of emanate danger.)

The slow and agonizing action of the Burmese python sliding into our tiny hero’s drainpipe would tremble even the steeliest heart. (That image alone proves my point about the Tiny Creatures Netflix series — the writer has mastered the art of suspense. Showing a murder or attack is far less suspenseful than the moments leading up to it. Examples: A lone pinecone crunches under the weight of a stranger’s boot behind you on the hiking trail. The flick of a butane lighter amidst the darkened forest around your property while you sip an evening cocktail at the picnic table. You get the picture. ?)

Sampling the air, the python flicks its tongue. “An intense odor is coming through the pipes.” <dramatic pause> “It can smell a rat.” (Raising the stakes even higher — our heroes don’t stand a chance against this formidable villain.) The python slithers through the drainpipe. “Although the Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, they’re surprisingly agile climbers. To shift their heavy, elongated frame, specialized muscles under their belly propel them forward.” (This smattering of backstory shows how skillful and deadly this predator is AND drives the plot. Lesson: Any and all backstory should be employed with purpose. If it doesn’t benefit the plot, don’t include it.)

<cue dangerous music as the python flows through the dark pipe>

“Continuously flicking its forked tongue, it analyzes its surroundings.” The python emerges from the toilet in the shack (paying off an earlier scene that showed our tiny hero traversing the same route). “The snake can taste (“taste” is another perfect word choice) chemical trails in the air left behind by passing prey.” (Gulp. He referred to our tiny hero as prey! This scene conjures images of the snake swallowing our tiny hero, and our fear mounts with anticipation.)

<cue music that evokes urgency> Camera focuses on the sweet rat munching on a crumb, unaware of the dangerous intruder.

“Instead of adopting an ambush attack, it likes to stalk its unsuspecting prey slowly and silently. Able to open its mouth five times wider than its own head, the rat is an easy meal for the python.” (Can you feel the stakes raising more and more?)

The camera flashes between the snake and our sweet little hero.

“Using heat-sensitive pits lined along its upper lip, the python possesses infrared vision. This allows it to detect warm things.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)

The python slithers across the floor as Miss Rat climbs up to a workbench. The close-up of a fly adds to the chilling scene. (We’re glued to that screen as a gazillion questions race through our mind — the epitome of nail-biting suspense.)

Camera gives us a quick peek of outside the shack. “The fisherman has grown up on the Everglades, and he still honors the good ol’ days.” Near the window of the shack, a transparent plastic bag holds water and five coins. “Sunlight passing through the bag acts like a prism, scattering light in all directions. The idea is that it dazzles and confuses flies, keeping them away.” (We think this is just an interesting tidbit of backstory . . . until the camera zooms in on our tiny hero near the bag.) The camera narrows on the python. “But it might not be just the flies that get confused (python’s character flaw).” The snake approaches the bench. “The python has the advantage of not only seeing the rat but also feeling it.” (The writer could’ve used “senses” instead of “feeling,” but the later invokes more terror.)

The python slithers up the wooden leg of an upholstered chair—painfully slow—and we chew our cuticles raw. “Detecting the heat signature as far as three feet away, the rodent appears illuminated.” (Another perfect word choice. “Rodent” ratchets up the tension. Mean ol’ snake doesn’t know our tiny hero like we do!)

Unaware of the danger, Miss Rat munches on another tasty morsel.

“The python slithers ever closer. Its target lies dead ahead.” (2nd Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 62.5%)

Raven lands on the outside windowsill above the bench, but the window is closed. “The raven notices the snake (MRU motivation) and calls out to warn the rat (MRU reaction). But it’s no use. Our tiny hero’s loud munching overpowers the raven’s call (MRU motivation). Time for more drastic action (Scene Goal = Get inside the shack).”

Raven bangs on the glass pane with his strong beak (MRU reaction) to no avail (Scene Conflict = Glass won’t shatter).

“The snake’s hearing is sensitive only to low frequency sounds (villain’s character flaw). And so, it remains unperturbed the raven’s tapping.” With the Burmese python on the cushion of the chair near the workbench, the writer delivers the final blow. “Fixating on its victim, it retracts its body to strike position.” (Tension reaches a boiling point — we cannot look away! + MRU motivation)

Still frantically trying to get inside, Raven slides his beak around the edges of the windowpanes, hammers at the glass, and screeches at high decibels (MRU reaction).

Nothing works. (Suffocating suspense; we’re paralyzed by fear.)

Camera zooms in on the bag suspended next to our tiny hero. “The hanging water bag has gradually heated in the sun (MRU motivation). Now the snake senses two warm targets (MRU reaction + Scene Disaster). Any small movement from either will trigger the snake’s predatory instinct to strike.”

With his bill Raven hammers the crevice between the doors of a shudder-style window (Sequel Reaction).

Helpless, our hero’s furry back faces the python (Sequel Dilemma). Murder is afoot! But right when things look their bleakest (All-is-Lost Moment perfectly placed between 2nd Pinch Point & 2nd Plot Point), the raven busts through the window.

“The raven’s sudden appearance has foiled the python’s ambush.” The snake slithers down the chair leg (MRU motivation). From the safety of the workbench Raven scolds the python as it flees across the floor (MRU reaction + this scene pays off the earlier scene where we learned about the snake’s stomach muscles + Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal: keep his little buddy safe).

With our tiny hero safe from the python (MRU motivation), Raven hops back on the windowsill (MRU reaction) just as the fisherman enters the shack. The Burmese python in his shack (MRU motivation) causes him to snatch a grabber tool off the wall (MRU reaction).

“Usually the cryptic nature of these snakes makes them hard to detect in the grass. But in the shack, there’s nowhere to hide.”

With the mechanical grabber, the fisherman grips the snake by its head and bundles it up in a long pillowcase. “Expertly catching the snake, the fisherman plans to take it far away.” He loads the python-filled-sack on the boat (MRU motivation). “The rat retreats to the safety and protection of her home (MRU reaction).”

<cue peaceful music as we roam the Everglades> The narrator adds a few lines about the rich landscape (weaving in backstory and allowing the viewer a well-needed break = expert pacing) as the fisherman returns home. “The waters and banks of the Everglades provide humans with endless opportunities.” Inside the shack, the fisherman turns on a gas burner and sets the tea kettle on top. (A close-up of the flame forewarns a potential hazard.)

“After an exhaustingly long day on the water, the fisherman’s work isn’t done yet. He sets about preparing and maintaining his much-loved equipment, working late into the early hours of the morning.” (2nd Plot Point, perfectly placed at 75%)

Our tiny hero curls up in her boot and falls asleep.

The fisherman makes and repairs lures at the workbench. “Such delicate work requires a lot of focus.” He scrubs a hand across his weary eyes. “But, as the saying goes, you shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends.” (forewarns danger + further sets up Climax.)

Our tiny hero peeks out from the boot at the fisherman, who leans back in his chair. Light snoring fills the room (MRU motivation). “A rat never passes on an opportunity to fuel up, and she quickly collects crumbs dropped by the fisherman.” (MRU reaction)

Wicked cute close-up of our tiny hero munching away on a snack (just sayin’). “The noise of the whistling kettle draws the attention of the rat, who anxiously watches as a gust of wind through the opened window ignites a disaster.”

The tail end of a paper towel roll catches fire — <cue dramatic music> — and a flaming sheet falls to the floor. (Climax begins)

Character Arc Part IV: The Resolution

  • hero summons courage and growth to come up with a solution
  • overcomes inner obstacles
  • conquers the antagonistic force
  • all new information must be referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by this point to avoid deus ex machina.

“Unaware of the catastrophe spreading around him, the fisherman slips into a deeper sleep.” Music from his ear buds lulls him into tranquility.  

Smaller fires break out everywhere (MRU motivation).

“The rat realizes she must act fast if she is to save her home (Scene Goal).” She scans the room. But she’s so tiny (Scene conflict). She scampers up to a wooden rack of pots and pans suspended from the ceiling, and chews through the rope (using the same behavior she learned at the Midpoint when she freed the raven from the trap; thus, this scene also pays off that earlier scene + MRU reaction). Pots and pans crash on the floor.

“The rat’s actions fall on deaf ears.” (Scene Disaster)

Like a black beacon of hope, Raven emerges through the smoke-fueled haze (Sequel Reaction). He lands on the fisherman’s crossed leg, but he doesn’t wake. <cue dramatic music> He screeches and squawks. The fisherman is out cold (Sequel Dilemma).

“The raven calls loudly. It appears to be trying to help the fisherman (nice role reversal, right? Which also illuminates Raven’s true character—3rd Dimension of Character). The raven is not giving up. This situation calls for more drastic measures.” (Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal = save his little buddy and the fishing shack)

Fire dances dangerously close to the fisherman’s leg as our two heroes communicate, as if forming a plan. But Miss Rat has done all she can. It’s up to Raven now.

While the rat looks on in horror, Raven’s gaze follows the wire from the ear buds to the human’s chest. Flames grow higher around the fisherman (MRU motivation + Scene Conflict).

<cue louder dramatic music> “Time to get physical.” Grabbing the wire in his beak, he tugs and pulls, but it’s no use. Those ear buds won’t budge (Scene Disaster). Nonetheless, he preserves. With all his might Raven muscles one last jerk (Sequel Reaction) and the ear buds pop loose.

“The fisherman’s woken to an alarming spectacle (Sequel Dilemma).” Raven escapes to the windowsill (Sequel Decision = survival) as the fisherman jolts to his feet. Our tiny hero ducks out of sight. “Fires are common in the Everglades. And luckily, he is well-prepared for such an emergency.” The human extinguishes the blaze.

“The heroic efforts of both the rat and the raven meant the fire didn’t get the chance to cause too much damage. The human has cheated death. And he has the rat and the raven to thank.” (Nice twist, right?)

The camera narrows in on both these amazing animals. Raven takes to the sky as our sweet rat climbs down to the floor (Scene Goal = to rest after a job well done).

“But the rat is left without a home.” Camera zooms in on her charred boot (Scene Conflict + setup of the ending). “She must find a new place to rest her weary head.” Our tiny hero climbs into a duffle bag, and her tail slips beneath the partially opened zipper.

Come morning, the sun rises to a new day.

“Troubled by the fire, the fisherman seeks solace on the water.” He collects his equipment, including the duffle bag (Scene Disaster), and sets off on his boat to clear his mind.

Our tiny hero’s nose twitches out a small opening in the bag. As the raven’s gaze follows his buddy being swept away by the human, his lower bill slacks. “Concerned by where the fisherman is taking the rat, the raven follows closely behind from the air.” (Sequel Reaction)

Camera pans out to show the vastness of the Everglades (indicates danger + story questions. Where will our tiny hero end up?). The boat putts through an open channel.

“The fisherman has an unexpected stowaway. But luckily for the rat, she comes from a long line of seafaring ancestors.” (This fact comforts the viewer and begins the setup of the denouement.)

Camera narrows on our tiny hero’s innocent face, shadowed by the duffle bag (Sequel Dilemma).

“As the boat engine stops, he sets up his fishing equipment.” The fisherman unzips the duffle bag but doesn’t spot the rat. “The rat owes a lot to the fisherman. The shack has provided a shelter to her and any future offspring.” (Perhaps the human isn’t all bad after all.)

Our tiny hero crawls out of the bag and into unfamiliar surroundings. Still, she remains quite perky (3rd dimension of character — her true character. And we love her even more.)

He casts. Casts again and again.

“All over the Everglades animals do what they must to survive.”

Camera flashes to the alligator, the python, the iguana, the fly, and then a wide pan from above showing the raven soaring toward the boat with his majestic outstretched wings. (Fantastic cinematography! Which novelists can also create by etching a vivid mental picture in the reader’s mind.)

“In a delicate ecosystem such as this, a balance between predator and prey is critical.”

Raven lands on the boat (Sequel Decision = ensure his little buddy’s safety).

“Through their trials and tribulations, the rat and the raven have developed a mutual respect and understanding for one another. These two lonely souls have formed an unlikely bond, proving that no matter where you’re from or who you are, it’s your actions that truly define you.” Silhouettes of our two heroes perched on the side of the boat.

“The once great rivalry that existed between them has transformed into an even greater friendship.”

Raven and Miss Rat turn to face each other as the sun sets in the background, brilliant orange and blue hues splashed across the horizon.

“Now with the support of one another, anything is possible.” (What a great last line! We leave the story with our hearts overflowing with love for these two incredible animals.) And the denouement is complete.

Highlights of the Writer’s Skill


The writer locked us in a stranglehold from the very beginning by raising the Central Dramatic Story Question (shown in Part I). Which became the jumping off point for more and more story questions. Each scene written with a purpose, to either setup a future scene or pay off an earlier one. The proper stringing of scenes ensures the viewer’s attention would never waver.

Also notice how the writer never loosened the death-grip around our throats for more than a brief moment (perfectly placed respites). And through characterization (shown in Part I), the writer periodically forced the viewer to change our perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we encountered. Most importantly, perfect plotting kept us engaged from the first sentence to the last.

What’s not to love about Tiny Creatures?


Have Your Characters Say What You Wish You’d Said

by James Scott Bell

We’ve all been there. We’re driving home from a party where we were engaged in robust conversation. Someone said something boneheaded and we thought, That was a boneheaded thing to say. But not wishing to hammer that very obvious nail, we did not reply.

Now, halfway home, it comes to us. The perfect comeback! Witty, wise, pithy. If only we could go back in time! We’d be like the legendary members of the Algonquin round table. (“He and I had an office so tiny, that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery.” – Dorothy Parker.)

There’s an entire Seinfeld episode based on this premise. George is at a Yankees’ board meeting where a platter of shrimp is served. He over-enthusiastically consumes the crustaceans, prompting another board member, Reilly, to remark, “Hey, George. The ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” The other members laugh. George can think of nothing to say in return.

Only later does he come up with what he thinks is the perfect comeback. “Oh, yeah? Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!” George’s friends are not impressed and offer alternatives. “No!” George insists. “It’s Jerk Store!”

Now George has to elaborately recreate the encounter. Reilly has since moved to Akron, Ohio to work for Firestone. George sets up an entire meeting there to discuss a Snow Tire Day at Yankee Stadium. He also arranges for a platter of shrimp to be served. He starts stuffing his face, and sure enough, Reilly makes the same crack. George stands and fires his comeback, but is unprepared for the comeback to the comeback.

George: Oh yeah, Reilly? The Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!

Reilly: So what? You’re their all-time bestseller!

Leaving George hung out to dry once again.

This fate does not have to befall your characters, for you have the luxury of time and reflection to give them wit on the spot.

Now, let me state up front that wit does not always mean funny. Many times it is, but the real basis of wit is sharpness. It gets the point across crisply, memorably.

For example, in Casablanca Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is talking to Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a low-level schemer. At one point Ugarte says, “You despise me, don’t you?”

Rick says, “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”

That’s sharp, memorable, and perfectly in keeping with Rick’s character.

Which is the key. You don’t want to force wit where it doesn’t belong. It needs to sound like smoothing the character would really say.

Curving the Language

I took a comedy writing class years ago taught by the late Danny Simon. Danny was Neil’s older brother and a veteran of the early days of television. Both Neil and Woody Allen credit Danny Simon with teaching them how to write narrative comedy.

One of Simon’s primary lessons was never to write “joke jokes.” The comedy had to be something the characters would actually say in the moment. So to make a line funny and memorable, he advised “curving the language.”

To do this, you write a line as it comes to you, which is usually in a plain-vanilla sort of way. Then you play with it—you curve it—until it takes on a wittier shape.

I’ll demonstrate with a line from a Lawrence Block short story. Two cops are talking about a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. One cop asks the other how ugly is this guy?

Now, the plain-vanilla line could have been, “Really ugly.”

Not very snappy, is it? How about, “God made him really ugly.”

Keep curving. “God made him as ugly as he could.”

Getting there, but not quite. The actual line in the story is:

“God made him as ugly as he could, then hit him in the face with a shovel.”

That’s golden.

As a rule of thumb, try to put one gem of a line in each of the four quadrants of your novel: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, and Act 3. Each time it happens, the character will jump off the page.

So try this in your novel:

  • In each act identify several lines of dialogue where your character conveys strong emotion or opinion.
  • Curve the language of each line, making them snap and sparkle.
  • Check to make sure it doesn’t feel forced, but is in keeping with the character you’ve created. Choose and use the best ones!

Characters who “jump off the page,” who are full and rounded and, at times, unpredictable in what they both say and do, make for a truly memorable reading experience. That’s what makes fans out of readers!


This post is adapted from my new craft book, Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page. It is available in PRINT, as well as KINDLE, KOBO, and NOOK.

Fun with Phones

Good morning! Author Lisa Black is joining us today. Lisa is a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida.  Every Kind of Wicked, the sixth installment in her series featuring forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner, involves the duo tracking down a nest of scammers and will be available beginning August 25. Today Lisa is going to discuss — what else? — scamming! Lisa, the floor is yours. Joe Hartlaub

We all get them, every day. You answer with ‘hello’ and there’s that telltale dead air before either a recording starts or someone comes on to tell you that your computer is sending out error messages/your grandson is in jail/you owe the IRS back taxes and the marshals are on their way to your house/we can sell you pain meds or medical equipment over the phone via our doctors on staff or you need an extended car repair warranty.

Most of you are smart and immediately hang up. I dial ‘1’ to speak to a customer service representative.

If I’m in a hurry, I wait until they say ‘hi this is Shteve from Credit Card Services/Microsoft/DirecTV, how are you today?” and then I say in firm, bright tones, “You are a thief and a liar and should be ashamed of yourself.” For the record, those are the harshest words I have ever uttered to someone I wasn’t married to. But I figure if it can be the one straw that breaks the shell of one call center worker who still has some shred of conscience, then I’ve done the world, and maybe that person, a service.

If I’m feeling more empathetic that day, I might say, “I know it’s hard to get a good job where you are, but that doesn’t make it okay to steal money from vulnerable people.”

Where they are could be anywhere in the world (and they will never tell you) due to the ability to spoof numbers and local area codes. In 2006 American and Canadian expats were arrested while running a call center in Costa Rica. In 2018 Floridian Adrian Abramovich was fined $120 million for robocalling, funneling victims to a call center in Mexico for travel discounts from Hilton and Marriott—except those companies knew nothing of it. India seems to lead the world in phone scams specifically (whereas mid-Africa works in social media friending scams and Russia/Ukraine/China simply hacks what they want) and probably for a simple reason: they speak English. The language is a required school subject in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the second most common language in India. In actually the only pleasant conversation I’ve ever had with a scam caller, I asked one how he felt about the disputed region of Kashmir. After a moment’s thought he said they ought to be granted independence. I thanked him for sharing, but still wasn’t going to give him my credit-card number. He said “okay” and hung up.

But if I have plenty of time and I’m sitting in front of a computer, then I Google ‘fake credit card numbers.I feed those to the ‘customer service representative’ until they either give up and disconnect, or turn nasty. Be warned, bare-knuckled obscenity is not a taboo in call center culture. Male and female alike will use language that would make shock jocks blush. That was made clear to me the time I kept some IRS scammers on the line for 45 minutes while I worked at my desk, pretending to drive to the bank that minute to withdraw $7,000 and then proceed to a Walgreens to convert it to iTunes cards. The sudden affinity the U.S. government has shown for iTunes and ApplePay cards is never explained…but at any rate, I had to insist that Walgreens didn’t have $7000 iTunes cards. Communications broke down, and I got an earful.

Sometimes—very rarely—they might call back to deliver a few more choice insults. Usually they won’t. Time is money and they aren’t going to waste a second of it on someone who’s not going to pay off.

What can be done? First of all, and I speak from personal experience, you can get free NoMoRoBo on your landline and inexpensive apps for your cells, which will weed out most of the automated calls. I have Robokiller on my cell. It responds with prerecorded schticks meant to provide hilarious recordings of spam callers getting punked…but in my experience, the spam callers never fall for it. I don’t know if they can electronically detect the app, or if they’ve just heard the responses enough to recognize them from the first word.

Prosecuting the call centers is a more complicated matter. Since the numbers are spoofed, reporting them to the Do Not Call List does not help. Authorities have had better success tracking some of the $10 billion Americans lost to scam phone callers just last year. They don’t publicize their methods but in recent years, arrests have skyrocketed. Indian cyber crime detectives, working with the U.S. and other countries, arrested over two hundred people in one area of their country for running call centers which raked in over $50K a day, mostly from Americans and Canadians. In another case, 24 people in the U.S. are currently sitting in jail for running an IRS scam in which they would launder the money an Indian call center wrung out, one prepaid gift card or wire transfer at a time. So there is hope.

But in the meantime, of course, never give your credit card number (or any other number) to someone who called you. Don’t friend the Ukrainian supermodel or silver fox military contractor looking for love. And never click on the link.

But if you have the time to waste their time, by all means, waste away.

If you’d like to read some true cases:







Reader Friday: Name an Activity You’ve Never Tried

What’s one activity you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t?

This activity might include writing in a different genre, bungee jumping, paragliding, skydiving, public speaking, writing from a new perspective, or scaling the side of a mountain.

What prevented you from doing this activity?

Age should never be a deterrent, but let’s face it, older bones may be more brittle, eyesight may not be as sharp . . . blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.

With that in mind, if you were twenty years younger, would you try this activity? What is it about this activity that appeals to you?