Crime Writing — Do You Like Yours Hardboiled or Noir?

“Your crime writing is dark. Very dark. Do you consider it noir? Hardboiled? How do you slot your sub-genre?”

A podcaster recently put this to me. I was stumped. I knew my stuff was tragic and gore, but I had no strong concept of what noir and hardboiled really were—although I’d heard the terms many times. I thought they were just for the marketing department, but I made it my mission to find out.

What’s old is new again, hardboiled and noir. That certainly seems the case in resurrecting old crime story classics. Look at the resurgence of Agatha Christie. Netflix writers now idolize Elmore Leonard as the dialogue man. Say the names Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Mickey Spillane, and you’ll find an old-style legion of fans ready to tear this book house down.

Women aren’t excluded from the Hardboiled &Noir Club. No, ma’am. Besides Dame Agatha (I kneel before her), there are Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, and (still going) Sara Paretsky. In their footsteps today, we have Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, and the intriguing hardboiled/noir writer Christa Faust.

So what’s the difference between noir and hardboiled, if there is any? From what I’ve just read, I’d say hardboiled is dark and noir is much darker. Noir is the French word for black. The term “noir” is somewhat more recognized in film, where hardboiled (hard-boiled) is common to print.

Either way, each term has its tropes and sub-genre idiosyncrasies. At its core, noir is dark and grim. Noir is urban gothic—hopeless. Hardboiled is gritty and unsentimental. Hardboiled is more like an action movie with a character-driven plot where the protagonist triumphs as best as they can.

Megan Abbot is one smart lady. She’s considered one of today’s masters in noir and hardboiled. I read a fascinating interview with Ms. Abbott where she defined “hardboiled” vs “noir” crime fiction. Here’s her quote:

Hardboiled is distinct from noir, though they’re often used interchangeably. The common argument is that hardboiled novels are an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives of the 19th century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is somewhat of a fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing, or close to it, and order, to a certain extent, has been restored. ‘Law and Order’ is a good example of modern hardboiled.

Noir is different. In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now when certain structures of authority no longer make sense. We wonder, ‘Why should we abide by them?’ Noir thrived in the 40s after the Great Depression and during the war. It was popular during Vietnam and Watergate and is on the rebound again. ‘Breaking Bad’ is a good noir example.

It’s hard to sum-up noir and hardboiled better than this. Maybe another quote adds to clearing the smoke-filled alleys. The protagonist in noir must himself (herself) be part of the scummy world. The protagonist in hardboiled is a white knight in a world of scum.

Historically, hardboiled crime writing set itself on the perpetually-rainy, mean streets of American cities that were darkened by something more than night. Conventional tropes were the loner detective with a fedora and trench coat whose oak-desked, ceiling-fanned office operated in the low rent district. He looked out on the city of danger through Venetian blinds, chain-smoked, and was never far from a bottle of Scotch. The rebel gumshoe with a moral code spoke in nuanced dialogue saying “dames” for women, “gams” for legs, and “gat” for his gun.

Noir, on the other hand, sees little good in the world. Basically, everything and everyone is F’d. Noir crime writing examines psychological instability in people and their institutions. Being dangerously unstable is the key characteristic of noir protagonists. It might be a key characteristic of successful noir writers, too.

Examining noir and hardboiled isn’t complete without looking at these sub-genre’s origins. This isn’t a chicken-or-egg thing. It’s generally accepted that hardboiled came first and expanded into noir. Some may argue differently, and that’s what the comment section is for.

A hundred years ago, Brits were the kings and queens of crime fiction. Edgar Allen Poe paved the way for Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to refine the cozy mystery genre. Here, scenes took place in confined trains and enclosed mansion libraries where the sleuth deducted the facts and announced the villain.

Americans, being the troublesome colonists they’ve always been, rebelled against criminally-correct plots and characters. America was shaped by an unregulated frontier that found its way to the roaring speakeasies of Chicago and the cold, cold heart of the Big Apple. Naturally, the North American public wanted a new brand of perpetrator and a hardboiled crime-fighter to match.

A Pinkerton detective shaped the hardboiled crime fiction world in the 1920s. Dashiell Hammett’s protagonist, Continental Operative, fought crime in the streets without sentimental emotion or official sanction. In 1923, Hammett teamed with a pulp magazine called Black Mask. This opened the door for hardboiled-cum-noir greats like Raymond Chandler with his Philip Marlowe character and Mickey Spillane with Mike Hammer.

Today, we have unique twenty-first-century hardboiled writers and characters. Michael Connelly has done well with Harry Bosch, to say the least. So has Lee Child with Jack Reacher.

And there’s a new girl on the block who writes about as dark and action-packed as you can get. Christa Faust has the chops to make her hardboiled noir, and she’s got the creds. Christa grew up riding subways and walking New York streets. She worked Times Square peep shows and practiced as a professional dominatrix. Now, Christa Faust is published by Hard Case Crime.

Yes, what’s old is new again. Hardboiled and noir are alive and well in crime writing city. That’s a good thing. And to answer the podcaster’s question, “How do you slot your sub-genre? Hardboiled or noir?” I have to say poached on the soft-runny side with a slice of dry, whole wheat toast. I’m an optimistic sort with a healthy infection of unorthodox attitude, and I’m not a psycho noir-person.

What about you Kill Zoners? Do you like your crime writing hardboiled or noir?


Garry Rodgers is a retired cop and coroner. Now, he’s an indie crime writer whose personal experiences with the light and dark side of life find their way into the pages of his books. Garry is about to release the seventh publication in his twelve-part, based-on-true-crime series. Watch for Beyond The Limits on ePlatforms this month.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island at the Canadian west coast. He hosts a popular blog at and occasionally checks his Twitter account @GarryRodgers1. Garry’s Amazon Author Page is open 24/7 as well.

Smart Edit – An Overview

Smart Edit: An Overview
Terry Odell

Smart EditLast time, I mentioned I used a program/app called Smart Edit to fine tune my manuscripts. I said I’d go into more detail if there was interest, and frankly, I’m in editing mode on the new book, and don’t have the brain cells to spare to come up with a different topic.

**Note. I am simply sharing my opinions and how I use the program. I get zilch from the company for my posts.

Those of us who don’t have an unlimited budget rely on the “tricks” and for me, Smart Edit helps tighten the manuscript, and finds things my eyes have missed.

I have the ‘inside Word’ add on, so I can work right in the manuscript, but there’s also a copy-and-paste version. One thing I like about the ‘inside Word’ version is everything is previewed in context, so if it’s fine as is, you can skip to the next. If you want to make changes, you click on that result and it’ll take you right to that passage in the manuscript.

The program (sorry, but to me, an ‘app’ is something like Angry Birds, so that’s the term I’m going to use) runs checks on a variety of potential pitfalls. The obvious is “repeated words” which, despite my having my own checklist of crutch words, always finds new ones. There’s also “repeated phrases.”

Beyond that are searches for misused words, redundancies, risqué words, clichés, adverbs, proper nouns (good for finding those places where you’ve written “Helper” instead of “Hepler” for your protagonist), and looking back at Elaine’s post last week, speaker tags.

One thing to understand. SmartEdit doesn’t edit. It points out things you, as the author, are in control of, and every decision is yours to make. It’s not perfect, but I’ve found it’s a good starting point.

Here are some examples (You should be able to enlarge them by clicking.)
In addition to overused words and phrases, here are some of the other searches it will perform

Smart EditAnd some of my results:
This was a search for adverbs.

Smart Edit Adverb search
And for cliches
Smart Edit Another search that can be helpful is dialogue tags, although this is one where the program isn’t as accurate. It’s flagged words as tags that aren’t written as such. Again, the user is responsible for checking. (This was taken from a 3500 word short story run, which is why the overall counts are low. It does go back to Elaine’s post about using said, which is my go-to dialogue tag.)

Smart EditThe program doesn’t correct your grammar. I know people use other programs for that, although I don’t usually have trouble with grammar, so I’m more interested in streamlining and clarity. I beta tested a grammar program once, and it didn’t get anything right.

I’m paying an editor, you say. Why can’t I let her find and fix these? I could, but most editors charge by the hour. I know of one who charges by the word. If I can spend those hours taking care of a lot of these excesses, it saves time—and what can be significant money.There are other editing programs out there, but I’ve found SmartEdit works best for me. While I have a list of my words to destroy, somehow, new once crop up in each manuscript, and having this program find the sneaky ones I wouldn’t have thought to look for helps.

Do you use any automated programs for editing? How have they worked for you?

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.

Watch for her upcoming release, Deadly Options, due out in late February.

In Praise of Experts

Photo credit: Luke Jones, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke


In fiction, you often walk into different worlds. Perhaps you speak a few words of the language but you’re not fluent. You have a general idea of the architecture and geographic layout. But there are secret passageways in which you can become lost and unseen chasms into which you can tumble.

But you’re committed. You must go forward on your story quest. So, you seek out natives from those worlds to guide you. 

Today, I’d like to introduce you to several insiders who shepherded me through unfamiliar terrain in my new thriller, Flight to Forever, which launches today. 

The story takes place in the rugged mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I’ve hiked and explored the area but am far from a hardcore outdoorswoman. I needed to call upon experts in various fields to fill in the gritty details.

Here’s an overview of Flight to Forever:

Main characters: investigator Tawny Lindholm and her husband, criminal defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum.

Inciting incident: When the pandemic prevents a Vietnam veteran from seeing his wife of 50 years in a memory care lock-down, he busts her out. Because an off-duty cop is injured during their escape, law enforcement is hellbent on capturing the aging fugitives.

The couple flees into the mountains where they’ve gone camping for years. Their daughter begs Tawny and Tillman to help her parents. The determined veteran won’t go down without a fight, increasing the urgency for Tawny to find them before the cops do.

Setting: The fugitives choose an abandoned fire tower as their hideout.

In bygone days, fire spotters spent summers in isolation living on mountain summits in small wooden cottages built on high stilts.

When lightning sparked forest fires, the spotters used a mechanical device called a fire finder to pin down the exact map coordinates. Then they called in the report and crews were dispatched to fight the fires.

Satellites and advanced technology have now rendered the towers obsolete. A handful are preserved and have been renovated into vacation rentals. For $50/night, adventurous campers pack in supplies and stay in a lookout with staggering views from on top of the planet. Most lookouts have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed by fire.

One of those abandoned towers becomes the hideout for my fugitives.

My guide into that remote world is retired Forest Service employee Kjell Petersen, a former fire spotter.  He now volunteers to maintain the few surviving lookouts. Kjell is also a gifted photographer who’s snapped thousands of gorgeous mountain shots with wild critters and wild weather, taken during his career. He not only told me fascinating stories, he graciously offered a selection of his photos for the cover.

For hours, Kjell shared anecdotes full of details only a true insider knows. As he described being in a tower when it was struck by lightning, the hair on my arms stood up.

Kjell Petersen and friends

After the first draft of Flight to Forever was finished, Kjell reviewed it and fixed my goofs. At one point, I wrote that avalanches had destroyed many old lookouts. With a kind smile, Kjell gently corrected me. “Lookouts are built on top of mountains. There’s nothing above them. Avalanches happen below them.”

Well, duh.

Thanks for the save, Kjell!

Sue Purvis in Central Park

To research the setting, I could have slogged through grizzly territory in mud up to my artificial titanium knees.

While authenticity is important, with age comes wisdom. I know my limitations. 

Instead, I tapped another expert, Susan Purvis. She’s a geologist, search dog handler, and former search-and-rescue volunteer with more than her share of risky escapades. She also wrote the bestselling memoir, Go Find.

Sue gave me a quickie course about sedimentary limestone and sandstone cliffs. Harsh weather shears the rock off in massive slabs that crash down mountain sides. When rock crumbles into loose, unstable rubble, it’s called talus or scree, which is treacherous to hike or drive on–turning Tawny’s search into a white-knuckle adventure.

In conversation, Sue happened to mention she’d once slid her truck off an icy bridge and wound up hanging over the edge.

That anecdote was too good to pass up. I appropriated Sue’s harrowing experience to inflict on poor Tawny.

Legal eagle Phyllis Quatman

Since the male lead, Tillman, is an attorney, legal conundrums happen often. For that, I consult attorney Phyllis Quatman, who writes suspense under the name P.A. Moore.

Sometimes dodgy actions are necessary to move the plot forward even when they push my characters into gray areas of what’s legal vs. what’s moral.

Phyllis is an author as well as a lawyer. She understands the need to achieve story goals while also keeping the heroes out of serious legal trouble.

If I’m ever arrested, I know who to call.

Dr. Betty Kuffel


The unlucky folks in my thrillers get hurt a lot—drugged, beat up, knifed, shot, etc. Retired ER doctor Betty Kuffel has seen every injury known to humans. She is an encyclopedia of mayhem and murder methods. She also writes medical thrillers.

Paging Dr. Betty.

A subplot involves Tillman and his teenage son. While Tawny is busy tracking the fugitives up a mountain, Tillman must travel to the other side of the state when his boy is injured in an accident.

Betty upped the story stakes by suggesting complications that turned the son’s broken leg into a life-threatening crisis. She also infused realism with her insider knowledge of pandemic restrictions that keep frantic Tillman away from the bedside of his critically-ill son.

Sue, Phyllis, and Betty are my longtime critique partners and cherished friends. So it’s expected that we help each other.

But I’m constantly amazed at the willingness of complete strangers to assist a curious writer.

When I contact experts and introduce myself as an author doing research, they are almost always generous and helpful.

They’re eager to talk to an interested listener about their specialties. Plus, they like to be part of the creative process of writing a book.

As long as a writer is polite, respectful, and mindful of the expert’s time constraints, most pros are happy to go the extra mile to assist you.

A small gesture of appreciation is a customary courtesy. The people who help me are listed on the acknowledgement page and I always give them an inscribed copy of the book.

Today, I raise my coffee mug in a toast to the experts who helped with Flight to Forever: Kjell, Sue, Phyllis, and Betty.


TKZers: Have you consulted experts in your research?

What sort of assistance did they provide?




Today is launch day for Flight to Forever. 

Now that you know what happened behind the scenes, I invite you to check the book out at this link. 

1st First Page Critique for 2021!

Despite 2021 starting off like a bad sequel to a disaster movie, I’m trying to get back on track with all my writing goals and I hope you are too (in between just a few news distractions!) Today is my 1st first page critique of the year, and this one, despite having no title, is described as romantic suspense.  My comments follow  – see you on the flip side.

First Page Submission

What do the bitches have planned for me today?”

Gasping, she looked around. Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around?

Sighing when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared.

She walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.”

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. She flipped to the first page, eager to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. ‘The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

Overall Comment
This page certainly has an attention getting first line, but after that I have to admit I was a little uncertain about the tone of the story, the voice of the protagonist, and whether this was the beginning of a younger adult novel dealing with bullying or (as it had been described) more of a romantic suspense novel. The tone of this first page definitely seems more suited to YA and I didn’t really get a suspense vibe…So my first major comment to our brave submitter, is what tone do you want to set for this novel? The first line “What do the bitches have planned for me today?” presents a very aggressive, in your face POV, which definitely drew me in, but after that the protagonist becomes much more passive and weak, and her actions seem to contradict an initial strong beginning. Likewise the descriptions and actions used in this first page are all over the place, presenting mixed signals about the protagonist’s character as well as the tone of the book. The final paragraph for example, seems very odd – after steeling herself for what her roommates will do to her, and fearing for the ‘evil’ they will unleash, the protagonist suddenly sits down and starts musing about her English Lit assignment…
Specific Comments
Given my overall comments focus on POV, character voice and tone, I thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to go through this first page and embed my specific comments throughout. Here goes:

What do the bitches have planned for me today?” I love this attention getting first line. Wasn’t sure if intended to have as actual speech, if so need two quotation marks. Remember grammar and punctuation need to be perfect.

Gasping, she looked around. Now I’m deflated. Perhaps, the internal monologue should continue to give the protagonist a stronger voice Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around? Maybe move these questions up earlier so we continue to hear the protagonist’s inner monologue. Remember voice is critical to a first page so you want it ringing out loud and clear.

Sighing This seems passive, given the aggressive first line. when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention does she secretly want attention?, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently why would it be absently if she’s so upset. Does she want people to see her pain and help? wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Explain why The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. If she’s that afraid, why not go to a hotel? The reader needs to get a sense of why she had no one to turn to – especially as college campuses usually have counselors/RAs etc. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up. In this paragraph the protagonist’s voice sounds far different to what we read in the first paragraph – much weaker, more passive and using different language..she says bitches and then only uses ‘wound up’?? It’s confusing for the reader and weakens the dramatic tension.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side Very passive descriptionTaking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Again crept is a very weak description given how aggressive she sounded at the beginning of the page Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared. So they’ve been looking through things on her desk – shouldn’t she have more reaction to this?

She protagonist should have a name as it’s unclear who this ‘she’ is walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.” Without more background their bullying starts to border on caricature – their actions need to feel very specific and real if we are to sympathize with the protagonist

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Why doesn’t she just grab the blanket and leave like she intimated in previous paragraph? Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. Why do this? She’s been so afraid and upset, yet she calmly sits on the bed and pulls out the notebook?All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. This seems inconsistent, given how much bullying we’ve been led to believe has happened She flipped to the first page, eager this verb seems oddly out of place given how fearful of their bullying she’s been to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. These seem unnecessary details which drain the scene of dramatic tension He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Again, why is this detail here?Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. Suddenly, despite the threat from Madison and Morgan, she’s just thinking about an English Lit assignment?‘ The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Tone inconsistency – she was afraid of their evil a few minutes ago and now she’s excitedly jotting notes?Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

I hope these specific comments help highlight the issues I have with this first page. That being said, I think this brave submitter has the basis for a strong first page if the protagonist’s voice can really shine through and if the set up for the story is clearer, more consistent, and the bullying comes through as very real and dangerous.

So TKZers what constructive feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

Will We All Be Grunting Soon?

by James Scott Bell

Remember when we used to call them “grammar schools”? The idea was to train the young in the foundational rules for communicating in our language, especially in written form. Such teaching has fallen on hard times. Fewer and fewer teachers are adequately trained or interested in the rules of grammar. The fallout can be seen everywhere, from schoolrooms to boardrooms, from books to blogs.

If this slide continues, what will we be left with? Grunting, I suppose. We could end up communicating like the monster in Young Frankenstein:

In years past, all journals and newspapers had crusty editors who were deeply grounded in rules of style and grammar, and could train their cubs to be more precise and understandable. But this species of grammarian has largely died out. And with the onset of digital and instant media, the flubs are flowing more freely than cheap beer at a bowling alley wedding.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no grammar expert. Unless I’m reminded, I don’t know a gerund from Geritol. To me, conjugation sounds like what prison inmates get when their wives visit. Nevertheless, I try to do service to the King’s English by regularly checking reference books like Write Right!

So allow me to cite a few examples of grammatical drift I’ve come across recently, mostly from “reputable” sites. They may seem innocuous now, but they’re like pebbles that precede a landslide. Let us watch our wording lest we get buried under rocks of perpetual bafflement!

Apple have been focused on your point of sale dollars for hardware.

A verb has to agree with its subject. Apple is singular, so has is required.

He has been more prolific in his career than either Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach.

It’s either/or, not either/and.

Yet why does more than 1 billion devices worldwide, in all socioeconomic strata and often most dominant in emerging markets, only account for 6% of publishers’ sales typically?

Can you spot the error in this mangle of a sentence?

The best hope for conference chaos this Fall after the Big Ten canceled football season lied with Ohio State.

Hoo boy. The lie, lay, lied, laid distinction is one of the trickiest in our language. I confess it confuses me still. But it doesn’t take an English degree to sense that lied is wrong. What to do? Consult a stylebook, or find an online explanation like this one that explains the differences.

Another editorial judgment is whether to just rewrite the sentence for greater clarity. In this case, I would. First off, is the writer saying people “hope” for “conference chaos”? Or is the gist of the thought that a hopeful end to the chaos would come via Ohio State?

I suspect it’s the latter, and if so the main thought of the sentence is deflated somewhat by its structure. We need a rearrangement and a comma. And we don’t need that big capital F jumping out at us in the middle. (Almost always, a season should be lowercase. How do I know? I looked it up!)

I would recast the sentence thus:

After the Big Ten canceled football season, the best hope for ending conference chaos this fall was Ohio State.

Instead, Costas had to take a pop shot at one of the sports he helped cover for a large part of his 38-year career at NBC Sports.

Did Costas throw a can of soda? Or was this a potshot (one word), an off-hand critical remark?

How Zoom’s new features will fair in the video conferencing landscape.

One wonders how Zoom can put up a Ferris wheel and sell cotton candy in a conferencing landscape.

They’ve heard the writing on the wall.

A neat trick!

We have to tip your hat to them.

I’ll do what I please with my own hat, thank you very much.

Now the FBI goes to work pouring over surveillance videos.

Pouring what? Coffee? Won’t that hinder the investigation? I’ll need to pore over more articles to figure out what they’re doing.

We were all waiting with baited breath.

I wonder what they baited their breath with? I’ve tried anchovies, but my wife objects.

In the absence of editors, what’s a writer in a hurry to do? (Here I’m distinguishing articles and the like from novel-length books, where we do have more time for beta readers and editors. See also Terry’s excellent self-editing tips.)

I know there are digital grammar apps, like Grammarly, that might help. Most of them require a subscription and I’ve heard they’re not 100% accurate. At least you should take the time to check your doc with Word’s spelling-and-grammar tool, and listen to your document via text-to-speech.

Words and how they sound are our bread and butter. So don’t jam up the works with clunky grammar. That’s just not fare to our readers, who tip our hats to us.

Limp, Reel, or Totter

Abnormal Gait

Does your old scruffy sailor limp down the dock, slap down the dock, reel down the dock, or totter back and forth on a peg leg?

When we were taught description, the advice was to be specific. We didn’t drive down the street, we raced west on Elm Street. Today we are going to add some possibilities for ways to walk abnormally. If you (or your daughter or granddaughter) grew up with Barbie dolls, you know there are a million packages of “accessories” that can be purchased to dress your doll in style. I believe my wife bought a sack of nearly one hundred shoes for the granddaughters. I just kept my mouth shut and shook my head.

Well, let’s get out the accessory package for “abnormal gait.” I explored an old medical textbook on physical diagnosis. Here’s what I found:

Parkinsonian Gait – (the shuffle)

  • Body held rigid
  • Trunk and head bent forward
  • Short, mincing steps
  • Arms do not swing
  • Other clues it’s Parkinson’s – face void of expression, hands with pill-rolling tremor

Ataxic Gait

  • Diseases of cerebellum, brain, and cerebellar tracts
  • Resembles alcoholic intoxication
  • Patient staggers or reels
  • Possible causes: stroke, infection, tumor, or trauma

Slapping gait (or Steppage Gait)

  • Pathology in the posterior column of spinal cord
  • Tabes dorsalis – caused by tertiary syphilis
  • Loss of sense of position
  • Broad based, feet wide apart
  • Raises legs high, then slaps feet on ground
  • Eyes fixed on ground
  • Manages well in light, but great difficulty in dark
  • Other diseases: diabetic neuropathy, untreated B12 deficiency, other peripheral neuropathies

Hemiplegia (weakness on one side of body)

  • Example – stroke, trauma
  • Drags affected leg around in a semicircle
  • Holds arm on same side rigid against chest wall
  • Knee held stiffly, ankle extended

Spastic gait

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Jerking, uncoordinated movements

Scissors gait

  • Spastic paraplegia, spastic cerebral palsy
  • Walks with thighs held tightly together

Hysterical Gait

  • Bizarre
  • Delicate balancing movements are present that allow patient to walk in a bizarre fashion

Antalgic limp

  • Caused by pain
  • Irregular hopping gait
  • Hurries to shift weight to nonpainful side
  • Muscle or tendon strains can cause shortening of stride on affected side

Uneven leg length limp

  • One leg shorter
  • Compensates by walking on toe on short side or by dropping pelvis on short side
  • May be wearing one shoe with a thick sole

Ankylosed gait

  • Restricted joint motion
  • Patient who needs hip replacement “drags” the affected leg as he swings it forward

Gluteal limp

  • Example – polio myelitis
  • Caused by paralysis or shortening of the gluteus medius muscle
  • Trunk swings over the weakened side during stance phase to maintain balance


Okay, now it’s your turn. Tell us about the gait of one of your characters, or create a new one. Hysterical gaits could be great fun to invent. Strut him or her down the fashion runway. We’ll all watch and cheer. See that little thumbs up button on the bottom left of your screen? Vote for the descriptions you like, or you can even tell us how much you would pay for such an accessory if it were on sale by a “fashion designer” of gaits. Be kind.




Reader Friday: Jump Inside a Book

As a kid I loved the Gumby (and his pal, Pokey) animated shorts, especially for the times when they would “jump into” a famous novel and appear in the world of that story. They’d interact with the characters and influence outcomes.

If you could jump into a novel and be part of the story, what novel would you choose, and what would you do inside that world?

Interview with Blackstone Publishing’s Rick Bleiweiss

By Debbie Burke


Today, please welcome Rick Bleiweiss, Head of New Business Development for Blackstone Publishing. Rick is a former record company senior executive, Grammy-nominated producer, podcaster, and journalist. He is also the author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, a mystery set in 1910 in a sleepy English village, to be released in February 2022.

Rick Bleiweiss


…What I’m doing at 77 years of age [is] an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.




Debbie Burke: Thanks for visiting with us, Rick! Blackstone Publishing is unusual in that they started with audiobooks then later added print and ebooks. Could you tell us about that shift and the reasons behind it?

Rick Bleiweiss: The decision to begin publishing books and ebooks in addition to audiobooks was made about seven years ago. We published our first books in 2015. It was primarily driven by three things.

First, the more popular audiobooks became the more other publishers held onto those rights, made their own audiobooks, and stopped licensing them to other companies, such as Blackstone.

Second, we felt that we could succeed well as a publisher of books and audiobooks and have those as another income stream. And we felt we could ramp up quickly as we already were evaluating manuscripts, involved with authors and storytellers, and selling and distributing audiobooks to many of the same buyers at accounts whom we’d be selling books and eBooks to. So that would make it an easy transition.

An added benefit of licensing all rights to a book – print, ebook, audiobook – is that we would be getting the audios, which would start making up for the ones we were no longer getting from some other publishers.

Third, the vision of Blackstone’s CEO (and owners) was to make Blackstone into more than just a traditional publishing company, but rather to turn it into a media company that has publishing and storytelling as its foundation, but also is involved in securing film & tv deals and being a media producer, creating intellectual properties, doing video games, comic books and magazines, and creating and selling merchandising. And we are doing all of that today and more, including owning our own printing plant so that we can make everything in house and never be out of print.

Regarding how we started our print program, early on we obtained the rights to the Max Brand and Loius L’Amour catalogs and signed a number of authors who had some past success but were not yet major sellers. Then it really kicked up a notch when I signed PC & Kristin Cast and we published the last their books in their 12-million selling House of Night series. Then our visionary CEO Josh Stanton and I got the James Clavell catalog, and I signed Natasha Boyd, who has had one of our biggest on-going books, the USAToday best-seller, The Indigo Girl. That was closely followed by signing Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his Hell Divers series.

DB: In 2019, Blackstone, a family-owned, independent press, made news by luring heavy hitters Meg Gardiner, Steve Hamilton, and Reed Farrel Coleman away from Penguin Random House. Without spilling any secrets, do you anticipate Blackstone’s further expansion of authors who may be disgruntled with the Big Five?

RB: Actually, they were not the first nor have they been the last, although they were major signings. I wouldn’t characterize it as disgruntled with the Big Five as much as wanting to go with a different publisher paradigm. Josh Stanton and I were able to license the aforementioned entire James Clavell catalog (including his classic Asian Series featuring Sho-Gun) and Gregory McDonald’s catalog (Fletch and Flynn series) both of which I believe had been with Dell for many years but whose estates were looking for something different. Other authors who we have signed to do print and eBooks who have also been with major publishers are Sherilyn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Catherine Coulter, Rex Pickett, James Carroll, Peter Clines, Andrews & Wilson, PC & Kristin Cast, Josh Hood, a good part of the Leon Uris catalog, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Al Roker, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Adrian McKinty, Orson Scott Card, M.C. Beaton, Matthew Mather, Don Winslow, Shelley Shepherd Gray, Catherine Ryan Howard, The Black Berets series and quite a few others.

I think that many people are starting to realize that we are expanding well beyond the role of a traditional publisher and that we are looking at what tomorrow’s successful media/publishing companies will be like and look like, rather than what it the traditional way of doing things. Hopefully, we have taken the best time-honored industry practices and augmented them with newer ways of looking at what a publisher can and should do. As an example, we have a head of film/tv who got deals for eight of our books within the last three months.

DB: Please describe a day in the life of Head of New Business Development.

RB: Fortunately, because it keeps my business life interesting, there have been many different things I’ve done in that role. I’ve bought other companies for Blackstone (such as the direct-to-consumer company, Audio Editions), licensed our technology to other audiobook companies, arranged distribution deals with other publishers, made introductions between Blackstone and high-profile tech and content companies, I am on Blackstone’s Board of Directors, I put together the relationship between Blackstone and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which resulted in Grammy-winning audio versions of their Shakespeare plays, I co-created a series of books by Native American elders to preserve their wisdom, humor and teachings.

In short, I have had my fingers in a lot of different pies and strive to be one of the people at the company who keeps Blackstone moving forward as well as in new directions.

DB: What specifically captures your attention when you review submissions?

RB: Since the majority of the acquisitions work that I’ve been doing lately has been more focused on celebrities, best-selling authors and hit catalogs, rather than on debut authors, I look for different things now than I did when I was evaluating day-to-day acquisitions. When I did that, I would look to see if the synopsis intrigued me, if I thought the story was something that the public would be interested in, what the author’s background, social media involvement and overall commitment to being a writer were, and what our sales and marketing people thought they could do with the book. And, of course, finally, was the writing any good?

For an author who wants to submit a query to an agent or a publisher (and submitting to an agent is probably a way lot easier than submitting directly to a publisher) they should make sure to know something about each person they are submitting to so they can personalize each letter/email. The author has to make sure the genre they are submitting is a genre the agent or publisher works in. The query letter should also contain a short, but effective, synopsis of the story, the author’s bio, comps to other books, anyone they could get to endorse the book who would be meaningful (if anyone), and, if possible, something that perks the reader’s interest and sets the query letter apart from the hundreds of others that the agent/publisher has received.

DB: Tell us about your own writing.

RB: When I was twelve, I hammered out the first two-page sports newspaper that I wrote on my old Royal manual typewriter and sold the two carbon copies I made of it to neighbors. Over the decades since that time, I have written multiple newspaper columns, magazine columns and articles (including cover stories), blogs, copy for a local political committee and candidates, contributed chapters to two anthologies of short stories, and have written six, as yet unpublished and unproduced books and plays, and a rock opera.

My “breakthrough” came when I wrote Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, an historical fiction mystery novel set in the countryside town of Haxford, England in 1910 (which will be published in hardcover by Blackstone on February 8, 2022. An eccentric, but gifted, police inspector named Pignon Scorbion, who possesses the skills of Poirot and Holmes, comes to Haxford to head its law enforcement. Through a prior friendship with the town’s barber, Scorbion begins solving his cases in the barbershop assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuth assistants – the barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant, female bookshop owner who is more than a match for Scorbion in observation, deduction and brains.

Scorbion’s ‘universe’ includes Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Dr. John Watson, with whom Scorbion has become friends, and I’ve written the book in the style of the authors of that time and genre.

DB: What’s in the future for author Rick Bleiweiss?

RB: I’ve completed writing over 95% of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Book 2 which I believe will be published in early 2023. Without spoiling anything, it contains a case about a man who is shot and killed by an arrow while riding alone in a hot air balloon, another about the shoeshine man’s visiting cousin who is attacked and brutally beaten, a third involving a blacksmith who is murdered while walking home in the early morning, and lastly, a moneylender who is poisoned and dies in one of the barber’s chairs.

I also have a piece in an anthology of mystery short stories called Hotel California that is publishing in May, 2022. I join some real heavyweights in the book including, Heather Graham, Andrew Child (who has contributed a new Jack Reacher story to the anthology), Amanda Flower, Reed Farrel Coleman, John Gilstrap, Jennifer Dornbush, and Don Bruns, all of whom have written new stories for the volume.

My story is about a premier NYC hitman named Walker who escapes a hit on his life and hides out in Maui while another hitman is sent to finish him off. It’s a cat and mouse game of who gets who.

I also will have another Walker story in the follow-up anthology, Thriller, due in mid-2023.

Lastly, at least for now, in January I have stories being published in Strand Magazine detailing a lot of the research I did for the Scorbion book, and another in Crime Reads Magazine in which I talk in depth about my favorite all-time mystery authors.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: We are launching Scorbion in a somewhat unconventional manner. There is a Pignon Scorbion ‘Find the Hidden Objects” video game that will be available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. It will have six levels based on scenes in the book, but you will have to input an unlock code to play the last two – and that code is in the book and the audiobook. Shane Salerno of the Story Factory made a wonderful video trailer for the book, there will be retail display contests, we are making and will be selling Scorbion t-shirts, the book has already been voted the Buzz Book of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn’s fall conference, has been featured multiple times in Publishers Weekly (including an excellent review), will be featured by BookBub on publication date, I am hosting a YouTube show interviewing authors and literary agents as they talk about their careers and give advice to aspiring authors, and we are going to make a strong media push hoping to get what I’m doing at 77 years of age as an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.


Thank you, Rick, for joining us at The Kill Zone. Best of luck with the February 2022 launch of Pignon Scorbion & The Barbershop Detectives!


‘Nuff Said

By Elaine Viets

Jenny, my first editor, gave me this advice: When you write dialogue, never use any tags but “said.” and “ask.”
As advice goes, it was pretty good. Jenny told me that the eye passes over “said” and “asked” and doesn’t stop my story, the way flashier tags did. Nothing said amateur writer like so-called “creative” dialogue tags. I avoided the hundreds of synonyms for the simple, efficient “said.” Here’s why:

“It’s time to go,” he insisted.
“I agree,” she concurred.
“My arm hurts,” he whimpered.
“Come along, you big baby,” she jeered.
“Hey, that hurt,” he yelped.

I also knew adding adverbs to “said” could quickly get me into Tom Swifty territory:

“The roof doesn’t leak any more,” Tom said dryly.
“I’ve lost my hair,” Tom said baldly.

But good advice can go too far. Always using “said” as a tag can make your novel look like a ping-pong match. Consider this dialogue:

“I’m leaving you,” she said. “I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah!” he said. “You’ll come running back. You always do.”
“Not this time,” she said. “Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me make it up to you.”
“You can’t,” she said. “I’m outta here.”

Suppose I took out some “saids,” and added observations instead.

“I’m leaving you,” she said. “I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah!” he said. “You’ll come running back. You always do.”
She folded the last blouse into her suitcase. “Not this time. Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.” She zipped her suitcase shut.
He handed her a Tiffany blue box. “I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you.”
She opened it, and studied the diamond earrings with hard eyes. “You can’t. I’m outta here.” She tossed the box on the bed and rolled her suitcase out the door.

That’s better. And the dialogue is improved even more if I add the characters’ names:

“I’m leaving you, Josh. I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah! You’ll come running back, Marie. You always do.”
Marie folded the last blouse into her suitcase. “Not this time, Josh. Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.” She zipped her suitcase shut.
Josh handed her a Tiffany blue box. “I’m sorry, Marie. Let me make it up to you.”
She opened it, and studied the diamond earrings with hard eyes. “You can’t. I’m outta here.” Marie tossed the box on the bed and rolled her suitcase out the door.

Okay, Hollywood won’t be calling to option that dialogue, but you get the idea. Adding names and observations helps tag your dialogue, and cut back on the “saids.”
You can also use too few “saids.” Mystery writer Robert B. Parker is a master of dialogue, but he could be stingy with his “saids.” Consider this dialogue from his novel, Family Honor, featuring PI Sunny Randall. It’s written in the first person.

“They both brought people home,” she said. “If one of them was away the other would bring in a guest.”
“How about Millicent?”
“They didn’t seem to care if she knew.”
“Did they know?’
“About each other?”
“Um hmm.”
“I don’t know. They weren’t very careful. They didn’t seem to care if John or I knew.”
“Know any of the people that they brought home?”
“Were they people who came often or did they go for variety?”
“Variety, I’m afraid.”
“Both of them?”

Are you lost? I am, too. There’s more – at least another page more without a “said” to be seen. Some “I saids” every four lines or so could have made this intriguing conversation about infidelity much easier to follow.
When all is said and done, “said” makes a good dialogue tag – in moderation.
Preorder Death Grip, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, due out March 2. Here’s what Kirkus said about Death Grip: “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.”






When The Dog Catches The Car

By John Gilstrap

A couple of days ago, Brother Bell posted a compelling piece about the process of writing. It got me to thinking about the strange transition that happens when writing evolves to be more than a passion, and becomes a means to pay some or all of the bills.

NOTE WELL: None of what follows is intended as whining. I am fully aware of how fortunate I have been–and continue to be–to be 23 books into a 25-year career doing the very thing I’d have told you I wanted to do if you’d asked me when I was 12 years old.

But while I have the best job in the world, it’s still a job. There’s a relentlessness to it.

To start, I’ve over-committed. I wrote two novels and a 7,500-word short story last year. I have to deliver another Victoria Emerson thriller on April 15, followed by a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave novel. Plus, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m working on a fun Western novel with two other authors. As I write this, it’s my turn again to write a chapter. Tick tock. I’m also collaborating with another writer and a film producer to develop a very cool idea for a television series.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are building a new house that we’ll be moving to around this time next year. It’s in the West Virginia woods, about 90 minutes from our current house. In addition to the weekly (minimum) visits to the worksite to monitor the details, there are the thousands of decisions to be made from among infinite variables. Exterior stone, interior floors, appliances, design flow, and, and, and . . .

I must confess that the general malaise of the past 12 months worked its way into my soul more deeply than I would have expected. And I’m a news junkie. ‘Nuff said on that.

Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my new Victoria Emerson series drops on February 23, and my publisher is pulling out a lot of stops to promote it, which means lots of emailed interviews and (God help us) Zoom calls. I’ve got a YouTube channel to feed, social media stuff, and the rest of everyday life.

I feel sometimes that every time I sit down to write, another high-priority, time-sensitive thing pops up. My wife and I both work out of the house–our offices are no more than 30 feet from each other–and oftentimes, we won’t see each other until dinnertime, and then we usually go back to work after dinner. We do make it a point to relax and watch TV beginning at 8pm at the latest. Sanity lies in Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Okay, maybe I am whining.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook writers’ groups. (It’s a great way to bring traffic to my YouTube channel.) Those places teem with rookies who maintain that as writers, their sole job is to create stuff, and that marketing, promotion and the rest should be someone else’s responsibility. I don’t engage at that level because I have little to offer to the deeply clueless. We all know the reality that without all that other non-writing activity, success will never happen. (I’ll leave it to you to determine what your definition of success is.)

Then, when success does happen, complete with all the accoutrements, the world changes a bit. Maybe a lot. It feels unearned because you know there are way better writers than you who have not seen the same success. And because it feels unearned, it also feels fragile. Hell, it is fragile. Fragility is the nature of the entertainment business.

The past is the past, pal. What’ve you got for me today?

With success comes the burden of additional opportunities, all of which have a short shelf life. I say “burden” of opportunities with full knowledge that the phrase sounds oxymoronic. You work hard, you create work that resonates. Do it long enough, and it resonates with enough people that the work gets recognized by people higher than you on the creative ladder and they invite you onto their rung.

It’s terrifying, if only because saying no is not an option. You say yes to an invitation to submit to an anthology of stories by franchise names. You say yes to the offer to develop a TV series because if you say no, you may never get another call like that. Every effort for every project has to be the best you can give because anything short of that betrays the reason you were asked in the first place.

You lose sleep because you understand that no matter how much effort you put into those opportunities, they may come to nothing. You realize that your true loyalty must be focused on the longtime readers who helped you achieve your greatest dreams. They, too, perhaps more than any others, also deserve the best you can give. They’ve earned the best you can give.

“Sleep is for the weak,” a fire captain told me one time. I’ve been thinking about him a lot these past few months.