Research Hacks Redux

By John Gilstrap

Your regularly scheduled blog post will begin following this moment of shameless self promotion. Yesterday was Launch Day for Stealth Attack, the 13th (!) entry in my Jonathan grave thriller series. It’s available wherever books are sold. For reasons not known to me, the audio version won’t be released for another couple of weeks, so if that’s your preferred method to visit fictional worlds, I beg your patience for just a short while longer.

Now let’s talk research.

If this week’s posts seems familiar to you, it means that you’ve been reading The Killzone Blog for at least five years, so thanks for that. The original version appeared in 2016, but it addresses a topic that I feel strongly about if only because I see people getting way too stressed over a topic that I think should be more fun than stressful.

I’ve never been a proponent of the old adage, write what you know.  In fact, I think it’s kind of silly.  It’s the rare crime writer who has witnessed a crime, let alone investigated one.  I’ve been fortunate in my own life to be able to look back on some exciting times in the fire service, and in the hazmat business, but those are not the exciting times I write about.  While I’ve been shot at, I’ve never been a position to shoot back.  Basically, I am the three-time survivor of poor marksmanship. That hardly qualifies me to write battle scenes, but combined with the fear I’ve felt in life-threatening situations, combined with discussions I’ve had with people who’ve walked that walk, and bingo! I conjure up what I think are pretty good set pieces featuring people doing heroic deeds I’ve never performed.

Research is a big word.

In this line of work, every moment we live and every person we interact with is a moment of research. More times than not, I find that the really good stuff comes less from studying books than it does from passive listening and watching. It doesn’t take work so much as it takes paying attention.

Over the years, I’ve learned some research hacks that I would like to share.

Research Hack One: Cheat.

The easiest way to pull off the illusion of knowledge is to eliminate the need for reality.  For example, despite have lived pretty much my whole life in Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Virginia, I choose to play out my Northern Virginia police work in Braddock County, Virginia, which does not exist.  That way, I can develop whatever standard operating procedures best serve the story, eliminating a huge research burden.  I don’t need a tour of the jail, I don’t need to know which firearms they carry, what the command structure is, or how shifts are organized.  Do the cops carry their shotguns propped up vertically, or under the front of the seat?  I can make it however I want it to be.  Because the place where the story takes place does not exist, neither do the police agencies, so by definition, I can never get any of those details wrong.

Research Hack Two:  Stick to the coast you know.

More times than not, it’s the smaller details of research that screw an author up, and even if you make up cities and counties, you’re going to have to root the reader somewhere in the world.  I’m very comfortable making up locations in the South because I’ve lived here for so many decades.  It’s always the tell of a West Coast writer when a character looks for a “freeway” and gets on “the 495.”  In Virginia, we look for a “highway” and get on “Route 50” or just “50.”  Heading north or south on the Beltway says little unless we know whether you’re on the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop.  For natives, the airports are “National” or “Dulles”.  Maybe DCA for frequent travelers.  In the original version of this piece, I pointed out that one rarely hears the airport referred to as “Reagan”, but that’s changed in recent years.  Oh, and we “go to” meetings or “attend” them.  We do not “take” them.

Places like New York and L.A. (and every other famous city, I suppose) have traditions and colloquialisms that can get you in trouble.  So, stay close to home if you can.

Research Hack Three: Think like Willie Sutton

When the gangster Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

So, where are the repositories for the information you want to know?  Let’s say you’re writing about a cop.  To be sure, there are great established resources available to you, such as a citizen’s police academy, but remember that there you’ll be getting the view of the agency that the public affairs office wants you to see.  A better choice, in my opinion, would be to attend a conference like Writers Police Academy, where you can get to know the far more interesting underbelly of police agencies.  Bring some business cards, chat people up and get their card in exchange. Just like that, you’ve got a valuable research contact who will answer your emails and phone calls.

Can’t afford the money or time to fly to a conference?  Try chatting up a cop.  The less formal the circumstance, the better.  In my experience, everyone—Ev. Ry. One.—likes to share stories about what they do.  Find out where cops gather for drinks after work and go there.  Just hang out and listen.  Actually, that’s a strategy for just about any specialty.  Want to write about quilting? Go where quilters go and then shut up and listen.

When I’m in DC, one of my favorite places to go for soft research is Union Station, the AMTRAK/Metro terminal that is maybe 500 yards from the Capitol Building.  The place teems with restaurants.  If you park yourself near a couple of Millennials in suits, there’s a 90% chance that they’re oh-so-self-important staffers to a member of Congress, and the inevitable one-upsmanship is fascinating.  The best eavesdropping spot near the White House is the very cozy bar of the Hay Adams Hotel, though given the proximity to the presidential palace, the gossip there tends to be less juicy.

One bit of advice for eavesdroppers: Don’t take notes.  For the ruse to work, you’ve got to seem disinterested.

Research Hack Four: Get a superfast Internet connection and use it.

I understand that professors are loathe to accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source, and when the time comes for me to submit a dissertation, I’ll keep that in mind.  Meanwhile, I’ll remain devoted to it as a bottomless source of really good information.  Never once have I been disappointed when seeking the finer points of weaponry, for example.  I don’t get into the deeper depths of gun porn in my books, but when arming my good guys and bad guys, it’s good to know how much the weapon weighs, how many rounds it holds and what it looks like.  Want to see the same weapon in action?  I guarantee that YouTube has at least two videos of somebody shooting something with it.

Google Earth and its Street View feature are a godsend.  The closing sequence of Final Target includes a chase down the rural streets of Yucatan.  Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to travel the entire route with a three dimensional view, all without the burden of having to go to a place where I’d rather not be.

Research Hack Five: Know the difference between a research trail and a rabbit hole.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.  You start out looking for the year when the Ford Ranger went out of production, and an hour later, you’ve chased links to a sweet video of baby goats in pajamas.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The secret to doing my kind of research is to abide by a certain self-imposed intellectual laziness. When I’m writing a scene and I come across a place where I realize there’s a hole in my knowledge, I drop out to the Interwebs, find out exactly what I need for that scene, and then go back to work.

Remember this: It’s not important that you know how to do all the things your characters do—or even to know everything they do.  Your job is simply to convince readers that the character knows enough to pull off the story they’re starring in.

Research Hack Six (and maybe it should be Number One): Respect your sources’ time.

As a weapons guy, I’m happy to help people choose a firearm for their characters, but it’s annoying when the discussion includes the difference between a pistol and a revolver.  That kind of basic information is available anywhere.  It is many times more fun to talk about important details with someone who has already done a reasonable amount of research.  Use your human resources for the esoteric details of verisimilitude, not for the 101 level of whatever you’re researching.

Your turn, TKZ family. What are your research tricks and hacks?

And for those who are curious . . .

Two weeks ago, I whined about the frustrations of “staging” my home for sale. We worked diligently to do most of what we were told, and I’m pleased to report that that house sold within three days of being on the market, and for a price that made us very happy. Maybe stagers know what they’re doing after all . . .

What’s It All About, Alfie?
Figuring Out Chapter Arcs

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. — William Butler Yeats.

By PJ Parrish

Recently I did a manuscript critique for charity. This was a much longer version of what we regularly do here at TKZ with our First Page Critiques, about 30 pages. But it’s funny…some of the same issues we talk about in 400-word samples are also readily apparent in this longer sample.

But one thing really strikes me about both: Often the writer doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on what their scene is “about.”  And this is a fatal flaw that affects your plot structure and your characterizations.

I was going to do a full-throttle post on this for today when I realized (with that little nagging voice that comes with older age) that I might have covered this before. Sure enough, there in the archives was my post from October 2019: “What’s Your Point? Figuring Out What Goes Into Each Chapter.

It’s worth a revisit, I think. Back in 2019, one of our regulars here BK Jackson, posted this comment:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn added:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader.

This is exactly what was going on with my recent critique. The writer offered three completed chapters. In Chapter 1, he seemed to have a good grasp of where he was going: A man (I’ll call him Dan) returns to his small hometown of Tomales, California on a visit but learns about the mysterious death of a college friend. Interweaving personal revelations about his family is this possible murder and Dan begins to feel compelled to investigate. Good! Amateur sleuth sub-genre. A mysterious murder. Family secrets mixed in. Nice start.

But then came chapter two. It flashbacks 20 years prior (with a time tagline to alert us) and we get the 18-year-old version of Dan who, on scholarship, is entering Stanford University, where he feels inferior. The only action in this chapter seems to be when a roommate drags him to a cigar-frat party, telling him he needs to better himself so he can get in with “the right people.” (The title of the book). Dan, in his cheap suit and bad haircut, feels out of place among the swells and the beautiful coeds. The chapter ends with him yearning to be in this fancy world.

Chapter 3 goes back to the present. Dan, now a lawyer with a family, meets his old friend (and four other men in their circle from Stanford) for drinks. As the alcohol flows, the past (and Dan’s jealousy and inferiority complex) flairs anew. Dan tries to bring up with the death of the college friend (a shy kid who the others knew but was not part of their group) and everyone cuts him off. Most of the chapter is backstory on each of the men in the frat circle — how successful they are now. Dan leaves the bar and meets his wife for dinner. The end of the chapter is Dan thinking that someone in his old cigar group knows something about the murder and he thinks that no matter how far you get in life, you’re just an older version of your young insecure self.

That’s it.

Now, there was some good writing in the chapters. But do you see the issue? I got the feeling the writer, after the decent set up of Chapter 1, wasn’t sure where to go plot-wise. It was as if he was thinking, “Oops! I’ve hit 2000 words, I better wrap this up!” and just stopped.  I told him, gently but firmly, in the critique, that he didn’t have a firm grasp of the PURPOSE OF EACH SCENE AND CHAPTER.  The short synopsis that came with the submission seemed to verify this.

Now, I am a confirmed pantser. I don’t outline. But I never start writing a chapter until I have figured out exactly what I need to accomplish in each. To quote myself from my old post:

How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement. The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it. The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. 

No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

The first chapter is relatively easy. To review what we talk about all the time with our First Page Critiques: An opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and set up some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action).

But, as BK and Yeats note, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

Each chapter needs a good beginning, an arc, and a satisfying ending. I don’t know if this is helpful, but as I told my critique person, I think of each chapter as an island. I figure out the “geography” of each island and then — and this is important — I build bridges between them.

Here are a few other techniques I’ve found helpful:

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.” Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Make every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to UP and finds evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But secondarily: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.” (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”).  So I accomplished THREE goals in that chapter.

Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards, others use software. I use Post-It notes, color coded for POVs, and shuffle them around on a poster board. I love this cartoon from Jessica Hatchigan’s blog on how to storyboard your plot:

Yes, it’s that easy. 🙂

Look for logical breaks to end and begin chapters. You might change locations. Or point of view. Or there’s a change in time (hours or years depending on your story). Maybe there is just a change in dramatic intensity. Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next chapter might be your hero licking his wounds as he pours over old police files (what I call a “case chapter or info chapter.”) It goes to pacing. Not every chapter has to be wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath. Just make sure it advances the plot!

Think resolution or big tease. As I said, every chapter has its own mini-arc that fits into the major overall arc of your story. So, in a sense, most chapters should “resolve” themselves in some way. A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background. However: It’s also effective to stop just before the climax. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter. Just make sure you deliver in the next one.

So, in summary, as I told my critique writer, you have to get the elbow grease of the brain working before you write. Every chapter needs clear goals, things you need to accomplish in it.  Stop. Look. Listen to your inner voice and those of your characters. Then…write right.


Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk


Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.


Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

The Pulp Writer’s Mindset

by James Scott Bell

JSB, Pulp Writer, and his Maltese friend

Back in 2012, when self-publishing was proving to be a legit way to make actual, long-term money, I had a choice to make. I was in a good spot. I’d completed a contract and was ready to go out to find another.

A year before, I’d dipped my toe in the indie waters by self-publishing a novella and a book of writing tips. At the end of that year I looked up and saw that I had an extra ten grand in my bank account. And I quietly, calmly contemplated this with the serene thought: ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?

Then came an event I wrote about in this space. I called it The Eisler Sanction. Barry Eisler, who along with his buddy Joe Konrath was a leading light in the burgeoning self-publishing movement, had just turned down half a mil (!) from his publisher to go indie.

So, with a completed thriller ready to go out, I had a sit-down with my agent and friend, Donald Maass. To his enormous credit, Don left the decision to me. (This was back in the days when agents were freaking out about self publishing, warning writers that their careers could be tarnished forever if they tried it and “failed.”)

I also spoke to some traditional writers who’d found success going indie.

One in particular represented the wild ride of that time. A year earlier he’d told me he was wary of self-pub. He was a moderately successful thriller writer, an award winner in fact, with nice mass market editions put out by his publisher, great covers and all that. Now he was saying he’d changed his mind and was going for it.

He’s been a very successful indie ever since.

Thus, I decided to take my novel, Don’t Leave Me, directly to market.

At the same time, I was a) writing new work, fast and furious; and b) getting the rights back to my traditional novels (almost all of which I have now).

Along the way I discovered that the kind of writer I truly was: a pulp writer!

My models were the great pulp-magazine writers of old. The guys who had to churn out marketable work during the Great Depression or they wouldn’t eat. Writers like Robert E. Howard, Erle Stanley Gardner, W. T. Ballard (who was a friend of my parents), Cornell Woolrich (the greatest suspense writer of all time), not to mention latter-day pulpsters like John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, and Gil Brewer. This latter group moved into the exploding paperback originals market of the 1950s. All of them knew how to write fiction that made readers want more.

Isn’t that what every one of us wants out of this gig?

And while “pulp writer” was a pejorative back then (Mickey Spillane famously quipped, “Those big shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar”) it didn’t matter a whit to those writers, who kept turning out books that sold in the hundreds of thousands, even millions.

If you are writing books to entertain readers in the hopes of getting a fair financial return, you are a pulp writer in your soul.

You know who else is? A fellow named Lee Child. His story is well known. He was working in the TV biz in England when, as he says, “My boss said something to me one day that made it impossible for me to work for him any longer: ‘You’re fired.’”

He then sat down to write a book about a character that would sell to the American audience. Jack Reacher was born. Knowing that production is key, Child kept writing about this character, and his books sold in increasing numbers. When he submitted Persuader, his publisher decided this is our guy, and put their massive marketing muscle into the release. That’s how James Grant became the Lee Child we know today. True to the pulp mindset, he adopted his nom de plume after noting that successful thriller authors had short, snappy names…and that the letter C would shelve his books at the front of the thriller section in bookstores. Right next to B. Ha!

He also stuck to his series character.

Now, I love my stand alones, but I came across something Erle Stanley Gardner once said. He called a hit series character “the pulp writer’s insurance policy.” He tried out several in his early pulp days (like Sidney Zoom, master of disguise, and Speed Dash, a crime-solving “human fly”) until he hit it big with a fellow named Perry Mason.

I’d written a trilogy for Hachette featuring a lawyer named Ty Buchanan. These were good, my best work to date, so I was thrilled to get the rights back. Book #3 has, in my humble opinion, the most perfect ending I’ve ever written. So even though I get emails asking me to write another in the series, I am loathe to mess with that ending.

Thus, I needed another series character, which is how Mike Romeo was born.

Now I’m happily finishing Romeo #6, and intend to keep right on going.

With the pulp mindset, I also produce short stories. This brings in a little scratch via my Patreon community.

And I will never stop. Because I love being a pulp writer.

Which is, deep down, what you are, too.



Coincidentally, this post is brought to you by How to Write Pulp Fiction.

Down the Road

Photo by Sam Filip for Al Thumz Photography

I turn 70 in September. That is the plan, though I am aware that man plans and God laughs. That aside, there is no question that I have fewer miles in front of me than I do in the rearview and less time to traverse them. I am at the same time mindful that I still have a number of things to check off the “to-do list” and want to make time to do that. I accordingly have decided that this will be my last regular post at this wonderful place.

I assure you that the decision to stop contributing has not come easily. This moment nonetheless seems like a good time to make some changes. The thought of meeting deadlines and obligations  — even for things that I enjoy, like this blog — isn’t a good fit for me at this stage. It additionally feels as if it is time for my next act, and I want to end the current one on a high note (or at least a medium one).  I am also retiring from most of my professional activities, other than for writing.   I will continue to keep busy, but busy doing other things. Everything is on the table. You may even hear of some of them in other contexts and places. 

I’ve gotten to hang with the cool kids here at TKZ for over a decade. They are each and all wonderful, terrific, and enormously talented people who give, give, and give. It’s been a privilege to know them and be here with them. I’ve certainly become smarter by reading their contributions every morning while at the same time attempting mightily every other weekend to not embarrass myself in their or your presence. I won’t miss them because I will continue to read their contributions every day, as I do now. I’ll be commenting frequently too. I won’t be completely gone until I’m, uh, completely gone, which hopefully won’t be for another fifty years or so.

And you out there…I hope I have imparted something useful to you over the course of the past ten years or so.  I’ve made a number of dear and wonderful friends here. Some of them are no longer on this side of the veil. Many of them are still here and I want/hope to stay in touch with them. You will continue to see Dr. Steve Hooley —  speaking of friends, I could not ask for a better one — on alternate Saturdays. As for what I have come to regard as “my” Saturdays, the baton is being passed to  Reavis Z. Wortham who, commencing on Saturday, July 10, 2021, will be filling this spot on alternate Saturdays.  Rev is amazing. He writes a historical mystery series set in Northeast Texas during the 1960s and counts C.J. Box and Joe R. Lansdale among his many fans. It doesn’t get any better than that. Rev is an author’s author who, I assure you, will have you forgetting all about me within a month. 

That’s me for today. Let me leave you with a music video that seems appropriate. Be well. Keep reading, writing, and doing what you love. And thank you so much for everything. You’re the best.

Photo by Sam Filip for Al Thumz Photography


True Crime Thursday – Follow the Money

by Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Jake Blucker – Unsplash

When Alvin Schottenstein died in 1984, employees of Schottenstein Department Stores wept, describing their boss as kind and compassionate. Alvin and his brothers had built the Columbus, OH retail business, started by his father in 1917, into a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate.

Alvin was well known as a dedicated family man who said: “The time I get to spend with my grandchildren is the greatest time of my life.” (7/8/84 Columbus Dispatch article)

Almost four decades later, Alvin’s widow Beverley, now 94, sued two of those grandsons, Evan and Avi Schottenstein, along with J.P. Morgan Securities, in an elder fraud case. Her claims included financial fraud, abuse of fiduciary duty, and fraudulent misrepresentations and omissions.

Beverley is the matriarch of the Scottenstein empire whose holdings include American Eagle Outfitters, American Signature Furniture, DSW, and others. In 2015, the Schottenstein family was named #100 of the richest families in America by Forbes.

But…money does not guarantee happiness.

In 2014, Beverley’s grandsons Evan and Avi were employed by J.P. Morgan as brokers. During their five-year tenure handling her account, they made hundreds of stock trades, reportedly earning millions in commissions. But, despite Beverley’s many requests for information, they refused to tell her details of the transactions, stating only that they were doing well for her.

According to Bloomberg News, while the grandsons were supposedly growing her investments, Evan would challenge Beverley over charges she made with her own credit cards, which he evidently monitored. He criticized her for patronizing a non-Kosher restaurant and scolded her for watching TV on Shabbat.

Beverley’s son (Evan and Ari’s father) lives a few floors below Beverley in the same condominium building in Bal Harbour, FL, putting the grandsons in convenient proximity to her.

Evan reportedly entered Beverley’s home unannounced and shredded documents relating to J.P. Morgan. Charges appeared on her credit card statements that Beverley had not made. Her seven-million-dollar diamond engagement ring disappeared from a safe deposit box to which one grandson had a key. A check to her caregiver bounced because the bank had frozen her account.

What happened to the money her grandsons were handling for her?  

After several years of suspicions and unanswered questions, Beverley insisted they had to consult her before making trades on her account. Her banking, credit card, and stock statements from J.P. Morgan mysteriously stopped being mailed to her.

Despite a phone conversation with J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Beverley’s requests for reports and proper accounting were ignored.

In 2019, she’d had enough and consulted a lawyer. After an audit of her finances, an accountant concluded: “It appears that Ms. Schottenstein’s broker sold her these risky, illiquid products without regard for her financial wellbeing to generate extraordinary income for him and for his employer.” 

The unauthorized buying and selling of securities amounted to more than $400 million.

Assisted by her granddaughter Cathy Schottenstein (cousin to Evan and Avi), Beverley sought help from FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) because “retail investors can’t take their brokers to court.” (Source:

Shortly before the case was filed in 2019, J.P. Morgan terminated Evan and Avi. According to the FINRA letter of acceptance, waiver, and consent, Evan Schottenstein was “[d]ischarged” and provided a termination explanation stating, “[c]oncerns relating to trading activity for the account of a family member, and the accuracy of the records regarding the same.”

After arbitration, in February 2021, FINRA found J.P. Morgan and Evan liable for elder abuse according to Florida statutes.

FINRA awarded Beverley $19 million, ordering “J.P. Morgan to pay $8.9 million, Evan Schottenstein to pay $9 million as the chief beneficiary of the scheme, and Avi Schottenstein to pay $620,000. They were also ordered to pay legal fees and Finra hearing costs.” (Source:

Beverley’s granddaughter Cathy Schottenstein has written a soon-to-be-published memoir entitled Twisted, chronicling her grandmother’s ordeal.

This determined nonagenarian didn’t allow herself to be victimized by her own flesh and blood and refused to give up against one of America’s largest banks.

Beverley followed the money. Unfortunately it led to the discovery of family betrayal that would have devastated Alvin Schottenstein, Evan’s and Avi’s doting grandfather.


Thanks to Ann Minnett for alerting me to this case.




A glamorous predator zeros in on an aging millionaire until investigator Tawny Lindholm interferes. Then elder fraud turns deadly in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Stalking Midas

Buy links: Amazon     Major online booksellers

Who’s A Best-Selling Author?

Who’s A Best-Selling Author?
Terry Odell

Best-selling authors

Can you read those “Best Seller” banners at the top of the book images? Those were put there by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, not me.

Pretty impressive, right?

I should rush right out and change all my book covers so they proclaim my status. Plaster it on my website, add it to my email signature line.

But let’s step back and be realistic.

A while back, I attended a conference workshop on becoming a best-selling author, thinking I might pick up a few tips. Nothing she said was anything different than advice I’d already heard dozens of times. When I walked out was when the presenter said that if you could be in the top 100 on an Amazon genre list, you could promote yourself as a best-selling author. Note: she said “Genre List,” not overall sales. Another route was to make the top 100 in a Genre list on Amazon’s “New Releases page.”

Yes, I got those banners from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. But how?

I was fortunate to garner a BookBub Featured Deal promotion slot. For which I paid a pretty penny, mind you. Getting the BookBub acceptance is as much luck as it is having a first-rate product. They hold their algorithm cards close to the vest, but I’m convinced a lot has to do with timing, how much of a price drop you’re willing to take, and maybe reviews, although they’ll be the first to point out that many of their deals have very few reviews. In this case, my submission was for a 3-book set. The set itself didn’t have many reviews, but the individual books did, and one had won a respected award. But, it could just as easily have been numbering all the submissions in any given genre and using a random number generator to pick.

So, for one day, my Blackthorne Inc. Novels, Volume 1 was featured in the BookBub newsletter. Sales skyrocketed, which is the usual case. Not a huge moneymaker, since I’d dropped the price to 99 cents, which lowers the royalty rate (except at Nook, which pays 70% regardless of price).

Because those skyrocketing sales brought the book to #1 in 3 sub-genres, they garnered me those Best Seller banners.

Best-selling authorsBest-selling authorsBest-selling authorsDo I consider myself a best-selling author? Did I write a best-seller? No. One day’s sales, stimulated by an ad, are not my criteria for touting myself as a best-selling author. Yet I’m fully aware that there are those out there who would milk those banners for everything they’re worth.

Realistically, when I see an author I’ve never heard of touting themselves as ‘best-selling’ authors, I’m going to look up their books on Amazon. When I see that they’re ranked in the hundreds of thousands—or, in some cases, millions, I have to wonder. Odds are, they’re looking at a fleeting moment of good sales/rankings based on an ad. And that they received that ranking for a relatively obscure genre, not overall sales.

And popping back to that workshop where making the top 100 in “New Releases” was grounds for declaring oneself a best-selling author? I have a new release coming out this summer. I put it up for preorder and used BookBub for a pre-order ad. These are different from Featured Deals, and are dirt cheap in comparison. The flip side is they go only to your BookBub followers who agree to notification, so it’s a teeny-tiny pool relative to their regular newsletter. (At least it is for me, since I don’t have that many followers on BookBub.) On a positive note, when you’re a tiny fish in a big ocean, it doesn’t take very many sales to boost the new release in genre categories. Based on the workshop speaker, I’m a best-selling author because of that as well. I think my upcoming Trusting Uncertainty hit #50 in one sub genre, and hung on by its toenails in the 80s and 90s in two others.

Early on the day of the new release ad, I checked (because of course I did).

And look who else I’m sharing the stage with.

Best-selling authorsHowever, unlike Mr. Gilstrap, who has a much larger body of top-sellers, I can’t, with clear conscience, declare myself an author of best-selling books, or a best selling author. (I do, however use “award winning author” because I have won awards for my books.)

What’s your take, TKZers?

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

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.

First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Debbie Burke


Good morning and welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a mystery for discussion. Please enjoy the following then we’ll talk about it.


Little League; Huge Trouble 

Genre: Mystery

The streets were empty, black puddles filling the trench where they dug up the gas line. It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood.

If anyone was walking through the neighborhood, they would have seen him. He was running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, according to the police report, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 magazines and down 220 yards of wooded trails to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, which descends through three quick curves and a patch of native rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high and exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses and just beyond the fourth home, the midcentury showplace, he was shot. The bullet entered behind his left ear, severing the spinal cord and the slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment to the water that collects in the culvert after every strong rain.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.


I confess to mixed feelings about this page. There are some really nice, evocative visuals—black puddles in trenches, hard plastic soles slapping the pavement, etc. Rather than an info dump to describe the town, Brave Author blends action with  description. Well done.

However, the POV is awkward and off-putting, switching from omniscient to first person. More on that in a moment.

Title: Little League; Huge Trouble sounds catchy, light, and humorous, as if this might be a cozy or a story for young readers. But the title is at odds with the vivid, gritty description of a bullet tumbling in a little boy’s brain like an angry worm, which, BTW, is an excellent simile.

I’m not a fan of semicolons in fiction and especially not in a title. It’s distracting and appears pretentious. Suggest you replace it with a comma or a dash:

Little League, Huge Trouble or Little League–Huge Trouble.

Point of View: The drone’s eye view of the streets, houses, and the boy fleeing from his killer is a cinematic effect that can be intriguing.

Omniscient POV is one way to show the overview of the setting. However, omniscient keeps the reader at a distance and delays introduction of the “I” character.

Tone: I felt off-balance and unsettled because the tone is uneven and inconsistent. It skips from an almost-flippant travelogue of an idyllic town featured in 40 magazines to the horrifying death scene of a little boy. Rather than becoming engrossed in the story, I spent too much time trying to figure out what direction the author was going.

This opener fouled out for the following reasons:

In parts, the tone tries to sound like a detailed official police report with precise factual details: “40 magazines”, “220 yards of wooded trails”, “three quick curves”, “rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high”, “seven houses”, “fourth home.”

But those cold facts feel in conflict with the wonderful, sensory descriptions that evoke emotion: “running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement”, “exploding with faded pink blooms”, “burrowing…like an angry metal worm.”

Further, the observations about 40 magazines and midcentury showplace sound like authorial intrusions, further muddying the mood.

The contrast technique can work but must be carefully constructed so the reader doesn’t feel like a pinball bouncing from hard facts to the narrator’s flippant observations to strong emotions.

Likeability:  When the POV shifts from omniscient to “I”, the character’s reaction to the murder strikes out big time.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

Gotta tell ya—The character may hate himself or herself but not nearly as much as I hate the character for that selfish, self-absorbed attitude. A child has been murdered and s/he worries how that affects their team’s chances to win.

Even the hardest-boiled noir treats a child’s murder more gently.

S/he may be a snarky anti-hero whose character arc eventually leads to redemption. But, after reading this beginning, I wouldn’t continue. No matter how much I want to see a child’s killer brought to justice, it isn’t worth spending 300 pages with a character whose values are so crass and selfish.

The Brave Author may be trying for irony, a technique that can be used to great effect. But it must be done deftly when dealing with a sensitive, emotionally-charged subject.

Writing: Overall, the craft is skillful and well done with excellent descriptions. There are some repetitious words (neighborhood twice in the first two paragraphs) and phrases (leadoff hitter and best catcher). Several times, the tense shifts from past to present within the same sentence (It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood). That may be deliberate but it’s jarring.

The unevenness of tone and an unlikable narrator hit a grounder instead of a fly ball out of the park.

But this page is easily salvageable and can be rewritten into a home run.

In the example below in red, I tinkered with reordering and refocusing the tone to put more emphasis on irony: the contrast of a brutal murder in an idyllic setting; and the contrast of the promising sports career of a young boy who’s suddenly and violently cut down.

According to the police report, the streets were empty, the quiet time after school but before commuters wound through the neighborhood on their way home. Black puddles filled a trench where the gas line had been dug up.  

No witnesses had come forward yet. If anyone had been walking through the area at the time, they would have seen him, heard his hard, plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 lifestyle magazines. He continued an eighth of a mile down a wooded trail to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, through three quick curves, passing 30-foot-tall native rhododendrons exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses. Just beyond the fourth home, a mid-century showplace, he was shot.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and severed the spinal cord. The slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment into the water that collected in the culvert after every strong rain.

That evening, I learned the news that my leadoff hitter and best catcher had been murdered—a boy who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

By starting the first paragraph with a reference to the police report, readers immediately know a crime has been committed. Then they follow the victim as he flees, setting up the contrast between the storybook setting and the horrific crime.

Lastly, the shock that the victim is a little boy is revealed but the “I” character’s reaction is not as off-putting. S/he may later admit disappointment that the team’s chances have been dashed IF that’s an important detail. But I suggest delaying that until the reader is much more invested in the story.

Brave Author, there is a lot of potential here for a compelling mystery but I think you need to decide on an overall tone that’s appropriate for the subgenre you choose.

Is this a small-town cozy? Unlikely because a child’s graphic murder takes it out of cozy realm.

A traditional whodunit mystery? More likely.

An amateur sleuth tale where a youth sports coach must solve a murder? This seems like the most appropriate slot.

What audience do you hope to appeal to?

Once you answer these questions, you can focus on a tone and title that are consistent and appropriate for that subgenre. Then the reader won’t feel off-balance. Instead s/he will be pulled into the story.

Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting this promising first page.


Over to you, TKZers. What are your impressions? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?



Try the first book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series for FREE. Available at Amazon and major online booksellers. 

First Page Critique: Lethal Impulse

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Lethal Impulse’ (which definitely suggests a mystery or thriller!). My comments follow and I look forward to getting further advice and input to help our brave submitter! See you on the other side…

Lethal Impulse

Chapter One

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride. Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia. She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips.

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.”

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess. “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?”

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.”

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

General Comments

The last line certainly got my attention on this first page! I thought the author did a good job setting the scene for what the reader is sure is not what it seems at first glance…and a scene that definitely sets the stage for the taut mystery or thriller to come. That being said, I wasn’t completely grounded in this first page and I think part of this was because (a) I wasn’t entirely sure of the mood/tone though it was certainly suggestive of something dark  (which I love); and (b) I didn’t have enough background to understand what was going on (or at least what Vanessa thought was going on…). Both of these issues are easily fixed and I certainly think this first page has heaps of potential. I’m also pleased that there was dialogue/another character given how my last blog post illustrated the pitfalls of having the protagonist alone on the first page! I think the dialogue with Vanessa successfully raised red flags while also sounding believable but I would have liked a little more detail to fully understand what Vanessa thought she doing (acting in a short movie I’m assuming?) and why she was so willing to submit to being bound and placed in the trunk. I also wondered about the POV – As a reader, I wanted more insight or internal monologue for Tess but this might not be what the author wants (which is fine). Overall, bravo to our brave submitter!

Specific Comments

I thought the best way to tackle identifying more specific issues/comments was to go through this first page and highlight these in bold and italics. Hopefully this approach helps illustrate the areas where I think further revisions/clarification could be helpful…Here goes…

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride (I don’t love this expression and given how this first scene pans out I think it could be stronger) Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia (this is where I wasn’t sure about tone as it’s very light but then the scene that follows seems to hint at something darker so maybe have more than just a ‘manner unbecoming’?) . She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success (I don’t really know what this means) released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine (repetition of pine – maybe chose another word) thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips. (Like how this sets the scene nicely – I could totally visualize this)

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. (Is she in or out of the car?) “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.” (This is where I wanted more background detail/clarification about what Vanessa thinks she’s doing…)

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess (At first I thought Tess was still in the car – maybe clarify how she’d been filming earlier). “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?” (The cancer issue seemed to come a bit our of nowhere and perhaps needs just one additional line. This is also where I felt like we needed a better sense of POV – are we viewing everything through Tess or is it 3rd person omniscient as I almost want some inside view on Tess’s motivation)

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.” (Again, as a reader I feel I need to have more background as to what Vanessa thinks she’s involved in – getting into a trunk is pretty extreme.)

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

(Love this last line but just needed more details/background or at least further hints to understand why Vanessa would agree to this…and if Tess’s intentions are darker, maybe a few more hints on that…)

Hope some of these comments are helpful to our brave submitter. My fellow TKZers, what advice/comments would you provide?