True Crime Thursday – Racehorse Doping

Photo credit: MJ Boswell – Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke



In March, 2022, Federal Correctional Institution Miami, a low-security facility that was formerly home to Manuel Noriega, welcomed a new resident: Jorge Navarro, a thoroughbred horse trainer who pled guilty to federal charges of doping racehorses with performance enhancing drugs (PED).

Navarro’s nickname was “Juice Man,” a moniker he had emblazoned on a pair of Croc shoes he kept at his barn.

In January, 2020, one of Navarro’s horses, XY Jet, died of a heart attack at the age of eight. XY Jet had won $3 million in purses including the Dubai Golden Shaheen race. At the time of the horse’s death, Navarro gave this statement:

With deep regret, I am sorry to notify you that X Y Jet died this morning as a result of a heart attack. X Y Jet was more than a horse on my trained list. (He) was the one that took us through a wonderful and exciting roller coaster of emotions. He always fought against adversity and despite the injuries that affected him during his career, he always brought out that kind of champion he was.

PEDs used in horses do not actually improve their performance but rather mask pain that could slow them down.

In December, 2021, U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said:

Structures designed for the protection of the horses abused in this case failed repeatedly; fixtures of the industry – owners, veterinarians, and trainers – flouted rules and disregarded their animals’ health while hypocritically incanting a love for the horses under their control and ostensible protection. Standing as the keystone for this structure of abuse, corruption, and duplicity was Jorge Navarro, a trainer who treated his animals as expendable commodities in the service of his ‘sport.’

Navarro made a tearful statement at his sentencing hearing: “I became a selfish person who only cared about winning and I lost my way.”

Navarro was fined $26.8 million and given the maximum sentence of five years.

At FCI Miami, his options include working in the commissary, laundry, kitchen, or doing landscaping with a pay range of 12 to 40 cents an hour.

Paying his fine could take a while.

In a similar scenario, the 2021 winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, was later disqualified after he tested positive for corticosteroids. On December 6, 2021, the horse collapsed and died at age three during a workout at Santa Anita Park.

Corticosteroids act differently on the body than anabolic steroids, which are long-lasting drugs used for muscle building and strength. According to

Athletes have reported that corticosteroids help them push through the pain of extreme exertion and allow them to recover faster for the next event. The benefits of corticosteroids wear off pretty fast, which is why they are prohibited in-competition only.

Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and fined $7500. Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, also forfeited his purse from the Derby win and was banned from entering horses in the Derby for 2022 and 2023. Hearings to delay the suspension are ongoing as of March, 2022.

The day before Medina Spirit’s death, Baffert’s horses swept the Los Alamitos Stakes.

Were any of those horses tested? Who knows? 

Starting in December 2018, thirty-seven horses died at Santa Anita in less than a year.

In December, 2021, reported:

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey organized a task force to investigate and released a report two years ago that found ‘no criminal wrongdoing’ on Santa Anita’s part.

Existing safeguards against doping are not working and many critics are calling for a ban on horseracing.


TKZers: What do you think? Should horseracing be banned? What action would clean up the sport?



An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

DNA links three puzzling cases in my new thriller Until Proven Guilty. Order at Amazon. 

R.U.E. Pitfalls

R.U.E. Pitfalls
Terry Odell

Resist the Urge to ExplainA comment by Garry Rodgers to one of Debbie Burke’s posts a while back made me check the archives. I thought for sure I’d written a TKZ post on the subject of R.U.E., but apparently I hadn’t.

When I starting playing around with writing, I belonged to an in person critique group (The Pregnant Pigs, but that’s irrelevant here) and we normally worked with hard copies of our chapters. I was the novice in the group, and my chapters often came back with RUE sprinkled through the pages.

What did that mean? “Resist the Urge to Explain,” they said. “What was I doing wrong?” I asked. And they proceeded to tell me.

As authors, we want to make sure our reader’s “get it,” so we tend to go overboard with information, explaining far too much.

Here’s a simple example: “Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she’d pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard.”  The second sentence isn’t needed; it’s explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.

Another pitfall—telling something, then going on to show it. Let’s say you’re beginning to understand the “show don’t tell” advice everyone gives you, and you put the action on the page. For the sake of example, a simplistic passage might be written as follows:

After Bill cancelled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.

The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, use your delete key on that first sentence. A better approach:

Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, but he’d cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.

The reader gets the information, and can see that Mary’s depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill cancelled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.

What about this?

Mary’s feet felt like lead. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape the man chasing behind her.

Cut the first sentence. You don’t need both. What about:  Mary ran, but her feet refused to move fast enough to escape the man chasing her. Or, Mary’s feet moved as though encased in lead shoes.

Sometimes, we tell the reader too much.

Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.

Don’t insult your reader with the last sentence. No need to explain. We can see for ourselves Mary is a meticulous eater.

Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?

“I’m sorry,” Tom said apologetically.

Those adverbs are usually signals that you’re telling something the dialogue should be showing. They’re propping up your dialogue, and if it needs propping, it wasn’t strong enough to begin with. All that ‘scaffolding’ merely calls attention to the weak structure beneath.

Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can’t explain why. However, agents and editors are tuned into them, and if you’re submitting, you don’t want to send up any red flags.

Even for experience authors, it’s easy to fall into these traps in early drafts. Some tips:

Check your manuscript for ‘emotion’ words, especially if they’re preceded by “was” or include “felt.” Are you describing your character’s feelings? Don’t tell us how your character feels. Show us.

Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don’t need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.

Readers are smart. Don’t patronize them by ‘talking down’ to them.

What about you, TKZers? How do you avoid “overselling” in your manuscripts?
Any encounters of RUE from other authors that slog the read?

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellAvailable Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

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 – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke


Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.


An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.


Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!


 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?



When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

Amazon sales link


Running and Writing – The 800-meter Novel

“Pace doesn’t mean speed; it means the right speed.” – Reginald Hill

Some people think the 800-meter race is the hardest track event to run. Why? Because the race is twice around the track which equates to roughly a half-mile. Pace is the key. There’s a tendency to run the first lap too fast and run out of steam on the second lap. On the other hand, running the first lap too slow could mean falling so far behind the leaders that you can’t catch up. Each runner has to find their own pace within the field to run their best time. Can we apply this knowledge to writing a novel?

One of the most famous 800-meter races of all time was the 1972 Olympic final in Munich, West Germany. Eight world-class runners toed the starting lines. The favorite was Yevhen Arzhanov of the Soviet Union who had won every race he had entered for the previous three years.

The lone American in the race was Dave Wottle. Although Wottle had won the U.S. Olympic Trials race, he suffered injuries prior to the Olympic Games, and there was some question about his fitness. Here’s a two-minute video of the race. Arzhanov is wearing a red shirt and is in Lane One. You can easily spot Wottle – he’s the one wearing the golf hat.


Several weeks ago, Reavis Wortham wrote a blog post on pacing within a story. I’d like to explore the subject further by mapping Wottle’s race to a novel format. We’ll make Dave Wottle the protagonist in our story. Although I’m sure Yevhen Arzhanov is a very nice man, he’s going to be our antagonist for the purposes of this post. All the others are secondary characters in the story.

I suppose the inciting incident in this story is the start of the race. The gun goes off, and seven of the runners fly around the first turn.

My husband and I heard Dave Wottle talk about that race years later. He said he was surprised at how fast the other runners went out, and he was afraid he wasn’t up to the task. (Refusing the call?) Wottle could have stepped off the track after the first turn, claiming injury, and would have avoided disappointing his friends and family at home. But despite what he thought was a poor performance at the start, he decided to answer the call.

The backstretch, like the middle section of a novel, is usually not the most interesting part of the race. But in this race, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on in the first two hundred meters that focuses our attention on the secondary characters leading the race. At the same time, our antagonist, the favorite Arzhanov, slips back into anonymity at the middle of the pack.

As they come around the turn to complete the first lap, Wottle is still trailing. Running in last place at the midpoint of an Olympic final doesn’t bode well for our hero. Wottle must have asked himself if it was worth the pain to keep trying.

Down the backstretch for the second time, the tension ramps up as the competitors bunch up and jockey for position. Wottle moves ahead of a couple of runners. Now our attention shifts to Arzhanov as he takes off like a bullet to pass the leaders.

The race is now a 200-meter sprint. The finish line is in sight. The runners accelerate down the homestretch. The crowd senses the drama. Everyone yells for their favorite.

Our hero starts to pick off runners one at a time. It’s like figuring out clues in a mystery – with each new insight, he moves one step closer to catching the bad guy.

The tension is palpable as they approach the climax of the race. When Arzhanov realizes how close Wottle is to him, it’s too late to do anything other than fling himself forward, hoping to cross the finish line first, but Wottle clips his opponent at the line to win by three hundredths of a second.

In a mystery, the criminal always makes a mistake. In my book Dead Man’s Watch, the killer takes the watch off his victim, thinking no one could ever trace it to him. In the 1972 Olympic 800-meter race, Arzhanov started his finishing kick too soon, thinking no one would catch him. Both were wrong.

Maybe we can add a corollary to Reginald Hill’s maxim:

Writing a novel isn’t about producing words. It’s about producing the right words at the right pace.


So TKZers: How do you handle pace? Do you make your protagonist suffer an almost-certain defeat before finding that fire within? How do you prevent a sagging middle section? Do you pick it up in the last chapters heading to the climactic scene? What advice do you have about setting the right pace in novel-writing?



The Watch Series of cozy mysteries

Watches that tell more than the time.

Help! My Plot is Getting Away From Me!

by James Scott Bell

(Today’s post is adapted from the book Plotman to the Rescue: A Troubleshooting Guide to Fixing Your Toughest Plot Problems. It is used by the kind permission of the author.)

Here’s a question I get from time to time. What do I do if I’m in the middle of my novel and there are so many things happening, so many characters running around, that I’m losing my way?

You would think this question would come primarily from “pantsers,” the If-I-knew-what-my-story-was-about-before-I-wrote-it-I’d-be-bored school of writing. But it arises with the plotter, too, who has perhaps been overly ambitious in the planning. As sometimes happens for the plot engineers, a sudden twist or turn or character may try to horn in at, say, the 20k mark, throwing the whole outline off.

So what do you do when you discover you’ve a) gone down that infamous rabbit hole; b) have plot points or characters popping up you didn’t plan for; c) are lost in a dark forest; or d) have fallen off a cliff into the bleached bones of the author’s graveyard?

I will allow you one wail of frustration.

Now let’s get a handle on things.

First of all, where are you, as the ad men used to say, “outline wise”? Do not skip over this part, pantsers, for you better have an outline, too.

Wait, what?

I’m talking about a “rolling outline,” one you put together as you roll along. When you finish a scene or chapter, write a quick synopsis of who the viewpoint character is, what he wants and what happens, as in: Ishmael gets depressed, decides to go to sea, and sets off to find a ship.

Scrivener is ideal for this because you can put the rolling outline on scene “cards” and view them on a virtual corkboard. But Word or even Excel will work fine, too.

Now, if you feel your plot is getting away from you, print out the current version of the rolling outline and do this:

Clean House on Characters

How many viewpoint characters have you got? This means you have more than one character with a storyline of their own. For example, in a traditional romance you usually have two viewpoint characters, the lovers. In a long historical or fantasy novel, you may have three, four or more.

If this is so for you, precisely define the following: What is each character’s death-stakes objective? (Death being physical, professional, or psychological.) If it’s not death, find a way to make it so, or drop this as a plotline. In the alternative, consider taking away this character’s viewpoint scenes and converting that line into a subplot. This means the character shows up in scenes told from another character’s point of view and (this is crucial) complicates the viewpoint character’s objective.

For example, you have a woman as a viewpoint character, and a man as another viewpoint character. The man’s plotline is not working out in a death-stakes way. You might remove him as a viewpoint, but have him show up in the woman’s plotline as a potential lover or long-lost brother or secret agent or alien from a parallel universe.

Clean house. Keep only the crucial characters.

For further study: The Stand by Stephen King, and Strangers by Dean Koontz. You’ll see how these authors make the several character lines work on their own terms before bringing the strands together.

Cut Scenes That Don’t Connect to Plot

Now that you are squared away on the objective of the main character or characters, assess each scene you’ve written so far. Ask:

  • Does the goal in the scene relate in some way to the overall, death-stakes objective of the Lead? If not, cut it.
  • Does the scene present an obstacle to the attainment of the objective, emotionally or physically or both? If not, why is it there?
  • If the scene is part of a subplot, how does it intersect with the main plot? How does it complicate matters for the Lead?

Write or Rewrite Your Pitch

If you’re a pantser, you may not have a pitch for your novel. After all, you’re still discovering what it’s about! Well, if you’ve done some thinking as this post suggests, you’ve made discoveries. Try putting them together in a pitch—250 words or less that would make someone interested in this story. Doing this will give you focus on where to go next.

If you’re an outliner, rewrite your pitch to include the elements you’ve uncovered. Get excited again about your journey.

Be sure to read Sue’s post on crafting a pitch.

Push On

Now finish your draft. Don’t do any more dawdling. You should have enough direction to push right on to the end. As you do, keep adding to your rolling outline. It will be helpful when you get to the editing stage.

Can you describe a time when your plot got away from you, or you felt lost? Is this a common occurrence for you? What do you do to get back on track? 


Extracurricular Passion

by Steve Hooley

March is National Reading Month. Since we are writers, and readers are vital to our success, I thought it would be appropriate to “share” our national month with the rest of the world and rename it “World Reading Month.”

Reading month was established in March to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss (3/2/1904) and his contribution to increasing the interest of reading in children.

We’ve discussed ways to get young people interested in reading.

We’ve discussed our favorite writers’ style and the Rushmore authors.

If you thought “extracurricular” in the title of this post is being used with the connotation of “extramarital,” I’m sorry. It’s not. I did use the phrase to draw you in, and please don’t stop reading now. We have a three-course meal, plus dessert and drinks, so stay with us.

Our “extracurricular” activity today is “outside our normal curriculum” of writing fiction and the craft of writing fiction, specifically reading nonfiction.

Now we’re getting into hobbies and special interests. And this is where your passion for your special interest kicks in and you can’t wait to tell the rest of us how exciting it is to study entomology and the Giant Weta.

Therefore, we will dispense with any pretense of an academic prelude, and move directly to the discussion where each of you can lecture on the importance of your beloved subject.

But, on second thought, I better provide some “meat” for our meal, or I’ll lose my job here as a cook. So, here are three dishes for our main course: (Remember, it’s World Reading Month.)


Benefits of Reading

This is a short list of the many benefits of reading.

  1. Improves brain connectivity and memory
  2. Increases vocabulary and comprehension
  3. Empowers ability to empathize with other people (note this was listed under reading fiction)
  4. Aids in sleep readiness
  5. Reduces stress
  6. Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  7. Helps fight depression
  8. Helps prevent cognitive decline with aging
  9. Can help increase IQ in children
  10. Improves concentration and ability to focus
  11. Improves analytical thinking skills
  12. Improves writing skills and communication skills


Reading Disorders

  1. Dyslexia – occurs on children with normal vision and intelligence. Symptoms are late talking, learning new words slowly, and delay in learning to read. Common with 3 million cases/year in the U.S. Treatment can help, but doesn’t cure.
  2. Phonological Dyslexia (auditory dyslexia) – difficulty processing the sounds of individual letters and syllables, and cannot match them with the written form
  3. Surface Dyslexia (visual dyslexia) – difficulty recognizing whole words, from probable vision issues or processing
  4. Rapid Name Deficit – difficulty with naming a letter, number, color, or object quickly and automatically
  5. Double Deficit Dyslexia – combination of both phonological and rapid naming deficit, and is the cause for the majority of the weakest readers
  6. Alexia – occurs after stroke or brain injury
  7. Hyperlexia – have advanced reading skills, but have problems understanding what is read or spoken out loud
  8. Specific Skills
  9. Word decoding – similar to phonological dyslexia with difficulty sounding out words
  10. Fluency – difficulty with reading quickly and accurately
  11. Poor reading comprehension – difficulty understanding what is read
  12. (My addition) – Sine Tempore Legere – Without Time to Read – children and adults who are too busy with work, hobbies, school activities, TV, and social media – currently undecided whether there is a cure, or whether this is terminal


Early History of Reading


  • 4th millennium BC – Mesopotamia – picture symbols on clay used to keep track of business transactions
  • 2600 BC – beginning of cuneiform script – used to document laws, record deeds of kings, and keep records of transactions – each syllable had a different sign – number of characters ran into the hundreds – learning to write and read was an enormous achievement
  • 2300 BC – earliest author named, woman, Akkadian princess and High Priestess, Enheduanna – wrote temple hymns, signed her name

 Reading as Performance

  • 200 BC – punctuation was added – erratic into the Middle Ages – written material reached the illiterate masses through public readings
  • 5th century BC – Greek historian Herodotus read his latest works at the Olympics
  • 1st century AD – author readings became a social convention in Rome
  • Being read to became an avenue for entertainment and acquiring knowledge, especially for women, well into the 19th century
  • Texts were meant to be heard rather than seen – reading silently remained a curiosity

 Reading Silently

  • 330 BC – Alexander the Great’s troops were awestruck when he read a letter silently in front of them
  • 9th century AD – first regulations requiring scholars to work in silence in monastic libraries
  • As better punctuation was added, books became more accessible, and pictures were included, silent reading became the norm, with more and more readers
  • 14th century – Chaucer recommended reading in bed

 Print Revolution

  • Earliest print technology originated in China, Japan, and Korea by rubbing pages against inked woodblocks
  • 13th century – print technology reached the western world – woodblock printing widespread by the 15th century
  • 1430s – Gutenberg – first mechanical printing press in Strasbourg, Germany
  • 1450 – press was operational and printing copies of the Gutenberg Bible
  • Churches began to educate the masses
  • Village schools and literacy grew
  • Book sellers began printing copies of popular ballads and folklore
  • Early 18th century – periodicals began to be published
  • Novel as a literary form took root in France and England
  • 1849 – Dickens – Pickwick Papers – serialized in a magazine, combining the attraction of the novel and the affordability of the magazine


  • 7th century BC – Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, put together the first library – collection of clay tablets
  • 331 BC – Alexander the Great’s successor, Ptolemy I, founded a library in Alexandria, Egypt
  • 2nd century BC – library in Alexandria is catalogued
  • 18th century – proliferation of lending/circulation libraries in Europe and N. America


Okay, enough of the main course. It’s time for dessert and the after-dinner drinks and entertainment. It’s time for you to share your extracurricular passion, your nonfiction passions and interests.


Our Questions:

  • Do you read any nonfiction beyond craft-of-writing? What topics do you like to read or study? And why do you think they are important.
  • Have you written any nonfiction books (excluding craft-of-writing)? Tell us about them, and why we should buy and read them.
  • Are there any nonfiction projects you are considering, planning, researching, or currently writing? Is there anything you can tell us about them without revealing your trade secrets?

True Crime Thursday – Eyes of a Killer

Photo credit: perchek industrie-Unsplash

By Debbie Burke



April is National Donate Life Month to promote the importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation. I covered this subject in an article for Montana Senior News. While researching, I spoke with people who had either been recipients of donations or surviving family members who agreed to donate organs, corneas, or tissue from their deceased loved ones.

The stories were bittersweet but also heartwarming. A recurring theme ran through them: the worst day for one family is the best day for another family.


Miranda Denison with the tools of her trade.

A major source for my article was a woman named Miranda Denison, one of six people in Montana with the unusual job of harvesting corneas. When someone dies, she or one of her colleagues goes to the hospital or funeral home to remove the thin, dime-shaped tissue that gives sight. She carefully packages it, then arranges transportation to an eye bank. There, the corneas are medically evaluated and, if viable, sent to hospitals to be transplanted. The surgery has a 95% success rate of restoring vision.

Miranda’s duties are similar to that of a coroner or medical examiner. She undresses bodies and thoroughly examines them, draws blood and other fluids for lab analysis, makes note of injuries, scars, tattoos, needle tracks, and signs of trauma or disease that might affect whether or not the corneas can be transplanted. For instance, IV drug users are excluded as donors, as are people with hepatitis C or who are HIV positive.

Donors’ and recipients’ identities are confidential but a transplant coordinator can act as an intermediary. This allows recipients to send thanks to the surviving donor family. With consent from both parties, they may communicate directly with each other, often forming lasting friendships because of the gift of life that connects them.

What does this have to do with True Crime Thursday?

Sometimes donors are victims of crimes. In such cases, recovery of organs takes place at the crime lab in Missoula, Montana.

Sometimes donors are perpetrators of the crime.

In the early morning hours of January 19, 2022, Kirk Brown, 48, shot and killed his dog and his mother, Florence Brown, 79, in the home they shared in Big Arm, Montana. Then he turned the gun on himself. He didn’t die immediately and was transported to a hospital where he later succumbed to his injury. The case was ruled a homicide/suicide.

Kirk Brown was a registered organ donor. Recovering his corneas was an especially grisly task because of the gunshot wound. Although Miranda didn’t work this particular case, she was familiar with it because her colleague handled it at the Missoula crime lab.

Miranda knows I write thrillers. After she told me about the case, we started talking about fictional possibilities.

If someone received the eyes of a killer, how would that affect them? Would they view life and people differently? Would they take on characteristics of the murderer?

The concept is not new. A 1920 French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) explored the idea of transplanted body parts. After an assassin is executed by guillotine, his hands are attached to a pianist who had lost his in an accident. The pianist begins to commit crimes because he cannot control the grafted hands. That story inspired several horror films, including Hands of a Stranger (1962).

Other films, including Body Parts (1991), In the Eyes of Killer (2009), told stories of characters who develop criminal characteristics after receiving parts from a murderer.

I’ve never written horror or sci-fi/fantasy. But the idea of a killer’s eyes intrigues me. I may have to give it a whirl.

Kirk Brown’s corneas were indeed successfully transplanted—the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.

Thanks, Miranda, for introducing us to your unusual occupation and for triggering my imagination. 


TKZers: What are some other works of fiction or movies where transplanted body parts are the basis for the story?

How about the opposite scenario? Do you know of fiction where an evil character receives a good person’s organs that redeem the bad guy?



Today is launch day for the seventh book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

Investigator Tawny Lindholm and her attorney-husband Tillman Rosenbaum juggle three baffling cases where DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal, triggering a crisis in their marriage and an unimaginable threat to their family.

You can buy UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY from Amazon and major booksellers.

Home Invasion Redux (And A Bit Of Gun Porn)

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, Sue Coletta posted a gonzo good post on setting up a plan to prevent/cope with a home invasion. She called it “Easy Prey Dies First” and the title says it all. If you haven’t read it, you should follow the link and do it now.

In her pulse-pounding opening, Sue painted a picture of waking up at 2 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass followed by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. What would I do?

I’ll get to my answer below, but let’s think through some options first. Given that violence never comes with a Playbill, we can never know until after the fact if the stranger in your house is there to take your life or merely to steal your stuff. Where I live, in West Virginia, it’s a distinction without a difference. We’re a true castle doctrine state. More than a few states, however, punish a homeowner for a violent encounter unless an intruder poses a direct, definable threat to their lives–and then only after they have made a reasonable effort to flee and seek shelter.

In my former home state of Virginia, lethal force was considered justified inside the home, but only if there was a direct threat. If a resident hears a noise downstairs, away from the sleeping area, the law tips against him if he seeks out a suspected intruder and confronts the bad guy. Prosecutors will charge the homeowner with manslaughter because, in the eyes of the law, the homeowner started the fight. The bad guy was merely stealing stuff.

These are important points to consider when you’re putting your home invasion plan together. It would suck to go to prison for defending your home with violence and then see your family be sued into poverty by the bad guy’s relatives.

Now, let’s assume that going to guns is an option. There are other supremely important considerations:

Are all of your family members accounted for?

One of the strongest arguments against having a gun in the house is the reasonable likelihood that it will be used accidentally against a family member. It would be beyond tragic for a late homecoming or a 2 a.m. trip to the kitchen to result in homicide. In the circumstance posited by Sue in her post, the shattering of glass pretty much takes those mistakes off the table.

I believe the solution here is to educate and train all your family members on the safe handling and use of the firearms you have in the house. Most shooting ranges have a young shooter program.

Involve the entire family in your plan.

Specifically, what do you want your kids to do? My suggestion if they’re young is to tell them that if they hear or see dangerous things in the middle of the night, they should yell for help, but never, under any circumstances should they open their bedroom door. If the kids are older, consider giving them a more active role in the plan.

And about bedroom doors . . . Closed doors add over five minutes of survival time in a housefire. Of the times I pulled dead kids out of fires, 100% slept with their doors open. Correlation is not causation, but the physics of fire behavior is pretty clear on this. A topic for a future post, perhaps.

Is calling for help an option?

We’ve all heard the cynical wisdom that when seconds matter, police are only minutes away. There’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s always–ALWAYS–a good idea to place a call or text to 9-1-1 to get law enforcement on the way. It establishes for the record that a crime is in progress and it gets officers on the way.

In rural areas and in some understaffed cities, response times can be disturbingly long–a fact that puts more pressure on the home defender.

Running away is always the best solution.

A punch not thrown never hurts. But our hypothetical scenario has the bad guy on the stairs, which define my way out of the house. Now that I’m halfway through my sixth decade, a jump from the second floor is not in the cards. But if you can get away, do so. And stay away. Your legal standing gets really murky when you leave a place of safety to return to a fight. In many states, that makes you the aggressor and the bad guy the defender.

Again, remember to include the kids in your plan. Generally, society frowns on parents who flee a home invader and leave their children behind to fend for themselves. Be sure to have a designated rally point somewhere away from the house so you can count noses after the house is empty.

Sheltering in place is bad advice.

Feel free to disagree and yell at me, but I believe this with all my heart. When you hide in a closet or in a corner, your surrender all maneuverability and grant all the advantage to the bad guy.

If violence is your solution, try to bring the fight to the bad guy.

This brings me back to Sue’s original scenario. Stairways are God’s gift to home defenders, the best possible place to have your violent confrontation with the bad guy because he has no place to go. He’s stuck in a chute with little to no maneuvering room and no ability to establish a good fighting stance. I would move as quickly as possible to meet him at the top of the stairs, looking down on him, and there we’d have a very serious discussion about his future.

I tell people that they should consider the stairs to the sleeping level to be their Alamo. That’s where they make their stand. As long as the bad guy is rummaging around the house where there are no occupants, there’s plausible deniability that he’s just after stuff. Once he hits the stairs, though, the only reasonable assumption is that he has capital crimes in mind.

Choose your weapons.

Hand-to-hand combat is for young people, and then only for those who have been trained on fighting skills. Without that training, if the confrontation comes to the laying on of hands, you’re going to lose. Knives are an especially bad idea because not only are you fighting at bad-breath distance, you’re going to get cut. As for impact implements like baseball bats golf clubs, consider the logistics of a full swing in a narrow space. It’s not going to end well.


It’s my post so you knew it had to come to guns, right? People often ask what I think is the firearm to use against home invaders. (Much of what follows will get you in deep trouble with the law if you live in certain states. Check your state and local regulations,)

Spoiler: There is no right answer as to which weapon is best, but irrespective of your ultimate choice, it’s all on you to make sure you know how to use it in a way that does not pose a risk to innocent people. This is a lot less complicated an equation when you live in a rural environment, a quarter mile away from your nearest neighbor, than it is when you live in an urban apartment complex. After the bullet passes through your bad guy, it’s going to find another target, whether it’s the stud behind the wall or the sleeping baby next door.

I am a fan of shotguns as home defense weapons. When you’re sleep addled and operating in low light, the spread of pellets out of a smooth bore weapon gives you the greatest likelihood of hitting the bad guy. The farther you are from your intended target, though, the higher the likelihood that some of the pellets are going to miss the bad guy and seek mischief behind him.

Shotguns also give you many options in terms of ammunition, and you should base your choice on a number of factors, not the least of which is where you live. (See above.)

When most people think “shotgun”, I believe they see the venerable 12-gauge shoulder buster that is featured in cop shows. Deployed properly, it’ll definitely do a number on the bad guy, but an apartment dweller needs to give serious consideration to the size of the shot and power of the loads he’s using. One of the commenters on Sue’s post on Monday posited the use of a 12 gauge slug against an intruder. Um, no. Not unless he’s fifty yards away and looks like an attacking grizzly bear.

In most circumstances, even 00 (“double-aught”) buckshot is too hot for home defense. Every trigger pull of 00 buck launches 9 to14 .33 caliber pellets down range at 1,700 feet per second, give or take. It will drop whatever you hit, and at short ranges will likely pass right through your target with little reduction in speed. I think that a .410 shotgun loaded with #4 shot (.24 caliber pellets) is a better choice. It’s got far less recoil, but plenty of umph to stop your intruder. Even the hotter versions of birdshot will take the invader out of commission, and will pose less chance of collateral damage.

If the shotgun in your closet is already a 12 gauge, consider “short loads”, which have considerably less powder, and therefore lessen the hazards to your neighbors.

This is really scary stuff to contemplate, but I think it’s important to do so. Know that your plan will never be perfect, so it’s probably folly to rehearse the physical movements of a confrontation, but I think it’s worthwhile to think through the emotions and the intent. How long are you going to lay in bed talking yourself out of believing what you know to be true? How much time are you going to lose trying to remember where you stashed the ancient pistol you inherited five years ago from Uncle Charlie?

I get that many people think that this level of planning–even the discussion itself–is silly because the chances of this ever happening are miniscule, and I’ll stipulate that the numbers are on the side of the naysayers. But by the same logic, there’d be no need for smoke detectors or seat belts.

The scenario Sue posted guarantees that somebody’s going to get seriously hurt. I’d rather it not be me or my family.


First Page Critique: A Shooting
But Where Do We Go From Here?

By PJ Parrish

Our First-Pager starts off with a bang. Literally. I will leave it at that for now. Let’s take a read and then discuss.

Sweet Sixteen Redux

New Town Mall

I was trying on a polka-dotted push-up bra when the gunfire began. The rat-a-tats came in quick bursts. A chorus of screams followed. The sounds were distant but unmistakable. This was no kid with a cap gun. Someone had come to the mall to kill. And my father was out there.


The word limped out of my mouth, a prayer. Dad had brought me shopping as a present for my sixteenth birthday. He sat outside the dressing room at The Gap and American Apparel, glancing at his cell and offering some variation of “Looks nice, Grace” when I came out, even when I modeled an orange jumper that made me look like a baby convict. We mutually agreed, however, that it would be best for all parties if I spent my Victoria’s Secret gift card (a present from Mom) without his assistance. The last thing he’d said to me was, “I’ll be in the food court.”

I threw on my shirt and crept out of the dressing room, panic rising in me like a tide.

The saleswoman who’d been helping me was huddled behind the counter, a cell phone pressed to her ear. “I don’t know how many shooters there are. Just hurry.” She ended the call and waved me over. “The police are on the way. We need to—”

More shots rang out. She let out an ear-piercing cry and crawled through an Angels Only door, beckoning me to follow. Every cell in my body screamed for me to go with her, to get as far away from the shooter as humanly possible. But Dad was in danger. Because of my stupid birthday. I couldn’t just leave him to fend for himself.

Outside the store, panicked shoppers stampeded away from the food court, toward the T.J. Maxx end of the mall. I watched them pass, looking for Dad’s blue Cub’s jersey. When it was clear he wasn’t coming, I shuffled over to a cell phone kiosk and crouched behind a cardboard winky face. From there, I could see what everyone was running from: a man, dressed in black, with a short-barreled machine gun in his hands and a SpongeBob mask covering his face. Lifeless bodies were splayed across the floor like mannequins. One of them wore a blue Cub’s jersey.

No…it can’t be.


I often say here that the better the submission, the tougher my comments are. This is because if the writer is doing the craft things right, if the story is compelling, you want to root for them even harder and help them if you can. Such is the case here. But here’s the catch for me — I can’t find too much negative to say about this! I’m not being lazy here. You all know how much I like to drill down into our submissions. But this writer is doing a lot of things right.

So that is our lesson today, folks. We can learn from submissions that need work. But we can also learn from submissions that don’t. So…

What works here, for me, at least?

Immediate conflict and drama. The writer chose a good entry point moment to begin their story. Something is happening right from the get-go — a mall shooting. The writer could have started earlier, say with daughter and dad talking just outside the store about why they were there — it’s a birthday gift shopping spree. The writer could have been more in the narrator’s head, having her think about how much she is enjoying her day with dad. But no. The writer wisely got the action moving first and kept the backstory out of the way (for the most part; more on that in edits).

Good choreography. Moving your characters around in time and space seems like a mundane craft thing but many writers don’t do this well. Your story is unspooling in your head like a movie — you see it so clearly, right? But your job is getting the reader to see it as clearly. So you have to be careful about telling us where people are, what precisely is happening. It isn’t fancy writing but it’s vital. This writer aces this. (with a few small hiccups).

Point of View. First person is, to my mind, harder than third because everything in this story must be filtered through one person’s senses and experience level. Our narrator is very young, so it’s doubly hard, but I think the writer has a good grip on this so far. I liked the young girl Grace immediately. She feels real to me. Notice the writer told us Grace is trying on a polka-dot push-up bra? The writer could have chosen jeans or a blouse. But the fact it’s a slightly naughty bra is what we call a telling detail — it tells us something specific about Grace.  And did you notice how gracefully the writer inserts the girl’s name and age? This isn’t easy in first-person.

Now, there are a couple things that need tweaking, here and there. So let’s go to a line edit. My comments are in red.

Sweet Sixteen Redux Not crazy about this title. It feels too soft and ambiguous for this story especially given the action opening. “Redux” is one of those weird words that everyone thinks they know but actually get wrong. It means brought-back or revived. Not sure what the writer is going for here. Maybe that her “sweet 16” was far from sweet, in fact, deadly, so she’ll get another chance to relive it? What do you all think?

New Town Mall You don’t need this tag, writer. You cover it, as you should, in the narration.

I was trying on a polka-dotted push-up bra when the gunfire began. This is a grabber first line but a nit to pick here. The way this is phrased feels almost like she’s thinking about the episode in retrospect. Most laymen, when they hear gunfire, do not immediately identify it as such. Victims of mass shootings describe it as car back-fire, fire-crackers, etc. In the first few seconds, their reactions are purely visceral. Not sure she would say “gunfire.” The rat-a-tats came in quick bursts. A chorus of screams followed. The sounds were distant but unmistakable. This was no kid with a cap gun.  See comment above. She evidently thought she was hearing a cap gun. Someone had come to the mall to kill. And my father was out there. Good ending to the graph!


The word limped out of my mouth, a prayer. I like this line…Dad had brought me shopping as a present for my sixteenth birthday. He sat outside the dressing room at The Gap and American Apparel, glancing at his cell and offering some variation of “Looks nice, Grace” when I came out, even when I modeled an orange jumper that made me look like a baby convict. We mutually agreed, however, that it would be best for all parties if I spent my Victoria’s Secret gift card (a present from Mom) without his assistance. The last thing he’d said to me was, “I’ll be in the food court.” Okay, this needs some work. It’s too long (backstory) and thus puts a brake on the great action of the scene. I get that the writer wants to establish WHY Grace and dad are there because it creates sympathy and empathy. But just shorten it, maybe to:

I yanked open the dressing room curtain. Dad had been sitting there, thumbing his cell phone, while I tried on clothes. “Looks nice, Grace,” he had said when I emerged to model an orange jumpsuit. But now he was gone. Then  I remembered he had muttered something about meeting me at the food court.

I threw on my shirt and crept out of the dressing room, panic rising in me like a tide. Cliche…you can do better, writer. What does it FEEL like specifically to this girl? Bring up next line. The saleswoman who’d been helping me was huddled behind the counter, a cell phone pressed to her ear.

Need new graph when new person speaks. “I don’t know how many shooters there are. Just hurry.” She ended the call and waved me over. “The police are on the way. We need to—”

More shots rang out. She let out an ear-piercing cry and crawled through an Angels Only door, I have no idea what this is beckoning me to follow. Every cell in my body screamed for me to go with her, to get as far away from the shooter as humanly possible. But Dad was in danger. Possibly. Maybe it would be smarter to have her think that she has to FIND him. Because of my stupid birthday. I couldn’t just leave him to fend for himself. Why do I suggest cutting this last line? Because the line before it is much more powerful. Also, Dad being in danger isn’t really caused by her birthday. Unless you add something here that she was the one who insisted he bring her? Can you make it more personal to their relationship. She feels guilty — so give her a good reason!

Outside the store, choreography hiccup here. You have to move her outside first. Did she decide to go out the front entrance of the Gap? panicked shoppers stampeded away from the food court, toward the T.J. Maxx Another choregraphy hiccup. Is the Gap right next to the food court? The stampede she sees implies it is. Be specific. end of the mall. I watched them pass, looking I scanned the crowd but didn’t see Dad’s blue Cub’s jersey. When it was clear he wasn’t coming, I shuffled Not the right word, I don’t think, as shuffle is a slow casual verb. Scuttled? But that’s not a 16-year-old’s word. Scrambled? over to a cell phone kiosk and crouched behind a cardboard winky face. I’m probably dense as a log but I didn’t know what this was. A smiley face, or one of those yellow winking icon? It didn’t compute with cell phone kiosk for me. I stumbled for a moment so maybe it needs fixing? Not sure…

Then I saw himFrom there, I could see what everyone was running from: a man, dressed in black, black what? trench coat? with a short-barreled machine gun in his hands machine gun is an old fashioned term. Need help here from my gun experts — what would you call this, keeping in mind this is a 16 year old? and a SpongeBob mask covering his face. if she can’t see his face she can’t tell us for sure it’s a man. Could be a boy. Could be a woman. Lifeless Ditto, she can’t KNOW they are dead bodies were splayed across the floor like mannequins. I like that you’re trying for a metaphor here in keeping with your setting but not sure it works. mannequins don’t normal “splay” — they stand upright. I’d lose the metaphor. Also, be careful that you don’t get too “writerly” here and slip into metaphoric thinking in such a visceral moment.

Also, like your verb choice of “shuffle” the word “splay” might not be accurate. It’s a nice word but splay is very specific in meaning — all limbs thrust out from the torso at oblique angles. Some of those shot would crumble inward; some would be merely prone. Also question whether Grace, at 16, would think in such a wording. Keep every emotion, reaction, word choice in her realm of experience — not yours.

One of them wore a blue Cub’s jersey. Nice. I might put it on a line of its own. But can you sharpen the image and make her reaction more visceral. Suggestion:

I spotted a body in dark blue shirt. There was a red target-shaped logo on the back. It was a Cub’s jersey. 

You told us Dad was wearing such a jersey so it’s more impactful to just stay with the visual of the jersey and let US connect the dots. And note the use of “target” in logo.

No…it can’t be. Good that you’re in her head. But unattributed thoughts need to be in itals.

So, as I said, I really like this opening. The solid writing bodes well. I want to know if Dad is alive, of course. And I want to know, of course, how this life-shaking event affects our protagonist. That is, I would guess, the dramatic trajectory for Grace. I am very curious what genre we are in — young adult or regular no-age-specific? I am curious, too, where the plot will go from here and what its main thrust will be. What kind of journey are you taking us on, dear writer? Mystery? Police procedural? Thriller? Where does Grace go from here? When you have such a dramatic opening, that is a big big question.

But I am curious. And that is a very good thing. So good job, writer.