Making It Feel Real

By John Gilstrap

Fiction writers are sleight of hand masters. We create stories about people who do not really exist doing things that never happened in places that may or may not be real, all the while painting word pictures in readers’ heads. Sometimes with our eyes closed.

One question that comes up frequently when interacting with readers is some variation of “How do you do your research?” Depending on the audience, I have a lengthy, nuanced response that deals with building an extensive contacts list of people who not only know stuff, but will return my phone calls. That’s all true, but in reality, I don’t turn to the experts all that often.

For the most part, I cheat. I make stuff up. I can’t count the number of scenes that have played out inside the suburban house I grew up in. My wife grew up in a creepier house than I did, so that one has been featured many times, too. In Total Mayhem, Gail Bonneville and Venice Alexander break into the fictional Northern Neck Academy, which looks very, very much like the swanky private school where I worked during my college summers as a counselor at a day camp for overprivileged rich kids.

By knowing in my head what a place looks like–because I’ve been there and can report from memory to the page–making the settings real for the reader is a matter of reporting what I see in the pictures in my memory banks.

My research for Six Minutes to Freedom took me to the jungles and barrios of Panama, so every time a jungle appears in a book, those are the jungles I see. I have been in the West Wing of the White House exactly one time and even managed a peek at the Oval Office, so I know the feel of the place. (NOTE: Besides the Oval itself, the West Wing looks nothing like the version shown in the television show bearing its name.)

Google Earth is a gift to writers.

My book Final Target features a lengthy escape sequence where Jonathan Grave needs to get his team and a busload of orphans to an exfiltration point on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula while pursued by cartel bad guys. In part because the cartel bad guys are very real and quite active in those parts, I had no desire and zero intention to visit the place.

So, I cheated. Google Earth offers a “street view” function that allowed me to “drive” Jonathan’s route to the exfil point. I don’t dwell on specific structures, but I did mention landmarks at different intersections, and I was able to see where and how the nature of the vegetation changes. I even pinpointed the big house where the final shootout happened.

Everything is research.

Back when I still had my Big Boy Job, my duties took me to Ottawa, where I fell in love with the city. (Actually, I’ve fallen in love with a lot of places in Canada.) In High Treason, bad guys spirit Jonathan’s precious cargo across the border into Canada, and I needed a location for the final conflict. I remembered from my visit that islands in the middle of the Ottawa River, very near the government buildings. Those would suit my purposes perfectly. But those islands don’t have the kind of structures I needed.

So, I cheated. I remembered from an earlier vacation trip to Ireland that we visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and that would be perfect. I changed its name and planted it on that island in the Ottawa River. Then I blew a lot of it up. I did get a few letters from readers who felt it necessary to tell me that there is, in fact, no prison on those islands, but not as many as I had feared.

It’s okay not to be real.

Writers are inherently inquisitive people, I think, and our passion to do research too often takes us down rabbit holes where countless hours are wasted. I work to deadlines, so I often don’t have that luxury. I have to remind myself that fiction is merely the impression of reality. I don’t have to be able to do all of the things that my characters can do. All I have to do is convince the reader that the characters are able to do the stuff they do.

It’s all a part of going on the great pretend.

How about you, TKZ family? Any research shortcuts you want to share?


Dot…Dot…Dash. The Messages
You Send With Your Punctuation

 “If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” — Cormac McCarthy.

By PJ Parrish

I guess when you win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, you can do whatever you want.  I read McCarthy’s The Road years ago. There are no quote marks to set off the dialogue. There are no commas or question marks. There are periods, but even they are sparse. McCarthy’s pages look as bleak and barren as the story’s apocalyptic landscape.

When I first started the book, the lack of punctuation annoyed me. It wasn’t that the narrative was unclear or that I was confused. It just felt pretentious, as if the author were saying he was above all things mundane. And if you believe his quote at the beginning of this post, you’d say he was just being a….well, you fill in the blank.

McCarthy calls quotes “Weird little marks” and once said:  “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” After a while, I didn’t care about the punctuation. The story sped along, the characters captured me by the throat and by the heart.

Then there’s the other side of the coin — guys like William Faulkner, who could have used some judicious punctuating. Check out this passage from The Sound and the Fury:

My God the cigar what would your mother say if she found a blister on her mantel just in time too look here Quentin we’re about to do something we’ll both regret I like you liked you as soon as I saw you I says he must be …

Faulkner’s advice to tackling it? “Read it four times.” Gee, thanks, Bill.

I read an interesting post about this subject recently. The author Adam J. Calhoun suggests that simple punctuation goes a long ways toward sign-posting a novelist’s style. He compared passages from two of his favorite novels — McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! taking out all punctuation marks. Guess which book is which?


Says Calhoun: “Yes, the contrast is stark. But the wild mix of symbols can be beautiful, too. Look at the array of dots and dashes above! This Morse code is both meaningless and yet so meaningful. We can look and say: brief sentence; description; shorter description; action; action; action.”

And we can easily tell, just by the choice of punctuation, who wrote what.

So what does this mean for us mere mortals? I think most of us, myself included, don’t think too much about the punctuation we use. We know the basics of periods, question marks and quotation marks. We get a little confused about commas, and when to use dashes or ellipses. And we have banished the poor semi-colon to the grammar dungeon. We put in the symbols quickly and race on, saving our tsuris for the big issues of plot, characterization and theme. But I’d like to suggest today that we give more thought to these fellows:

The symbols we chose to insert among our words can go a long way to establishing not just our unique styles but the kinds of emotions we want our readers to feel. Some of us, especially those working in neo-noir, favor a style a la Hemingway — short sentences with workmanlike punctuation. If you read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” you see a story rendered with only quote marks, question marks and periods. Oddly, the only comma is in the title. Maybe Hemingway was taking the advice of his friend Gertrude Stein who called the comma “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.”

Some of us, especially those working in historicals, favor a lusher style and will sow commas to force the reader to pause and take in the scenery. Look at this passage:

He moved to his left, circling around the trampled area, stopping every couple of steps to examine what lay before him. He was almost diagonally opposite the point where he’d left the path when he saw it. Just in front of him and to the right, where was a dark patch on the startling white bark of a birch tree. Irresistibly drawn, he moved closer.

The blood had dried long since. But adhering to it, unmistakably, were a dozen strands of bright blonde hair. And on the ground next to the tree, a horn toggle with a scrap of material still attached. 

That’s from Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution. Notice the liberal use of commas. McDermid wants the reader to slow down and absorb, along with her detective, every awful detail of the death scene. When you want your reader to slow down, commas are your friends.

What about the dash and its cousin the ellipses? I use both often in my work. In my mind, a dash signals an abruption interruption in thought or speech. An ellipses, in contrast, is a trailing off of the same. Here’s Reed Farrel Coleman in Redemption Street:

It took many years for my mom not to imagine her only daughter burning up alive. Can you imagine the tortuous second-guessing my parents put themselves through? If they hadn’t let he go. If they had forced her to go to a better hotel. If…If…If…

I’m a big fan of the em dash. It is a useful little bugger. It can indicate an interruption:

“The commissioner phoned the home office. The home office phone the Circus — “

“And you phoned me,” Smiley said. 

Notice that John Le Carre did not feel the need to write “Smiley interrupted.” The dash did the work.

Le Carre also uses dashes in mid-narrative to inject parenthetical info. An example of this is the last part of the sentence: “I had steak last night for dinner (and it was really good!).” But no character thinks or speaks in ( ) so the dash is an effective substitute. Here’s Le Carre again:

The only link to Hamburg he might have pleaded — if he had afterward attempted the connection, which he did not — was in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry.

Again, depending on your style, a parenthetical dash might be good. Or it can look fussy. And be aware it tends to slow down your narrative. There’s an Emily Dickinson poem called The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky that is stuffed with em dashes.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As sponges—Buckets—do—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

I confess I don’t understand the usage here. Poetry is a different animal altogether. I just threw it in here because it’s interesting.

Okay, we need a word about exclamation marks. I know, I know…seems a simple matter. But I’m surprised at how often I see it misused. Many writers throw them in thoughtlessly, as if trying to wring emotion from readers. In my mind, exclamation marks are like adverbs. If you need one, your dialogue is probably flaccid. Think of it as a potent spice — in the right place, it does wonders for your word stew. Trust me!

And what about the colon? Does it have a place in our genre? I’ve seen it used correctly, but it never feels authentic to me, given our love affair with intimate point of view these days. It feels outdated. And try as I might, I couldn’t find one example of its use in a novel after 1890. What about if you need to list things, as in this example, which I made up:

Jack Reacher was afraid of only three things: women wearing red stilettos, men in turbans, and snakes.  

Or this:

Jack Reacher was afraid of only three things — women wearing red stilettos, men in turbans, and snakes.

The second one feels right to me. I say if your colon is acting up, try a dash.

Which brings us, alas, to the dreaded semi-colon. We’ve thrashed this topic to death, and most of us now agree it has no place in modern fiction. (Please use the comment section to argue your case otherwise). I never use one. I don’t like seeing them in print. There, I’ve said it. So sue me. But I will end my post with one of my favorite openings of a novel:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

That’s the opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I just love every word of this paragraph. I don’t care that there are three semi-colons and enough commas to choke a ghost. As Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer explains:  “Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together…Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.”

So I guess the bottom line is to know thyself and thine style. Be aware of what punctuation marks can do to slow or speed up your story. Be attentive to the emotions these symbols can impart in readers. And that, friends, is how we end. Not with whimpering ellipses, not with a startling dash, and certainly not with a barking exclamation pointer. With a simple full-stop period.


Top 10 Social Media Mistakes for Writers

I’ve spent 12 years on social media. *cringe* In that time I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. That’s not to say my social media presence is 100% perfect. Far from it. I am a flawed human. The trick is knowing where and how you went wrong, so you don’t repeat the mistake and destroy your social media platform.

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay, and writers are expected to have an online presence. To help you navigate these turbulent waters, I’ve compiled the top 10 mistakes I’ve seen writers make over the years.

#1: Don’t talk at your audience. Chat with them.

Social media is about making connections, engaging in conversation. It is not a soapbox, nor are you the most important person in the room. People will have opinions that don’t align with yours. And that’s okay. Talk it out. Get to know them.

#2: Don’t try to be something you’re not.

I see this all the time. If you’re not passionate about a subject, don’t try to fake it because it’s trendy. This isn’t high school. Share something that excites you, and your passion will shine through. Folks want to know the real you, not some made up version.

Which brings me to…


#3: Chill out, dude.

You cannot hop on social media for five or ten minutes and expect to see instant results.

Building a community takes time. If you rush it, your “buy my book” activities will reek of desperation.


#4: Don’t copy a famous author’s social media style.

What works for a thriller or noir writer might not translate well to cozy, HEA romance, or sci-fi fans. If you write in a similar genre, you can emulate that author, but add your own special flair.

#5: Don’t spout orders.

We’re told to have a clear call to action in social media marketing, that’s true, but less is more. Don’t ask for multiple favors at once.

Buy the book.

Rate the book.

Review the book.

Repost the review on Goodreads, BookBub, Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc. etc. etc.

Tell all your friends to buy the book.

Choose one. Once you build trust, move on from there.

Otherwise, it feels a lot like this:

Read everything I’ve ever written. Don’t think about time. I’m more important.

When you’re done with that, rate and review all my books, but don’t say anything negative. I will only accept four or five stars. Don’t forget to repost the review everywhere books are sold. And I mean everywhere.

Oh, btw, I need a few things at the grocery story. Grab a pen and write this down. You’ve got time, right? ’Course you do. After all, I’m the almighty author.

Clean my house.

Walk my dog.

Feed my wildlife.

Check in on my elderly parent.

Can you cook? Great. I’m far too busy writing my next masterpiece to waste time in the kitchen.

Come to me when you’re done, and I’ll give you the next task. You’re welcome.

#5: Don’t take before you give.

We’ve talked about the 80/20 rule before. I think 90/10 works better, but you’re safe with 80/20. For those who don’t know, it means 80% of what you share should be about life, pets, passion (not writing), or goofing around, 20% book news. Sounds easy enough, right? Yet some authors can’t seem to wrap their head around it. Every post is a version of “Buy my book!”

To the writers who struggle with the 80/20 rule, let me rephrase in simpler terms. I know you’re excited—we all do—but you are not the first person to write a novel, nor will you be the last. What if an Avon lady knocked at your door day after day after day to buy her products, would you be more or less likely to whip out your credit card? Don’t act like the Avon lady.

#6: Don’t be nasty, argumentative, or spread hate.

Self-explanatory. If you see something that angers you, keep scrolling. It’s simple. If you wouldn’t be nasty or spread hate in person, don’t do it online. If you would, please seek help.

#7: Mind your manners.

Please and thank you go a long way in life and on social media.

#8: Don’t try to be everywhere.

Learned this lesson the hard way. Back when writers were expected to be everywhere, I built a following on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, StumbleUpon, Google+, Reddit, Triberr, Alignable, etc. etc. etc. Lost hundreds of thousands of followers when some of these sites went dark, too.

Learn from my mistakes. Focus your downtime (not writing time!) on one or two sites you enjoy. Social media should be fun.

#9: Use Social Media Management Tools

Shortly after I wrote a post about Hootsuite, they changed their plans. I switched to Buffer. For $15 per month, you can schedule up to 100 posts across several sites. Money well spent. It takes time to schedule posts in advance. Save it for the end of the day (don’t use writing time!).

#10: Know Your Audience

All sites are not created equal. What works on one site, won’t work on another.

For example:

On Twitter, my blog articles drive a lot of traffic back to my site. But Instagram doesn’t allow active links in a post, so those same articles crash & burn.

My FB audience loves to laugh. I share murder memes, dark humor, and my love of crows, animals, and wildlife. Some things can be reposted to Instagram, some can’t.

On Twitter, I can’t share my Facebook posts or they might trigger my audience to attack.

One time, I caused an uprising by sharing a group promotion for novels featuring strong female lead characters. The image showed silhouettes of women in dresses. I did not create the image. The girl who formed the group did.

Nonetheless, it triggered massive outrage. “Your tweet degrades women!”

Are you talking to me? I’m a woman and don’t feel degraded by a dress or skirt.

“Why can’t strong women wear pants?”

They can. I do.

“Delete that sexist tweet now!”


“Shame on you!”


You can’t argue with crazy. So, I created a new image for Twitter. It was either that or stop sharing the group promo. See what I’m sayin’? The original image on Instagram didn’t garner one negative response.

Bonus Tip

Automated private messages are never a good idea. Never. Pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, you should never message a stranger. Are there exceptions? Yes, but it’s less intrusive to send an email. And please, for the love of God, don’t add followers to your newsletter list. It’s tacky and unprofessional.

Okie doke. Any tips to add, TKZers? Do you struggle with social media? Now’s the time to ask for help.



On Symbols and Motifs

by James Scott Bell

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Happy Sunday. Whether you worship, play, or simply lounge around, may you feel renewed and refreshed this day.

We’ll be having a family feed with the grandboys, complete with Easter egg hunt. Which invites the question: What’s the deal with eggs and bunnies? How did those things become symbols of the season?

It’s a fascinating inquiry. In the pre-Christian era, eggs were part of the fertility lore of the Indo-European races. In Persia, eggs were presented at the spring equinox, which represented the start of a new year.

At some point in the Middle Ages, the egg was incorporated into the Christian observance of Easter as a symbol of new birth. Added to it was the practice of coloring the shells. As one tongue-tangled minister put it to his congregation some years ago, “In honor of Easter, Edna Johnson will step forward and lay an egg on the altar.”

What about the Easter bunny? Well, bunnies are certainly fertile. That symbolism goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. But that’s probably not why they’re associated with Easter.

It seems it was German Protestants who came up with the Osterhase (“Easter Hare”), a friendly rabbit who brought sweets to good little boys and girls. The kiddies would prepare “nests” for the Osterhase out of straw inside hats—thus, the Easter basket. When the Germans came to the American Colonies, they brought this tradition with them, and it eventually caught on. In the 19th century, the Easter egg hunt, leading to a basket of goodies, became a motif—a repeated pattern.

So let’s talk symbolism and motifs because, when well executed, they deepen the reading experience in a powerful yet subliminal way. It’s something the readers feel (it’s for the lit professors to analyze).

Two of the most famous literary symbols come from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. First is a billboard:

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.  

This is a symbol of divine omniscience, keeping watch over the questionable morality of the characters. Does Dr. Eckleburg watch us, too? The reader feels the question.

The other symbol is the green light on Daisy’s dock. The first time the narrator, Nick Carraway, sees Jay Gatsby it is at night and from a distance.

But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

Gatsby is longing for Daisy. The Daisy of his past, to be exact, and a Daisy that will forever elude him. After Gatsby’s death, Nick reflects:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

A motif is a repeated image or phrase. Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It is a novella in which water is a central motif. It begins: In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana . . .

From the start we have a connection between water and religion and family (not to mention the symbolic significance of fishing). The river becomes the central image repeated throughout the story. When the narrator watches his brother fly fishing from a boulder, he reflects “the whole world turned to water.”

At the end, the narrator tells us “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time . . . .I am haunted by waters.” The motif was literal at the beginning, symbolic at the end. It frames and defines the story.

Janet Fitch weaves symbols and motifs into White Oleander. The oleander plant—tough, attractive, poisonous—represents Astrid’s mother. The tomato plant “groping for a little light” signifies Astrid herself as she faces various trials. These elevate the story from a collection of plot incidents to a commentary on life, love, and human resiliency.

So why not work a little symbolism or motif into your fiction? You can come at it from different directions. If you’re a planner, you can spend some time brainstorming possibilities. If you pants your way through a draft, you can go back and look at what you’ve got, searching for symbols your muse may have fed you.

If you write with rich, sensory details (as Reavis demonstrated yesterday), you have a lot of possibilities.

Try this: Make three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, record the details that stand out in your scenes. In the middle list your main characters. In the last, catalogue the significant settings.

Now look for connections within the columns. Connect a detail with a character and place. Or work the other way, from place to character to detail. Pick the strongest two or three connections, and see if you can weave them into your plot.

Have you considered using symbolism or motif in your books? You should try it. All it takes is a little extra thought, and the ROE (Return on Energy) is entirely worth it for the one who matters most—the reader.

Note: Part of this post is adapted from Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books) and is used by the kind permission of the author.

Leathery Wings and Petrichor

The Earthling, which released wayyyy back in 1980, is one of the greatest, but most underrated movies I’ve ever seen. Three quarters of the way through the film, Patrick Foley, (William Holden) is in conversation with a traumatized six-year-old Shawn Daley (Ricky Schroeder), and delivers one of the most inspiring observations in movie history.

Dying of cancer in the Australian wilderness, Foley is trying to teach the youngster enough skills to survive in the Blue Mountains before he passes away. Recently orphaned and traumatized, Shawn is self-absorbed and spends too much time complaining, according to Foley.

Desperate, Foley finally breaks and attempts to jolt the child into understanding. “You’re not only a whining kid that wastes his time; you’re also deaf and half blind. Sure you can hear me now. But do you listen to that water? Can you hear those birds back there? Can you hear the insects – the wind and the trees creakin’ and rubbin’? You’re deaf to those frogs down there and the sun pingin’ off of these rocks. You’re deaf to your own heartbeat and me comin’ up behind you. My God, boy, there’s a whole symphony goin’ on here and you can’t hear a thing.”

And then later, he distills it down even further for Shawn, and gave me a line I used with my girls when they were growing up. “You hear, but you don’t listen.”

In writing novels, we should know who the characters are, and what drives them, and what they’re wearing (and I hope you didn’t spend two paragraphs of an info dump telling us more than we want know about their clothes).

That can be achieved by a line or two as the story progresses.

The symphony Foley is talking about, are the senses we take for granted, especially sounds and smells that are often difficult for some to integrate into the manuscript. However, writers don’t need to tell readers how something sounds. Showing is much better.

“The sound of thunder reached his ears.”

Or, “She room smelled musky.”

We don’t need to say, “Thunder outside of the musky room and the spider’s prickly legs tickled the hairs on his arm, creeped Herschel out.”

At this writing, I’m alone in our Northeast Texas cabin with the windows open to catch the fresh breeze flowing through the screens like an invisible river. Closed up for nearly three years, the dusty interior was stale and thick when we first bought the place, but now it’s fresh as line-dried sheets.

The soft spring breeze will soon be replaced by furious winds whipped up from a line of thunderstorms roaring down on the cabin from the west. I’m looking forward to the hail that’s sure to rattle on the tin roof sparking childhood memories of similar storms and rainy days playing in the hay barn.

It’s a rustic place that reminds me of those old-school cabins up in the Adirondacks. The rough cedar exterior of the 2,000 square foot retreat fits perfectly in the hardwoods that make up the entire 48.5-acre parcel. A pool wraps around three sides of the house and waves slap against the shore. Here in East Texas we call them pools, farther out in Deep East Texas they’re ponds or stock ponds, and out west, they’re called tanks.

The interior is honey-colored cedar, some commercially milled, but the rest hand-cut in a home sawmill, sanded smooth by a welder-turned-carpenter, and coated with a sealer that brings out the rich, warm colors only cedar can provide.

Thunder rumbles close enough to rattle the glass in an antique bookcase in the other room, creating an evening just like those movie makers use to dispatch promiscuous teenagers, but there are no serial killers or ax murderers creeping up to the front porch, as far as I know.

Besides, this isn’t a place full of partygoers (though I’ve been told the cabin once reeked of spilled beer and whiskey after a number of rambunctious parties thrown by the former owner), and there isn’t one young lady running around in her underwear. I’m sure, because I checked before coming in for the night.

The breeze occasionally brings another burst of air perfumed by the distinctive gin-and pencil-shavings fragrance of evergreen branchlets rubbing together in the wind.

A bat flutters past on dry, leathery wings that might creep some folks out, but I love the little guys who suck up mosquitos like vacuum cleaners. Unseen tree frogs of all sizes lend three-note voices to the symphony outside. Some chatter with a high pitch, like maddened amphibians laughing at the deeper croaking of heavy bullfrogs, who add bottom to the chorus.

Crickets under the window add their own backbeat as an owl hoots in the distance and a whippoorwill repeats a distinctively sad call over and over again, asking who whipped poor Will. Will’s name ends on a high note, reminiscent of a construction worker’s wolf whistle.

Pucker up and whistle that last note and you’ll understand what I mean.

But that’s not all. The night is never silent, even without the oncoming storm, nor are the woods. Wild hogs grunt and fight less than hundred yards away. At one point, a smaller, indignant pig squeals long and loud, and goes silent.

We’re not in the wilderness. High overhead, the hiss of a distant, passing jet seems out of place, as much as car tires sizzling down the oil road before hitting a hole. The whole vehicle rattles like it’s coming apart before passing.

The house pops as it cools, and the only other noise is the tapping on my fingers on the keyboard. Ice rattles in the glass after a sip of chilly Bombay Sapphire and tonic, the cool liquid refreshing as the evening.

Now, there it is. The screen is dusty and the damp wind across my makeshift desk brings the scent of petrichor, the familiar odor the odor of rain falling on dry ground.

Offer these senses in your work, letting the reader become part of the story, instead of hitting them between the eyes with “he heard,” or “she smelled,” or “they saw.” Spin your story in a way that the reader is there with your characters, using the recollections of their own senses.

That’s what Patrick Foley was talking about, that symphony around us that I’ve hopefully shown without telling. Add in an ax murderer and some teenagers in their underwear, and you have a thrilling scene.



The Writer’s Voice

By Elaine Viets

We talk a lot about the writer’s voice, and how we develop our own.
But some readers want more than the writer’s voice on the page. They want to hear the writer’s actual voice.
They want to know what this author sounds like. Is their voice high and reedy, low and sexy, gruff, educated, or sweetened with a soft Southern accent?
When writers read their own work for audio, we readers hear their voice in our head every time we pick up their book. It changes the book: now the writers are speaking directly to us.
Their writing becomes more personal, more intimate.
We expect entertainers to be good at reading their own books for audio, and most are. Listen to Tina Fey read her book, “Bossypants.” Trevor Noah is terrific reading his “Born a Crime.”
And hearing Maya Angelou read her poem, “Still I Rise” brought tears to my eyes.

But what about ordinary writers? Should we read our own work?
Some years ago, I read my first four Francesca Vierling mysteries for audio. It was hard work. I was exhausted when I finished each day. I read my mysteries in the studio for six to eight hours a day.
Want to know what it’s like to read an audio book?
Okay, read this blog out loud, down to this line – without a single stumble, pause or mispronunciation. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you.
Start reading now. In three. Two. One.

Difficult, isn’t it? Every time you make a mistake, the producer has to stop the recording, back up, and have you start again.
I decided to read my first four mysteries because I’d had speech lessons in New York. To get ready for the studio, I went into training. I printed out the books in manuscript form and read from them several hours a day, to be familiar with the words. I outlined each character’s part with a special colored pencil, so I could change my voice at the right time.
I wrote notes at the top of the pages to remind myself. Mostly, SLOW DOWN!!!!
Finally, I thought I was ready. I flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico to begin reading in the studio. Santa Fe is a much drier climate than I’m used to, and my throat quickly turned scratchy. Now I sympathized with singers who babied their throats.
I had a patient producer and the reading went fairly smoothly. I followed the advice of some pros and drank warm water with lemon. No sugar, no tea, just warm water and lemon. I swilled gallons of the stuff. After a while, my mouth puckered when I even saw a lemon.

When I finished, I needed to put my tongue in a sling. My sore, scratchy throat took weeks to recover.
I was lucky to get kind reviews for my work, but when it came time to read my other mysteries, I left that to the pros. Tanya Eby and Amanda Stribling read many of my books now. Why did I stop reading my work?
Because I was good, but not quite good enough. And I wanted the best for my work.
So what about you? Have you read your own work for audio? Do you have a favorite audio reader?

Listen to my audio books free during your 30 trial with Listen to my Dead-End Job mysteries, Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries, and the Angela Richman Death Investigator mysteries.

Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove

Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove
Terry Odell

Left Coast CrimeI very recently returned from my first in person author/reader get together since the pandemic began: Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque, NM. I refer to this as a way to ease into dealing with being surrounded by people, inundated with information, and having to speak in semi-coherent sentences.

Left Coast Crime is a Reader-based conference. Presentations are panels of authors addressing a topic, not craft workshops. Thus, in a Writer-based conference, a workshop or discussion of setting, for example, would focus on how to deal with setting in your books. What to include, what not to include, examples of vocabulary, why it’s important, etc. In a Reader-based conference, the panelists will be authors selected because their books are set in “interesting” places and they’ll talk about the locales they use.

A Reader-based conference gives you the chance to talk to … readers. If you’re me, it’s likely very few have heard of me (unless they’ve picked up my lip balm—I get lots of “I love your lip balm”; very few “I love your books.”)

If you’re an introvert or just need to get away, for a writer, a Reader-based conference allows more chances to escape to your room or a quiet corner without the guilt of missing Very Important Craft Information.

However, there was the opportunity for learning craft in a pre-conference add-on workshop given by David (Rambo) Morrell, and I attended it. Four hours, even with breaks, is a lot of brain time, but I survived—in part, I think, because he spent quite a bit of time talking to aspiring or new writers, so I could coast in neutral for brief periods of time. Not that his “beginner” advice didn’t contain gems, but they broke through any mental meanderings.

Some of my takeaways from his talk:

He first addressed what it takes to be a serious writer, going into Myers Briggs personality tests. Basically, you have to know how long you can sit at the keyboard in isolation and maintain your focus. If you need to interact with people, this could be your biggest problem. Bottom line: whatever your approach, you have to have a schedule and stick to it. Morrell said Stephen King claims he writes 5 pages every day except Christmas and his birthday, which isn’t true. He writes on those two days as well, but he didn’t think people would believe it.

Next, you need to know why you want to write and what you hope to accomplish. (Hint: a goal of being a best-selling author and making a ton of money isn’t a smart move.) Morrell’s goal was to write something that would influence other people the way Stirling Silliphant, the screenwriter of so many shows Morrell watched as a youth, affected him.

Per Morrell: Being a writer is an insane thing to want to do. Become a hermit to write something other people will find interesting.

Two mantras Morrell gave as advice.

  1. Be a first rate version of yourself and not a 2nd rate version of another author.
  2. Don’t chase the market; you’ll always see its backside.

He mentioned Nicholas Sparks as an exception. He looked for a niche and found there were virtually no other men writing romance, so he exploited it.

Other bits:

  • If you set out to write the book you want, you’ve met your goal when you finish even if it doesn’t sell.
  • If your goal was to write a best-seller you’re imitating and you won’t have anything to show for it.

As a professional, if something interests you, you ask yourself WHY? Look at how it was made rather than plot. He spoke of the importance of awareness and told the story of not being able to come up with the character’s name in First Blood. He was busy working, and didn’t appreciate his wife interrupting to show him the apples she’d bought. He gave her noncommittal responses until she insisted he EAT one of these apples. Reluctantly, he did, and it was exceptional. He asked her what kind of an apple it was, and she said, “It’s a Rambo apple.” Ta Da.

He gave us an exercise to do when starting a project—have a conversation with yourself and write it out. Pages and pages of dialogue, what you want to write about and how you’re going to do it. Eventually, you’ll have enough information to start writing the book. It’s writing on the page. Writing is a perishable skill. If you don’t write something every day, it won’t stay with you. The conversation will help bring you back when you get stuck.

Other questions Morrell threw at us:

What can you do that nobody else can do? What is your dominant emotion? Examples: Anger, lust, envy, fear. Find yours and dig deep into it.

Morrell does his homework, probably more than most of us are willing or able to do. He studied photography, got a pilot’s license, drove race cars to be aware of what his protagonists could do.

Once you know your direction, you’ll find the questions you’ll need to answer. Fill in the blanks, one step after another until you find the story and where it begins. He adamantly cautioned against starting with a flashback. Emphatically. His example: “She woke up with the worst hangover she’d ever had”…and then the story shifts to where and what resulted in that hangover. If it’s important, start there. He related this to a sign Frank Sinatra had on the door to his house: “You’d better have a damn good reason for ringing this bell.” Because it felt right isn’t an acceptable answer.

  • We all find archetypal situations inherently interesting. “A stranger comes to town.”
  • Daydreams are an excellent source of information.
  • To tighten dialogue, take out every other response.

On the use of senses. Morrell suggests taking sight for granted, then including two others, but ‘sneak them in’ so it isn’t obvious. The object is to make the reader feel, not see. Be very light. Don’t tip your hand. Makes a book feel three dimensional.

(I liked this better than the “use all 5 senses in every scene” approach, which to me, often feels forced.)

The writer’s job is to keep the audience paying attention. You have to decide if the window they’re looking through is cleaned by Windex, or if it’s stained glass. Whatever you do, you need to be clear and not require the reader to do extra work.

One thing (probably the only thing) David Morrell and I have in common is part of our writing process. We both believe in printing out the day’s work and looking at it away from the “office.” I do it in bed at night, and he does it as his first step of work the next day. Seeing it “off screen” helps fool the brain into thinking we’re seeing it for the first time.

In his words: Yesterday’s work is terrible the next day. Writing is Fixing. We think, “In my head it was a lot better.” Our task  is to make them the same.

What about you, TKZ peeps? Have you joined the live and in person group yet? Did it take readjusting?

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.

How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

No, this picture is not Photoshopped clickbait. It’s me and a real bear. Details below. 


By Debbie Burke



In your real-world job, would you be willing to work for two or more years before receiving a paycheck? Probably not.

Yet, as authors writing books, that’s exactly what we do.

Writing a novel is often likened to a marathon. It takes months, if not years, to complete a book. Traditional publishing tacks on another one or two years before you see your book for sale. Indie-pubbing speeds up the process but it still doesn’t happen overnight.

Thirty-plus years ago, I was stuck in the endless loop of writing novels, submitting them, and being rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Because fiction was my passion, I didn’t really consider writing nonfiction until a couple of journalist friends offered their help and encouragement. I dipped my toe into article writing and made the happy discovery that nonfiction was much easier to publish than fiction (not to mention it paid better).

At last, I had the satisfaction of seeing my words in print.

One magazine gig led to another. As my file of published clips expanded, editors began to call me. Article assignments took a little sting out of the rejections that my novels continued to collect.

Many more years would pass before I reached the ultimate reward of a published novel but, along the way, articles were small consolation prizes. They encouraged me to keep moving toward my goal.

My journalist friends taught me another neat trick—take the same article but re-slant it for different markets. Do research once and get paid several times.

For instance, a story about how to run a successful garage sale could be pitched to community newsletters, antique/collectible magazines, and senior-interest markets as tips for retirees to earn extra money.

An article about gold mines might fit in a travel magazine, a state historic journal, and a niche publication for hobbyist prospectors.

Often, during research, I ran across interesting people and wrote personality profiles about them.

One in particular led to a number of offshoot articles plus a memorable experience with the stunning bear in the above photo.

At the Flathead River Writers Conference in the 1990s, I met Ben Mikaelsen, a kid-lit author who had his own bear. Buffy had been a research cub that couldn’t survive in the wild. To save him from being euthanized, Ben adopted him. Life with Buffy inspired Ben’s award-winning novel Rescue Josh McGuire and several other books.

Side note: Ben does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets. He went to great effort and expense to build a suitable home for Buffy that was approved by state and federal authorities.

The unique friendship between an author and a bear was a story idea that begged to be written. Ben graciously invited me to his home near Bozeman, Montana, for an interview and to meet Buffy

Yes, that really is me feeding Wheat Thins to the 700-pound black bear. Fun fact: He didn’t use his teeth or tongue to take the treat but rather his prehensile lower lip, similar to an elephant’s trunk. I watched in awe as his bottom lip gently folded around the cracker in my hand.

The amazing encounter resulted in multiple articles that were published in Writer’s Digest (including a reprint in their annual children’s writing guide), several Montana general interest magazines, and international nature and wildlife magazines.

This experience was definitely not a consolation prize but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

Back to the marathon. While I wondered if I’d EVER have a novel accepted, articles were like short sprints where the rewards of publication and payment were only months away rather than years. Those helped sustain me through decades of discouragement.

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

Write concisely and clearly. If an editor said 500 words, that’s what has to be turned in.

Choose what’s necessary and what should be cut. No matter how fascinating the research might be, it can’t all be crammed into the allotted space.

Always meet deadlines.  

Most important, I learned about storytelling and pacing to keep the reader engaged.

The 21st century changed the market for short nonfiction from print to online. As the internet expanded, magazines went out of business.

Nowadays my articles are mostly digital content. Fewer trees give their lives. I no longer have to buy sample print copies to study magazines’ style and focus. Finding outlets to write for is as easy as asking Mr. Google.

The downside is online markets often pay little to nothing because there is so much free content on the net. To make significant money, one needs to find particular niches that pay for specialized content.

However, there’s a different kind of reward: Publication is fast. As soon as authors hit submit, their writing is available to an audience of millions. 

On top of that comes the gratification of immediate feedback. I really enjoy reader comments on my posts for TKZ.

Steve Hooley recently asked me if research for an article had even sparked an idea for a novel. Not yet. But the research I do for articles often finds its way into my plots.

The second book in my series, Stalking Midas, concerns elder fraud. I attended seminars presented by local and state watchdogs to learn about that growing, insidious crime. Unfortunately, research turned personal when my adopted mother was victimized by a caregiver. Her experience became a True Crime Thursday post.

Several newspapers published my elder fraud article. It also formed the basis for a talk that I give to senior groups. Additionally, I revamped parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate what I’d learned.

I started writing articles to counteract discouragement during the long marathon of trying to get novels published. Articles became short sprints refreshed by water breaks of publication. They helped keep me going toward the ultimate finish line.

In 2017, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published.

Seven novels later, I’m writing more articles than ever because…

A funny thing happened during that decades-long marathon. I discovered I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction.

Especially when I get to meet a bear.


TKZers: Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? How important is getting published to you? What sustains you during the long haul of writing a book?




DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal in my new thriller, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. Please check it out at these online booksellers.

The History of Mystery

“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” – Proverbs 25:2

“Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt. Nothing’s so hard but search will find it out.” — Robert Herrick

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Since all human beings (not just kings) love to figure things out, I thought the Kill Zone Blog might be a good place to examine the history of the sleuthing mystery genre. A look back in time may even give us clues to facilitate our own successes. So grab your flashlights and let’s enter the dark and web-encrusted chambers of crime. The game’s afoot!

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The format of a mystery novel is straightforward. The story usually begins with a crime being committed. It can be a murder, a suspicious death, a disappearance, even a theft. The rest of the story involves the search for the truth and ends with answers to the questions: who committed the crime, how, and why.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) is generally considered to be the first modern murder mystery, and its detective, Auguste C. Dupin, the first fictional detective. There was no monkey business in Dupin’s analysis of the horrific crime and identification of the murderer.

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary of Charles Dickens and is credited with the first novel-length mystery, The Woman in White (1859). The book doesn’t just stop at murder – it also touches on insanity, social stratification, false identity, and a few other themes. Collins considered the book his best work and instructed that the phrase “Author of The Woman in White” be inscribed on his tombstone. He also lays claim to the first detective novel, The Moonstone (1868).

Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, in 1887. In total, Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring the famous detective. When he killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem (1893), the public outcry was so severe, Doyle had to bring him back in later works.


Maurice Leblanc began a mystery series in 1905  featuring the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, a character who’s been described as a French version of Sherlock Holmes. In all, Leblanc wrote 17 novels and 39 novellas with Lupin as hero. Check out Joe Hartlaub’s excellent blog post about the books and recent TV series based on Leblanc’s hero.

G.K. Chesterton is credited with creating the cozy mystery genre with a series of 53 short stories begun in 1910 featuring the Roman Catholic priest and amateur detective, Father Brown, who uses his intuitive understanding of human nature to solve crimes. The character was so popular, it inspired the Father Brown TV series that began in 2013.


The Thirty-nine Steps (1915) by Scottish author John Buchan was the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay. a man on the run who had been unjustly accused of murder. There are a couple of movie versions of The Thirty-nine Steps, but my favorite is the 1935 Hitchcock film starring Robert Donat.


Cozy mysteries became very popular in the 1920’s and 30’s with several great British authors. Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), featured Hercule Poirot, a sleuth who used his “little gray cells” to solve mysteries. Poirot showed up in 33 novels and over 50 short stories. (I will have much more to say about Dame Agatha in a future post.)


Dorothy Sayers introduced her own hero, the elegant but troubled Lord Peter Wimsey, in her 1923 novel Whose Body.  Sayers wrote 11 novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series.



Younger readers joined the mystery caravan with the Hardy Boys series which began with The Tower Treasure in 1927. Several authors contributed under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon.


The Nancy Drew series entered the parade in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock. Again, several authors contributed under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Many of us credit the Nancy Drew books with our own interest in creating mystery stories.


Hardboiled detective fiction became popular in the 1920’s and extended through the 20th century. Dashiel Hammett became famous for his character Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1929). He also created the sophisticated couple Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1933). Strangely, Hammett wrote his final novel more than 25 years before his death. Why he stopped writing fiction is something of a mystery in itself.

Raymond Chandler was forty-four years old when he began his journey as an author. His first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), introduced the world to private detective Philip Marlowe. In addition to his short stories, Chandler wrote seven novels, all with Marlowe as the hero. His prose is widely admired and his use of similes is famous. Here’s an example from The Big Sleep: “The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings.”

So that completes this survey of the history of mystery. I selected these twelve examples from articles about the subject on various websites including and Did you notice anything interesting about this list? Almost all of the wildly successful mysteries are series. Food for thought.

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Back to our original question: Why do people love mysteries so much? Maybe it’s because a mystery novel is an example of mankind’s search for truth pared down to its most elementary format and delivered in a 6X9 inch package. The reader knows he/she will be satisfied at the end of the book with the answers of who, how, and why. And justice will be served. That’s a lot to accomplish in just a few hours of reading!

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So TKZers: What is your favorite mystery novel? And who is your favorite mystery novelist? What books or authors would you add to my list?