Would You Be a Good Police Interrogator?


Just the word elicits your vision of forcible confinement in a hot and windowless room, shoved in a wooden chair with one leg shorter than others, a bright light from a bare bulb burning over your head, and hulking forms of trench-coated detectives firing hardboiled questions in your face.

The truth is different. A lot different. There’s a high skill involved in getting useful (and courtroom admissible) information from people, and not everyone is cut out for the job. Are you? Would you be a good police interrogator?

To start, drop the “interrogation” word. It’s not correct to say “interrogation” in today’s professional police procedures. The right terms are “interview” and “dialogue exchange”. And, they’re more applicable because the vast majority of police-civilian interactions are respectful interchanges of relevant information.

I’ve spent a good part of my adult life talking to people and getting information. I learned long ago that you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. I also learned you slide a lot further on bullshit than you do on gravel. I made those principles the core of my information-gathering days. I also practiced another fundamental rule. That’s that the best interrogators interviewers are the best listeners.

Where’s this going? I subscribe to Psychology Today. I recently read a piece by Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D. in her regular column Criminal Minds where she set out ten questions with graded responses to her Are You A Good Listener Test. Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole was a senior profiler at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us. Here’s her short ten-question exam to see if you would be a good police interrogator. Sorry… police interviewer.


1.Typically, how emotional (frightened, insecure, angry, etc.) do I get when I am attempting to interview someone? (Rate this on a scale of 1-3)

1 = very emotional
2 = nonemotional and detached
3 = I remain interested and tempered

2. Typically, how often do I interrupt?

1 = several times during a conversation
2 = just once or twice during a conversation
3 = almost never

3. Do I say things like “What? You have got to be kidding me,” – or- “That reminds me of the time I…” – or – “You think that’s bad, let me tell you about…”

1 = frequently
2 = sometimes
3 = rarely

4. Do I roll my eyes, put my head down, shake my head back and forth, throw myself back in my chair, turn away, get up and walk away, show signs of anger or threatening behavior, or otherwise display that I am not paying attention or do not like what the other person is saying?

1 = frequently
2 = sometimes
3 = rarely

5. Do I fidget until people stop talking and then immediately respond without considering what they’ve said?

1= frequently
2 = sometimes
3 = rarely

6. Do I let my mind wander to all the other things on my “to do” list and keep thinking that I just don’t have the time for this?

1 = frequently
2 = sometimes
3 = rarely

7. Do I wait until the nanosecond when the speaker goes to take a breath to pounce on him or her with my opinions?

1 = frequently
2 = sometimes
3 = rarely

8. Do I hijack the conversation? For instance by saying something like, “Look we’ve been over this a million times. Your ideas are just not going to work. This is what we are going to do.”

1 = frequently
2 = sometimes
3 = rarely

9. I reflect the person’s thoughts and feelings back to the person I am listening to.

1 = rarely
2 = sometimes
3 = frequently

10. I ask open-ended questions to encourage the other person to talk.

1 = rarely
2 = sometimes
3 = frequently

 Total Score = ______

The higher the score – the better your listening skills tend to be and the better interrogator interviewer you would be. Note: This is not a scientific test and has not been validated or otherwise vetted. These opinions are those of Dr. O’Toole and do not represent the views of the FBI.

My experience is that the key to successful information gathering is simply listening to what’s being said. Does it make sense? Does it fit? Does it make you ask more questions? Or does what’s being said to you satisfy what you’re after? Another Note: Police interviews/dialogue exchanges are all about getting the truth. Contrary to conspiracy theories, no good cop wants a false confession.

Kill Zoners – Let us know how you scored on the test!

Point of View And Voice

By John Gilstrap

Forgive me as I begin this week’s post with some shameless self-promotion. This is Launch Week for the latest in my Jonathan Grave thriller series (#14!). It’s called Lethal Game, and you should be able to find it at your bookseller of choice. From the Marketing Department:

Hostage rescue expert Jonathan Grave and his fellow special-ops veteran, Boxers, are hunting in Montana when shots ring out, and they realize they’ve become the prey for assassins. In the crosshairs of unseen shooters, cut off from all communication, with the wind at a blood-freezing chill, the nightmare is just beginning. Because Jonathan and Boxers aren’t the only ones under fire. Back in Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, Jonathan’s Security Solutions team is fighting for their lives too. A vicious onslaught is clearing the way for a much bigger game by eliminating anyone in the way. If Jonathan and Boxers can make it out of the wilderness alive, the real war will begin.

Now we return to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

Full disclosure: I posted a piece very similar to this back in 2017, but the concept of “voice” in fiction is a subject that many new writers struggle to understand, and that is, quite frankly, difficult to teach. It’s a worthy topic to revisit occasionally.

We all learn that the elements of a story are plot, setting and character. If not taught and learned carefully, these can seem like separate elements–separate threads, if you will–but for a story to work, they can’t be treated as such. The elements of story are less a quilt than it is a tapestry, and the subtle weave that combines the elements into something beautiful is the author’s voice, as presented to the reader through the point of view characters

So, rather than thinking of those story elements as separate threads, let’s readjust the whole concept of those elements. Let’s think this way: for a story to fulfill its promise to the reader, it must chronicle compelling characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting settings, all of which is presented in an engaging voice.

Maybe this analogy is clearer. When you go to buy paint at the hardware store and you ask for the color European Autumn Sunshine (or whatever), the guy in the apron starts with a white base and then adds some blue and some red and whatever other colors, and only after its shaken does the color you want appear. Those component colors are your story elements. Your narrative voice is the shaker that gives you the shade you’re looking for.

As an illustration, let’s say that your POV character, Bob, finds himself broken down in the desert. In a descriptive essay, you would write about the colors and the temperature and the wildlife as the entities that they are. But to make that setting part of the story, it’s a mistake to forget about the character. It’s a mistake to leave the action to describe the scene. So, give those elements a ride in the paint shaker:

Option One:

Bob pushed the car door open and climbed out into the heat.  Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze.  The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with shades of red and blue and yellow.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise but he’d left his oils and brushes in the hotel room.

In this version, while we’re being introduced to the setting, we’re also learning something about Bob.  Perhaps he’s a romantic.  He’s certainly observant.

Now, consider this:

As Bob opened the door, super heated air hit him with what felt like a physical blow.  It took his breath away. The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood, and as he scanned the scrub growth and rocky horizon, he’ slipped a few rungs down on the food chain. No wonder we tested nukes in places like this. How the hell was he going to get out of here?  

The setting in these two examples is the same.  The action is the same.  Both examples advance the story–whatever that may be–exactly the same distance.  But the voices–the critical element in pulling off third person POV–are different.  Notice that there’s no need to say that Bob #1 is a fan of the desert, or that Bob #2 is not.  That’s because the descriptions are all filtered for the reader through the character’s point of view.

In an effective story, every word of every sentence and every sentence of every paragraph should advance not just plot or character or setting, but all of these at the same time.

In my seminars, I ask students to take five or six minutes to describe the place of the class–room, building, campus, town, whatever they choose–and through the description alone, convey the character of the narrator.  It’s a worthwhile exercise, especially for writers like me, who works hard to be invisible on the page, leaving all of the storytelling to the characters.

Night Terrors

“I don’t know whether every author feels it, but I think quite a lot do — that I am pretending to be something I am not, because, even nowadays, I do not quite feel as though I am an author.” — Agatha Christie

By PJ Parrish

Well, the book is almost done. First draft, that is. I haven’t read it completely through, chapter 1 through 45, since we started the thing, oh, maybe a year ago? Yes, it has taken me that long to get back in the saddle again.

I’m always preaching here that you need to periodically go back and review (and even rework) what you’ve been doing. Sure, you should always be moving forward, but it’s helpful to pause and see if you’re on the right track. I didn’t do that this time.


I’ve been afraid to. I have this really bad feeling that, having finally reached 110,045 words, what I have created is a heaping, stinking, fetid, rancid mountain of crap. I dream about it now, this mountain of crap, like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I wake up in a sweat over it.

My only consolation is knowing that I feel this way with every book. And that I am not alone. Here’s John Connelly talking about his own demons: “There is always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have to try to find the right path again.”

Here’s Lee Goldberg, whose career has been long and varied, with Hollywood-assignations and a fruitful collaboration with Janet Evanovich:  “This happens to me…but less often if I have a strong outline to start with (though an outline is no insurance policy against realizing 35,000 words into your book that it’s crap and you’re a complete fraud). In talking with other writers, I’ve noticed that the ones who hit the wall the most are the ones who make up their plot as they go along, preferring to be ‘surprised’ by their characters and the turns in the story. Of course, this means the turns may lead to a creative dead end.”

And lastly, I give you no less than Maya Angelou: Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.'”

My night terrors are especially bad this time out for two reasons. I don’t have a publisher right now and though this is a sequel to our Thomas & Mercer thriller She’s Not There, I don’t know if they’ll want it. Second, this is another new protagonist, so I don’t have the comfort of knowing his heart and soul as I do that of Louis Kincaid, the hero of our long-standing series. Can this new guy, a bit of an ornery misfit,  carry the story or will he put off readers? Will our Louis readers follow us to the new one? Have we run out of good plots? Have we finally hurdled the hammerhead?

I don’t know, maybe there are writers out there who never have any doubts. Maybe Nora Roberts or Joan Didion never broke out in a cold sweat at night. But I suspect there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of you out there who are in the same sweaty boat as I am. There’s a fancy name for this — imposter syndrome. Basically, it is a pattern of beating up on yourself. You have this nagging feeling that you’ll be found out, that people will read your stuff and you’ll be revealed as a charlatan. Don’t look over your shoulder because someone is laughing. Worse, you agree with this.

How do you know if you’ve got IS?

  • You constantly criticize your own work.
  • You procrastinate
  • You focus on rewriting instead of moving forward.

I do all three. Did I mention I am a perfectionist? I sweat every word to the point that it sometimes squeezes the simple joy of creation out of me. If you find yourself at that point, stop, take a deep breath and do whatever you need to recapture the sweet impulse that made you want to write in the first place. For me, this usually means a very long walk in the woods.

A few more pieces of advice before I go and start reading my first draft:

Voice your fears. Feeling like you’re alone is terrifying. Talk to someone you trust. A critique group is really helpful here, as long as it is positive-oriented and not a slash-and-burn tribunal that picks on your scabby semi-colons, or a pity-party where everyone whines about being shut out by the publishing cabal.

Remember where you came from. Recognize and applaud your progress. Sometimes this means re-reading your early unsuccessful efforts and learning from them. Cleaning out my office recently, I found an old partial manuscript on an external storage drive. It was my first effort when I was making the switch from romance to mystery. I didn’t have anyone turn up dead until chapter 12. Everything was back story and my opening chapter was nothing but my heroine, an ex-homicide cop, sitting in a fishing boat in the Everglades thinking about how lousy her life was. It was bloody awful. It made me feel terrific.

Accept that sometimes you’ll suck.  It’s okay to write junk. We all do it. It’s part of the learning process. Some days, you get in that zone and everything you type is spun gold. Yay for you. But most days, you will write a lot of garbage just to get a couple good paragraphs. I took up pickleball a couple years back. I used to be really bad but now I’m pretty good. Why? Because I listened to my coaches, and I am mastering the technique. But this morning, I slid back into suckitude.  Luckily, writing, unlike pickleball, is a private endeavor and no one sees our sucky efforts. Here’s the thing: You have to suck at writing before you get good enough to produce something that readers don’t think sucks.

Keep writing. Don’t let your self doubts corrode your love of writing. The only way to become a better writer is to become a more prolific writer. You will improve your technique, you’ll get better at your craft. But only if you keep going. Like any skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.  I promise.

Geez. I just re-read what I’ve written here. It sounds pretty negative, but that’s not really where I am right now. The hard part is over. I’ve finished. That’s something to celebrate, even if my book doesn’t find a publisher. So forgive me for focusing on the cloud instead of celebrating the breakthrough rays of sunshine. Move forward, and always with hope.

As for those night terrors? I won’t lie. If you really want this writing gig, you might have to deal with them on occasion. If, like me, you’ve spent some nights twisting in damp percal, I offer the same three words of advice I give to my youthful female friends about menopause: moisture wicking pajamas. Cool Jams makes great ones.


Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Fictional truth is never quite as clear as it seems on the surface. Deceptiveness boils down to manipulation, disguise, and misdirection. The writer can deceive characters and readers in numerous ways.

A villain might murder another character, then lie to avoid detection. This leads to more lies, more misdirection, and deepening deceptions, creating tension and conflict.

What if the main character lies to themselves about who they are or their current circumstances? Because the truth may be too difficult to accept, the charade continues. One of the most widely known examples is The Sixth Sense.

*Spoiler Alert*

Dr. Malcom Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, could not accept the fact that he died from a fatal gunshot wound. He was an unreliable character from the start of the movie, but viewers didn’t know it. Because he couldn’t accept his fate, he fooled himself into believing he survived. Thus, we believed. In hindsight, we can see where the writer dropped clues. At the time, though, most viewers didn’t catch any hints the first time they watched the movie.

Creating an unreliable narrator takes a skilled hand.

Fail, and the reader feels tricked. Succeed, and reap the rewards.

The one advantage we have is that trust is often automatic. Because narrators act as our guide, deception isn’t something readers expect. Trust is woven into the fabric of our lives. Thus, we often take it for granted.

  • When we slip behind the steering wheel or into the passenger seat, we trust the wheels will stay bolted to the car.
  • When we eat at a restaurant, we trust we won’t get food poisoning.
  • When we crawl under the covers at night, we trust the legs won’t snap off the bed.

This presumed trust is why and how authors can manipulate readers. It’s reasonable to presume we can trust the main character. And so, we do. Should we, though? No narrator is 100% reliable. Stories that force us to question our own perception are often compelling page-turners, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Deception can occur anywhere.

We tend to first think of antagonists who are manipulative and deceptive, but heroes can deceive, too. In fact, even secondary characters are capable of deception.

What if a main character lies to protect a child?

What if a foil thrives on deceit? Or it only appears like they thrive on chaos when in truth, they’re hiding a secret? The higher the stakes, the more they’ll lie to protect it.

What if a character believes they’re right? They genuinely want to help and don’t mean to misdirect the detective. I’m talkin’ about eyewitnesses to a crime.

Think about this…

We each view the world through a filter of our past experiences, emotional baggage, scars we carry, profession—past or present—worldview, religion, politics, the list goes on and on.

For example:

When I look at an old mighty oak tree, I see a living, breathing being who’s survived for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and has provided housing and comfort to thousands of animals. And I think, Imagine the stories it can tell.

Someone else might only see firewood.

Neither view is wrong. We’re admiring the tree through different lenses.

Psychologists refer to this as the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect.

This refers to a phenomenon wherein the same event is interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. The Rashomon effect is named after the popular 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon in which a murder is described in four different ways by four different witnesses of the same crime. It is often used to emphasize the point that people’s perceptions about an event can differ considerably based on their individual personal experiences.

Thus, it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.

The same holds true for our characters. And that’s where the fine art of deception comes into play. If we stay true to our character, deception could be automatic. The reader might not catch on right away, but once the truth unravels it’ll make perfect sense. Why? Because they’ve come to know how the character views the world.

Another way to show a character disguising their actions, emotions, or a secret, is through subtle clues.

Subtle clues of how characters behave can tell the reader a lot about them. Imagine people in real life when they’re not being completely honest. How they act and react say a lot about who they are. Characteristics can also show the reader a character might be deceptive—things like suspicious behavior, not wishing to engage with others, indecisiveness, or apprehension.

Dialogue is another way for writers to manipulate the reader. What characters say—and don’t say—can show a character acting evasive or blatantly lying. Tone of voice also disguises the truth, as does ambiguity.

Symbolism and atmosphere can reinforce a specific message, feeling, or idea. If you look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a symbol or setting that might help foreshadow the truth or reinforce the deception?

For example, the following foreshadows danger:

  • Mirages
  • Heat waves
  • Venomous snakes
  • Fog
  • Poisonous plants

Symbols of triumph and joy:

  • Breathtaking sunrise
  • Rainbow
  • Four-leaf clover
  • Butterfly
  • Cardinal

Both these lists are so common they’ve become cliche, but we can use that to our advantage. What if you took a symbol that commonly brings joy and flipped the script? Now, the reader will no longer be able to trust their own instincts. You’re toying with their perception. Thus, able to deceive.

These are just a few ways to create deception. The possibilities are endless.

What are some ways you’ve deceived a character and/or the reader? Or name a favorite author/novel that hoodwinked you.

What Does it (Still) Take to be a Writer?

by James Scott Bell

John Jakes was a journeyman pulp writer for 20 years before bursting onto the New York Times bestseller list with The Bastard (1974). This was the first book in what would become the Kent Family Chronicles, eight historical novels written to ride the wave of the American Bicentennial. It worked. Jakes was the first writer to have three novels on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. More than 55 million copies of his Kent Family Chronicles are currently in print, along with 10 million copies of The North and South Trilogy. Six of his novels have been filmed as television mini-series. He currently resides in Florida with Rachel, his wife of 71 years.

Nice life. Nice career.

I recently re-read an article he wrote back in 1988 for the annual market report put out by The Writer magazine. The title: “What Does it Take to be a Writer?” As I looked at his advice I wondered if it still applied, or if some modification is called for. Here’s a bit of it, with my comments.

  1. Be sure

“Do you really want to pay the price? It isn’t small. Are you willing to isolate yourself day after day, session after session, year after year, in order to learn your craft the only way you can–by writing?”

Do young writers—heck, young people in general—think this way anymore? We live in the age of instant gratification, where if you’re not a TikTok influencer by age 16 life simply cannot be endured. The thought of spending years of hard work before getting a payoff is anathema.

I determined to become a writer at age 34. To do whatever it took to get there. I knew the odds. I knew it would take a long time to make it, if I ever did. Not a day went by in those early years when I wasn’t writing and studying the craft. It took me seven years before my first novel was published.

Today, with everything moving at the speed of digital light, is this advice quaint? Does the concept of hard work and persistence resonate anymore?

  1. Be determined

“With determination and practice, you can probably become at least a part-time professional. To do it, however, you must write and keep on writing, trying to improve all the time.”

This is an obvious corollary to #1, above. What Jakes adds is that virtually anyone can get to a place where they’re making some dough in this game. I think that’s truer now than ever. Being a determined student and practitioner of writing makes income almost inevitable—so long as you recognize it’s not always going to be big bucks. Mega deals from the Forbidden City still happen, though not as frequently as in years past. More likely is a modest advance and a “wait and see” attitude by the publisher.

Of course, we now have the indie route. Determined writers are making money here. Even if the revenue stream is small, it’s worth it as long as you are enjoying the process of making up stories.

  1. Be open

“I mean being willing and eager to have all the flaws in your work exposed, so that you can fix them… you must want to find the weak places for yourself, before the editor sees them. It is this rather cold-blooded attitude that sets most money-earning writers apart from dabblers and those who would rather talk about being a writer then do what it takes to be one.”

This still holds true. You can’t have a chip on your shoulder, especially early in your career. I don’t mean you shouldn’t have confidence. Maybe even a little attitude. But if you never take any criticism and refuse to consider that you might not yet be God’s gift to the literary world, you’ll remain a dabbler.

  1. Be curious

“Read everything you can read. Read widely, not merely in your chosen field of writing. Spend as much time as you can with your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open…Watch people. Watch the sky. Watch a baby’s repertoire of expressions. Watch the way sun puts shadow on a wrinkled garment. Nothing should escape your notice. Everything eventually contributes to what you write, even though the way it contributes is totally unknown to anyone, including you.”

This is obviously sound advice for a writer. “You can observe a lot just by watching,” Yogi Berra said. But with people walking along on a sunny day with their eyes glued to their phones, you have to wonder how much observing is being done anymore.

  1. Be serious

“Give unstintingly of yourself when you write. The kind of effort NFL players casually refer to as ‘110 percent’ There’s something to it… Give your work the best you have to offer at the moment you do it. Give it a clear head, and a body that’s fit and rested.”

This requires focus, a rare commodity these days. We are all under the curse of the multi-task. Or attention spans are fractured. We have lost the concept of “deep work.”

Jakes says that anyone following these requirements will find eventual success. “Not enormous wealth, mind you. Not a best seller every year. Not immortality—just the solid satisfaction of being a writer. It’s a proud and ancient profession, and it’s a great feeling to achieve even a little success in the business of entertaining and enlightening millions with your own words. It’s a calling very much worth the price.”

Do you agree? How would you modify or add to Jakes’s advice?


The Dead Deer Crossing

I often utilize reality into works of fiction. I can honestly say that actual conversations can be so bizarre and funny that your agent or readers will sometimes say they can’t be real. The old saying, “you can’t make this up,” is true.

For example, back in 1982 my starter wife and I were in a popular Dallas steakhouse called The Shed with another couple. Partway through the meal, I watched four people take a table not far away. I assumed it was a set of parents and their children until I saw the teens holding hands. The young lady and her boyfriend sat facing me across the room and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Halfway through the meal, she and her beau had a spat, and she left for a few minutes. When she came back, the older woman said something and the brunette threw her head back and laughed. The evening ended for our dinner party and the four of us left, but the dark-haired girl never left my mind.

Years passed. Life happened. Divorces occurred.

The Bride and I were sitting in our back yard one cool evening about ten years ago, sipping Coppola’s Director’s Cut wine. The conversation wandered to our lives before we met, old Dallas, and long-gone restaurants. I mentioned The Shed, she told me it was her high school boyfriend’s parents’ favorite restaurant.

I recalled their rustic dining room. “Didn’t you love that all you could eat steak idea?”

She threw her head back and laughed. “I could pack it away back when I was eighteen or nineteen.”

Her huge laugh snapped me back to 1983, and that’s when it clicked after all our years of marriage. “Did you have a white fisherman’s sweater at one time?”

“I did. I loved that sweater. I wore it in high school and college…” She paused, giving me a long look over the top of her glass.

“You came in with your boyfriend while I was there. Y’all had a disagreement…”

Her eyes widened. “It was his parents’ favorite restaurant.”

“That was you.” I told her about what I saw that night. “I knew you were the one for me even then.”

The Bride allowed it was her. I’d been captivated my Shana Kay way back when she’d just graduated high school, eight years before we met.

I used that coincidence in a manuscript, but my agent said it was too unbelievable. “I’d take it out.”


Incidences and conversations like this are inspirations, and usually make their way into my work in some way or another. I think I’ve mentioned in passing that I’ve been a newspaper columnist since 1988, and in that time, I’ve written well over 2,000 columns and magazine articles. Most stemmed from real life, and as I’ve always said, there’s always a grain of truth in every column.

The following conversation among the strangers in the following story is absolutely true. I swear, because I lifted all of the unbelievable dialogue from a neighborhood chat/complain social media site, and can testify it’s still on my cell phone. All I had to do was change it enough to avoid plagiarism, (but then again, is it plagiarism if I’m really reporting what was said?) add a setting, personal characteristics, and descriptions to make it my fictional story.

Why did I post my newspaper column for June 26, 2022, on this blog? Because I’m firm a believer in teaching by example. Hope you enjoy this and maybe it’ll help in some way.


The Hunting Club membership (my old, graying friends who have hunted and fished together for over forty years) was gathered around the large round corner table in Doreen’s 24 HR Eat Gas Now Café when a gaggle of women pushed through the glass door.

It’s our local gathering place out on the highway, and we’d spent the morning sipping Doreen’s excellent coffee and talking about a big doe lying in the median. Someone hit her the night before and we wondered if she had a fawn when she died.

Woodrow rested his elbows on the Formica table and ran his forefinger through the handle of his thick white coffee mug. “It’s a surprise to see a doe hit this time of the year.”

“I wish it had been a rabbit.” I sighed and watched the women stop to survey the cafe. “Rabbits are like roaches around here these days.”

The ladies ignored us and took a table in the center of the café, putting them in close proximity to our big booth. Had it been a group of men, they’d have moved to the opposite end of the large eating area, as far as possible from where we sat.

One woman who looked like Maude on the Golden Girls spoke with a voice heard by cattle dogs a mile away. “I texted out a warning on the way over here. I just saw a dead deer on the side of the curb in the middle between Eldorado and Panther Creek.”

Woodrow grinned and scratched at his gray beard in thought. “Now I know where to hunt this season. That has to be the same doe we were just talking about, but it’s in the median, so there’s no danger to anyone unless folks are slowing down to look, or texting while they drive!” His voice rose in emphasis, but the newcomers appeared not to hear.

“That’s so sad.” It was a skinny gal with lots of eye makeup and a set of artificial lashes that reminded me of large, dead spiders. I assumed she was talking about the doe, and not Woodrow’s comment.

Jerry Wayne spoke in his usual loud voice, since he can’t hear it thunder these days and refuses to wear his hearing aids. He says he’s cutting down on caffeine, but the big guy still twitches like an outhouse fly. “It’s not so sad. It’s the nature of things. I was raised on venison in Mississippi. Wish I’d have seen that little doe right after it was hit. I could use some backstrap right now.”

As a group, the women frowned and leaned in.

Wrong Willie shook his head. “I’ve told you over and over again it ain’t right to eat roadkill.”

“Depends on how long it’s been on the ground.” Jerry Wayne leaned back to make his point, his version of “drop the mike.”

Maude waved Doreen over to order. “Poor animals. No wilderness to live in anymore. It’s because of all this construction around here. These animals are going to come out more and more. They should take them to a habitat somewhere, because it is very dangerous and sad to see them die this way.”

Constable Rick’s mouth opened and closed, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t get enough air. He was either laughing, or in shock. Her astonishing comment clammed all of us up, and we listened as they took turns spilling inaccurate thoughts.

“If you call the game warden and tag it, they will give it to you. If you want the meat.”

Woodrow slapped his forehead. Doreen shot him a glare from behind the counter. She wiped her hands on a stained towel and gathered up a handful of empty mugs. I took a moment to look for the mole on her face that seems to move at random from one day to the next.

It must have migrated to the back of her neck that day.

A brunette lady with painted-on eyebrows frowned them together. “You have to bleed it out immediately for it to taste good. That one’s been dead too long, unfortunately. Sad.”

“I can’t stand deer hunters and I’ve been living here twenty-one years when it was wilderness and I’ve never seen anything but bobcats, coyotes, and greyhawks.” That run-on sentence came from a lady covered with tattoos.

Willie tore his eyes from her art and turned to me. “Wilderness? This has been farmland for over a hundred years.”

I shrugged. “Who knows. They’re on a roll, but there’s a million rabbits and squirrels they haven’t seemed to notice.”

“You know,” Maude took a cup from Doreen and smiled her thanks as our favorite waitress and business owner filled it from the fresh pot in her hand. “We need one of those Deer Crossing signs so these poor animals will know where to cross safely.”

Doreen glared in our direction, daring us to say anything. I looked around the table and saw Jerry Wayne, Willie, Woodrow, and Constable Rick all bite their lips at the same time.

The youngest of the female troupe frowned. “I didn’t know deers were prevalent in this area of Texas. It looks like we need wildlife overpasses.”

Willie slipped down in the booth, dissolved into hysterical giggles, and slapped the table. I hoped his red face wouldn’t explode.

A dishwater blonde shook her head at the enormity of it all. “I was surprised to see a deer in the residential neighborhood by the ponds. But to a deer, the ponds are connected to the wooded lakeshore that is their habitat encroached by human development and cars and roads. It’s arguable whether that backdrop of wilderness area is manicured by human development or if it belongs to wildlife or humans.”

Jerry Wayne raised a finger to make some point, but I shook my head. I wanted to hear more.

“Of course, they don’t have GPS to guide them back to the wilderness areas.” The blonde sighed. “Of course that poor deer was lost because how would it expect wooded lakeshore pond trails to dead-end in concrete roads and blocks of framed structures that we call houses?”

The boys, who were having a helluva time, nodded in encouragement, hoping to keep the conversation on track.

“It’s a puzzle for the deer to navigate their way back to the native wooded areas without running into human-erected structures.” Maude squared her shoulders and sent us a glare, likely preparing for battle. “They are stuck in the urban area not because they want to live here, but are lost in the maze, thinking crossing the street would get them back to the wild when they’re desperately trying to find a way out.”

I studied the boys’ faces. “I don’t even know what that means.”

She paused again. “You know, I have an idea. I suggest the city create a deer farm for them so they don’t have to run in the street. Then you’ll have time to stop even when a deer dashes out in front of you, and people need to slow down. It’s hard to hit a deer if you drive the speed limit.”

Wheezing in delight, the guys slapped the table, giggling like schoolgirls.

Doreen came over and spoke through her teeth. “Don’t! Y’all shouldn’t be eavesdropping anyway!”

“But we were here first. They’re the ones who sat within earshot.” Woodrow laid his head on the table. “Put the deer in farms!!!???”

Doreen’s demeanor cracked and she leaned in to whisper in a giggle. “Well, they’re move-ins, bless their hearts.”

Maude took a deep breath. “Well, at least we’re aware of the deer now. That makes me feel better, but you’re right. They need to move the deer crossing somewhere with less traffic.”

And we all fell out.


Reader Friday: Music to Your Words


Reading for the Pleasure of Reading?

Looking for Lyrical?




  • Lyrics – words of a poem, words to a song, from ancient Greek poetry accompanied by the lyre – a portable harp
  • Lyrical style (literature) – expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way

I recently read in Dean Koontz’s How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “The average reader demands eight things…” Number 8 was “…a style which embodies at least a trace of lyrical language and as many striking images as possible.”

John D. MacDonald was quoted in a Writer’s Digest, 3/15/16, interview, that he wanted “a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

Constance Hale, in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, quoted Joan Didion: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power.”

  1. When you are looking for an enjoyable read, just for the pleasure of reading, do you have a favorite poet or a favorite author with a lyrical style?
  2. Who are those favorite poets and authors?

 If anyone would like a list from today’s discussion, I will compile a list and post it at the bottom of the comments (late tonight or tomorrow morning).

True Crime Thursday – Instant Justice

Not the site of the actual crime. Photo credit: Eli Duke, CC by SA-2.0


By Debbie Burke


Oxford Languages defines the informal use of the word karma as “destiny or fate, following as effect from cause.”

Today’s True Crimes are two different cautionary tales of instant justice for wrongdoing, proving karma’s a b*tch.

According to this story by NPR, Joseph McKinnon learned that lesson the hard way. 

In May, 2022, Patricia Ruth Dent, 65, didn’t show up for work at the Mount Vintage Golf Club, North Augusta, SC. Concerned coworkers called her and left messages but she never answered.

Then deputies and paramedics received a report of a man who’d collapsed in his yard in Trenton, SC. They found Joseph McKinnon, 60, dead at the scene. There were no signs that his death was anything other than natural causes–a cardiac arrest.

While searching his home to find information to notify next-of-kin, deputies found blood.

McKinnon shared the house with Patricia Dent. There had been no previous police calls to the residence for domestic violence.

However, deputies soon realized Dent was missing and suspected foul play.

Their investigation led them to search the property where they found a large, recently-dug hole in the ground. Dent’s body, bound with tape and wrapped in trash bags, was in the pit, partially covered with soil. The coroner determined her death was a homicide by strangulation.

Evidence indicated McKinnon had strangled Dent inside the house then attempted to bury her body in the yard.

The effort of covering up his crime evidently triggered the cardiac event that killed the killer.


Here’s another case of karma on the other side of the world. In June, 2019, the Taiwan English News reported an unidentified dead man found head first in a hole in the Jiaboa public cemetery in Hemei Township, Changua County, Taiwan. A passerby saw legs sticking out of a hole in the ground and discovered a decomposing body.

The body was shirtless, wearing jeans, and described as a balding, middle-aged male with missing teeth. He was not identified.

Beside him was a shovel and tool case. The hole was directly above a coffin.

Police suspect he fell head first into the hole and suffocated while trying to rob a grave.


Karma’s a b*tch, all right.  


TKZers: do you know of any crimes where the punishment was especially appropriate and/or ironic? 




Irony and karma play roles in Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Until Proven Guilty, on sale for only $1.99 at major online booksellers at this link.

Library Events, Longmire, and Craig Johnson

Library Events, Longmire, and Craig Johnson
Terry Odell

Library Events***UPDATED to add the link to Johnson’s presentation. Note: His presentation begins at about the 6 minute mark.

I had the pleasure of attending a local library event where Craig Johnson was the invited keynote speaker. I’d heard him speak before, and he’s got a great sense of humor, so I knew his talk would be entertaining. His talk was paired with an “Author Showcase” where 30+ authors, writing in a multitude of genres, were given tables to display their wares. I was fortunate to be accepted.

I’ve done this event before. The structure of this year’s event was different from its predecessors. Previously, there were several “writing-related” panels, separated by breaks where attendees were encouraged to wander the room and look at the authors’ wares. The final presentation was the keynote address, and attendance jumped as “normal readers” came for just that, but there were people at the venue throughout the schedule.

Library EventsMy experience this year. YMMV. This was an event focused on a well-known author. It’s not a craft workshop by any means. The majority of attendees are coming to hear Johnson speak, not buy books. Overall, most people who come to library events aren’t coming to buy books, unless, of course, you’re the keynote speaker, in which case you’ll probably sell a lot of books. Johnson also had a table full of Longmire-related merchandise.

This year, there were no panels. The authors were invited to show up about 2 hours early to set up, have lunch, and a chance to interact with Johnson. The doors were scheduled to open to the public an hour before Johnson was scheduled to speak, during which time attendees were free to roam the showcase tables. Very few did. They were there to listen to Craig Johnson, evidenced by the fact that when the library decided to open doors to the public ahead of their announced time, the ‘early birds’ filed in and found seats even though they had almost two hours to wait. Very few wandered the outskirts of the room where the authors had their tables. At the advertised “doors open at” time, a lot more people filed in and headed straight to Johnson’s table.

Johnson began his talk by saying he comes from a small town of 25 people. He was a rancher, and he still is. He spoke of wanting to become a writer. At the time, noir was the big thing, but he didn’t want that, so he came up with the idea of a small town sheriff. He wrote and rewrote the first few chapters of his manuscript. It was bad, and he knew it. He realized if he was going to write about a small town sheriff, he needed to know more about what the job entailed, so he visited the local sheriff who was willing to speak with him. They chatted for a short while, and Johnson was convinced he now had the answers and was going to write the book and become famous. So much so, that he remodeled his house, updated his ranch structures, and worked on renovating a store for his wife.

When he opened his bottom desk drawer one day (looking for something else, of course), and saw the manuscript, he realized ten years had passed. He happened to run into the sheriff at the gas station one day shortly thereafter and re-introduced himself as the man who’d come to the sheriff for advice for a book. The sheriff’s response was, “This book’s going kind of slow.”

Johnson went home and reworked the first chapter and, late one night, went against his instincts and sent it to the sheriff. Early the next morning, in the ‘quiet time’ while Johnson was on his front porch having his coffee, the sheriff sped down the ranch road and skidded to a stop, got out of his vehicle, and said, “I know who did it!”

He was wrong. In fact, Johnson sent him chapters as he wrote them, and the sheriff was wrong every time.

Johnson went on to talk about the Longmire series. When the producers wanted his input for casting Walt Longmire, Johnson had no idea. All the actors he though would be good for the part were long dead; he wasn’t up to speed on the younger ones. There were two issues to consider: whether to go with a popular actor or an unknown. The popular cowboy-hat-wearing actors, according to Johnson, were a small handful, and people would associate them with previous roles. However, Walt Longmire was supposed to be in his 50s, and unknown actors in that age range were probably unknown because they weren’t very good. The studio sent Johnson a box of CDs with all the auditions for the role, and he begrudgingly, but dutifully watched them. The audition scene was a ‘death notification’ which is one of the most dreaded jobs for law enforcement.

As Johnson told it, he got to the last CD, not having been impressed yet. He saw the actor’s name: Robert Taylor, and his first thought was “They took my advice.” Only the over-30s in the audience got that joke. At any rate, in the audition, when Taylor went to deliver the death notification, he removed his hat and put it over his heart. That gesture—and a comment by Johnson’s wife as she was watching (Oh, my!—and not for the gesture) got Taylor the job.

A member of the audience asked how Johnson and the writers got along. Johnson declined to be in the writer’s room, but asked the scripts be sent to him, and they’d discuss points Johnson disagreed with, usually explaining their rationale. One in particular, was that they wanted to make the main characters 10 years younger. Johnson objected, but their explanation was, “We want this to be a long-running series and can’t have the major players using walkers.”

Johnson spoke of his first invitation to a library event, where the librarian said they were a very small county and didn’t have much to offer in the way of an honorarium. Johnson (after looking up what an honorarium was), said he didn’t like to negotiate, so he’d ask for the same he asked of all libraries. A six-pack of Rainier beer.

Years later, he was invited to another event where the librarian handed him his honorarium, which, due to the rules against alcohol in the building, was wrapped in brown paper, taped, and tied with string. Johnson commented that it looked more like heroin than beer. At any rate, the librarian said  it had been hard to procure the beer, and Johnson said he understood that most bars didn’t serve the “cheap stuff.” She said, no, that wasn’t it. Everyone was out of stock, including the brewery. Johnson called the brewery the next day, and was told that yes, the librarian was right. They had run out. Why the shortage? This was two weeks after Longmire hit the screens, and everyone was drinking Walt’s favorite brew.

Library EventsOther “issues” for being an author with a popular television series as related by Johnson. He was paying for lunch at a café on a road trip. He was wearing one of his ball caps that said “Sheriff, Absaroka County, Wyoming” and the clerk questioned it. Johnson said he wasn’t really the sheriff, and it wasn’t a real county. She came back with “It is, too. That’s Walt Longmire’s County.” He introduced himself and she said, “Huh?” He said he wrote the books the series was based on. She said, “There are books?”

One of the best takeaways for me was in response to a question about the differences in books versus the visual media. He said books have one big advantage—the author sets up words like dominoes, and the first sentences tips the first tile, and they tumble along, propelled by the reader’s imagination.

Other takeaways from the event, on the extremely rare chance someone would invite me to give this kind of a talk:

  • Open with a VERY short background sentence or two.
  • Talk a little bit about how you began writing. Make it a story, not a recitation of events.
  • Talk a little bit about the life of a writer and experiences you’ve had. Johnson spoke of being able to donate generously to his favorite charity.
  • Read a little bit of one of your works. In this presentation, Johnson spoke of going to a high school girls’ basketball game with the father of one of the players. What he saw there led to a scene in one of his books, and he followed that story by reading it.

All right, TKZers. If you were invited to give a non-craft presentation to readers (or viewers), what would you talk about?

Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Happy Summer Solstice!

Photo credit: Salix alba at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Debbie Burke


Welcome to summer and the longest day of the year…at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

To readers in the Southern Hemisphere, sorry, this is your shortest day but, from now on, the days will grow longer, honest.

To folks who live in the far north, summer solstice is especially appreciated after long, dark winter days. Today, at my Montana home, latitude 48 north, the sun rises at 5:37 a.m. and sets at 9:41 p.m. But dawn can be seen coming for almost an hour before then and twilight lingers until around 11 p.m.

At latitude 64.8 north, Fairbanks, Alaska enjoys almost 24 hours of sun today. Here’s time-lapse video:


For TKZ’s crime dogs who are also star-gazers, five planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—are currently lined up across the sky like train cars with the moon as the caboose. According to Space.com, the last time this type of alignment occurred was March 5, 1864.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers these tidbits from history and how different cultures celebrated summer solstice.

  • In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice coincided with the rising of the Nile River. As it was crucial to predict this annual flooding, the Egyptian New Year began at this important solstice.

  • In centuries past, the Irish would cut hazel branches on solstice eve to be used in searching for gold, water, and precious jewels.

  • Many European cultures hold what are known as Midsummer celebrations at the solstice, which include gatherings at Stonehenge and the lighting of bonfires on hilltops.

Here’s a fun quiz about the summer solstice, also from the Farmers Almanac. Feel free to share your score in the comment section.

In the early 1960s, archeoastronomer Gerald Hawkins was the first to theorize that Stonehenge (built somewhere between 2950 – 1600 B.C.) was a giant astronomical calendar that tracked movements of the sun and moon. According to Wikipedia:

He fed the positions of standing stones and other features at Stonehenge into an early IBM 7090 computer and used the mainframe to model sun and moon movements. In his 1965 book, Stonehenge Decoded, Hawkins argued that the various features at the monument were arranged in such a way as to predict a variety of astronomical events.

From the center, the observer can see the summer solstice sun rising and setting in exact alignment between the monolithic stones.

Photo credit: By simonwakefield – https://www.flickr.com/photos/simonwakefield/3149066878/ (cache of original license), CC BY 2.0,

While rabbit-holing, I ran across a site called Spiritual Gangster, which sounded appropriate for crime writers and readers. Here’s an excerpt about setting summer intentions:

The Summer solstice is an energetically charged day and an important one to set intentions. Direct your intentions on the themes of this phase, which are patience, nourishment and trust. Create powerful “I am” statements that reflect these qualities and the development of them. Include “reception” statements that open you up to receiving the energies available on this day. Examples are; “I am open to receiving nourishment and growth” or “I am able to receive the energy needed to develop trust in my life.” Set your intentions and continually remind yourself of them all summer long. 

The longest day of the year is a good opportunity to review New Year’s resolutions you may have made in January and assess how well you’ve achieved them (or not!).

Remember that solemn vow to write XXX words or pages each day?

Or submit to XX agents?

Or organize your writing space?

Or finish that #%&$ manuscript languishing on your hard drive?

Or send your First Page to TKZ for critique? Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this link. We’re waiting—don’t make us come and get it! 

Who cares if you didn’t check off resolutions in the first half of 2022? You still have six months to nail goals you want to accomplish.

June 21 is the longest day of the year. Grab your hazel branch, set a bonfire, and dance like a Druid. Make the most of that additional daylight and score some extra words.

Happy Summer!


TKZers: Do you take stock of your writing/reading goals at the year’s midpoint? How are you doing?

Do you celebrate the first day of summer? Favorite activities and traditions?