Building a “Hollywood” Film Treatment

Don’t say ‘Hollywood’. It’ll mark you as a rank amateur or a media flake, not as a working professional. Hollywood is more like a concept, a has-been idea, than an actual production place. You’re best to say, ‘the LA-based film industry’.”

I heard those words when I ventured into film content producing. They weren’t to put me down. Rather, they were to build me up and help me break into a world I had no experience with—the film industry—and understand how important a film “treatment” is.

I think every novel writer’s dream is to see their work on the screen. At least mine was. When I wrote my first novel, I so saw it in the movies that “as the camera sees it” was my guiding light. Did it make the movies? No. Not yet.

But, my ten years of plugging along in this writing biz taught me a few things. Perseverance. Craft knowledge. Networking. And experimenting in different mediums, including screenwriting.

I’m now immersed in four film content producing projects. They keep me occupied and energized. I’m learning a lot of new stuff including how to build a “Hollywood” film treatment.

The film industry has its jargon. Logline. Tagline. Teasers. Shopping Rights. Pitch. Option. Purchase. Green Lit. Fade in. Fade out. Roll A. Roll B. Scripted. Non-scripted. Those sorts of things. But, one term I think really important for wanna-be screenwriters to understand is Treatment.

In the film industry—whether LA-based, Vancouver-based, New York-based, London-based, or Toronto-based—producers have one common problem. It’s not funding or filming. It’s finding decent (saleable) content.

Like book publishers, film producers constantly seek decent (saleable) content. They say every Barista in “Hollywood” has a screenplay for sale. Probably true, but how many are saleable?

Film producers, like book publishers, have only so much time. They’re bombarded with screenplay submissions and can’t read them all. So, the film industry has a thing similar to a book publisher’s synopsis. In the film-biz, they’re called treatments. Treatments are a structured itemization of the screenplay that stop short of going to the work of an actual script written on speculation.

Here’s a film treatment I developed for The Fatal Shot. The storyline is based on a true crime case I investigated,. It’s a similar plot to the 1984 film The Burning Bed starring Farrah Fawcett.

Because of an effective treatment, The Fatal Shot is now optioned for screenplay buildout. Whether it gets green lit, who knows. At least the pitch was purchased and it’s out there, being shopped around Hollywood..

I hope you folks at the Kill Zone gain some insight into the film industry’s screenplay submission process through this treatment example. Don’t we all want to see our stories played out on the screen?


Working Title

The Fatal Shot

Central Story Question

Who fired the fatal shot?


A battered woman charged with killing her abusive husband faces tremendous obstacles by defending herself and her children against bureaucratic criminal and social service systems. (Based on an actual incident—a true crime story.)


She fought her husband… now she fights the system.”


Domestic Abuse – Intimate Partner Violence – Child Protection and Apprehension – Homicide Trial – Jury Deliberations – Battered Woman Syndrome Defense


Set in the American Pacific Northwest at the village of Clearwater and city of Port Townsend in Jefferson County, Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula.


Current – modern day.


18 months from inciting incident to denouement.


Deeana (Dee) Finnigan — 28-year-old wife and mother of boy 10 and girl 8.


Lyle (Finn) Finnigan — 31-year-old husband and children’s father.

Society — portrayed through dysfunctional bureaucratic structure and incompetent representatives of the criminal justice and social service systems.

Brief Storyline

Deeana Finnigan suffers 11 years of domestic terror at the fists, boots, mind, mouth, wallet, and penis of her husband, Lyle (Finn) Finnigan. Their children, Logan (age 10) and Millie (age 8), witness a deteriorating marriage and escalating violence.

Finn is on the run from a Seattle drug gang he’s double-crossed as well as arrest warrants for narcotics trafficking. He hides the family in a cramped cabin near the remote village of Clearwater on the west coast of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.

On a cold winter night, Finn returns to the cabin drunk. Dee’s made mac & cheese along with wieners for supper. There’s little else to eat in the place. Finn and Dee argue over the meal. Finn slaps Dee and grinds hot food into her face. He knees Dee and puts the boots to her on the floor. Logan and Millie cower in a corner, watching. Finn is enraged. He takes a rifle and threatens to shoot the family. Finn then drags Dee to the bedroom. He rapes Dee and passes out cold.

Dee’s finally had enough. She takes the rifle and shoots Finn while he’s unconscious. The first shot badly wounds Finn in the face, blowing off his lower jaw. He wakes and tries to get at her. Dee reloads to shoot Finn again. The rifle jams. Finn is incapacitated due to shock and blood loss. Dee gets Logan’s help to find another rifle and finish Finn off. Dee takes Logan and Millie to a neighbor’s house and calls the police. They’re taken to the Jefferson County seat at Port Townsend.

Investigation determines three shots were fired. One bullet got Finn in the jaw. One missed. One fatally struck Finn in the back. Dee states she fired all shots. She claims self-defense—shooting Finn to ultimately protect herself and her children from what she knows is looming, certain death. The investigators doubt Dee fired the fatal shot and believe Logan did—Dee is covering up to protect Logan. The District Attorney rejects Dee’s self defense stance. He takes the position Dee had plenty of opportunity to take the kids, leave, and have authorities intervene as the police and social systems dictate.

Dee is charged with second-degree (non-capital) murder and faces life imprisonment. She’s represented by the public defender. Dee can’t make bail. She’s half Native Indian from a Canadian reserve and considered an international flight risk. Dee remains in custody awaiting trial. Logan and Millie are apprehended by social services and made wards of the state. They’re placed in a foster home. Because the police and DA are trying to establish who fired the fatal shot to Finn’s back, a no-contact order is placed between Dee and her kids.

Dee sinks to despair. She attempts to hang herself in jail. At her lowest point, Dee undergoes a catharsis. She’s mentored by a female jail guard. They work on upgrading Dee’s education and communication skills. Slowly, Dee builds confidence. She begins to fight for what she truly wants—justice, freedom, and her children’s welfare. Dee pushes the system. And the system pushes back.

The DA hands Dee a bargain—plead guilty to manslaughter with five years in prison. The public defender wants to run a temporary insanity defense. Dee refuses both offers. She stands her ground. Dee maintains she was forced to kill Finn in ultimately protecting herself and her children, all the while denying that Logan fired the fatal shot which would have had her acquitted of murder. Years of continuous spousal battering, plus a justice and social system failing to aid her, placed Dee in a mind state where she had no option—it was kill—or eventually be killed.

The State Child Protective Services assign a spiteful social worker to oversee Dee’s children. A court application rules Logan and Millie aren’t allowed to visit Dee in jail. Dee learns the kids are being bounced between homes. Now they’re in a facility run by questionable hosts. With her jail guard’s help, Dee turns to the media.

Dee’s plight attracts intense public interest. Advocates from women’s groups surround Dee. They use the power of mainstream, internet, and social media to raise awareness of Dee’s case. Sympathizers work to crowdfund money for a competent legal defense. From jail, Dee quickly becomes a sensational face for battered women and children’s’ rights.

The criminal justice and social service systems throw continuous obstacles at Dee’s struggle to regain her children and freedom. Her private advocates are an enormous support. They find a top legal team who are passionate about the “Battered Woman Syndrome”. All work with Dee to shape that portrayal.

But as the prosecution and defense build their cases, disturbing details rise from Dee’s past. What she’s hidden, and what new evidence investigators uncover, are devastating. Rumors leak out. Stories spread. Some of Dee’s friends become foes.

After 18 months, Dee’s case goes to trial. Testimony is dramatic and unexpected. A torn jury faces forcing the law as it stands or conceding to humanity as it exists. Their decision comes down to one recurring question—not who fired the fatal shot—but why didn’t Dee just pack up the kids and leave before things became fatal? The answer lies in the Battered Woman Syndrome.

The jury struggles between wants of the system and needs of the individual. They see an enormous precedent being set with the Battered Woman Syndrome defense becoming open season on abusive men. Jurors also doubt Dee’s credibility about who fired the fatal shot into Finn. By now, most suspect Dee coerced Logan and is covering up.

Deliberations are lengthy. They hotly debate application of the law, validity of the Battered Woman Syndrome, and the parameters of self-defense. Two camps form in the jury room. Those who see the law as black and white. Those who see many shades of gray.

Overall, the jury sympathizes with Dee. They show empathy for her state of mind at the moment of the killing and her family situation. Unanimously, the jury directs an acquittal.

Dee is freed. Logan and Millie are returned. The verdict is appealed and upheld. Dee settles into a new life with her kids. She parlays her experience into helping other battered women and their children around the world.

Recurring Story Questions

Why didn’t Dee just leave? And why cover up for Logan when, at 10-years-old, he can’t be prosecuted and Dee could easily be freed?

Human Issue

The story explores Dee Finnigan’s character change from hopeless submission as a battered wife to ultimate triumph by taking defensive action against overwhelming legal and social obstacles.


Dee’s life. Her personal freedom. Her children’s future. Worldwide precedent for the Battered Woman Syndrome legal defense. Long-term education and assistance to other victims of domestic violence.

Protagonist Character Arc

The story opens showing Deeana Finnigan displaying all the classic battered woman characteristics that come from learned helplessness. Dee is terrified of Finn but, in her mind, has nowhere to run. To survive, she’s submissive and does everything to keep from setting Finn off. Dee has poor self-esteem. She self-loathes and feels worthless. Dee’s weak mentally, physically, and spiritually. Still, she’s ultimately protective of the only thing that really matters to her in life—her children.

After experiencing the horror of Finn beating her in front of their kids, coming within a trigger’s pull of killing them, and then being sexually violated, Dee reaches an emotional plateau where she lies on the bed in desperation. She floats toward a sense of calmness and makes the decision to kill Finn.

Inwardly, Dee experiences peace. Outwardly, she’s shaking so bad that she can’t hold the rifle. Her limited control turns to chaos when Finn is wounded and claws to get at her. Terror, horror, and panic overpower Dee. Her thought process breaks, and she reacts instinctively to have Finn finished off.

Once Finn is dead, Dee is filled with relief. Her thought patterns return, and she focuses on her children’s welfare. Finn is no longer a threat, and she knows she’ll survive. Mentally, Dee makes plans for their future. She cooperates in the investigation. Dee is convinced she’s totally justified in shooting Finn. It never occurs to her the authorities would view otherwise.

Dee is incredulous when she’s arrested and charged for murder. In her eyes, killing Finn was the only recourse available to prevent her own death and her children’s demise. Her internal relief and elation at Finn being eliminated quickly ends when she’s locked up, denied bail, and loses her son and daughter to the “system”.

In total despair and at rock bottom, Dee tries hanging herself in her cell. A jail matron intervenes. This turning point lets Dee reach a catharsis or “venting the tank”. With help from the matron and advocates found through social media attention, Dee finds a progressive legal team who take on her case. The “Battered Woman Syndrome” is their card, and they play it hard.

Dee’s world view changes while she’s incarcerated, defending herself and her family as “the system” plays out. She remains steadfast in regaining custody of her son and daughter. This conflicts with her refusal to agree to a lesser charge and gain early release. Dee gambles on taking the high road for the long haul, gradually realizing that true justice will pay greater rewards than short-term compromise.

Dee also realizes greater forces are emerging, and she’s now serving a role for educating and inspiring abused women and their children. She understands the historical legal precedent she’s setting by invoking the “Battered Woman Syndrome” defense. A greater purpose drives Dee’s will to survive, be set free, create legal history, and share her story in helping other families with domestic abuse issues.

Dee experiences betrayal and disappointing setbacks when damaging information surfaces about her past. She is devastated but reacts by facing them, not denying her foes. Dee develops in inner confidence that she’ll be vindicated. Her belief in ultimate victory becomes unshakable, and her will to win is unstoppable. She finds inner peace through self-examination rather than religious redemption which is offered in spades.

Once Dee is acquitted, she shows class. She is gracious with gratitude, appreciate of all, and reflective about moving forward to help others.

The issue of who fired the fatal shot—Dee or Logan—is never resolved.

Protagonist Emotional Range/Arc

Weak – Submissive – Scared – Helpless – Self-loathing – Worthless – Protective of Children – Terrified – Enraged – Shocked – Relieved – Confused – Sickened – Trapped – Despair – Suicidal – Catharsis – Redemption – Hope – Will to Survive – Succeed – Encouraged – Inspired – Intent – Toughness – Fight – Focus – Will to Win – Betrayed – Disappointed – Nervous – Courageous – Confident – Triumphant – Gracious – Thankful – Appreciative – Reflective

Character Cast

Family and Associates:

Deeana (Dee) Finnigan — Protagonist and battered woman – jailed and tried for murder

Lyle (Finn) Finnigan — Antagonist and wife beater – shot and killed

Logan Finnigan — Son, age 10

Millie Finnigan — Daughter, age 8

Ramona Robinson — Dee’s twin sister

Andrea Sparrow — Dee’s close friend from the Canadian reserve

Valerie (Val) Bonamassa — Dee’s friend in Seattle

Muriel Finnigan — Finn’s mother – Dee’s mother-in-law

Linton Finnigan — Finn’s brother – Dee’s brother-in-law

Louise Labee, nee Finnigan — Finn’s sister – Dee’s sister-in-law

Barton (Black Bart) Smythe — Seattle Drug Gang Enforcer and DEA Informant

Police & Forensics:

Detective Alvin (Al) Kangas — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Detective Stacy Rooke — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff Hendrik (Hank) DeVries — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Officer Patricia (Patty) Lloyd — Forensic Investigator, Washington State Patrol Crime Scene Response Team (CSRT)

Coroner Heather Tamagotchi — Jefferson County Coroner’s Office

Moses (Uzi) Galil — Seattle DEA Agent and Informant Handler

Criminal Justice System

C. Mitchell Dowd — District Attorney, Jefferson County

Jonathon Boatwright — Prosecuting Attorney, Jefferson County

Melissa Steele — Assistant Prosecutor, Jefferson County

Wallace Froude — Public Defender, Jefferson County

Emily Coulson — Lead Trial Defense Lawyer

Duncan Campbell-Elliot — Assistant Trial Defense Lawyer

Judge Morris Fish — Presiding Jury Trial Judge

Dr. Margaret Barr — Battered Woman Syndrome Expert Witness

“Margo” — Jail Guard Matron / Dee’s Mentor

Social System

Annie Lambert — Social Worker

Care Serene — Social Worker

Grace & Greer Grimsby — Foster Care Hosts

Karla Truman — Social Service Adjudicator

Media & Advocates

Ellen Capier — Port Townsend News Reporter

Rachel Vanstone — Women’s Abuse Social Media Leader & Primary Advocate

Cynne Simpson — TV Talk Show Moderator

Jennifer (Jenny) O’Donnell — Seattle TV Reporter

Gerald Gideon — Seattle Radio Reporter

Nathan Rott — NPR Investigative Reporter

Audrey Washington — CNN Investigative Reporter

Reverends John & Isobel Burke-Gaffney — Evangelists from the Reformed Baptist Church

Maria Mercedes Hernandez — Online Feminist Advocate

Nikki Daum — Native Indian Representative

Anastasia Lee — Crowdfund Organizer


12 Members Referred to as Nicknames Given by Court Staff.

“Kay” — Court Bailiff and Jury Messenger

Episode Structure

Episode One — Beating and Finn’s Death

Episode Two — Charge/Arrest

Episode Three — Children Apprehended

Episode Four — Suicide Attempt

Episode Five — Legal Adversaries

Episode Six — Black Bart

Episode Seven — Exposing Dee

Episode Eight — Trial Proceeds

Episode Nine — Retire to Deliberate

Episode Ten — Verdict and Denouement Message

Kill Zoners — Help yourself to this film treatment format. It’s not universal in the business, but it worked for me to get an option purchase.

Questions—Who out there has worked in the film industry, and who wants to? Who’s familiar with treatments, and who wants to write (or has written) a film treatment to shop their work around “Hollywood”?

It’s a Touching Good Story

It’s a Touching Good Story
Terry Odell

diagram showing the relationship between the brain and body parts for the sense of touchUse the five senses in your writing. We’ve all heard it. Often, writers consider that a ‘rule’ and try to incorporate all five into every scene. For me, that inches into “laundry list” territory. I liked David Morrell’s approach, which was to assume sight is a given and include two others, varying them across the scenes.

I’ve already talked about the senses of sight and smell. What about touch? It’s an important sense—and a very interesting one. Do your characters utilize it? Notice it? React to it?

What are some ways you can use the sense of touch in your writing?

Common sensations for your characters:

Weight. Heavy or light? Can it be unexpected? My marine mammal specialist Hubster was big into bones. A manatee rib is amazingly heavy for its size. When people pick it up, they’re always compensating as their senses readjust.
Smooth or rough?
Bumpy or deep indentations?
Solid, or does it give?
Warm, hot, or cold?

How does your character react if they come into contact with something painful?

Side note: Our nervous system includes a ‘shortcut’ to react to pain. Grab that hot pan on the stove by mistake? Ever notice that your hand jerks away before you feel the pain? That’s because you’ve got nerve pathways to the spinal cord that cause your muscles to contract while the sensation is still working its way up to the brain, which then interprets the feeling as pain, and that’s when you say ouch. Meanwhile, you’ve avoided potential damage.

diagram of nerves to and from the spinal cord in response to painAre you describing the sensations of walking barefoot through the mud? Trying to get a handhold on a slick surface? What about on the rough stones as the character tries to climb to safety?

How do you describe the sensations? Need a prompt or two? Here are over 200 descriptive words.

If you’ve got your character in the dark (eliminating the sense of sight), touch becomes more predominant. But, dark or not, your characters can feel the stickiness of a bloody wound, the roughness of the ropes they’re tied up with, the warmth of another character’s hand, the hardness of the chair they’re sitting in.

folding metal chairPerhaps more important is that there are two systems of touch. One is the obvious factual description. The chair in the interrogation interview room (have to keep up with the terminology) is cold, hard, and off balance. But there’s also the emotional side of the sense of touch.

There are completely different sensors for physical touch vs emotional touch.

If all you’re writing is what that interview room chair feels like as the character sits there, you’re missing an important way to connect with your readers. Does it trigger a visceral reaction as well as a physical one? Let the readers in on it. Maybe instead of the fear or at least the mental discomfort the cop his hoping for, what if the chair evokes happy memories of sitting at the boisterous kids table at Thanksgiving with all his cousins, joking, flipping mashed potatoes across the room at Great Aunt Martha?

When your character picks up a firearm, it might be feel cool, hard, maybe the grip is rough in his palm. Does picking up the weapon give him a sense of power? Of calmness, knowing he’s now in charge? Or is it an unwelcome foreign object? Something the character has no desire to hold, to be in the same room with, but he now needs it for survival? Or to defend someone he cares about? What emotions would those same sensations trigger in him?

Romance writers might have an edge over mystery writers here, since they’re used to showing emotion, and touch is very important to creating a bond between people. And yeah, it plays a part in sex. Even if you don’t like sex scenes on the page, there’s a lot of touching in foreplay. Touch is connected to the release of pheromones. While for men, it’s the sense of smell that triggers them, for women, it’s physical contact with the partner.

Other interesting facts about the emotional side of touch. An experiment showed that people holding hot drinks when meeting someone rated them warmer, as having a more pro-social personality than if they were holding cold drinks.

Another experiment had people evaluating resumes of others. Resumes on a heavy clipboard resulted in people being considered as having more authority. Not that they would be better in the job, but just more weighty.

Remember, senses don’t exist in a vacuum. The feel of rough burlap when the bad guy puts a hood over his victim will intersect with the sense of smell. Use both to add depth to your story.

Your turn, TKZers. How do you incorporate the sense of touch in your books? Do you connect them to the emotional side? The floor is yours.

Some references for this post:
For more about the science of touch, go here.
For more about incorporating touch into writing, go here.

If you’ll permit a brief moment of BSP, in anticipation of releasing Cruising Undercover, Book 11 in my Blackthorne, Inc. series, the first box set of Blackthorne, Inc. novels, including When Danger Calls, Where Danger Hides, and Rooted in Danger, is on sale for 99 cents this week. Price goes up on July 27th.

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.”

The Butler Did It

By Debbie Burke



Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson
Photo credit: Wikipedia

For many mystery readers and writers, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned four novels and 56 short stories featuring the character. Additionally, from 1939-1946, a total of 14 films were made starring British actor Basil Rathbone who was indelibly defined in the minds of movie fans as THE Sherlock Holmes. 

(Sorry, Robert Downey, Jr. You were outstanding as Chaplin but you can’t match Basil’s Sherlock)

As imaginative and puzzling as the Holmes mysteries were, a real-life mystery that personally involved Basil Rathbone rivals any fictional tale penned by Conan Doyle. I ran across this tidbit in the Spring 2022 issue of Mystery Scene magazine.

Rathbone relates the story in his autobiographical memoir, In and Out of Character, originally published in 1962 by Doubleday.

In either 1929 or 1930, Rathbone and his second wife Ouida returned to London after several years away. A friend of Ouida’s insisted on helping find servants to staff their new home. A good-looking blond, blue-eyed man named Dennis Poole arrived for his interview with excellent references and was hired as Rathbone’s butler.

The class system in Britain dictated strict conduct that had to be observed by servants toward their employers. Although they were privy to the most intimate details of their masters’ lives, there was a line that must never be crossed. Aristocrats had their station in life and servants had theirs.

Poole came from a long line of butlers. His aspiration was to be the best in the business. To all appearances, Poole was the ideal gentleman’s gentleman, respectful, deferential, anticipating the desires of his employer and fulfilling them quickly and efficiently.

Rathbone soon trusted him enough to leave “considerable sums of cash” on his dressing table without worry of theft.

During the actor’s morning tea and shave, Poole would entertain Rathbone by reciting poetry by Kipling. In conversation, Rathbone learned Poole had never been married; his self-confessed failing was he didn’t care to stay long in one place; and someday he planned to retire and travel.

Poole also charmed the other servants in the household, regaling them with tales of adventure that were colorful but not necessarily believable.

One evening, Poole asked for the night off which was granted. Rathbone encountered Poole as he was leaving the house, splendidly dressed in “white tie and tails, a boutonniere, fur-lined coat, gold-topped cane—and wearing a monocle in his left eye.” He explained his finery to Rathbone with the excuse he was going to the “Servants’ Ball.”

This English tradition was held around the Christmas holiday season. In Rathbone’s book, Ouida is quoted as saying: “Lords and ladies of the realm dancing with cooks and butlers and no condescension on the part of the titled folk, and the domestics like soldiers on parade.”

This was evidently an attempt by the privileged aristocracy to mollify servants’ resentment toward the ruling class.

One stormy winter night when Poole was out, Rathbone, his wife, and a maid entered the butler’s room to close a window that had been left open to the rain. What they found stunned them.

Poole’s dressing table might well have surprised almost anyone entering his room. I looked at my wife, and she was giggling rather self-consciously. Laid out on the dresser, very neatly, were two gold-backed hair brushes and a gold-backed comb; a beautiful Swiss watch as thin as paper; a manicure set in an ivory case, and a row of cut-glass bottles. I lifted the stopper from one of them—eau de cologne; another contained an excellent cognac. I looked at his bed, turned down for the night, silk sheets! Silk pyjamas marked Sulka, and an elaborate and expensive oriental dressing gown were laid out for his return!

“Seems to me I married the wrong man!” My wife giggled again, but somehow I didn’t think what she had said was too funny.

When Rathbone later questioned Poole about the luxurious possessions, he explained, “Some of my gentlemen have been more generous to me than I deserve.”

The episode temporarily raised Rathbone’s suspicions but he dismissed them and life went on with the ideal butler.

The following summer, Poole went on holiday and didn’t return when scheduled. The Rathbones were concerned for his wellbeing but couldn’t locate him. “Poole had been the cornerstone to our comfort all winter, and we hated the thought of losing him.”

Then a woman visited them, saying she was Poole’s sister, Edith. She was visibly upset and very pregnant. She held a newspaper clipping in her hand.

“They got him.”

“Who got him?”

“The police.”

The tale of a double life began to unfold.

One night, near Ciro’s, an elderly socialite couple was approached by a handsome man in full evening dress. They exchanged pleasantries then the man asked for a match. The elderly man felt in his pockets but, when he looked up again, the handsome man now held a revolver. “Whatever you have, hand it over.” To the woman, he said, “That necklace and earrings please.”

Then the thief—Poole—darted away with his loot.

Another night, Poole was dining at the expensive Carleton Grill when he spotted his next victim. He followed the gentleman to the cloak room and engaged him in conversation about which public school he had attended. Poole mentioned he’d gone to a different public school whose name the man also recognized.

(Note: in England, “public school” actually means private exclusive facilities where the wealthy send their offspring).

They bantered about sporting events where their teams might have played against each other while Poole thought, This old school-tie stuff was too good to be true.

They continued their cordial visit as they walked in the evening until they reached the man’s door. As he pulled out his key, Poole pulled out his revolver and robbed the man.

By varying his hunting grounds, Poole continued his successful streak of robberies for months. Posing as the well-dressed “man about town,” he used his upscale appearance to disarm his victims into putting caution aside, allowing him to get close enough to steal from them.

His undoing happened one evening at The Embassy with his wife, Mildred. He had apparently lied to Rathbone about never being married and in fact was providing Mildred with a life of luxury.

Additionally, he may have been supporting his sister who had been impregnated by “His Lordship” who was never named. Apparently, Poole ultimately convinced the anonymous lordship to provide for Edith and her child.

Back to dinner that night at The Embassy.

Poole spotted a couple who looked like “sitting ducks.” While Mildred was powdering her nose, he followed the couple outside the club into a deserted street.

“Excuse me, you dropped something,” he said. When the couple turned, he reached for his revolver but realized he didn’t have it. He tried to bluff, ordering them to give him their valuables.

But…the couple was actually a pair of decoy cops who arrested him.

They escorted him back to the club where a waiter greeted him with his revolver on a silver tray. “This yours, sir?” the waiter asked. “It was found in your coat in the cloak room.”

At Poole’s trial, Rathbone testified as a character witness but to no avail. Poole was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison and nine lashes with the cat o’ nine tails for carrying a weapon.

The “cat” had been a particularly cruel punishment in the British Army and Navy that was abolished in the late 1800s. However, due to a sudden upsurge of violent crimes in the early 1920s, it was brought back for a period of time but ultimately outlawed by England, Scotland, and Wales in the Criminal Justice Act of 1948.

Rathbone wrote: “I have heard it said that most prisoners stand up better under the death sentence than one that carries with it the additional penalty of ‘the cat.’”

Rathbone answered Poole’s letters from prison. He never mentioned “the cat” but wrote that he was composing songs. A few weeks after his release, Rathbone and Poole met.

Mildred had divorced Poole and he was living with his mother. He claimed he learned his robbery technique “from the movies” and said he had never hurt anyone during his crimes.

Poole had learned to play the saxophone and had a job with an orchestra. One of his songs had been published and he gave a copy to Rathbone with a personal inscription, “From your devoted servant, Dennis Poole” followed by a Kipling poem.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Photo credit: Wikipedia

They parted, after Poole helped Rathbone on with his coat, like the gentleman’s gentleman he’d always been.

In 1939, Basil Rathbone began his run playing Sherlock Holmes in the first of 14 films that would forever identify him as the brilliant, enigmatic detective.

Rathbone never saw Dennis Poole again but later learned that Poole ultimately gave his life for his country during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The origin of the phrase The butler did it is widely considered to have been inspired by Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1930 novel, The Door.

Could Rinehart’s inspiration have actually come from the strange tale of Sherlock Holmes’s butler?


TKZers: Had you heard the story about Basil Rathbone’s butler? (It was news to me!)

Which is your favorite Sherlock Holmes movie?

Who’s better? Rathbone or Downey?

How Did I Get Here?

When I sat down at my desk a few days ago, the room suddenly turned dark, and there was a loud buzzing sound. I realized I had entered a wormhole, and I was being transported back in time to a day several years ago.

* * *

I was running on a dirt trail in a park near my home and I was listening to an audiobook on my iPod Shuffle. The book was one of the Rabbi Small mysteries by Harry Kemelman, and I was enjoying the story. As I jogged by a fence and around a turn, a thought lit a fire in my brain. I could write a mystery as good as the one I was listening to! It would be fun to write a novel just to see what it would be like. I finished my run, returned home, showered and dressed. Then I sat down in a recliner in our living room with my computer on my lap and began to type.

* * *

The wormhole suddenly closed, and I was back at my desk, a relatively new, six-foot-long testimony to my dedication to this writing journey. Desk-reorg day is later in the week, so the desk is messy, piled with papers and post-it notes – reminders of upcoming events and to-dos I shouldn’t ignore.

Two whiteboards sit on the back of the desk, leaning against the wall with lists of books to read and others I’ve read and need to review. A map of the Hero’s Journey is magnetically tacked to one of the whiteboards along with a few inspirational sayings. Reminders to Make Haste Slowly, Be Intentional, Make It Count.

My writing calendar is just inside the middle drawer of the desk. A glance at the page tells me about my obligations this month for blog posts, book promotions, meetings, and everything else that’s writing-related.

The Windows 10 laptop in front of me on the desk houses dozens of directories containing information from branding to short stories, from newsletters to marketing graphs.  This is where I handle email, write articles, post to social media, create jpgs and pngs to market books and share thoughts on writing.

A second laptop, a Mac, sits on the desk’s pullout shelf to my left. It’s owned by the publishing company my husband and I formed in order to publish our own works. I use it to format and publish the final copies.

A third laptop, another Mac, stays on the bar in the kitchen where I can glance over an occasional news story while I eat breakfast. Scrivener lives on that Mac, and it accompanies me to my office recliner, along with a glass of sparkling water when I sit down to spend serious time on my WIP.

A list of writing goals is taped to the back of my office door so I see it every time I close the door to begin work.

Bookshelves against the wall next to my recliner are filled with books on the craft of writing, constant reminders of how much I still have to learn. The bottom shelf contains copies of my three published novels as well as my husband’s recently published debut novel. Three-ring binders contain pages of notes on each of my books as well as several works-in-progress.

Other bookshelves in my office and throughout the house contain favorite tomes. (I really should spend some time reorganizing so I don’t have to go on safari just to find what I’m looking for.)

* * *

How did I get here? I was going to write just one novel. It was going to be fun, an act of exploration, like climbing a mountain. Do it once for the experience.

But then I discovered the craft and the joy of writing.

So TKZers: When did you decide to write that first novel? How did you get to the present moment? Were you surprised by the journey? Are you going to stay the course?

Brood Over Your Endings

by James Scott Bell

Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone

The English actor Edmund Keane, on his deathbed, was heard to remark, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

In the same vein, I’ve always averred that beginnings are easy. Endings are hard. I can write opening chapters all day long. But to stick a novel after it, keep readers turning pages, and then wrap it up in such a way that it leaves them so supremely satisfied they go out looking for more of my books…that’s the hard part.

I’m fond of quoting Mickey Spillane’s admonition: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” That’s why I wrote an entire tome on the art and craft of unforgettable endings.

Today I want to talk about process. Because with each novel I learn a little more about this incredible, wonderful craft of ours, always looking for tweaks to my approach. I’m thinking about that as I get ready to write the last scenes of my next Mike Romeo thriller. Specifically, I’m learning again the value of brooding—giving time to my mind to ponder, create, devise.

As an outliner, I always have an ending in mind when I start writing. It is subject to change without notice, of course. The exact details will have to be worked out. But the characters involved, the stakes, and the feeling I want to achieve are there.

I watch this scene in the movie theater of my mind.

Now I’m at the place in my WIP where Romeo is about to engage in a final battle with high stakes—the highest so far for my hero.

Here is where I slow down to brood.

For the last three weeks, even as I’ve been writing toward the end, I’ve spent time away from the keyboard just to think about that scene and the choreography of it. For everything to work, the setting is crucial. I know where it’s going to happen—at a particular spot in L.A. (shocker!).

I’ve spent a good deal of time on Google Maps to get the broad lay of the land.

I’ve driven to the location, taken pictures, and revised some details. (I like to use real locations in my books, though I reserve the right to tweak and even make things up as needed!)

I know exactly what I want to happen, and it’s starting to excite me.

That’s key. If the ending doesn’t excite me how is it going to excite the reader?

But as the scene has become more vivid, I’ve encountered some problems. This is a good thing. Overcoming plot problems is one of the skills we need to develop as writers. I’ve come to believe that any problem can be overcome if you give it enough time.

My problems included the right weaponry (how does Mike get what he needs?), the presence of police (how does the final battle happen with cops all around?), and the terrain (people on the street, cars, buildings).

For each one I did more research, watching the scene again as a movie in my mind. The nice thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to spend money on expensive re-shoots. A studio won’t shut down your production.

Brooding lets the Boys in the Basement do their work. I’ll be going about my non-writing business, even just sitting in a chair reading a book, when the Boys send up a note with an insight or a possibility. (I’ve got to remember to send them some donuts.)

I test every change by asking if it makes me more excited. If so, it stays in.

The last—and to me, the most important element—is resonance. Resonance is the very last note you leave with the reader. Like the perfect ending to a Beethoven symphony, it lingers with you long after the concert is over. That’s why the last page of my novel is always the one I work on most.

Remember that great opening scene in Romancing the Stone? The romance writer (Kathleen Turner) is typing her ending, which is shown onscreen. When we cut to her at the keyboard, she has just finished and is weeping copious tears. Her ending has captured her as if it were real life (which, in the film, it soon will be!)

“No tears in the writer,” wrote Robert Frost, “no tears in the reader.”

So brood. Watch. Edit. Brood some more. Then write those last pages for all they’re worth.

What is your approach to writing the ending of your novel? When do you know you’ve really nailed it?

Oh yes! If you’d like to get in on the ground floor of the Romeo series, the first book, Romeo’s Rules, is now 99¢ on Kindle for a limited time. Order here.

Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B015OXVAQ0

Magic Box of Story Ideas and Character Creation

When browsing the archives of TKZ, I sometimes find two or three blogs on the same or complimentary subjects. Today we have three articles on story ideas and character creation. The link at the end of each section will take you to the entire post, which I encourage you to read.

Please feel free to comment on other reader’s comments and strike up a conversation.

One of the questions writers hear often is where do we get our ideas. Depending on the situation, my standard answer is that I subscribe to the Great Idea of The Month Club. And when someone asks how they can join, I have to tell them that members are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to divulge that information.

If I’m pressed for an answer, I say that I can give some sources away, but only if they don’t tell where they got them. If they want to write murder mysteries, for instance, I aim them toward THE MURDER BOOK 2008, a blog by Paul LaRosa that records all the murders in New York City during 2008. There’s enough material there to keep a writer going for years.

But in reality, our ideas can come from almost any source at any time. Writers’ minds are in-tune with their surroundings ready to see the telltale signs of that little spark that could be used in a story or even become the basis of a whole book. – Joe Moore, 8-27-08


Often, when I speak to book-loving groups, I tell the Klansman-in-the-store story to illustrate why I write thrillers. As an author I am always trying to make my readers feel some of what I felt when real villains crossed my path, and I realized that they could do me serious harm. And I also realized at some point that my father wouldn’t always be there to make the world safe again. I have met more villains than I can count, and I do my best to protect myself and those I love from bad things and evil people to the best of my ability. Some evil is obvious, but most of the time it lies just beneath an innocuous and seemingly harmless surface. And sometimes the most dangerous things come to us with open arms and a smile. But seeing evil first hand allows me to write about threat and fear. Evil isn’t usually all that well defined, and it certainly is not simple. Villains should be complex, and human, and understanding them well enough to adequately portray them (in words) remains the ultimate challenge for writers. – Joe Moore, 8-23-08


John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.

Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.

In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within? – Clare Langley-Hawthorne, 8-18-08

What is your favorite place to find story ideas?

How do you approach character creation?

What are your thoughts on the subject?

What is the craziest story you have ever heard about how an author got an idea for a character?

Reader Friday: Favorite Things

The legendary Mary Martin originated the part of Maria in Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.

One of the big hits from the show was a song about about raindrops on roses, bright copper kettles, schnitzel with noodles, and more of Maria’s “favorite things.”

A few of my favorite things: a scoop of vanilla on warm apple pie, any movie with Spencer Tracy, a grandchild’s smile, a check that was actually in the mail…

What are some of your favorite things?

And if you’d like to travel back to Broadway in December of 1959, and take a seat in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, you can hear the song for yourself:

You Never Forget Your First

By Elaine Viets

My first mystery was “Backstab,” which featured Francesca Vierling, a six-foot-tall newspaper columnist for the St. Louis City Gazette. Francesca wasn’t much of a creative stretch, since I used to be a newspaper columnist and yes, I’m six feet tall.
In my first series, I wrote about a newspaper world that is long gone. In “Backstab,” two of Francesca’s favorite local characters are murdered. One is the bartender at a landmark saloon, and the other is a rehabber – the local term for someone who remodels homes. Francesca is convinced their deaths are linked. Driven by grief and anger, she sets out to find out why the men were murdered. Francesca uncovers a secret someone has already killed to keep. And that if she keeps digging, the killer will have to murder Francesca, too.
When “Backstab” came out twenty-five years ago, I was so proud of it my Aunt Betty made me a miniature baby carrier for it. I loved going into bookstores to see if it was on the shelves – until I went into a bookstore in DC’s Union Station and asked for “Backstab” by name.
“Oh, yeah,” the clerk said. “We have it. That’s the one with the weird cover.”

Okay, even in my biased opinion, the “bleeding newspaper and beer glass” cover didn’t work. I like my new cover much better.
“Backstab” has all the passion you find in first novels, but some parts went on too long, so I trimmed them. Others needed to be revised to keep up with the times, including Francesca’s visits to transvestite nightclubs.

But “Backstab” includes some funny stories from my time as a newspaper columnist in St. Louis. One favorite was a true story of a parking spot. St. Louis is a city where the parking spot is sacred — and never more so than on a snowy day. Those of you who have survived snowy winters know this.
There was a terrible snow storm. My friend Janet Smith shoveled out a parking space for her husband Kevin to use when he came home from work. Forget Romeo and Juliet, when a woman shovels a parking spot for her man, that’s true love. It took Janet two hours. When she finished, her yuppie neighbor pulled into the spot like she owned it. She refused to move her car.
Janet told her, “You are going to move.”
The yuppie said, “I’ll try.”
Janet said, “My husband gets home at five and you will be out of there.”
The yuppie said, “I’ll try.” Janet told her that she had two hours to move. The yuppie didn’t. So Janet called the police. Janet wanted her neighbor arrested for stealing.
The officer explained that the police couldn’t do anything. “There is no law protecting your spot,” he said. Then the officer said, “There is also no law that says you can’t water your lawn in February. If her car happens to be in the way, that’s too bad. You’d be surprised what that water does. It freezes doors and locks. It freezes wipers to the windshield and tires to the ground.”
Janet said, “But won’t the police arrest me?”
The officer said, “For what?”
Janet took his name, just to be on the safe side, and then she brought out the garden hose and watered her lawn. Too bad that yuppie didn’t move her car. The water froze the locks. Froze the windows. Froze the tires to the ground. She had an inch of ice on that car. It took the yuppie two hours to chip off all the ice.
So there was justice after all.

See what you think of my first novel. Backstab is now on sale for $1.99. Buy it here:  

When Is It Done?

By John Gilstrap

So, you’ve finally made it to the end of your manuscript. Your plot points are all where they need to be, the characters have the personalities you hoped for, and the climax will leave people breathless. Whether it took you four months or four years, it’s seemed like a long time coming, but the day has finally come to either ship it off to your agent, or to go about the business of finding one, or to do whatever needs to be done to independently publish.

But wait. Is it really done?

Remember that place in Chapter Seven where you struggled with the action, and you wondered if the action was really motivated? Maybe you should go back and read that one more time. Yep, sure enough, it’s not all that you had wanted it to be. Maybe it was actually better before you made the change.

So, you delay pressing the SEND button for a day or two and you tweak that section again.

Oh, crap! If you make that change, then the big reveal in Chapter Fifteen won’t be as powerful. Maybe you should change it back. Yes, definitely, you should change it back.

And there. On page 24, you used “which” when you should have used “that.” Oh, no! Did you make that same mistake again? Oh, hell, you never were really sure of the difference in every circumstance.

Oh, my goodness! Look at all the adverbs . . .

When is it time to stop editing?

That doubt circle I present above is something we all face, but sooner or later, that circle becomes a spiral that will drag your project to destruction. So, when is it okay to stop? Some things to consider:

It will never be perfect.

I cringe every time I read a book that I wrote a few years ago. Why did I use that stupid phrase? Why did I use so many words? Why am I incapable of understanding the proper use of commas?

Everybody’s inner quality control manager is different. A writer-buddy of mine hires two proofreaders to go over his manuscript before he sends it to his publisher and their copy editors. And every book still has a typo or two.

I don’t enjoy my buddy’s level of success, but my bank account is smaller, too, so I don’t do that. I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote the day before. When I get to the end, I do one major editing pass to make sure that the story’s connective tissue is all there, and then I launch it.

Staring in the mirror doesn’t change the image.

There comes a point in every manuscript where you’ve either nailed it or you haven’t. Staring at it longer, tweaking individual words and questioning decisions you’ve already made doesn’t advance the story. If you genuinely liked the story yesterday, give that fact as much weight in your heart as the fact that you’ve got doubts today.

A few typos won’t torpedo your project.

An asterisk to that would be that the first couple of chapters should be pretty friggin’ pristine. Once you get people hooked on the story, the tolerance for human error increases.

True story:

My first literary agent was “Million Dollar Molly” Friedrich with the Aaron Priest Literary Agency. This was in the mid-1990s. A friend/neighbor of hers said she had an acquaintance who’d written a memoir and would Molly look at it. With a cringe, she said yes and was handed a typewritten single-spaced manuscript on onion skin erasable bond paper. Despite every submission protocol being broken, she gave it a read and agreed to represent the book. The author was an unknown fellow named Frank McCourt, and the book was Angela’s Ashes. It did okay.

The lesson:

If the story is great, there’s lots of room for forgiveness of the little stuff.

So, TKZ family, when do you decide it’s time to launch your literary baby?

First Page Critique: Optimizing
Your Setting And Forensics

By PJ Parrish

I’m a sucker for good settings. Give me a bleak winter woods, a decaying Scotland castle, or a fetid bayou swamp, and I’m a happy-clam reader. Setting, to me, is a character, something to be rendered with great thought and tenderness. Like a good secondary character, it is always there in the background. It is the stage on which your drama unfolds. It is a prism through which you convey mood, tone and even your voice. Most importantly, setting can be an emotional echo chamber for your hero’s inner struggles.

To me, my character’s struggles are almost always reflected in the setting. It goes back to one of my favorite lines from one of the greatest setting novels of all time — James Dickey’s Deliverance:

“I was standing in the most absolute aloneness that I had ever been given.”

But like any good secondary character, setting must assert its presence distinctly but quietly, always in support of the hero and plot, never overshadowing either.

Which brings me to our First Pager today. We’re going to somewhere out in the wilds where a woman is dead in a kayak, with a forest fire raging nearby no less. The writer gives us only two geographic anchors — a village called Forbidden Lake and a large place called Campbell River. Because the cop is called a “constable” I’m guessing we’re in Canada. Google tells me that there is a Campbell River near Vancouver, British Columbia. And near that, an actual place called Forbidden Plateau. Is that the turf our writer is working here? Don’t know. But I’m all in for the ride. See you in a bit…


Smoke from the forest fires had turned the sun into a red dot. In the lake, a faded yellow kayak bobbed gently next to a rotting dock, its occupant slumped over as if in deep sleep.

Detective Kenneth Tingle watched from the shore as paramedics maneuvered a small motorboat toward the kayak. There was no urgency in their movements as they untied it from the dilapidated dock. Even from his vantage point, at least thirty feet away, the gash on the woman’s neck and the blood on the kayak were indication enough: she was dead dead.

Directly behind Detective Tingle, a vacant lot stretched up toward the two-street village of Forbidden Lake. To his left, the Forbidden Lake Resort sprawled along the shore. To his right stood a run-down house that the lake was reclaiming as its own—the roof had more moss than shingles, the paint had peeled beyond recognition. A slight movement in one of the windows was the only indication that the house was occupied. Otherwise, Tingle would have assumed it was condemned.

He tried to scan the faces of the dozen or so people milling around, looking for a guilty expression, an averted gaze, or a perverted smile. But the smoke stung his eyes, so all of the faces were blurred into a mass of homogenous voyeurism. Despite the blur, he liked to think he could tell the difference between the locals and the visitors—the visitors had better posture, their movements more confident. The locals, or at least the ones he assumed were locals—a woman in long, flowing skirts; another woman in a crisp polo shirt and white visor; a few rough-looking men; a teenage girl with her arms tight across her chest—their body language screamed anxious defeat, as if a dead body in a kayak was something they’d come to expect.

Constable Artois appeared at his side, breathless.

“How was the drive?” Tingle asked.

“Slow. Visibility wasn’t great.” Artois’ forehead glistened with sweat. “How was the chopper ride?”

“Visibility wasn’t great either.” Tingle wasn’t a fan of helicopter rides in the best of conditions. He and the paramedics had flown from Campbell River through a dense screen of smoke. His stomach had been in knots, and he’d hated how the paramedics had expressed concern in the chopper—asking him if he was okay, if he needed a vomit bag.


First things first. The writing is clean, tight and well-crafted. No overwrought writerly writing. No hiccups or things that made me go, “huh?” I know that sounds like a low bar, but it’s not. Clarity and control are highly underrated qualities. This writer can tell a story.

I love the setting. Murders set in the remote wilderness are almost cliche in crime fiction, as much as neon-lit rain-stained urban streets are. But it works because the plot often transcends hero vs villain to hero also vs nature. Think Craig Johnson, William Kent Kreuger, Nevada Barr…

So this writer is off to a great start, I think. A small, probably insular village (shades of PD James and Georges Simenon!). A bigger-city outsider cop come to play hero. An evocative death scene. And did I mention, there’s a forest fire raging? So kudos, writer. The only thing I would tell you to improve is to find ways at every turn to make that setting work harder for your plot and your character. Your set-up is fine. Pepper in a few more descriptive details so we feel your setting more, especially if you can make it amplify tension. (See my edits that follow).

Now, I do have one issue. I think you need to pay closer attention to your forensics and police procedures. Keep in mind — if your setting is, indeed, not in the States — that readers will need grounding in foreignisms. Tingle, for example, comes from the big town of Campbell River. Is he local cop or Royal Canadian? Find a way to slip this in early. You also need to let us know if we are in Canada or not.

Now to some more detailed points. All we know from your narrative is that a woman’s (girl’s?) dead body is in a kayak with a “gash” on her neck. That’s really not enough information. Consider the time-line for any routine wrongful death discovery:

Someone discovered the body. They were probably able to determine she was dead. They then called 911. Does your village even have 911 or did the person call local constable? As you describe things, the body is close to the village. The constable would not have to come far.

Responding officer (constable) would come first. Your village apparently does not have EMT unit. Constable would find a way to get to the kayak and verify she’s dead. He would then call the larger city authorities and EMTs. Which is why, I assume, you have them helicoptering in.

So that brings Kenneth Tingle on scene. As a homicide detective, he would want to get as close to the body as possible. The kayak is tied to a dock. I like the idea the dock is rotting because it creates tension in accessing the body. Still, he’d get in a boat and go out. By leaving him on land, looking at the local crowd, he comes across as disinterested and even passive. GET HIM TO THE BODY. You can have him thinking about the locals later in a quiet moment.

Other points to consider: I don’t know how much time has passed between the body being discovered and your opening — you should tell us via Tingle’s thoughts. But by now, wrongful death would probably be determined, and there might be other officers nearby in waders and boats, assisting.

I understand your point about bringing in the onlookers now — it sets up your line: “Their body language screamed anxious defeat, as if a dead body in a kayak was something they’d come to expect.” And that creates tension because it implies this isn’t the first murder in Forbidden Lake. Great! Love it. But it comes at the expense, as I said, of making your hero look like a spectator and muser.  Which is death to a hero.

Get Tingle involved. Get him out there. Get him moving and doing. Not just thinking.

Okay, a quick line edit and we’re done. My comments in red.

Smoke from the forest fires had turned the sun into a red dot. In the lake, a faded yellow kayak bobbed gently next to a rotting dock, its occupant slumped over as if in deep sleep. Nice opening image.

Detective Kenneth Tingle watched from the shore passively as paramedics maneuvered a small motorboat toward the kayak. There was no urgency This phrase sort of drains the tension out of your opening. There can be a feeling of urgency even with a dead body in that the hero feels compelled TO ACT. I would have him in an inflatable raft approaching the kayak so he can SEE the body and TELL us what it looks like. Is she young, old? What is she wearing? Dark hair in wet strands like kelp across her face? in their movements as they untied it from the dilapidated dock. Even from his vantage point, at least thirty feet away, the gash on the woman’s neck and the blood on the kayak were indication enough: she was dead dead.  He already knew she was dead; that’s why he was called here. And again, he’s onshore, watching, thinking. ACTION FIRST, REACTION AND SECONDARY THOUGHTS LATER.  Also: a “gash” can imply something minor. Get a little more gritty here. SHOW US what he is seeing. 

Also an important point: If this woman/girl is local, the constable or someone would recognize her. Make that clear. It also increases tension, one way or another.

You need some juicy dialogue in your opening. The exchange between Tingle and Artois is wasted cop banter. What if Artois is with Tingle in the raft and recognizes her? Now, that is juicy dialogue.

The next two graphs are well-rendered as far as setting goes, but I think they come too early in your opening and thus leach tension. Suggest having Tingle examine the body as well as he can from a bobbing raft, maybe with dialogue with Artois. Give him some quick thoughts and maybe directing EMTs to bag her and get her to land. Give him some forensic smarts — he can tell from the wound it was murder. 

Then I’d take Tingle back to shore. Artois can go handle the gathering crowd. Tingle can then watch the conveying of the body and in this quieter moment, can give us a very quick lay of the land of Forbidden Lake, the big resort and the rundown house. ONLY then would I have him turn his focus to the crowd. 

Directly behind Detective Tingle, a vacant lot stretched up toward the two-street village of Forbidden Lake. To his left, the Forbidden Lake Resort sprawled along the shore. To his right stood a run-down house that the lake was reclaiming as its own—the roof had more moss than shingles, the paint had peeled beyond recognition. A slight movement in one of the windows was the only indication that the house was occupied. Otherwise, Tingle would have assumed it was condemned.

He tried to scan squinted through the sting of the smoke to scan the faces of the dozen or so people milling around, behind the police tape. He was looking for a guilty expression, an averted gaze, or a perverted smile. But the smoke stung his eyes, so all of the faces were blurred into a mass of homogenous voyeurism. This line seems a tad overwrought in your nicely spare style. Despite the blur, he liked to think he could tell the difference between the locals and the visitors Is Forbidden Lake a big tourist destination as this implied? You need to make that clear. .  visitors had better posture, their movements more confident. The locals, or at least the ones he assumed were locals—a woman in a long, flowing skirts; another woman in a crisp polo shirt and white visor; a few rough-looking men; a teenage girl with her arms tight across her chest—The only place where you confuse me. A woman in a crisp polo shirt and visor screams tourist to me. their body language screamed anxious defeat, as if a dead body in a kayak was something they’d come to expect. Interesting line that creates a little tension but what comes before it does not support it. Try to be more specific. Something like:

It was July and Forbidden Lake’s tiny population was, as usual, swollen with tourists. Artois was having a time keeping them behind the police tape. Tingle squinted through the sting of the smoke at the faces in the crowd. He liked to think he could tell the locals from the tourists — the man in the crisp polo shirt and visor, the thin woman in the flowing dress focusing her cell phone camera, definitely out of town. The others were different — sun-roughed men in jeans and t-shirts, a teenage girl with arms crossed tight over her chest — locals, he suspected. In their slumped postures and grim faces he could read something strange, like anxious defeat, as if a dead body in a kayak was something they had come to expect. 

Constable Artois appeared at his side, breathless.

“How was the drive?” Tingle asked.

“Slow. Visibility wasn’t great.” Artois’ forehead glistened with sweat. “How was the chopper ride?” This is wasted dialogue. Does nothing to propel plot or increase tension and that is what you need in the opening pages. If you want to make a point of Tingle getting knotty in the copter, have Artois rejoin them and they can talk. But do you really want to waste precious moments on such small stuff so early?

“Visibility wasn’t great either.” Tingle wasn’t a fan of helicopter rides in the best of conditions. He and the paramedics had flown from Campbell River through a dense screen of smoke. His stomach had been in knots, and he’d hated how the paramedics had expressed concern in the chopper—asking him if he was okay, if he needed a vomit bag.

Okay, that’s all. Don’t let the blood all over your pages discourage you, dear writer. As I often say, the more I like your work, the more I want you to try harder. This is really good stuff and you’re off to a fine start. I would read on. Just be more careful with your forensics and take care that Tingle doesn’t become a wall flower at his prom. Well done!

Postscript. About your title. Love it. But I strongly suggest you lose the “AT” and just call it Forbidden Lake. It has resonance and intrigue. There’s good reason Dennis Lehane didn’t call his book “On Mystic River” or William Kent Kreuger didn’t call his book “In Blood Hollow.”