A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act
Terry Odell

Image by JL G from Pixabay

I’m about 14K into my next novel, the tenth offering in my Mapleton Mystery series. Unlike my other series, which fall under the romantic suspense umbrella, my Mapletons are a true series, not a set of connected books. Although my romantic suspense series feature recurring characters, the protagonists are different in each. In Mapleton, my police chief, Gordon Hepler (who got his name when a postal clerk where I did a lot of mailing begged to be included. Neither of us had any idea he’d be a series protagonist) is the POV character in almost every story.

While I face the same issues with all series, the Mapleton books are more challenging. Why? The dreaded backstory conundrum. The setting, with a few detours, is the small town of Mapleton. The books progress in time from one to the next, so I’m continually balancing content that will offer enough explanation for new readers while not boring returning ones. By book ten, a LOT of things have transpired, and while my characters have a good idea of what’s gone before, readers might not.

Stopping to info dump bores new readers and can insult those ‘in the know.’ However, the occasional Easter egg makes a welcome reward. Overexplaining things or detailed character descriptions will have returning readers skimming. The further into the series I get, the sketchier descriptions become. John Sanford once said he includes a short paragraph with the highlights of Lucas Davenport in each novel—tall, lean, dark hair, facial scar, clothes horse—and that’s about it.

What kind of information has accumulated over the series? To name a few:

Gordon had Central Serous Retinopathy in an early book, takes blood pressure meds, and has to limit his caffeine intake. While this was a major plot thread in Deadly Puzzles, there’s no need to give readers the entire history in each book. But he’s a cop and he’s drinking decaf? Will readers wonder?

Angie has grown from character of interest to girlfriend to lover to wife throughout the series. They were newlyweds in Deadly Fun but now, they’re settling into the marriage. Angie runs the local diner, had a side business of catering with another character prominent in several books. There’s her cook who appears regularly and the rest of the staff of the diner who appear from time to time.

There are the other officers on the police force, and their number has increased. There are the dispatchers and Gordon’s admin, all of whom play their own parts in the stories. And we can’t forget Buster, the department’s part-time K-9 who shows up in this new book. Is that enough, or do I need to show that when he’s not doing police work, he lives with Officer Solomon? Should I mention his wife and kids?

Mapleton has had several mayors, each a thorn in Gordon’s side, and they’ve been dispatched in one way or another. Now, there’s an interim mayor and friction on the town council. There’s a newspaper reporter who often crosses a line Gordon thinks she shouldn’t when she writes her articles for the local paper.

The list goes on. And on.

You can see that trying to fit all this in would make a book far longer—and more tedious—than it needs to be. When a recurring character shows up, it’s tempting to lay in more background and description than is necessary. (Side note: since I write in Deep POV, I’m not going to intrude with my own descriptions. Those of you writing from a more distant POV might not have as much trouble.) I have to remind myself to save bits and pieces of description as well as other background information until there seems to be a logical place to do so. If Gordon’s admin has been with him since his first day on the job, he’s not going to be thinking of what she looks like every time he sees her. Now, if it seems important that readers “see” her, then maybe she’s wearing something unlike her normal office attire, or she’s changed her hairstyle. That way, Gordon’s doing the describing, not me. Or he might ask her about her family to follow up on a thread from another book.

My approach tends to be to include first, cut later. I think about having a series bible, and then think I’d probably want to include even more since I’d have everything laid out for me.

When someone asked Michael Connelly how he handles keeping readers up to speed, he said he thought about it early on and decided to take the “The other books are out there. Let them find out for themselves” approach.

JD Robb (based on her books, not asking her) throws in plenty of references to things gone before and after over 50 books in the In Death series, a lot has happened, and the cast of characters has grown tremendously. Given the state of my memory, I often wish there were footnotes for whichever book the various cases or situations she mentions. Not explanations, not backstory, not info dumping, but I’d know which book to take another look at.

What about you? How do you handle information in an ongoing series? Your preferences as a reader?

In case anyone wants to see my interview for the Speed City Sisters in Crime, you can watch the replay.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

To Pay or Not To Pay – Book Reviews For Sale

By Debbie Burke



“Fly-by-Night Book Reviews says, for $100, they’ll give me twenty guaranteed reviews. Should I try that?”

“I paid $500 to Pie-in-the-Sky Reviews. My book didn’t receive a single review.”

“You don’t dare pay for reviews—that violates Amazon’s terms and conditions. You’ll be banished.”

“Kirkus Reviews are the gold standard.”

“Ever since Kirkus started selling reviews, they lost all credibility.”


That’s a sample of the spirited responses and contradictory opinions on a recent Authors Guild discussion thread about whether or not to pay for book reviews.

I wound up thoroughly confused, pondering the following questions:

How much do reviews really matter?

Are there still “legitimate” book reviews? What defines “legitimate”?

Have reviews merely become another profit opportunity for vendors peddling them?

Do customers really believe Amazon reviews?

Do reviews increase sales?

Author Maggie Lynch

Multi-genre author Maggie Lynch participates frequently in AG discussions. Over years of reading her contributions, I’ve come to trust her knowledge, judgment, and analysis. Her data is carefully researched. She looks at publishing history from the long view and puts so-called new trends in perspective.

During this ongoing, weeks-long debate about book reviews, one day Maggie wrote: “Warning, I’m going on a bit of a rant.”

What followed was her essay that offered a fresh perspective and updated information about reviews that all authors can benefit from.

I asked if I could share her “rant” at TKZ and she kindly agreed.

Here’s what Maggie has to say:

Paid reviews have always been around, long before the advent of the Internet. Who do you think paid for placement in magazines, journals, and newspapers?

When a publisher buys an end cap display in a bookstore and provides potential review quotes for the store to post, isn’t that paid? If your book is featured on the front page of a major genre magazine, it gets attention. The magazine is going to do a review because you paid $2-$5K to be there.

All advertising is, in effect, paid reviews.

The only difference now is that there are more books, more online venues, and more authors willing to pay for ads, reviews, and all kinds of placement.

Once Amazon entered the online market, it became the focus of most authors. Not because it is the only distributor, but because it is the only distributor using sophisticated algorithms that are somewhat transparent. A number of analysts and programmers focus on Amazon algorithms and then share that information via their own book publications.

Whether you love or hate Amazon, it’s a great search engine. They understand data. They understand how to present the most likely options for getting a sale from a customer. IMO there is no other bookseller with programming that sophisticated.

If other major booksellers–Apple, Kobo, Google, the Big 5—had that same search and analysis capability, they would get more customers as well.

For myself, I have many reasons not to like Amazon. Yet, I give them props when they do well. If I want to find a book or learn more about an author, I’ll look it up on Amazon first because I know it will be quick with lots of information–including other books in the same genre, series, similar authors, etc.

I will likely end up buying the book somewhere else to support a local bookstore or another vendor, but I go to Amazon first.

Many people stay on Amazon because of that ease of use. Authors often believe (mistakenly in my opinion) that they only need to be on Amazon.

But…book sales are NOT Amazon’s primary business.

Only 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue is book sales.

Unfortunately, far too many people think they can game the system. I know hundreds of authors who spend more time trying to figure out how to get higher ranking on Amazon than they do writing books. It’s crazy.

Review factories have always been a part of the online book environment. When I first entered indie publishing in 2011, there were entire “review factories” in Asia where one could buy 100 reviews from “sock puppet” accounts. They were pretty obvious back then, poorly written, using similar phrases.

A couple of times, Amazon has cracked down on these practices–usually when it becomes obvious and egregious. But they usually do it through programming changes.

In the process, some books with legitimate reviews get caught in the net. When crackdowns happened in 2014 and 2018, many authors lost hundreds of reviews and waited months to have them reinstated.

[Note from Debbie: I know authors who simply gave up fighting and started from scratch all over again. Sad.]

Whenever Amazon makes a programming change to search out and punish fake reviews, those who make money on reviewing simply find a more sophisticated way not to get caught.

Algorithm watchers believe that instead of looking for and stopping these reviewers, Amazon is proactively changing the algorithm to counteract the sway of review farms.

Now reviews are weighted significantly less in the algorithm than they have been in the past.

Of course, no one knows how much less or what the criteria are, but it is something to consider. Because of that, authors who are focused on reviews simply pay more.

Authors consistently worry/believe that a high number of reviews (particularly on Amazon) means a high number of sales. That is not necessarily the case.

It is more likely that a high number of sales means a high number of reviews, UNLESS reviews have been supplied primarily by non-purchasers.

To evaluate this, look at the Top 100 bestsellers in Amazon. Many have ZERO reviews. Why? Because the book hasn’t been released and is selling on pre-order. What is creating those sales? Many factors that have nothing to do with reviews such as:

  • Advanced audience definition;
  • Pre-press ads, word of mouth, news, reaching out to fans;
  • Building anticipation for the book followed by a launch blitz that delivers on the promise;
  • ARCs to media and other reviewers (NetGalley, Edelweiss).

It may also be that Amazon never shows a lot of reviews for a particular book because the primary sales are on other sites, NOT Amazon. Many print books sell in bookstores, libraries, or direct from the publisher.

Reviews are not the answer to low sales. Do they help? Good ones do, those that provide information and key ideas to appeal to the audience you want. But the number of reviews does not necessarily correlate to sales.

The last good analysis I read about Amazon indicated there were more than 300 data points that are weighted in the sales and ranking algorithms.


Where do reviews stand in that weighting? Not at the top. Probably not even the top 10.

The reality is the #1 weight is actual sales.

You have direct control of many other factors that guarantee more sales such as:

  • Create a fan base;
  • Write more books;
  • Identify your audience;
  • Deliver to their expectations with a consistent brand.

Of course, these take work and time. They can’t happen overnight.

But many authors want a fix right now, an easy button to push.

People always want an easy answer as to why their book isn’t selling better. They don’t want to accept the more likely reasons it’s not selling better.

The reality is the majority of the book reading public has fairly narrow interests.

 My fantasy fans rarely cross into SF. My SF fans almost never cross into romance. My Women’s Fiction fans don’t like anything else in fiction. My nonfiction readers rarely read fiction.

That’s just from my list of fans–a small number of 12K people. But the sample size is enough to extrapolate statistically.

Identifying the audience and creating a package that appeals to them on many levels is key. That package includes:

  • Excellent blurb that makes the reader want to learn more;
  • Great cover;
  • Appropriate pricing for the genre;
  • Look Inside/Preview pages that draw the reader in;
  • Advance praise from ARC readers that tells the reader what to expect and why they loved it.

Indie authors particularly get uptight about reviews—they can see the numbers go up and believe they can control that. Then they start paying for reviews because they believe more reviews equals more sales. But that is a false sense of control.

Where do you stop paying? Is 50 enough? How about 100?

I now see books with over 100K ratings. Are you kidding me?

 The get-more-reviews game is one you can’t win because:

  • You likely don’t have the budget for big PR or marketing campaigns;
  • You can’t compete against contacts that big publishing houses have.

Amazon’s own imprints publish roughly 1,000 books a year, making it as large as the Big 5 publishers.

Amazon controls all the data and knows the sales information. They can certainly tweak the metadata as needed to drive sales within their algorithm. Other publishers can do this too, if they know how and employ people to do it. Most don’t, not even the Big 5.

What can the average author do to compete?

First, do not accept Amazon as the arbiter of books or literature.

They are not. Don’t become one of those authors–and some small publishers– who have bought into the Amazon way of book sales–low pricing, multiple promotions, exclusivity.

Small publishers and indie authors have given Amazon all this power yet selling books is less than 10% of Amazon’s revenue. 

Second, you can shout and bring bad practices to the fore.

Point it out and most of all DO NOT PARTICIPATE in the bad practices yourself.

We can’t let our avarice, our immediate desire for an easy-button solution, give us permission to game the system, pay for reviews, tell lies, or buy hundreds of print books to try to make the bestseller list.

If few authors engage then it will become evident that no one can make good money off of these deals. 

Third, expend your energy in engaging with actual readers.

Build your mailing list, blog or use some other social media that you like to keep your readers informed.

Outside of your next book, the biggest asset is YOUR readers—people who have already voted with their dollars and their time to buy and read your book. Once they already read and like your book, they want more—more about you, more about upcoming books.

  • They will tell their friends
  • They will write reviews;
  • They will volunteer to read ARCs in the future;
  • They will post to social media;
  • They will talk to libraries about carrying your book.

Your readers are your biggest asset.


Thank you, Maggie, for sharing your perspective and wisdom with TKZ!

Maggie reaffirmed my belief that time is best spent writing more books.

However, that doesn’t lessen my gratitude to readers who make the extra effort to write reviews!


Learn more about Maggie Lynch and her 26 books at her author website.

Check out her free video course about Why Books Don’t Sell. It covers the basics of putting together a good package for your book and buy pages with vendors.

On that same POV Author Services site she has many blogs just for writers about both business and technology, as well as mental health and philosophical writing concerns.


TKZers: What is your experience with reviews? Have you ever paid for reviews? Do you think they helped your sales?

Mountweazels and More!

The 1943 edition of Webster’s Twentieth Century Dictionary contains the following definition:

jungftak, n.–a Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enabled to fly, — each, when alone, had to remain on the ground.


Wow. What a wonderful definition. Who knew there was such a bird?

Actually, there isn’t. It’s an example of a mountweazel, an entirely fabricated definition. But why would Webster’s dictionary, a highly professional and well-respected tome, include it? Well, because dictionaries, like encyclopedias and maps, contain some bogus data.

Why would they do that? To protect their copyrights. A lot of effort goes into the production of these works, and they can be simple to copy. However, if the dictionary contains some definitions that are made up, it’s easy to catch copyright violators.

The source of the term mountweazel is from this bogus biographical entry in the fourth edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia (1975).

Mountweazel, Lillian Virginia, 1942-1973, American photographer, b. Bangs, Ohio. Turning from fountain design to photography in 1963, Mountweazel produced her celebrated portraits of the South Sierra Miwok in 1964. She was awarded government grants to make a series of photo-essays of unusual subject matter, including New York City buses, the cemeteries of Paris, and rural American mailboxes. The last group was exhibited extensively abroad and published as Flags Up! (1972). Mountweazel died at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.

Although Ms. Mountweazel did not exist, a new word found its way into the English language.


In addition to mountweazels, this language of ours abounds with opportunities for fun. For example,

  1. Spoonerisms

Named after Rev. William Spooner, who became infamous for inadvertently switching the beginning sounds of words to hilarious effect. One of Rev. Spooner’s most famous spoonerisms was when he attended church and found someone sitting in his usual seat:

“Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet.” (“Someone is occupying my pew. Please show me to another seat.”)

  1. Malapropisms

Named after the character “Mrs. Malaprop” from the 1775 play The Rivals, malapropisms replace a word with an incorrect homonym or close relative, again to hilarious effect. One example:

He is the very pineapple of politeness!” (“He is the very pinnacle of politeness.”)

We had a friend who used malapropisms frequently, but unintentionally. She once told me she had a doctor’s appointment. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “Oh, yes. I just have to have my annual milligram.” Our conversations were often bewildering, but always fun.

  1. Tom Swifties

A Tom Swifty is a play on words using a quotation usually ascribed to Tom and followed by an adverb. Here’s an example:

“I need a pencil sharpener,” Tom said bluntly.

Some of my favorite Tom Swifties have been offered here on TKZ.


Okay, TKZ sothers and bristers: It’s your turn. What’s your favorite word? Do you have a favorite play on words or fabricated definition you’d like to share? I bet you’ll come up with some real wise prinners.

Social Media and The Finklemeyer Propositions

by James Scott Bell

Dr. Hans Finklemeyer

The Hydrozoa are a class of marine lifeforms which include the medusae, or jellyfish. These forms share a similar structure in that they have a mouth but no brain. They can be found most plentifully in warm seas and on social media.

And in a remarkable reversal of Darwinian selection, it has been observed that certain mammals possessed of both the capacity for thought and the modulation of passions have chosen to revert to the Hydrozoic stage where they can no longer do either. This has produced a lower form of life taxonomically grouped as Tweetozoa.

According to the late Dr. Hans Finklemeyer of the University of Palaver, these creatures are identified by their ieiunium digitos—“fast fingers”—that mix actual words with bastardizations, such as ur and lolz. “If we do not reverse course soon,” wrote Dr. Finklemeyer in the August, 2015 edition of The Journal of Witless Organisms, “we will all be reduced to grunting and gestures, which will make the viewing of old TV shows indecipherable, with the possible exception of Married, With Children.”

On his deathbed, surrounded by his students and one DoorDash guy with Buffalo wings, Dr. Finklemeyer suddenly sat up and shouted, “Think, damn you! Think!” and promptly died.

His students tried to figure out what he meant, but eventually gave up and ate the Buffalo Wings.

In the spirit of this great man of science, let me offer you what I will call the Finklemeyer Propositions.

1. Do not open your mouth before your brain wakes up.

2. If your brain has been asleep for more than a week, begin to retrain it. In that regard:

– Figure out what principles are worthy of your belief. Do not follow Groucho Marx’s philosophy: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”

– For the sake of future generations, learn at least the fundamental rules of grammar, the first of which is that words have objective meanings. This is contra Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to meanneither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

3. Say unto others only as you would have others say unto you.

4. Resist the tides of popular opinion. Learn to how to swim for yourself.

5. Do not give your children smart phones before the age of fifteen…or in some cases, thirty. Give them good books instead.

And if you are a writer, let your books do the talking. Do not attempt to argue with the Tweetozoa. They have lost auditory capacity. Like the jellyfish, they can only sting. You may then be tempted to sting back until you realize, too late, that you are a Tweetozoan yourself.

So do you agree with the estimable Dr. Finklemeyer? Are you applying any of his propositions? Any others you’d like to add? 

First Things First

When I search the archives for Words of Wisdom posts, I look for themes to unite our selections. Today the theme is First – First the Foundation, First Discovery, and First Meeting. Each selection has a link to the entire article. After reading, please tell us about your “firsts.” And please feel free to comment on other reader’s comments. Let’s have a lively discussion.

First Things First

Most writers know this business can be soul-crushing at times, even if we don’t like to talk about it. As can life. This past week, my husband and I secured a mortgage and were over-the-moon excited to close on Friday. The house we’ve been living in for almost 7 years would finally be ours. On Wednesday, we received a call that told us the house had been deemed unsellable. Briefly, 30 years ago a mobile home stood on the land. Rather than remove the old mobile in its entirety, the then-owner stripped it down to the steel beam and built a beautiful 1 ¾ story country contemporary on top of it, rendering the property unsound. Unpredictable. Unsellable, except to a cash buyer who doesn’t glance at the deed.

Because the previous owner cut corners with the foundation, it throws off the entire house. Same holds true for our stories. Without a solid foundation — key milestones, properly placed — the story won’t work, no matter how well-written. The pacing will drag. The story may sag in the middle. The ending might not even be satisfying. It all comes down to the foundation on which the story stands.

….Had we never moved into this house and stayed as long as we did, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to build our dream home now … a few house lots over on land we already love. We envision relaxing on the back deck, watching black bear, moose, and deer stroll through the yard. That’s the plan, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t pan out, we’ll readjust again.

Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true. Sue Coletta – 8/27/18


First discovery

Here’s the epiphany:

In crime fiction, the antagonist drives the plot. Unless a crime has been committed, or is about to be committed, there’s nothing for the protagonist to do. The antagonist acts, the protagonist re-acts.

I’d been following the wrong character around all these years!

My realization probably seems like a big DUH to many crime authors. But I’m sharing it in hopes of helping others like myself who overlooked the obvious.

It’s fun to think like a villain! When I started writing from the bad guy’s POV, a whole new world opened up—a world without conscience, constraints, or inhibitions. Debbie Burke – 9/28/17


First Meeting

All of this got me to wondering about all of you. I remember where and how I met Don, and most of my other friends, and my wife, business associates, etc. But those of us who contribute blog posts to The Kill Zone don’t know how you, our wonderful readers and commenters, got here. What brought you to The Kill Zone originally? How did you get here? Twitter? Facebook? Writer’s Digest? An author’s link? I’d love to know. And if you have any stories about reuniting with old friends and acquaintances that are unique and/or unusual, please share if you’re so inclined. Joe Hartlaub – 3/12/16


So, what thoughts do you have about the selections?

What comments do you have on the comments?

And what “firsts” would you like to share with us?

Also, please tell us how you first learned about The Kill Zone blog.

Reader Friday: Where Are You?

If I transported you into the current book you’re writing or reading…

Where are you?

What obstacles are you facing?

How are you surviving — by using special skills or by hiding behind the main character? 

Please include title and author. 🙂 

True Crime Thursday – Investigative Genealogy Solves Cold Cases

Harry Edward Greenwell

By Debbie Burke


Between 1987 and 1990, three women were sexually assaulted and murdered and one more was raped and left for dead in what were dubbed the “Days Inn/I-65 Murders” in Indiana and Kentucky.

The victims were all hotel clerks working the night shift. Vicki Lucille Heath, 41, was sexually assaulted and murdered on February 21, 1987 and her body found behind a trash bin. Two more victims, Margaret Mary “Peggy” Gill, 24, and Jeanne Gilbert, 34, were both sexually assaulted and killed four hours apart on March 3, 1989 at two different Days Inns in Indiana.

On January 2, 1990, a 21-year-old victim was sexually assaulted and stabbed but survived. She gave information to investigators that led to a composite drawing of the attacker.

Composite of I-65 Killer

Ballistic evidence and DNA connected the cases and indicated the same person committed all four attacks.

But who was he?

For more than 30 years, the cases went unsolved despite physical evidence…until the advent of the relatively new field of Investigative Genealogy.

According to the FBI:

Investigative Genealogy and combines the use of DNA analysis with traditional genealogy research and historical records to generate investigative leads for unsolved violent crimes.

This technique involves uploading a crime scene DNA profile to one or more genetic genealogy databases in an attempt to identify a criminal offender’s genetic relatives and locate the offender within their family tree. Utilizing this process, a match was made to [Harry Edward] Greenwell with a close family member. Through this match, it was determined that the probability of Greenwell being the person responsible for the attacks was more than 99 percent.

Harry Edward Greenwell, born in 1944, had a long, violent criminal history beginning in 1963 and spent time in and out of various prisons for armed robbery, sodomy, and burglary. Following his release in 1983, he went to work for a railroad and worked on tracks throughout the Midwest.

Greenwell was married, had a family, and was well-liked in his Iowa community, selling organic produce at the local farmers market.

He died of cancer at age 68 in 2013 without ever being connected to the murders…until investigative genealogy identified him as the killer with 99.99% probability, based on links between DNA evidence and information about a close relative on genealogy sites.

In 2022, the FBI and the Indiana State Police announced Greenwell was the I-65 Killer, solving the crimes. Additionally, he is being investigated for similar cold case crimes.

After 30+ years, families of the four victims at last have closure, although not justice.


TKZers: Have you heard of using Investigative Genealogy to solve cold cases? Do you know of any?



Discover vital links between genealogy and DNA in three baffling cases in Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Until Proven Guilty.

Available at major booksellers at this link. 

Radio Dreams Fulfilled

By John Gilstrap

I came of age during the 1970s. I was six years old when JFK was assassinated in 1963, and I lived in the Washington, DC, suburbs during the violence and political turmoil of 1968-74. Every radio in the house was tuned to WMAL AM630, and they were on pretty much all the time. I woke up to Harden and Weaver giving the time and weather forecast 20 times an hour, and went to bed with Felix Grant playing soft jazz in the background. (When snow was in the forecast, I of course slept with my pajamas turned inside-out as a talisman for schools to be closed. Messrs. Harden and Weaver would be the deliverer of that news, requiring an earlier alarm so I could go back to sleep if my wishes were granted.)

I dreamed back then of one day becoming a radio broadcaster. As I approached the end of my high school years, the lure of the Columbia School of Broadcasting was almost overwhelming. In the end, I went to college instead, at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I hoped to join the staff of WCWM, the college radio station. Alas, that turned out to be a clique for people whose lifestyles were different from mine, and I found myself not welcome.

After I graduated and returned to the DC area, I became addicted to morning and evening drivetime radio. The Morning Zoo fad was huge there. Even in the early ’80s, commutes were long and brutal, so radio entertainment was essential. My shock jocks of choice were Don Geronimo & Mike O’Meara (“We’re fat, we’re white, we’re Catholic, and we’re sick about it.”) In the afternoons, I preferred a more staid commute, so it was back to WMAL and Trumbull and Core (originally called Two For The Road, but they changed it after MADD started making waves). That afternoon broadcast was all about local and national news, but with a fun spin.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the beginning of my writing career. I’ve lost track of the number of radio interviews I’ve done by way of promoting my books. Add podcasts to the list and it has to be in the hundreds. Technically, those qualified as “being on the radio” but it wasn’t the same. First of all, the vast majority are phone-in interviews, and for the most part, I’m telling the same stories and answering the same questions, back-to-back. It’s the nature of touring.

Then came May 3, 2022. My publicist in New York arranged an in-studio interview with WRNR Eastern Panhandle Talk Radio and TV10 in Martinsburg, WV, essentially in my new backyard. I had the whole last segment of the show, about 25 minutes, and it went very well. Lots of laughs. When the show was over and we were saying our goodbyes, I mentioned to Rob Mario, the host of the show, that I had always dreamed about being on the radio.

Bam! Right then and there, he offered me a slot in his rotating schedule of guest hosts. The format of the show is local and statewide politics and community activities. So far, I’ve interviewed the mayor of Martinsburg, the president of the Berkeley County council, the director of the Health Department, and a number of the local business stars. If you’re reading this on August 24 between the hours of 8 and 10 a.m. Eastern time, I am on the air now.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts here in TKZ that I’m a Type-A extrovert. One of my biggest concerns as we walked away from a lifetime of living in Northern Virginia was wondering how I was going to streamline the process of getting to know people in my new community. Living in Berkeley County, WV, is the very model of rural small town life. County fairs are still big news, and the local paper reports the substance of valedictory speeches from the local high schools. I worried about being the outsider.

And then this opportunity fell into my lap. I am humbled and thrilled. I’ve always been a news junkie, and now I get to talk one-on-one (in front of thousands of people) with the newsmakers themselves. In fact, my very first interview on my very first day as a co-host was all about West Virginia’s proposed abortion legislation. Yikes! I think it went well. (They did ask me back again (and again . . .))

To bring this back around to the true focus of TKZ, Being a writer and having books to sell provides many opportunities to get out in front of other people. The odds are stacked against introverted authors who cave in to their shy tendencies. By being out there, wherever there is, that moment of celebrity can blossom into tremendous opportunity. I figure it can’t hurt to be introduced at the top and bottom of each hour as “New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap.” Let’s call that soft marketing. I swear I can hear listeners all over the Eastern Panhandle turning to the person next to them and saying, “I’ve never heard of him.” If a few turn to their internet machines and do a search, well, that can’t hurt either.

And if no one does that, that’s okay. I’m fulfilling my dream of being on the radio.

Four Mistakes That Will Doom
Your Mystery. They Did Mine

By PJ Parrish

I’m going to tell tales out of school today. About some of the dumbest mistakes I’ve made in trying to write. Some mistakes died sad deaths in my C-drives. Others got fixed before I made a fool of myself in print. Maybe my confession here will help keep you on the righteous path.

Digression alert: I love idioms. I love their silliness, their creativity, their origins, and the slivers of insight within them. As you’ve read here, I’m trying to bone up on my French via online Babbel courses and yesterday’s lesson was idioms. La fin des haricots (the end of the beans) means “Well, that’s over!” And if you want to say someone is knee-high to a grasshopper, it’s haut comme trois pommes. As high as three apples. To have a hangover is avoir la gueule de bois — to have a wooden face.

So, telling tales out of school? It dates back to 1530, appearing in William Tindale’s The Practyse of Prelates: “What cometh once in may never out, for fear of telling tales out of school.”  It used to refer to kids gossiping about what they heard at school, but now we use it mean divulging secret information.

The tales I am going to tell out of school today all involve mistakes my sister Kelly and I made in our writing journey. Digression two: One of my favorite I Love Lucy episodes is “Lucy Writes A Novel.” She sends it off to a publisher, and he shows up with a check wanting to buy her book. But he wants to change the title to “Don’t Let This Happen To You!”

So pay attention, crime dogs. Don’t let any of these mistakes happen to you.

Introducing Too Many Characters Too Soon.

My sister’s first stab at a novel was a long historical family saga set in the Nevada casino world. She was working in the business back then and had tons of stories, great characters, and had boned up on her history of the birth of gambling. Her first chapter set-up was terrific — the offspring and four ex-wives of a rich patriarch (think Steve Wynn) are gathered at his gravesite at dawn as the lights of the Strip blink off in the distance.  Everyone there has a reason to hate the guy and an even better reason to kill him. Kelly’s mistake? She introduced every single one of the family members, giving each a name, thoughts, dialogue. I think I counted 32 characters in the first ten pages.

The lesson: Don’t flood your stage in the opening moments of act 1. It confuses the reader, makes them feel stupid, like they need a family tree. Give your reader a couple characters to digest at most. Please don’t make their names sound alike. And never wait too long to introduce your hero. From the get-go, readers search for characters to invest their emotions in, and you run the risk of them attaching to what I call a “false hero” if you’re not careful.

Nothing Happens

Flash back to 1989. Miami Vice is on TV and I’m trying to make the switch to mysteries after getting dropped as a romance writer. I had a terrific idea for a character — the lone woman detective working in the homicide division of the Miami PD. Lots of sexism, tokenism, testosterone poisoning. And to make her baggage even heavier, her husband and daughter died in a horrible boat crash in Biscayne Bay (that may have been a revenge murder for her busting a bad guy).  My first chapter opens with my heroine fishing at dusk in the Everglades. And she’s thinking. And remembering. And mourning. And thinking. And sighing. End of chapter. My agent, after reading it, told me to go home and read some Michael Connelly and PJ James.

The lesson? We belabor it here, especially James: Get your characters UP AND DOING in the opening moments. The thinking, remembering, musing, pondering, reflecting….save it for later. Please. I’m begging you. Something must happen. Action, then reaction. Oh, and don’t try to follow the zeitgeist — Miami Vice went off the air before I finished my first draft.

Larding In Backstory

Back to the casino…Kelly and I wanted to take a break from our Louis Kincaid series and we had an idea for this crusty-but-lovable character named Bailey. (The crusty-but-lovable bit should have been our first warning.) She’s a housewife who falls into an amateur detective gig at a run-down Nevada casino owned by her crusty-but-lovable father. We had a pretty good opening graph:

It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it. Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa.

But then we got mired in backstory. This is what followed:

The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.”

But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them.

So I walked. Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of place where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

Okay, it’s not horrible, but it wasn’t good enough to get published. Our publisher passed. Our agent shopped it around and everyone passed. This, after we had made the New York Times list with our regular series. Why? Because it’s all backstory, it’s all telling. And it goes on this way for almost the entire first chapter. Nothing is happening in the present. Bailey is telling us her past rather than letting it emerge organically as the plot — plot? Now there’s a concept! — begins to unfurl. We tried to rewrite and have something happen earlier — a showgirl eventually falls off the casino tower. But it was bogged down with backstory and thus fatally flawed.

Don’t Take The Weapon Out Of Your Hero’s Hand

Thank God this mistake didn’t make it into print. And I owe it all to my sister’s blood lust. We’re racing to the finish line on our fourth Louis Kincaid mystery Thicker Than Water. We’re riding something of a wave because our second book got an Edgar nomination, and our third, Paint It Black was the one that got us on the Times list and got us nominated for the Shamus and Anthony. Thicker is what I call our “quiet” mystery, since it’s about a cold case and no one dies in the present. It’s heavy on character development, awash in nefarious lawyers and twisted family secrets. I treasure the review of it Ed Gorman gave us in Mystery Scene: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

So what was our mistake? In the climax, our hero Louis confronts the villain in a cemetery at the grave of the cold-case dead girl. Louis knows the guy killed her but can’t prove it. The guy, being a slimy but slick lawyer, knows Louis can’t prove it. In the first draft, Louis has to let him just…walk away.

Kelly wouldn’t sit for it. I still remember her words: “He’s has to DO something! Louis would never let him get away with this!” She was right, of course. I had taken the weapon out of Louis’s hands. There was no justice done, no circle closed. Yes, it was true to life, but it felt lifeless. We went back into the plot, rewrote the entire book, and finally figured out a twist that allowed Louis to nail the bad guy through some nifty legal machinations. But that still wasn’t enough for Kelly. Here’s how the conversation went when we got to that grave scene the second time:

“Louis can’t just walk away,” she said.

“But he’s got the evidence on the guy now. The guy’s going to prison,” I said.

“I don’t like it.”

“It’s reality.”

“I don’t care. I’m going to have Louis beat the sh– out of him first.”

And she did. We spent 300 pages building intense sympathy for a dead girl. The guy couldn’t walk away untouched. So Louis lost his temper and wailed on him. The scene gave an emotional catharsis that was missing.

The lesson: Never let your hero fall into passivity. You don’t have to do what we did, but always look for opportunities in your plot to make your protag sound clever, find a special clue, make a vital connection or, literally use the weapon. I’ve seen this flaw in many manuscripts I’ve critiqued wherein a writer allows a secondary character, usually a colorful sidekick, to outshine the hero. Yes, your hero needs to be human and make mistakes. But don’t ever let him or her be a bystander in your plot parade.

Postscript. I was originally going to call this Ten Mistakes That Will Doom Your Novel. I have enough material, believe me. I didn’t even get to my awful attempts at erotica. But I’ve flapped my gums enough for today. Good writing!


Telepathy and Writing

Deep down each of us have a strong but underused connection to the world around us.

Consider the time when you sensed someone watching you, even if you couldn’t see them. Or the gut feeling, telling you something significant was about to happen. Or the intuitive, instinctive feeling that gave you the name of the person on the other end of the line before checking the caller ID.

If we learn how to tap into this sixth sense, we begin to notice when someone—dead or alive—is thinking about us, even when we’re physically apart.

Telepathic communication explains why, when you randomly thought of a friend and she texted you the next day. Or that time when you spontaneously called your third cousin, and he said, “Oh em gee, I was just thinking about you!”

Writers are especially attuned to the “little voice” inside us.

Some are more intuitive than others, but we all have an underutilized sixth sense. Once we learn its power and how to use it, new doorways open up, doorways that enhance our writing.

The more we open up to the possibility of telepathy, the more we’ll start to notice the messages from our spirit guides and ancestors, and the synchronicities or coincidences that have always been present in our lives.

The Natural World thrives on telepathic communication.

An animal’s survival depends on it. If you’ve ever wondered how one species warns another about potential threats, telepathy answers this question. And humans — as members of the Natural World — can tap into that same energy.

The notion of telepathic communication first intrigued me as a way to chat with animals, wild and domestic. Because when we watch and listen to animals, they help us reach our full potential. Animals enrich the mind, body, and soul. They’re sentient, intuitive beings who communicate with us in many ways. Body language, vocals, and telepathy, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Think about this: Most animals know more about their environment than you or I ever will.

An intuitive exchange with any animal — cats, dogs, guinea pigs, crows — begins the same way. First, with physical body cues. Then with the silent language of love.

So, how can we telepathically communicate with animals?

Step 1: Rest your hands over your heart and practice deep breathing exercises.

Step 2: Once you’re relaxed, pay attention to your heart, to your soul, and feel the gravity of your love for the animal.

Step 3: Express your love for that animal by visualizing a soft beam of light, a tether connecting the two of you.

Step 4: Silently or vocally ask the animal for permission to telepathically communicate with them.

Step 5: If you don’t sense any reluctance, express how you’re open to receiving messages in return. Keep it light in the beginning and progress deeper once you build trust, confidence, and strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind, animals live in the moment. They’re not distracted by the phone, the to-do list, or regret. And so, you must also be in the present moment to connect with them.

The only obstacle is you.

Trust the flow, the energetic pulse of life. Align with, not against, this flow. By blocking out all distractions, the energy exchanges between you and animals will occur effortlessly. You are in the present, anchored by love and grace, and coming from a place of neutrality. You are part of the Natural World, connected across space and time.

The same principals apply to human-to-human telepathic communication. Both parties must be willing participants. Don’t use this life skill for evil (unless you’re targeting fictional characters).

Remember These Three Simple Truths

  1. We are all part of divine consciousness.
  2. Love creates alignment with all creation.
  3. We all have the ability to listen with our heart.

When we refocus on lowering the frequency of emotions — fear, self-doubt, anxiety — we raise our cognition, enhance the vibration of our energy, we align with nature. Animals are drawn to bright inner lights, and therefore will be enthusiastic about communicating with you.

That’s all well and good, Sue, but how does that help our writing?

Glad you asked. 😉

In On Writing, Stephen King provides the perfect example of telepathy and writing.

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

What does the quote mean?

The best way to think about writing is the process of transferring a mental image from your mind to the mind of a reader. As writers, we envision scenes, settings, characters, etc. Our job is to transfer that mental image to the page for the reader to experience later.

Sounds a lot like telepathy, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Hence why writing coaches tell us to envision our ideal reader, carrying that image with us while writing. The trick is learning what images to include and what to leave out. Hint: Less is more.

Want to hear something bizarre?

While writing this post in Word, the document kept disappearing. One second it’d be on my screen, gone the next. And I had three other documents open at the time. The other two stayed on the screen. Coincidence? You tell me.

Releases tomorrow! Preorder on Amazon for $1.49 before my publisher raises the price.

She may be paranoid, but is she right?

A string of gruesome murders rocks the small town of Alexandria, New Hampshire, with all the victims staged to resemble dead angels, and strange red and pink balloons appearing out of nowhere.

All the clues point to the Romeo Killer’s return. Except one: he died eight years ago.

Paranoid and on edge, Sage’s theory makes no sense. Dead serial killers don’t rise from the grave. Yet she swears he’s here, hungering for the only angel to slip through his grasp—Sage.

With only hours left to live, how can Sage convince her Sheriff husband before the sand in her hourglass runs out?