About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

Reaching Out to New Writers


Debbie Burke



Columbia Falls Junior High NaNoWriMo students

It’s Tuesday morning at Columbia Falls Junior High School in northwest Montana. Approximately 75 eighth graders troop into the library where a massive glass wall faces Glacier National Park, shrouded in clouds that promise early snow. The students are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) led by English teachers Rubianna Masa and Cecilia Byrd-Rinck.

Since 2012, Rubianna has shepherded her students through the November writing marathon. “I will not lie,” she says. “Some of my students are excited to write while others think this is the craziest and worst thing a teacher has ever made them endeavor.”

Prior to the challenge this year, she invites two local authors to talk to the kids.

The lucky guest authors? Memoirist Susan Purvis (Go Find: The Journey to Find the Lost and Myself) and yours truly.

As students trail into the library, I chat briefly with Brookann who tells me she uses her dreams to inspire her writing. We discuss harnessing the power of the subconscious to find answers to story problems. I’m instantly impressed.

Sue kicks off the talk. “It all starts with a promise. I promised to train my Lab puppy to be a search dog that never leaves anyone behind. And I promised to write a book about it. That was my dream.” She draws parallels between her true-life story and fiction the kids will write, starting with an inciting incident, the roller coaster of setbacks, finally building to the climax, then the resolution.

Since Sue’s book is set in high mountains, she asks the kids, “What’s your Everest? What is your goal or dream?” followed by the question, “What’s standing in your way?”

Aspen answers: “Be an artist. But I have to do schoolwork instead of draw.”

Emma answers: “To love somebody. But society is in the way.”

Sue then describes the story problem in her memoir: “Why is it easier for me to jump out of helicopter with my search dog onto a 13,000-foot mountaintop to recover a dead body than to talk to my husband about our marriage?”

Tristan answers: “Because your dog doesn’t judge.”

Sue and I stare at each other, blown away by his insight.

When I ask the kids who are the antagonists in Sue’s story, they shoot off more great answers:

“Her dog that didn’t want to be trained.”

“The other search guys who didn’t want a woman around.”

“Her husband.” 

This is one smart crowd.

Next we focus on their stories and ask:

Who’s your main character? What do they want? Who opposes them? What’s at stake if they fail?

And the toughest question of all: How do you distill your entire novel into a 30-word elevator pitch?

They take a few minutes to write their answers. Then several read their summaries to the group.

Hailey: “My main character is a 14-year-old boy who wants his mom to stop using drugs. If he fails, she will get sicker and sicker.”

Sarah: “My story is about a girl and her best friend who want to change the world by getting rid of trash. Then the best friend is killed in a school shooting and my main character falls apart. Her new mission is to stop future attacks.”

Whoa. Serious writers with serious themes.

We invite them to meetings of our local group, the Authors of the Flathead, whose motto is writers helping writers.

I talk about how brainstorming with others can get you out of a corner; how it’s hard to judge your own work because you’re too close to it; how asking others read your story gives you honest assessments, even if they’re painful.

I encourage them to grasp unexpected opportunities that may divert from the original plan yet lead to greater rewards.

Sue and I arrive with the intention of helping young writers but we receive an unexpected gift in return. We are co-writing an adventure book for young readers and ask if they’ll give us feedback on our synopsis. They enthusiastically agree and proceed to shoot off penetrating questions like:

“Are you going to use alternating points of view?” That has not occurred to us until Jasmin brings it up! And we’ll certainly consider it.

Other comments: “Tell us more adventures in the mountains.”

“What happens to people in avalanches?”  

“I want to hear about the science of how dogs smell lost people.”

We’re on it, guys!

We ask if they’ll be our focus group to offer suggestions and opinions as we write the book. “Sure!”

Ninety minutes have flown by and the bell rings for their next classes. Off they go, hopefully with a few new tools to help them survive NaNoWriMo.

Novelist/screenwriter Dennis Foley mentored Sue, Rubianna, and me (see earlier post here). He always urges us to “pass it on.”

As so often happens in life, you set out to help others and instead wind up being the one who’s helped.

Sue and I leave Columbia Falls Junior High School with full hearts and two notes from students.

Brookann writes to me (with a follow-up email that afternoon, condensed here): Goal is to be a writer of anime books. Elisbeth wants to save the human race and defeat the villains to make a better world…I am writing this story because I love anime and I am basing it off multiple scenes from different anime series, to make the perfect character for the perfect book. I hope this book will succeed in the way I want it to. I hope you can help me progress and succeed with this book. Thank you.

This eighth grader understands more about researching her market and making her book stand out in the crowd than most adult authors! 


Terrance writes to Sue: “My dream is to be like ski patrol, like Susan Purvis. I want to change the world by saving lives. I want to become an Avalanche Rescuer. My writing is going to be like Susan Purvis.”


It’s a good day to be an author.




TKZers: What’s your favorite way to pass it on? 




You can find Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas on Amazon.


Bookstore Spotlight: Bad Rock Books


Debbie Burke


Bad Rock Books
Columbia Falls, MT

Montana fun facts: Montana is the fourth largest state but only has a population of one million.

Cattle outnumber humans.

The entire state has only one area code—406.

The little town of Livingston, Montana (pop. 7500+) claims more writers per capita than any other city in the U.S.

My favorite fun fact: Montana has more bookstores per capita than any other state.

Maybe it’s the long winters. Or the proud tradition of authors like Norman MacLean, A.B. Guthrie, James Lee Burke, Nevada Barr, James Crumley, Ivan Doig, Jim Harrison, etc.

Whatever the reason, Montanans love to read.

One of my favorite bookstores is Bad Rock Books in Columbia Falls, a small town on the way to Glacier National Park.

The name “Bad Rock” derives from nearby Bad Rock Canyon, a narrow mountain pass that’s bordered on one side by the Flathead River and sheer rock cliffs on the other. In ancient times, the Blackfeet, who lived on the plains east of the Swan Range, and Flathead tribe, on the west side, engaged in frequent territorial conflicts. The Flathead crossed the mountains to hunt buffalo on the plains and the Blackfeet traveled to the west side to steal the excellent horses raised there.

According to legend and lore, one tribe strategically positioned itself atop the sheer cliff and rolled boulders down on their opponents trapped in the narrow canyon, winning that battle.

The name is still appropriate. With every spring thaw, rock slides crash down on the two-lane highway or on the train tracks on the opposite side of the river.

Back to Bad Rock Books, which is not only a charming shop but also has a great backstory.

From 1997-2016, Carol Rocks ran Bad Rock Books as a one-woman show. Every morning, she ate breakfast at the Whistle Stop Café across Nucleus Avenue from the shop and struck up a friendship with Cindy Ritter, her favorite server. When health problems hit Carol, with true small-town community spirit, Cindy began helping out at the bookstore. As Carol’s health worsened, soon Cindy was running the business full-time.

When Carol passed, Cindy was stunned to learn Carol had left the store to her.

The neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit doesn’t end there. One cat, Bailey, came with the shop. When Cindy took Bailey to Dr. Lawson, the veterinarian down the street, he told her about a sweet cat that had been abandoned and asked if Cindy would adopt her. To close the deal, he threw in free vet care. The new cat was dubbed: “Miss Poe”.

Manager Bailey pauses for a nap while inspecting a new bag of books

Miss Poe now co-manages the bookstore with Bailey.

A recent addition is Sweet Pete, another rescue from Dr. Lawson’s clinic. Bailey makes sure that Sweet Pete knows he has to work his way up to a management position.




Locals and tourists alike browse the shelves for new and used books from every possible genre. One corner is filled with boxes of children’s books on the floor. Cindy explains she initially thought those books should be shelved. Then she discovered, “Kids prefer to sit on the floor and dig through boxes like a treasure hunt.”

Cindy says one of her favorite perks is to see readers discover a special book. “Whether it’s fiction, local history, or plant identification, I like to watch how people light up and expand when they find a book that opens doors to a new interest for them.”

The inventory of 20,000 books is attractively displayed and well-organized. Cindy is also an enthusiastic booster of local authors. She prominently features their books and graciously hosts gatherings and signings.

MT authors Marie Martin, Karen Wills, Dr. Betty Kuffel, Debbie Burke


Cindy says: “It’s a blessing to be a part of this place. The community benefits the bookstore and the bookstore benefits the community.”

Her great attitude is the reason Bad Rock Books is one of my favorite bookstores.



TKZers: What are the best qualities of your favorite local bookstore?




Bad Rock Books carries the paperback edition of Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Stalking MidasAlso available on Kindle here.


True Crime Thursday – Calder Road Killings

Photo courtesy of FBI

In the mid-1980s to 1993, a remote area between Houston and Galveston became a dumping ground for the bodies of four murdered women. The desolate fields off Calder Road near League City, TX became known as “The Killing Fields.”

Police detectives and the FBI believe one person is responsible, likely someone who lived in the area and was familiar with the location. But they have no suspects and no discernible link between the four victims.

Dental records identified two women soon after they were found but two more remained “Jane Doe” and “Janet Doe” for decades until they were at last IDed a few months ago.

Here is a link to the FBI report, which includes a five-minute video. Particularly poignant is the interview with Tim Miller, the grieving father of 16-year-old Laura Miller.

Starting at the two-minute marker, he describes how he would go to the fields off Calder Road to visit her memorial. He would place his hand on her cross and say, “Laura, please don’t hate your daddy but I can’t come out here anymore. I have to say goodbye and I have to put my life back together. And I’d literally be walking away and I’d hear this little voice say, ‘Dad, don’t quit, please, don’t quit.’”

He didn’t.

Instead, Tim Miller focused on finding answers for families of missing persons. He runs Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit organization that has located 250 missing people.

We can only hope someday he finds justice for his own child.


 TKZers: Are there unsolved cases that haunt you?


Behind the Scenes at a Writers Conference

What the well-dressed crime novelist wears to a writers conference.

If you’ve attended writing conferences, you likely had a great time. You chatted with fellow authors, learned about craft, picked up marketing tips, and made important contacts with editors and agents. Organizers strive to make the schedule seamless, the meals hot and tasty, the speakers interesting.

Everything probably ran smoothly and you walked away happy.

You never saw the drama behind the scenes.

And that’s how it should be.

But making it look easy requires lots of preparation plus the ability to drop back and punt when circumstances go awry.

The 29th Annual Flathead River Writers Conference wrapped this past weekend. By all accounts, attendees went home happy, loaded with new tools, inspiration, and fresh energy.

Jeff Giles, Ben Loehnen, Haven Kimmel

The speakers were excellent as well as great fun, as this photo shows. Mugging for the camera is Jeff Giles, Vanity Fair Hollywood editor, Simon & Schuster editor Ben Loehnen, and Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy.

As a conference committee member and sometimes co-chair, I’ve worked many of those 29 events.

Some years are a blast. Other years, s**t happens.

Manuscript evaluations by editors and agents are always major draws for attendees. Slots fill fast and the back-up wait list is long.

This year, three weeks before the conference, the guest agent suffered a family medical emergency. He remained hopeful he could still attend but the outcome was too uncertain to predict. We told him to take care of his family and that we would find a replacement.

We organizers felt terrible for him. But we also had 100+ attendees to worry about. Many travel from other states and expect to hear an agent. We had to deliver. Out went a wild flurry of phone calls and emails.

But…August is traditional vacation time in the publishing industry. Some were out of the office and unplugged. Others already had commitments and couldn’t come on such short notice.

As our panic grew and time evaporated, a hero stepped up. A couple of years before, Barbara Schiffman had been a big hit at our conference. She’d worked for decades in the Hollywood film industry, doing story analysis and script evaluation for producers. Recently, she semi-retired and moved to nearby Whitefish, Montana. She graciously agreed to substitute, including doing manuscript critiques.

Whew! Saved!

One year, a much-anticipated horror author was sidelined by airline snafus. She departed New Orleans on Friday morning and was supposed to arrive in Montana by 4 p.m. in time for the welcome dinner for speakers.

At noon, she called from Houston where she was stuck. A weather system caused a domino effect, delaying all flights. The poor woman spent nine hours in the Houston airport trying to reschedule. The upshot: the airline could deliver her to Montana at midnight the following day…after half the conference was over. She wound up going home to New Orleans, unfortunately with a new horror story to tell.

Years ago, a renowned true crime author agreed to present. We were over the moon to have such a big name. Registrations poured in. Even non-writers paid to hear her speak.

But…she was a nervous flyer. First, she said she’d drive. Then she decided her health wasn’t good enough to drive. Could she take a train? I looked into arrangements but the cost was four times that of a plane ticket. Our group is nonprofit and the money for a train ticket wasn’t there.

She nearly backed out several times. I spent hours on the phone with her, trying to reassure her. Finally she gathered her courage and got on the plane.

She was a huge hit–the attendees were thrilled. Best of all, she herself had a fabulous time and loved every minute.

At the end of the conference, she clasped my hands and said, “I am SO glad I came! This is the best conference I’ve ever been to. And to think I almost didn’t come.”


Most speakers are wonderful, gracious people who want to help other writers. In 29 years, I can count the clinkers on the fingers of one hand. But those few clinkers really leave an impression.

One year, a big-name mystery author was supposed to teach a three-day intensive workshop. He showed up with his girlfriend and they were fighting. He then told us he shouldn’t have come because he was on deadline.

Uh, you didn’t know that when you committed to teach?

The first morning, he grumbled and complained for three hours to his students about his deadline and troubles with his girlfriend. After lunch, he pitched a fit, saying he couldn’t possibly write in his hotel room because his girlfriend was irritating him. “I’m not hard to please,” he claimed, “just find me a quiet place with a table.” So I found several alcoves in the hotel where he could write. He couldn’t stand any of them.

The second morning, more whining, no teaching. Students were irritated and their complaints were totally valid.

The third morning, he put in a halfhearted effort to review a few manuscripts but the class was a disaster. We wound up refunding tuition to his disappointed students.

At the party on the last evening, in front of everyone, he apologized to me for his behavior and presented me with a T-shirt…that advertised his books.

Can you spell E-G-O?

Hiccups aren’t always with speakers. Once in a while, volunteers throw sand in the gears. One member was obsessed with finding an agent. He found out when the agent’s flight was scheduled to arrive, even though someone else had been assigned to do airport pickup. He showed up early, grabbed the agent, took him out to dinner, and badgered him for three hours about representation.

This happened before cell phones so we couldn’t call the agent. We knew he’d arrived on the plane but he’d disappeared. No one could find him.

Finally, the dazed agent arrived at the hotel. He told us he wasn’t thrilled that we’d sent this obsessed writer to pick him up. We apologized profusely and explained the guy had acted on his own, totally without our knowledge. Fortunately, the agent had a sense of humor. He probably told that story at future conferences as a cautionary tale of how not to impress an agent.

Needless to say, the kidnapper didn’t receive an offer of representation.

For every horror story, there are at least a hundred tales of writers who were inspired to finish a book, take the plunge into publication, or step up to the next level in their careers.

This year, attendees came from all over Montana, as well as Texas, California, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, and Canada.

I’m introducing Gabe Grende, up and coming Orson Welles

Several young writers were at their very first conference, including a 16-year-old filmmaker. Gabe Grende is a local high school student who started working in video six years ago. He recently attended a film school taught by Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth. Gabe so impressed Michael that Michael took him to Puerto Rico for a location shoot of a Mel Gibson movie.

Gabe agreed to film our conference and we can’t wait to see the finished product.

Meeting a student who’s eager and already accomplished at a young age gives all of us hope and inspiration.


Writing conferences are lots of work. Are they worth it?

Oh, yeah!


TKZers: What’s the best lesson you learned at a conference?

If you’ve volunteered, how did working behind the scenes increase your understanding of the business?


Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas is available here.


Rave Rejections


Recently, in offline discussion, Joe Hartlaub and I were talking about rejections. He mentioned an editor at Hard Case Crime who wrote the “best” rejections—two to three-page long letters with specific details that proved he paid close attention and had actually read the whole manuscript.

Editors and agents rarely have time to put that much effort into giving feedback to an author. Most often, it’s a quick “Thanks but not for us.”

When a professional reads more than the first five pages of the manuscript and recognizes value in it, the writer is over the moon.

Even though it’s a rejection.

Actual SASE

Back in the days when authors submitted manuscripts by snail mail, you always included an SASE (for anyone born after 1980, that’s self-addressed stamped envelope) so the editor/agent could mail rejections to you.

Occasionally, the SASE was used to mail the author a contract or check but that was rare.


There is a hierarchy of rejections–a ladder to climb:

Rung #1 – Unsigned form letter: “This does not meet our needs at this time.”

Rung #2 – Unsigned form letter: “This does not meet our needs at this time but please try us again.”

Rung #3 – Same form letter with a handwritten note (unsigned): “This is good. Do you have anything else?”

Rung #4 – Personal letter: “Good story but too similar to one we recently published. I like your writing. Send more.” Actual editor’s signature.

Rung #5 – Personal letter signed with editor’s first name. Now we’re buddies.

With today’s electronic submissions, the process is similar, just faster and cheaper without the cost of postage and printing.

But the process still requires climbing the rungs.

Finally you clamber onto an exciting but scary roof with a steep pitch. The editor/agent likes the sample chapter and asks for the whole manuscript. Get a toehold on the rain gutter.

A month or five later, the rejection says: “This is good BUT…”

Fill in the blank with:

“Characters felt inconsistent.”

“The climax didn’t live up to expectations.”

“I just didn’t love it enough.”


Slide down the roof a bit but hang on with fingernails.

Rewrite and submit more. Inch up the shingles. 

“All the editors loved it but the marketing department doesn’t think they can sell it.”

At last, you reach the peak of the roof when you receive a long, detailed, personal letter with specific suggestions.

In December, I received the most beautiful rejection of my entire career (and I’ve received hundreds!). I couldn’t even be unhappy when I read the following:

“Several of us read it and we all enjoyed your fresh, exciting take on a thriller—particularly the way you used the genre to explore the very real issue of elder fraud. There are several striking scenes that are seared in my memory (especially that late-night rescue in the snowstorm!). We thought you developed Tawny and Moe’s relationship with great sensitivity and nuance, and this in turn made Moe’s shifts between lucidity and violence a more emotional experience for readers. Unfortunately, we had difficulty connecting as deeply to Tawny—it often felt like she was kept at a remove from us. For this reason, despite our admiration for your writing and the compelling and dynamic world you’ve created, we don’t think we’re the right publisher for your book. I’m sorry not to have better news. Thank you so much for the opportunity to read and consider STALKING MIDAS, and best wishes in finding the right home for it.”


It felt like the editor had sent me a dozen roses!

When you tell civilians (non-writers) about the wonderful rejection you received, they usually draw their chins back and look down their noses. “You got rejected and you’re happy?”

Only other writers understand the irony of a rave rejection.


What do rejections really mean?

You’re in the game.

What do rave rejections mean?

Publication is in your future.


TKZers: What is the best rejection you ever received?

Was the story eventually published?




Please check out Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas which garnered rave rejections before publication. Here’s the link.




True Crime Thursday – Artificial Intelligence

Photo credit: Laurenz Kleinheider, Unsplash


Debbie Burke


Check out the photos of people on this website. Facial expressions change. Body movements and gestures look natural. Yet these “people” aren’t real. They were created by artificial intelligence (AI).

Previous iterations of computer-generated models had telltale signs that gave away their artificial nature.

However, a Japanese company called DataGrid, Inc., founded by three brilliant twenty-somethings, appears to have perfected the technique of creating realistic humans generated by artificial intelligence. This recent article in Forbes describes DataGrid’s process. Here’s the link.

How do they achieve this? They pit two AI systems against each other in a competition called “generative adversarial networks” or GAN. One creates an image from databases, the other critiques it, tweaking the tiniest details until the creation is indistinguishable from reality.

DataGrid plans to license this technology to the fashion industry to showcase clothing lines with created models of the desired size and shape.

But a writer’s imagination explodes with possibilities.

What real-life crimes could be spawned by AI technology? Here are a few ideas:

An innocent person is framed because their created double appears on video committing a crime.

What happens to eyewitness testimony? Whom did the witness see? An actual human or a model?

A head of state is kidnapped/killed and a double takes over, changing the course of history.


The late, great comedian Redd Foxx used to say, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Who are we gonna believe? How will we know if our eyes are lying or not?


TKZers: Let your imaginations run wild. Share crimes you envision from the nefarious use of AI.

What do you think will be some of the unintended consequences?


Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Stalking Midas, contains no characters created by AI, only ones dreamed up by her imagination. Available in Kindle or paperback.


True Crime Thursday – Elder Fraud…And a Book Giveaway

Courtesy of Pixabay


Debbie Burke


Today’s true crime is personal. My adopted mother, Ruth, was a victim of elder fraud.

Estimates of losses from elder fraud range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion per year. That’s billion with a B. Every single year. 

After doing considerable research into elder fraud, I was shocked to discover dirty, little-known secrets about indifferent banks, lack of prosecution, and impotent enforcement.

Here’s what happened to my mother:

Ruth, a widow, was fiercely independent and insisted on living alone in her own home in San Diego. After a medical crisis in 2016, Ellie (biological daughter) and I (adopted daughter) tried to convince Ruth to move in with one of us—Ellie in L.A. or me in Montana–or to have another relative live with her. Ruth flatly refused but finally consented to a visiting caregiver three times a week.

For several years, Ruth’s older sister had been taken care of by a woman named “Jane,” (not her real name for reasons that will soon become clear). The sister’s adult children vouched for Jane. The situation seemed ideal since Jane was already familiar with the family and could drive our mother to visit her sister.

Fast forward to 2017 when a catastrophic stroke left Ruth unable to speak or swallow. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego to care for her.

While we were there, Ruth’s credit card bills arrived in the mail…showing balances of more than $15,000 for items Ruth clearly not had charged.

Ellie called Jane and asked about the charges. Jane broke down and admitted she had been using Ruth’s credit cards. She had also been intercepting mail so Ellie would not find out about the bogus charges. After their distressing phone conversation, Jane sent numerous apologetic texts, promising to pay back the money.

But more evidence of fraud kept turning up, like:

Months before, Jane had changed the address for the cable TV, redirecting the service to Jane’s own home, and set up auto-pay from Ruth’s checking account to pay for it.

While we were at the hospital, a neighbor saw Jane snooping in Ruth’s mailbox, evidently trying to intercept more bills.

Jane had written checks to herself for large amounts of cash that Ruth had signed.

We notified Ruth’s local bank. They closed the checking account and turned the case over to their fraud department.

Ellie called Discover and they immediately froze Ruth’s account. They provided photocopies for the past year and we quickly identified many bogus charges Jane had made.

Now for the first dirty little secret: Your bank may not protect you from theft.

Ruth also had accounts and a VISA at a different Big-Name Bank. Ellie and I visited the branch to report the fraud. We explained Ruth was in the hospital and Ellie brought a copy of her power of attorney giving her authority on the accounts.

A bank officer told us the account could not be frozen nor would they provide copies of suspicious charges…until after Big-Name Bank’s legal department reviewed Ellie’s POA, which could take ten business days.


The POA was simple and straightforward. Because of this mindless policy, the bank left the account wide open to more bogus charges. For the time being, all we could do was destroy the card and pray Jane didn’t have a duplicate.

Next, we called the police. Two detectives from the elder fraud division interviewed us. They copied the texts where Jane admitted the theft. We gave them paperwork showing the bogus charges from Discover and from the local bank where the auto-pay accounts had been compromised. They agreed the evidence was more than enough to recommend prosecution of Jane.

Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday. At the funeral, we heard the first hints of suspicion from the children of Ruth’s sister (who had died a few months earlier). The sister’s jewelry was missing and other money had mysteriously disappeared while Jane was caring for the sister.

Meanwhile, Jane had apparently fled to Arizona.

People don’t like to talk about fraud. They don’t want to accuse someone without proof. They’re embarrassed they didn’t catch on sooner. They feel foolish. Therefore, fraudsters have free rein to continue their crimes.

Ellie and I returned to Big-Name Bank where the POA was supposedly under review by their legal department. We were told that, since Ruth had died, the POA was no longer valid and they refused to help, even though Ellie was executor. Fortunately no additional charges had been made.

We then followed up with the police detective. He said he’d tried to interview Ruth but couldn’t locate her because she’d been moved from the hospital to hospice. Not that an interview would have helped—she couldn’t talk and was comatose.

Then came the biggest shock of all.

The detective said that, since Ruth had died, the case against Jane would not be prosecuted because the victim could not testify. The text messages where Jane confessed the theft plus the paper evidence of fraud were not enough.


Thanks to Discover and the local bank that acted quickly, Ruth didn’t suffer a significant loss. Discover reversed all charges. They were responsible about protecting their customer who’d been a crime victim. I feel bad they had to write off thousands of dollars.

However, my heart doesn’t break for the loss incurred by Big-Name Bank that refused to freeze Ruth’s VISA.

After that account was finally closed, Big-Name Bank then tried to claim Ruth’s estate owed them more than $5000, despite irrefutable proof the charges were fraudulent. The lawyer for the estate finally convinced them it would be a cold day in hell before they collected a cent.

What lessons did we learn?

First, it’s hard to prevent predators from taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Be aware and suspicious of allowing outsiders access to a loved one, even if their references seem valid.

Second, no one is immune. Ellie works for a superior court judge whose own brother was victimized.

Third, encourage your family member to share their financial dealings with a trusted relative or friend. Understandably, many seniors resist because they fear they’ll lose control of their money. Too often, sadly, they instead lose control to a smooth-talking fraudster.

Fourth, glaring loopholes in the law allow scammers to slip through and move on to their next victim.

Fifth, there are no easy solutions.

If Ruth had consented to live with Ellie or me, would this have happened? No.

But if we had insisted on imposing our good intentions on her, we would have disrespected our mother’s proud, independent spirit. We loved her too much to do that. 

We thought we were making her life safer and easier by hiring a caregiver. Instead, we inadvertently opened the door to the henhouse for the fox.

How do you respect the rights and autonomy of loved ones while protecting them from those who would take advantage?

I don’t know. Dammit, I wish I did.


Life imitates art. More than a year before my mother’s incident, I had been writing Stalking Midas, the second book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

The theme?

Elder fraud.

After this experience, I rewrote parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate some hard lessons learned. Although the story is fiction and very different from Ruth’s, I hope readers will find truths within the book to protect themselves and their family.

Justice never caught up with Jane. Her successes with Ruth and Ruth’s sister probably emboldened her to victimize others. That makes me sick.

However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page……

And I did!


I’m happy to announce the launch of my new suspense thriller, Stalking Midas.


Charming con artist Cassandra Maza has cornered her prey, Moe Rosenbaum, an addled millionaire with nine cats, until investigator Tawny Lindholm disrupts the scam. Tawny suspects elder fraud and won’t stop digging until she finds the truth.

Cassandra can’t allow that. She’s killed before and each time it’s easier. Tawny will be next.



Stalking Midas is available in ebook and trade paperback.

Especially for TKZ readers, I’m giving away a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be selected at random from comments on today’s post.

For discussion: Have you or a loved one been a victim of elder fraud? What lesson did you learn?



First Page Critique – Ocean Effect: No land, no law.


Debbie Burke



Today’s first page critique takes us out on the high seas. Please enjoy the following then we’ll discuss.

Ocean Effect: No land, no law. 

You just can’t control some things when you live and work aboard a 260-foot private superyacht. Like being summoned near midnight to make coffee for the captain. But I was the chef, on call 24/7. Not an ideal job, but it kept me out of the public eye – and out of jail.

On my way to the galley I traced the teak spiral stair case railing, varnished to a high shine that cost more than my yearly salary to maintain. Built for people with names like Astor, I couldn’t let myself go too gaga over the Kathleen’s luxury. I was just glad land was far behind us after picking up the yacht owner’s son, Jonathan, and his friends in Newport. Now I could stop looking over my shoulder, keep my fear in check. Fear of being back there after more than a year on the run, fear of being connected to my old life as Penelope McKenna, assistant DA.

I was just stubborn enough to stay the course, eyes on my goal. That stubbornness had gotten me into trouble as a kid, but was my saving grace as an adult. Give me a goal and I’m laser-focused. Like life at sea: a steep learning curve but so worth it to get away. So yeah, I’d take orders. I’d get the captain his coffee at midnight. Gladly.

I opened the large walk-in freezer for the special coffee beans I kept just for Cap. As my eyes adjusted to the flickering fluorescent light, I saw a large heap on the floor against the far wall. I never put anything on the floor – who’d been in my galley? I stepped in but my brain wouldn’t process what it saw. A man? What? Laying on his side with his back to me, the galley’s super-sharp ice pick buried up to its handle in  his back. A small circular blood stain on his untucked white oxford shirt looked like an unfortunate bulls-eye.

Any sense of control I had disintegrated. Flee. Now. The same impulse I’d had a year ago; it was automatic. But there was nowhere to flee to. We were more than 350 miles offshore, no land ­– or law – in sight.

I took another step forward. Be cool, McKenna. I reached for a wrist pulse and the head lolled to the side. Whoa. Jonathan! The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my recent promotion to head chef. Shock filled my ears with white noise. I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.


The Brave Author opens this story with a boatload of intrigue (sorry, couldn’t help it!). A former assistant DA, Penelope McKenna, is on the run because of unspecified events in her past that could land her in jail. She’s working as a chef aboard a luxury mega-yacht and finds her employer’s son, Jonathan, in the galley with an ice pick in his back. She’s 350 miles from land, stuck on a boat with a murderer and presumably she’ll be blamed while the real killer is free to wreak havoc.

That’s a walloping start.

Brave Author, you’ve hit the mark with many important big-picture issues.

Character: you hint at McKenna’s trouble in her backstory without slowing the forward momentum. Well done.

Setting: The glitz and glamour of a luxury yacht captures reader attention. Plus, a ship at sea is a scary, remote location where potential victims are trapped with the killer. A killer who can’t escape is especially dangerous.

Crime: a murder on page one begins the story with a bang.

Now let’s fine-tune.

Time period: Without a specific reference, I assume this is contemporary, which made the reference to “Astor” sound dated. Wealthy John Jacob Astor IV perished in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic so maybe this is subtle foreshadowing but it distracted me.

Title: Ocean Effect: no land, no law implies a ship at sea is at the mercy of the lawless. However, the punctuation and lack of capital letters make the intent vague and unclear. See if you can come up with a punchier title.

Voice: Attorneys are skilled at laying out a situation in a logical fashion to make their case. Although the Brave Author packs a lot of information in one page, the way McKenna conveyed details felt a little jerky and disjointed.

The paragraph about McKenna’s stubbornness and laser-focus stopped the action cold. At this point, the reader wants to know why she is on the run and doesn’t yet care about the trouble she got into as a child. It also felt like a clunky device for the author to say, “Here are some of McKenna’s character traits.” A better method is to incorporate her personality into the action. Rather than tell the reader she’s stubborn, show it.

McKenna’s internal reactions are italicized for emphasis. However, three times in one page was a bit much. Flee. Now. and Be cool, McKenna are fine but suggest you delete Whoa!

White noise is a good description of that dizzy, plugged-ear feeling one feels from shock. But try a more concise, active sentence structure: White noise filled my ears.

Here are a few suggestions to smooth out the flow and get rid of extra words:

When you work as a chef aboard a 260-foot private superyacht, a call to make coffee at midnight for the captain means right now. As I climbed from my comfy berth, I reminded myself this job kept me out of the public eye and out of jail. Yeah, I’d gladly get Cap’s coffee 24/7.

The varnished teak rail slid like silk under my hand as I clipped down the spiral staircase to the galley, trying not to go too gaga over the Kathleen’s luxury.

[Early that morning,] we’d picked up the yacht owner’s son, Jonathan, and his friends in Newport [Beach?]. I relaxed now that land was far behind us. I could stop looking over my shoulder and keep my fear in check. Fear of being back [in LA?] after more than a year on the run, fear of being connected to my old life as Penelope McKenna, assistant DA.

In the galley, I opened the large walk-in freezer for the special coffee beans I kept just for Cap. In the flickering fluorescent light, a large heap lay on the floor against the far wall. I never left anything on the floor – who’d been in my galley?

When my eyes adjusted, I saw the heap was a man, lying on his side, his back to me.

With an ice pick buried up to the handle between his shoulder blades.

A small circular blood stain on his untucked white oxford shirt looked like a bulls-eye.

Flee. Now. 

The same automatic impulse I’d felt a year ago resurfaced. But there was nowhere to flee to. We were more than 350 miles offshore, no land ­– or law – in sight.

Be cool, McKenna.

I stooped to grasp his wrist to feel for a pulse. His head lolled to the side. 

Jonathan!  The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my recent promotion to head chef.

My ears filled with white noise. I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But, if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.


Brave Author, your instincts about when to enter the story are solid. You chose a glamorous yet remote location that offers plenty of potential danger. You introduce a main character who has an intriguing secret that makes the reader curious. Then she immediately steps deep into trouble, compelling the reader to turn the page.

After you do a little bit of smoothing and cutting, this first page will work very well.


TKZers: Are you eager for page 2? Do you have suggestions for the Brave Author?




I’m happy to announce Stalking Midas, book 2 of Tawny Lindholm Thrillers, is now available at Amazon in ebook and paperback.




Interview with Larry Brooks


Debbie Burke



Today, I’m delighted to talk with former TKZ contributor, Larry Brooks, about his new craft book, GREAT STORIES DON’T WRITE THEMSELVES, with a foreward by mega-bestseller Robert Dugoni. Larry’s book launches on October 8, 2019, published by Writer’s Digest Books. 

Welcome back to the Zone, Larry! 

DB: You’ve written three successful books on fiction craft–Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fixeach with a strong emphasis on the architecture of story structure. What new ground are you digging into for this latest book?

 LB: Each of my writing books sought to bring clarity and order to what one might call the conventional wisdom of writing a novel, which is anything but clear. Within that so-called conventional wisdom there is legitimate imprecision, alongside unfortunate confusion born of contrary interpretations and polarizing preferences. Because of this, there remains a high degree of risk and a frighteningly high frequency of failure. Over 96 percent of novels submitted by agents are rejected at least once. That’s not exactly irrefutable statistical proof that the conventional wisdom serves everyone well.

That said, those who claim “there are no rules” are only adding to the noise and confusion. Frustration resides in the grey area between rules and principles, and between the separate contexts of process versus product. So much of what we hear and read about “how to write a novel” connects to process (how your favorite author does the work may or may not be a process that works for you). This leaves the realm of product – what a novel consists of, the criteria for efficacy, and how to know if you’ve come anywhere near close enough to meeting those criteria as largely untended ground. It’s as if the unspoken common courtesy suggests that you can write anything you want, any way you want, and you’ll be fine… if you “just write.”

That 96-percent failure statistic proves this to be false. My new book – “Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction” is process-neutral, yet it culls out and assigns specific criteria for each and every element and essence of a novel across the entire structural, dramatic and character arcs involved. No matter how you get there.

Too often writers don’t know what they don’t know, while believing they do know enough, or what they think they know is unimpeachable. My new book seeks to shrink the gap between those extremes.

DB: Sounds like an ambitious goal. Can you give us an example?

 LB: Sure. When was the last time you heard anyone at a writing conference – a speaker, teacher, agent or even another writer in an elevator, tell someone that their story idea isn’t strong enough? Never happens. And yet, as much as half of all rejection connects to story ideas that are derivative, vanilla and flat, that are lacking the raw grist of what makes a story work. Ask any agent or editor how many of the story ideas that cross their desk excite them, how often this happens, and this truth will be verified.

But it’s not just the story idea that matters. Whether it’s the core premise, the opening scene or sequence, the first plot point or the midpoint or the way the character and her/his core quest is framed… all of it becomes more accessible and effective when developed and evaluated in context to criteria that are universally applicable to that specific element.

 DB: Where did the germ of the idea for Great Stories come from?

 LB: I pondered that 96-to-4 failure rate, and decided there had to be a better way forward. After writing three books on storytelling that began exploring this sad truth, the subsequent question of “now what?” wouldn’t let me alone. How and why are those 4-percent of submissions that succeed better than the 96-percent that aren’t working as well? What are the common denominators of that?

My favorite writing tip is this: scenes work best once we understand the narrative expositional mission of the scene, in context to what came before and what comes next. This is why we rewrite and revise, to get closer and closer to that optimal form. From that epiphany, I came to realize this is true for all of the structural, thematic and aesthetic elements of a great story, at all levels. We are either searching for our best story, or we are polishing (optimizing) scenes toward that standard. That said, too many writers aren’t writing toward a standard at all, they are simply writing down what seems to be available in the moment of creation. They are just writing.

The more we understand the available criteria that will apply to a story that reaches the high bar of optimal efficacy, the sooner and more blissfully we will arrive there. That objective became the mission of my new writing book.

 DB: What’s the most important concept or lesson you hope to teach writers with your new book?

 LB: You don’t have to guess, nor do you have only your instincts to inform your choices. Your story choices can be informed by the criteria that will apply, one way or another, to the determination of what works and what doesn’t. These criteria apply within any and all writing processes, readers don’t give two hoots how the writer got it done. What does matter is the degree to which our choices align with what readers want, expect and have learned to recognize as emotionally resonant, thrilling and rewarding. That’s what talent really means: the consistent ability to land on the best possible ideas, and then make them shine on the page. When either of those outcomes happen—they are different core competencies, by the way, meaning we need to develop our craft on two levels, as storytellers and as scene writers—they are always framed by criteria that explains why they work. The book defines, explores and verifies over 70 separate criteria that apply within 18 specific facets or locations within the entirety of a novel’s narrative arc.

 DB: What’s next on Larry Brooks’ “To Do” list? Is there a new thriller simmering on the back burner?

LB: I promised my wife I’d write her a love story, and in my mind the best love story is a thriller, because so much is at stake… stakes being a key criteria in any genre. Setting it in France won’t hurt, either.

Thanks for having me back here on The Kill Zone. I can be reached through my website, www.storyfix.com, where you can learn more about this book and any of my other work, including my fiction.

Larry Brooks


Thanks for sharing the inside scoop with us, Larry.

I, for one, will be looking forward to your love story thriller!

Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves is available for pre-order at:


Barnes & Noble


TKZers: Do you have questions for Larry about his new book and/or story structure?


True Crime Thursday – The Burt Reynolds “Murder” Scandal


Debbie Burke


Congratulations to David F., lucky winner of the book giveaway from Tuesday’s post. H.R. D’Costa will send you a print copy of Story Stakes. David’s name was drawn randomly from everyone who commented. Thanks to all of you who provided terrific examples of story stakes.

Now for True Crime Thursday

Wikimedia Commons – Photo credit Adam Bielawski

The passing of mega-star Burt Reynolds in September, 2018 resurrected tabloid rumors about a mysterious death in 1973 during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

David Whiting, assistant to Reynolds’s costar Sarah Miles, was found dead in a pool of blood and pills after an altercation with Miles. An inquest determined cause of death was a drug overdose. The blood may have occurred when Whiting hit his head on a counter.

Unless you’re a tabloid reporter.

In that case, Reynolds’ hair-trigger temper and fast fists, his friendship with Miles (who was married), and his admission that he’d removed a vial from the dead man’s hand were enough to spin the tale into a full-blown scandal alleging murder.

MGM Studios likely made the situation worse by initially refusing to allow Reynolds and Miles to testify at the inquest, saying the delay would cost them $25,000 in production costs. When Whiting’s mother accused the studio of a cover-up, Reynolds and Miles ultimately were forced to testify.

Turns out Miles and Whiting were allegedly lovers (a revelation that later broke up Miles’s marriage) and apparently got into a fight because Miles had been drinking with Reynolds, inflaming Whiting’s jealousy. The fight turned physical and Miles told her son’s nanny to “Get Burt,” apparently to protect her from Whiting.

Reynolds arrived and Miles spent the rest of the night in Reynolds’s motel room. The next morning, they found Whiting’s body in Miles’s room. At that point, Reynolds removed the vial and didn’t remember what he did with it. The inquest cleared them but rumors persisted for years.

Mystery author and popular blogger Anne R. Allen adds a weird twist to the story. She had dated Whiting in college in the 1960s. In 2012, she wrote The Gatsby Game, a novel inspired by Whiting’s mysterious death. In 2014, a docu-drama about Whiting won the L.A. Film Critics award.

In this post from February, 2019, Anne explores the blurred world between real and fictional people.

Thanks to Sue Coletta for alerting me to this story.


TKZers, have you ever used a real death as the basis for a fictional murder most mysterious?