About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. 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

First Page Critique – A Study in Suffering

Image credit: Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, let’s welcome another Brave Author with a first page submission that’s described as an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes set in the future. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.

A Study in Suffering

Ch. 1

“I’m sorry for your loss miss. Very sorry.” But right as the words leave his lip he glances down at his watch. The foot vibrates from his jostling foot.

“How did she die?” The words are strange, foreign. They leave my mouth, but I know they don’t come from me.

His features contort into a twisted pretense of sympathy. “I’m sorry, it’s classified. All you’re permitted to know is that it was an unexpected attack by one of the Betrayers. It’s not my choice, this is all that I know.”

I nod, but after a moment ask “You don’t know which one? Why would that be kept classified?” I’m once again shocked by the numb coldness of my words.

“I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t know. I’m sure you will be told more at a later date. Oh, and i do know that the prime minister will be reaching out to you soon.”

I stare at him.

“Now I truly am sorry miss, but I must go.” He practically runs out the door.

I remain frozen, practically glued to the seat. Then the tears come.

He was supposed to stay for at least a half-hour, but he left halfway through. That’s why it takes fifteen minutes for the secretary to find me, trembling in the chair, tears merging with mascara to create trails of grief running down my face, paper clenched so tightly in my hands that they turn a shade quite similar to it. The paper reads: Valentina Watson, died fighting in combat, 5:55 pm.

My sister is dead

~~~

Let’s dig in. Quotes from the original text are in red. My suggestions are in blue.

The chapter starts with a major upheaval in the life of a character who’s presumably the protagonist. Her sister has been killed in combat and the circumstances of her death are murky. Questions are immediately raised in the reader’s mind. What happened and why is the death is “classified”? Those are excellent hooks with which to begin the story.

However, typos distract from an otherwise promising start.

“I’m sorry for your loss [missing comma] miss. Very sorry.” But right as the words leave his lip [missing s] he glances down at his watch. The foot vibrates from his jostling foot. [this doesn’t make sense.]

…but after a moment ask [missing comma] “You don’t know which one?

“Oh, and i [needs to be capitalized] do know…”

“Now I truly am sorry [missing comma] miss, but I must go.”

My sister is dead [missing period]

Setting: The conversation between the POV character and an unidentified man floats in a vacuum. Is this taking place at her home or work? At military headquarters? Or somewhere else? The reader has no idea.

That’s why it takes the secretary fifteen minutes to find me… This line suggests the location might be a large government office but it’s not clear.

Grounding readers in the fictional world is important. If they have to guess where the action is happening, that not only feels unsettling but also lessens the impact of compelling questions about Valentina Watson’s death. Instead of being pulled into the story, readers are trying to figure out where they are.

This scene is probably crystal clear in the Brave Author’s head but it didn’t quite make the transition from brain to page.

Here’s one possibility to add hints about the place.

“I’m sorry for your loss, miss. Very sorry.” The uniformed soldier sits in a straight-back chair opposite me in a closet-size alcove at the British Embassy. Right as the words leave his lips, he looks down at his watch and crosses his legs. One foot jostles incessantly.

Mood: The characters’ dialogue and actions establish a tense, highly-charged mood for this opening scene. A terrible event deeply affects the POV character yet she is denied answers as to why her sister died. The mention of the prime minister foreshadows a brewing national or international crisis with high-stakes repercussions. Great job!

Character names and functions: First-person POV makes it difficult to introduce the main character’s name without feeling stilted and forced. However, there are a couple of chances to give her name in a natural-sounding way:

“I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Watson. Very sorry.”

Another option is to insert her name in the paper she’s been given: The paper reads: Valentina Watson, died fighting in combat, 5:55 pm. Notify next of kin, XYZ  Watson.

Brave Author effectively shows the obvious discomfort of the man who delivers the bad news. I’m guessing he’s probably a walk-on character whose name isn’t important to the story. But identifying his job or function would add valuable background information.

For instance, is he a flunky bureaucrat in a business suit? A doctor or nurse wearing blood-stained scrubs who’s just come from the field hospital where Valentina died? A reluctant grief counselor who’s supposed to stay with the bereaved sister for half an hour but runs out after 15 minutes?

Protagonist’s reaction: Brave Author shows her shock but the phrasing is a bit awkward.

Original: “How did she die?” The words are strange, foreign. They leave my mouth, but I know they don’t come from me.

Suggestion: The words come from my mouth but they sound as if a stranger is speaking.

Original: I’m once again shocked by the numb coldness of my words.

Suggestion: The cold, detached tone of my questions surprises me. How can I sound so calm?

Original: I remain frozen, practically glued to the seat. Then the tears come.

Try to avoid the cliché practically glued to the seat.

Original: “…tears merging with mascara to create trails of grief running down my face…” I like this description a lot because the image nicely combines physical and emotional reactions. However, it’s a minor lapse in POV—she can’t see her own face unless she’s looking in a mirror. Still, I’d keep it because it’s strong and vivid.

Suggestion: My muscles are numb, useless. I can’t rise from the chair. My eyes fill, tears overflowing and merging with mascara to create trails of grief running down my face.

Use the paper clenched in her hand to add more information.

Suggestion: My clenched hand turns the same shade as the crumpled white paper I hold—official Army letterhead that reads Valentina Watson, died fighting in combat, 5:55 pm.

Story questions: The man states: “All you’re permitted to know is that it was an unexpected attack by one of the Betrayers.” This is a great sentence that provokes many questions.

Who has the vast power to decide what information the surviving sister is allowed to know? Why was Valentina in combat? Who are the Betrayers? Why are the details classified? What is Valentina’s importance that causes a prime minister to become involved?

Time: As written now, the encounter between protagonist and the man lasts about 15 seconds rather than 15 minutes. What else happens during the rest of the conversation? Why is it supposed to last a half hour? Is this particular detail about time important? If so, give a hint why.

Photo credit: Wikipedia, First edition 1887

One last observation: The book is described as an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes set in the future. I’m guessing the Watson sisters are descendants of Dr. John Watson? The title A Study in Suffering could be a takeoff on A Study in Scarlet. Making the connection at this early stage is not necessary but the Brave Author will need to address that at a future point.

Overall impression: Brave Author, you quickly establish disturbance, tension, and mystery. The strange circumstances of Valentina’s death are compelling. The unanswered questions make the reader eager to learn more. But this first page is too bare bones. Flesh it out and it will be a good start.

Nice work, Brave Author! Wishing you the best of luck!

~~~

TKZers: What’s your impression of this first page? Would you keep reading? Any ideas for the brave author?

~~~

 

My new thriller, Until Proven Guilty, raises troubling questions about DNA evidence that’s supposed to show proof but may not.

Available at these online booksellers. 

Or ask your favorite independent bookstore to order it. 

 

 

 

 

True Crime Thursday – DEEPFAKES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.

This saying has been around for centuries, variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allen Poe.

Today, thanks to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), you can no longer believe anything you hear or see.

That’s because what your ears hear and what your eyes see could be a DEEPFAKE.

What is a deepfake? Wikipedia says:

…synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s likeness. While the act of faking content is not new, deepfakes leverage powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with a high potential to deceive. The main machine learning methods used to create deepfakes are based on deep learning and involve training generative neural network architectures, such as autoencoders or generative adversarial networks (GANs).

Deepfakes have garnered widespread attention for their uses in creating child sexual abuse material, celebrity pornographic videosrevenge pornfake newshoaxes, bullying, and financial fraud. This has elicited responses from both industry and government to detect and limit their use.

 

I wrote about AI three years ago. Since then, technology has progressed at warp speed.

The first recognized crime that used deepfake technology occurred in 2019 with voice impersonation.

The CEO of an energy business in the UK received an urgent call from his boss, an executive at the firm’s German parent company. The CEO recognized his boss’s voice…or so he thought. He was instructed to immediately transfer $243,000 to pay a Hungarian supplier. He followed orders and transferred the money.

The funds went into a Hungarian account but then disappeared to Mexico. According to the company’s insurer, Euler Hermes, the money was never recovered.

To pull off the heist, cybercriminals used AI voice-spoofing software that perfectly mimicked the boss’s tone, speech inflections, and slight German accent.

Such spoofing extends to video deceptions that are chilling. The accuracy of movement and gesture renders the imposter clone indistinguishable from the real person. Some research shows a fake face can more believable than the real one.

Security safeguards like voice authentication and facial recognition are no longer reliable.

A November 2020 study by Trend Micro, Europol, and United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute concludes:

The Crime-as-a-Service (CaaS) business model, which allows non-technologically savvy criminals to procure technical tools and services in the digital underground that allow them to extend their attack capacity and sophistication, further increases the potential for new technologies such as AI to be abused by criminals and become a driver of crime.

We believe that on the basis of technological trends and developments, future uses or abuses could become present realities in the not-too-distant future.

The not-too-distant future they mentioned in 2020 is here today. A person no longer needs to be a sophisticated expert to create fake video and audio recordings of real people that defy detection.

In the following YouTube, a man created a fake image of himself to fool coworkers into believing they were video-chatting with the real person. It’s long—more than 18 minutes—but watching even a few minutes demonstrates how simple the process is.

Consider the implications:

What if you could appear to be in one place but actually be somewhere else? Criminals can create their own convincing alibis.

If corrupt law enforcement, government entities, or political enemies want to frame or discredit someone, they manufacture video evidence that shows the person engaged in criminal or abhorrent behavior.

Imagine the mischief terrorists could cause by putting words in the mouths of world leaders. Here are some examples: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/pentagons-race-against-deepfakes/

Deepfakes could change history, creating events that never actually happened. Check out this example made at MIT of a fake Richard Nixon delivering a fake 1969 speech to mourn astronauts who supposedly perished on the moon. Fast forward to 4:18.

How was this software developed?

It arose from Machine Learning (ML). The process involves pitting computers against one another to see which one most accurately reproduces expressions, gestures, and voices from real people. The more they compete with each other, the better they learn, and the more authentic their fakes become.

A fanciful imagining of a contest might sound like this.

Computer A: “Hey, look at this Jack Nicholson eyebrow quirk I mastered.”

Computer B: “That’s nothing. Samuel L. Jackson’s nostril flare is much harder. Bet yours can’t top mine.”

Computer A: “Oh yeah? Check out how I made Margaret Thatcher to cross her legs just like Sharon Stone.”

The Europol study further outlined ways that deepfakes could be used for malicious or criminal purposes:

Destroying the image and credibility of an individual,

Harassing or humiliating individuals online,

Perpetrating extortion and fraud,

Facilitating document fraud,

Falsifying online identities and fooling KYC [Know Your Customer] mechanisms,

Falsifying or manipulating electronic evidence for criminal justice investigations,

Disrupting financial markets,

Distributing disinformation and manipulating public opinion,

Inciting acts of violence toward minority groups,

Supporting the narratives of extremist or even terrorist groups, and

Stoking social unrest and political polarization

 

In the era of deepfakes, can video/audio evidence ever be trusted again?

~~~

A big Thank You to TKZ regular K.S. Ferguson who suggested the idea for this post and provided sources.

~~~

TKZers: Can you name books, short stories, or films that incorporate deepfakes in the plot? Feel free to include sci-fi/fantasy from the past where the concept is used before it existed in real life.

Please put on your criminal hat and suggest fictional ways a bad guy could take advantage of deepfakes.

Or put on your detective hat and offer solutions to thwart the evil-doer.

~~~

 

Debbie Burke’s characters are not created by Artificial Intelligence but rather by her real imagination. 

Please check out her latest Tawny Lindholm Thriller. 

Until Proven Guilty is for sale at major booksellers here. 

Author Avanti Centrae Leaks Top-Secret Marketing Plans

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When was the last time you saw a social media post that compelled you to buy a book?

My answer: almost never.

Then I ran across thriller author Avanti Centrae. Her fresh, unique strategy intrigued me. Here’s how we met:

Recently Avanti followed me on Twitter, I followed her back. Next, a direct message arrived from her.

Normally, DMs are off-putting if you don’t already know a person. Sue Coletta covered this in her excellent post Top 10 Social Media Mistakes for Writers. 

Avanti’s DM wasn’t like the usual creepy offers I receive. I never anticipated there would be so many widowed, high-ranking military doctors dying to make my acquaintance.

In contrast, Avanti’s message thanked me for following her and included a photo of her book cover for VanOps: The Lost Power with an invitation to read sample chapters on her website. Her logline is DaVinci Code meets Tomb Raider.”

Next I checked out her website. It was professional and showed she knew a thing or two about marketing.

A bonus freebie (e.g. sample chapters, a short story) is an effective method to build a mailing list. Even though I already subscribe to more newsletters than I can keep up with, I took the bait.

Here’s where the fun began with her sign-up form:

Instead of a bland form asking for name and email, this was an attention-grabber for an espionage thriller series.

She followed up with this confirmation email:

 

Your security access to the VanOps team has been confirmed.
Your mission may now begin.
Please contact VanOps HQS if you have trouble accessing encrypted mission instructions.
Welcome to the team. Good luck staying alive!
Avanti Centrae, on behalf of Director Bowman

 

Even her unsubscribe option reinforced the theme:

If you’ve been captured by the enemy, you can:
stop mission updates here

 

Her classified marketing secrets needed to be ferreted out.   

Avanti Centrae

 

 

I disguised myself as a serious journalist and invited Avanti for a TKZ interview. She agreed under the condition that all readers sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

 

 

 

 

Take it away, Avanti!

Debbie Burke: How did you conceive of this clever approach?

Avanti Centrae: When I was brought onto the VanOps team to narrate the team’s extraordinary missions, I was put through a series of extensive background checks. The fingerprinting alone had me smearing ink on surfaces for hours. Stuff wouldn’t wash off! And the lie detector tests…every time my mind wandered, I thought they were going to fry me like a death row inmate. So when I was ready to share the team’s exploits, I thought it fitting that readers get a semblance of the same tribulations I endured.

DB: Are you on other social media platforms besides Twitter?

AC: Yes, this is the only Black Ops organization I know of that encourages publicity. I’m on Facebook and Instagram, too. In my latest novel, THE DOOMSDAY MEDALLION, the teenaged character who gets kidnapped uses TikTok, but it’s not for me.

DB: Which is the most effective platform for you? Why do you think that particular one works well?

AC: All three are effective in their own way. Now that there are three books in the multi-award-winning VanOps series, I’ve been advertising on Facebook, and it’s proving cost effective. Instagram has a nice level of engagement with fans. Twitter works best for this campaign of sending new followers Direct Messages.

DB: Can you rate how effective your campaign has been in terms of email list signups?

AC: I consider it to be well-worth my time. Occasionally someone finds the DM inappropriate, but the vast majority of people appreciate it. Some inquire about audiobook availability, or what retailers have copies. It’s a fun way to chat with fans, too, as many reach back later and tell me how much they enjoyed the ride.

DB: Does marketing come naturally to you?

AC: My background is in IT. Although I don’t have a marketing background, it hasn’t been hard to pick up. Perhaps because I’m motivated. I enjoy writing books, but I also want them to be read. Marketing and Public Relations are two of the best levers authors have to sell books, as a reader can’t read a thriller they don’t know exists.

I treat marketing as a game. Money in, book sales out…try this…try that…keep mixing it up until a combination proves profitable. Making it fun keeps it interesting.

DB: Do you have marketing recommendations for other authors?

AC: The biggest recommendation I have is to avoid spending money on advertising until you have a backlist. Social media doesn’t cost much, and is a great way to connect with fans. Canva is a wonderful tool to spin up posts, or even videos. There’s a really cool trailer at my VanOps.net website that readers can check out. Other advice: take an experimental approach and try different things. You might love producing videos, or find one platform that works better for you and your readers. I’ve heard TikTok is great for YA.

DB: Any final thoughts or insights you’d like to share? If so, will you have to kill us?  

AC: Since all your readers have signed the Non-Disclosure Agreement, they’re safe for now. I do have a cadre of assassins at my disposal though…

A few final thoughts then: Keep on writing. This industry is built on the careers of prolific authors. With just one or two novels, it’s easy to get discouraged. Sometimes the best marketing is the next novel. For me, it’s a good thing the VanOps team gets into so much trouble. I have a lot to write about!

Thanks for spilling the beans, Avanti!

~~~

TKZers: Use the comment section to grill Avanti with your specific questions. Please respect her Fifth Amendment rights. If she refuses to answer, no water-boarding.  

 

How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

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

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

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

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

Always meet deadlines.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially when I get to meet a bear.

~~~

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

~~~

 

 

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

True Crime Thursday – Racehorse Doping

Photo credit: MJ Boswell – Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

In March, 2022, Federal Correctional Institution Miami, a low-security facility that was formerly home to Manuel Noriega, welcomed a new resident: Jorge Navarro, a thoroughbred horse trainer who pled guilty to federal charges of doping racehorses with performance enhancing drugs (PED).

Navarro’s nickname was “Juice Man,” a moniker he had emblazoned on a pair of Croc shoes he kept at his barn.

In January, 2020, one of Navarro’s horses, XY Jet, died of a heart attack at the age of eight. XY Jet had won $3 million in purses including the Dubai Golden Shaheen race. At the time of the horse’s death, Navarro gave this statement:

With deep regret, I am sorry to notify you that X Y Jet died this morning as a result of a heart attack. X Y Jet was more than a horse on my trained list. (He) was the one that took us through a wonderful and exciting roller coaster of emotions. He always fought against adversity and despite the injuries that affected him during his career, he always brought out that kind of champion he was.

PEDs used in horses do not actually improve their performance but rather mask pain that could slow them down.

In December, 2021, U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said:

Structures designed for the protection of the horses abused in this case failed repeatedly; fixtures of the industry – owners, veterinarians, and trainers – flouted rules and disregarded their animals’ health while hypocritically incanting a love for the horses under their control and ostensible protection. Standing as the keystone for this structure of abuse, corruption, and duplicity was Jorge Navarro, a trainer who treated his animals as expendable commodities in the service of his ‘sport.’

Navarro made a tearful statement at his sentencing hearing: “I became a selfish person who only cared about winning and I lost my way.”

Navarro was fined $26.8 million and given the maximum sentence of five years.

At FCI Miami, his options include working in the commissary, laundry, kitchen, or doing landscaping with a pay range of 12 to 40 cents an hour.

Paying his fine could take a while.

In a similar scenario, the 2021 winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, was later disqualified after he tested positive for corticosteroids. On December 6, 2021, the horse collapsed and died at age three during a workout at Santa Anita Park.

Corticosteroids act differently on the body than anabolic steroids, which are long-lasting drugs used for muscle building and strength. According to MoveUnited.org:

Athletes have reported that corticosteroids help them push through the pain of extreme exertion and allow them to recover faster for the next event. The benefits of corticosteroids wear off pretty fast, which is why they are prohibited in-competition only.

Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and fined $7500. Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, also forfeited his purse from the Derby win and was banned from entering horses in the Derby for 2022 and 2023. Hearings to delay the suspension are ongoing as of March, 2022.

The day before Medina Spirit’s death, Baffert’s horses swept the Los Alamitos Stakes.

Were any of those horses tested? Who knows? 

Starting in December 2018, thirty-seven horses died at Santa Anita in less than a year.

In December, 2021, Deadline.com reported:

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey organized a task force to investigate and released a report two years ago that found ‘no criminal wrongdoing’ on Santa Anita’s part.

Existing safeguards against doping are not working and many critics are calling for a ban on horseracing.

~~~

TKZers: What do you think? Should horseracing be banned? What action would clean up the sport?

~~~

 

An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

DNA links three puzzling cases in my new thriller Until Proven Guilty. Order at Amazon. 

First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.

~~~

An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.

~~~

Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!

 ~~~

 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?

~~~

 

When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

Amazon sales link

 

True Crime Thursday – Eyes of a Killer

Photo credit: perchek industrie-Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

April is National Donate Life Month to promote the importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation. I covered this subject in an article for Montana Senior News. While researching, I spoke with people who had either been recipients of donations or surviving family members who agreed to donate organs, corneas, or tissue from their deceased loved ones.

The stories were bittersweet but also heartwarming. A recurring theme ran through them: the worst day for one family is the best day for another family.

 

Miranda Denison with the tools of her trade.

A major source for my article was a woman named Miranda Denison, one of six people in Montana with the unusual job of harvesting corneas. When someone dies, she or one of her colleagues goes to the hospital or funeral home to remove the thin, dime-shaped tissue that gives sight. She carefully packages it, then arranges transportation to an eye bank. There, the corneas are medically evaluated and, if viable, sent to hospitals to be transplanted. The surgery has a 95% success rate of restoring vision.

Miranda’s duties are similar to that of a coroner or medical examiner. She undresses bodies and thoroughly examines them, draws blood and other fluids for lab analysis, makes note of injuries, scars, tattoos, needle tracks, and signs of trauma or disease that might affect whether or not the corneas can be transplanted. For instance, IV drug users are excluded as donors, as are people with hepatitis C or who are HIV positive.

Donors’ and recipients’ identities are confidential but a transplant coordinator can act as an intermediary. This allows recipients to send thanks to the surviving donor family. With consent from both parties, they may communicate directly with each other, often forming lasting friendships because of the gift of life that connects them.

What does this have to do with True Crime Thursday?

Sometimes donors are victims of crimes. In such cases, recovery of organs takes place at the crime lab in Missoula, Montana.

Sometimes donors are perpetrators of the crime.

In the early morning hours of January 19, 2022, Kirk Brown, 48, shot and killed his dog and his mother, Florence Brown, 79, in the home they shared in Big Arm, Montana. Then he turned the gun on himself. He didn’t die immediately and was transported to a hospital where he later succumbed to his injury. The case was ruled a homicide/suicide.

Kirk Brown was a registered organ donor. Recovering his corneas was an especially grisly task because of the gunshot wound. Although Miranda didn’t work this particular case, she was familiar with it because her colleague handled it at the Missoula crime lab.

Miranda knows I write thrillers. After she told me about the case, we started talking about fictional possibilities.

If someone received the eyes of a killer, how would that affect them? Would they view life and people differently? Would they take on characteristics of the murderer?

The concept is not new. A 1920 French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) explored the idea of transplanted body parts. After an assassin is executed by guillotine, his hands are attached to a pianist who had lost his in an accident. The pianist begins to commit crimes because he cannot control the grafted hands. That story inspired several horror films, including Hands of a Stranger (1962).

Other films, including Body Parts (1991), In the Eyes of Killer (2009), told stories of characters who develop criminal characteristics after receiving parts from a murderer.

I’ve never written horror or sci-fi/fantasy. But the idea of a killer’s eyes intrigues me. I may have to give it a whirl.

Kirk Brown’s corneas were indeed successfully transplanted—the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.

Thanks, Miranda, for introducing us to your unusual occupation and for triggering my imagination. 

~~~

TKZers: What are some other works of fiction or movies where transplanted body parts are the basis for the story?

How about the opposite scenario? Do you know of fiction where an evil character receives a good person’s organs that redeem the bad guy?

~~~

UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY is published!

Today is launch day for the seventh book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

An innocent father in prison. A guilty rapist set free. A surprise son from the past.

Investigator Tawny Lindholm and her attorney-husband Tillman Rosenbaum juggle three baffling cases where DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal, triggering a crisis in their marriage and an unimaginable threat to their family.

You can buy UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY from Amazon and major booksellers.

Reminder or Repetition?

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: wwnorm on visual hunt

 

 

When you read a novel, do you like occasional reminders?

 

 

 

 

 

Or…do you find reminders tedious and repetitious?

 

 

 

 

Recently, I discussed these questions with author/editor Karen Albright Lin. Karen is currently reading my WIP, Until Proven Guilty, book #7 in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Speaking as an older reader with termites eating holes in my memory, I need reminders. Most of the time, I read a novel in bed and fall asleep after a few pages. Days may pass before I pick up the book again.

In stories with many characters, POVs, and plot lines, I get lost and need to scroll backward to review. Who are these people? How are they connected? When and where is the story taking place? What just happened?

My readers are generally older and probably have similar memory lapses. Because of that, as a writer, I make a conscious effort to include small reminders to ground the reader at the beginning of each new scene and chapter.

Authors often leave a character hanging on the edge of a cliff, particularly in thrillers. In the next scene, they jump-cut to a different character in a different place and time. Three or four scenes later, they return to the poor hanging character. At that point, I appreciate a brief reminder of how and why the character wound up in that situation.

Reminders are also helpful for secondary characters who are offstage much of the time. When they reappear, in addition to their names, I usually mention their role or function.

A minor character, Mavis Dockerty, appears only three times in Until Proven Guilty—in chapters 1, 18, and 32.

She’s first introduced during a preliminary hearing on page 2, questioning a rape victim in what should be a slam-dunk prosecution:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty said, “Take your time.” She picked up a box of tissues from the prosecution table and handed it to Amelia.

A few pages later, Mavis’s airtight case against the rapist is destroyed by defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum, the male lead.

Mavis doesn’t appear again for 150+ pages and could be forgotten by some readers. So, I reintroduce her on page 166:

Flathead County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was sitting by herself in the last row of Courtroom #2 when Tillman tracked her down.

She appears for a final time on page 287:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was doggedly determined not to lose twice against the rapist Claude Ledbetter. Her evidence at his second preliminary hearing was flawless and overwhelming, every possible loophole sewed up tight.

Quick reminders like that are easy.

But when do reminders turn into repetition?

Back to my discussion with Karen. In my manuscript, she made many notes where she thought I was being repetitive. She advised: “Trust the reader to get it the first time.” 

My initial reaction was Really? Nah, I don’t repeat myself.

Writers can’t see their own flaws. That’s why we depend on critique groups, beta readers, and editors to point out problematic trees amid the dense forest of our novels. I trust Karen’s sharp eye and savvy skills as an editor so I took a closer look.

What I found was shocking. Here are a few examples:

One hint the writer is being repetitive is when the reminder appears three times in two paragraphs.

In the following passage, protagonist Tawny is experiencing empty-nest syndrome. She loves her husband’s three children from his previous marriage but they’re away at school or traveling. Her own son Neal is in his mid-thirties, in the military, and is home for a rare visit.

She’d already had one disappointment, when Neal declined to stay in the beautiful, sprawling, ranch-style house that Tillman had bought when they married because it had enough bedrooms for all their kids. Instead, Neal opted to sleep at Tawny’s creaky old bungalow in the historic district—the home where he’d grown up and still felt comfortable.

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy. Occasionally Tillman’s two daughters and his son came for weekend visits but otherwise the rooms stayed empty. But that was the way with grown children.

Did you get the picture of the vacant bedrooms?

Again and again and again.

Based on Karen’s suggestions, the first paragraph stayed the same but the second now reads:

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy, wishing Tillman’s two daughters and his son visited more often. But that was the way with grown children.

In another example, Karen noted that the location of a coffee kiosk had been repeated. In that instance, since there were only a couple of mentions, with many pages in between, I did not take her suggestion because it seemed like a reasonable reminder that wouldn’t bug readers.

The bigger problem is how to express themes without being repetitive. That’s where Karen busted me big time.

Until Proven Guilty weaves together three plots, each showcasing a different perspective in the tug of war between the law and justice. The first involves a clearly guilty character who walks free; the second addresses an innocent character who’s wrongly imprisoned; the third shows the perils of presuming guilt without proof.

The two protagonists, Tawny and Tillman, are married, work together, and clash over their different beliefs. Tawny is an idealist who wants justice for crime victims. Tillman is sometimes a righteous crusader but he’s also a cynical, pragmatic attorney whose job is to vigorously defend his clients whether they’re guilty or not.

At the start of the story, Tillman destroys County Attorney Mavis Dockerty’s case against an accused rapist because of faulty evidence. Tawny didn’t know Tillman’s plan before the hearing and is shocked and dismayed that the accused rapist is set free.

As they walk from the courthouse back to the law office, she confronts Tillman:

Tawny looked up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

His deep, rumbling baritone rose above traffic noise. “So you could distract me with a lecture about right and wrong, good and evil?”

“You know he’s guilty,” she said. “The judge practically said so.”

His dark gaze, half sexy, half scary, pinned her. “The cops botched the evidence collection. The crime lab mishandled the DNA samples. It’s not my responsibility to help the county attorney prove her case. It’s full of holes bigger than the Berkeley mine pit.”

“But he’s guilty,” Tawny repeated. “He assaulted that poor woman. That doesn’t bother you?” She dearly loved her new husband but sometimes she didn’t like him very much.

Tillman stopped in the shade of a maple tree overhanging the alley behind the office. “I did my job, Tawny. That’s how the system is set up. Presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mavis didn’t prove Ledbetter guilty. And the fee Ledbetter paid me allows me to take on more pro bono cases.”

He didn’t say “like yours” but the unspoken words hung heavy in the late summer air.

A scene follows at the law office where Tawny expresses her indignation to a coworker:

A new headache settled behind Tawny’s eyes, the pressure making them feel like they were bulging. “When the judge threw the case out, that poor woman was crushed. Her husband looked ready to peel off Ledbetter’s skin and dunk him in alcohol. I wouldn’t blame him if he had.”

Then she thinks even more about it:

Tawny knew the system. Yet, in cases like Ledbetter’s, her conscience chafed. What about the victim’s right to justice?  

A few pages later, on their way home:

Tillman said, “If you wanted a lawyer who represents only innocent people, you should have married Perry Mason. This is how the system works. What can be proved versus what can’t be, what evidence is admissible versus what isn’t. I use the law as it’s written to defend my clients.”

“But it’s wrong,” Tawny said.  

“It’s the law.”

Tillman was hard to argue with. That’s why he was so good.

Tawny couldn’t think of a rebuttal.

A heavy silence hung over the rest of the drive home.

Then, at home, they talk more about the case:

“You’re such a Pollyanna,” he murmured but without his usual sardonic tone.

“I know you have to do what you have to do. I just feel bad for that poor victim.”

“It’s not a justice system, Tawny. It’s a legal system. Right and wrong, good and evil. None of that comes into play.”

In the first 15 pages of the book, I repeat the theme five different times.

Didja get it? Sure you got it? Are you positive? Just in case, let me smack you over the head with a two-by-four.

The author’s personal beliefs are bleeding all over the story.

That refrain echoed through the rest of the manuscript as Karen observed over and over that I was beating the same drum. By page 188, her understandable frustration was showing: “This drum has been beat until there’s a hole in it.”

Therein lies my dilemma. Three different plots share the same theme but are seen through contrasting lenses by various POV characters. How does a writer show multiple perspectives yet avoid being repetitive? How do I keep my obvious bias in check?

Through the book, the running argument between Tawny and Tillman escalates. It ultimately leads to a crisis in their marriage.

Photo credit: matthijs smit – Unsplash

How the heck do I show that important plot arc without beating a hole in the drum?

Right now, I’m going through page by page with Karen’s cautions in mind. I have to decide when reminders become repetitious and cut those parts.

Sometimes I can combine several references into a single one that makes the point.

I’m trying to reserve dialogue about theme for the most important pivotal scenes.

Karen says, “Trust the reader to get it the first time.”

She’s right but, oh, it’s a struggle to restrain my drumstick.

~~~

TKZers: As a reader, how do you feel about reminders?

Do you sometimes want to tell the author enough is enough already?

As a writer, how do you incorporate reminders?

Do you catch yourself making a point until it becomes repetitious?

~~~

Receive a FREE BONUS Short Story when you sign up for my newsletter at debbieburkewriter.com.

You’ll also be among the first to hear when Until Proven Guilty is published.

Ten Tips from a Chiropractor for Writers

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Disclaimer: nothing is this article should be construed as medical advice.

Writing can harm the body. Okay, it’s not as bad as logging, or bull riding, or bomb dismantling. But sitting all day hunched over a computer is not a healthy lifestyle.

Recently I had an enlightening conversation with a chiropractor, Dr. Erika Putnam, shown here consulting with her office manager, Hartty.

Dr. Erika has unique insight into the particular physical problems that beset our profession because she herself is a writer. In addition to her chiropractic practice and operating a yoga studio, she contributed to the Ultimate Guide to Self-Healing Volumes 1-5. She is also working on her memoir and a how-to manual for yoga instructors.

So…I asked her for tips specifically to help writers.

Her overall approach is to develop a “long-term vision of our health and career path.” She says, “Value your wellbeing and work toward preserving that. Think prevention rather than fixing damage.” She believes for optimal health, humans need fresh air, sunshine, the earth…and time away from staring at electronic devices. 

People who spend long hours sitting at a computer tend to develop tight chests, tight hip flexors, and are weak in the core and the butt.

What can we do about that?

Here are Dr. Erika’s 10 tips:

  1. Undo what you do. If you use muscles in the front of the body, you need to counteract by using muscles in the back. Below is a good exercise to undo writer’s slump.

 

2. Strive for anatomical neutral: This means good posture with shoulders back, head up, chest up, arms at your sides with hands extended. For yoga aficionados, this is similar to mountain pose.

3. Neck care: a head-forward posture is hard on the neck. The farther forward your head is, the more strain on your neck. Sit straight with your head in line with your shoulders and pull your head and chin back. Try the old balance-a-book-on-your-head trick.

4. More Neck Care: At least once an hour, turn your head from side to side, looking over your shoulders.

5. Breathing: When shoulders curl forward, breathing becomes shallow. Take deeper breaths to improve posture. Stretch arms over your head to move/open the ribs to allow deeper breathing. Repeat several times/hour.

6. Neutral spine: When seated, rock your pelvis to find the correct neutral spine posture.

7. Sitting posture: If you sit on the back of the “sit bones,” pressure on the pelvis over time wears out disks in the spine.

Instead, sit up on sit bones. A pillow behind your back may help.

 

8. Hand care: Typing uses finger flexion which tends to curl hands into claws. To counteract, open your hands, stretch fingers, and press palms together.

9. Get up and move around at least once an hour. Take a walk. Do stretches. Dr. Erika suggests: “Go outside and play with dirt.”

10. I’ll take credit for this tip which came about after my visit with Dr. Erika.

After spending an hour with her, I became much more aware of my posture, standing straighter, shoulders back, chest up, head up. When I got into my car to leave, I noticed the rearview mirror was tilted too low. It had seemed fine while driving to her office. But, after an hour of consciously improving my posture, I realized I now sat a couple of inches taller in the seat. I needed to adjust the mirror upward.

I decided to leave the mirror in the higher position as a reminder to sit up straight.

The more reminders the better.

 One final note: Dr. Erika says she can’t back up the following observation with scientific studies but she has frequently noticed that people with a right-side head tilt often have a great deal of left-brain activity.

Here’s a discussion of right brain/left brain from Medical News Today.

JUST FOR FUN — Here’s a totally unscientific experiment to try:

If you’re having problems with plot organization, see what happens if you tilt your head to the right. Does that activate your left (analytical) brain?

If your story needs more feeling, trying tilting your head to the left. Does that activate your intuition and emotion?

Does head tilting make any difference in your thinking process? Please share your results in the comments.

~~~

TKZers: What helps keep your writer’s body in good condition? Do you have favorite exercises?

True Crime Thursday – Obituary Piracy

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: JR Harris – Unsplash.com

Ole and Lena had been happily married for many years. When Ole died, Lena wrote a long, glowing obituary about him. She took it to the local newspaper office for publication.

The editor said, “Lena, this is a beautiful tribute to Ole. That’ll be $975.

Lena said, “What????”

The editor answered, “We charge by the word for obituaries.”

Flummoxed, Lena thought for a moment. Then she wrote a new version:

Ole died. Boat for Sale.

~~~

Being a writer, I’m often tasked by family and friends to compose obituaries for loved ones. Apparently, I’m pretty good at it, judging from newspaper clippings that, years later, are still attached with magnets to family refrigerators.

But…recently I learned from a funeral director that obituaries aren’t what they used to be.

In previous centuries, they served as notice to a person’s local community that they had passed, listing accomplishments, naming family members, and inviting people to a funeral with a reception to follow.

Sometimes scofflaws show up at such receptions for free food. Sleazy, right? But no big deal.

Worst case, burglars read obituaries to find out funeral times and, while the family was at services, broke into the deceased’s home. Really stinkin’ but fairly rare.

Obituaries have long been an important tool for genealogists because of the wealth of family history in them.

According to the funeral director, the internet revolutionized obituaries. Information is no longer limited to the local community but is instantly accessible to billions of people around the globe.

Some of those people are criminals who found a new avenue for fraud:

Obituary piracy.

Consider the abundant facts in a typical obituary.

Full name (including maiden name);

Dates of birth and death;

Place of birth; place of death;

Full names of parents (including mother’s maiden name), siblings, children, grandchildren, predeceased family members, even pets;

Military service;

Employment history;

Medical information such as cause of death;

Miscellaneous personal tidbits like hobbies, travels, special talents, etc.

In other words, a treasure trove of information that provides unscrupulous data miners ways to profit from tragedy.

When a bank wants to verify the account holder’s identity, what do they ask for?

Yup, your mother’s maiden name.

What are common passwords to online accounts? Often, it’s names of children, grandchildren, and pets.

When you open an account or apply for a loan, what is required? You guessed it—facts that can be found in obits.

Data miners are skilled at extrapolating info gleaned from obituaries. That can lead to identity theft, intrusions into credit accounts and medical records, and child identity theft. 

A death triggers cascades of documentation that must be provided to government and private agencies including county, state, federal, Social Security, Medicare, IRS, property ownership records, banks, investments, pensions, etc., etc., etc.

Death certificates are generally recorded by each state’s department of vital statistics. Family Search offers how-to info by state: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/How_to_Find_United_States_Death_Records

The National Death Index (NDI) is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and is the database of all deaths in the US.

Because of identity fraud, death certificates that used to be public records now often have limited accessibility (for example, surviving family members).

Obituaries, on the other hand, contain similar information and are widely available to anyone with internet access. 

How many of us receive spoofed calls supposedly from the IRS or FBI or “your bank” or “your credit card company”? Spoofing is when criminals manipulate phone numbers to make calls appear to be coming from a legitimate agency or business.

Spoofed calls threaten dire consequences if we don’t immediately wire money or send gift cards to pay an alleged debt or avoid arrest. Hurry up because officers are on their way to your home this very minute.

Grieving widows and widowers are prime targets for greedy criminals. Bereaved families are vulnerable to such scams because they know death taxes are due and there are often debts to pay.

There are even more ways for scammers to profit from obituaries. Other variations on piracy include lifting obituaries from a legitimate funeral home site and pasting the content on a bogus website. The phony site often ranks higher than the legitimate site due to manipulation of search engine optimization. So, when people Google the deceased, they can easily stumble on a phony site at the top of page one.

Once there, readers are solicited to buy a virtual flower or candle to memorialize a friend or family member. At a buck a flower, thousands of obituaries add up to significant profits. You can even donate hundreds of dollars to plant an entire grove of imaginary trees.

What a meaningful tribute to a loved one.

(Note: legitimate funeral sites offer similar tribute options for additional profit. I’ll leave my opinion about that unsaid.)

Another alternative: the phony site may request donations to help with the family’s expenses. Of course, the family never receives donations because the scammer absconds with the money.

There is no real privacy in the 21st century. Hacking and data breaches are daily occurrences.  You may ask, since so much intimate personal information is readily available on the net, why worry about obituaries?

The answer is the same reason we still lock our doors. Yes, determined robbers can break into our homes.

But we don’t need to make it easier for them, particularly during stressful times of mourning.

Does that mean obituaries shouldn’t be written to honor the deceased?

No.

The funeral director I spoke with suggested limiting the people who receive an obituary by using email and social media groups where access is restricted to family and friends.

He strongly advises that sensitive, personal information be limited to the bare minimum.

Ole died. Boat for Sale.

~~~

TKZers: have you heard of obituary piracy? Do you know bereaved people who have been victimized by scammers?

Today I’ll be away from internet access so my responses to comments will be late.

~~~

 

If you visit Debbie Burke’s website, you can’t buy a flower or virtual candle. But you can find purchase links to her thrillers that include tons of personal information about her characters.