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

True Crime Thanksgiving

 

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

!

Happy Thanksgiving! 

For True Crime Thursday, I dug up a few Thanksgiving stories about fowl play–go ahead and groan, you won’t hurt my feelings.

The fight against retail theft leads to new technology at self-checkout stations. Would-be turkey-nappers leave the bird in the basket without scanning it; or they place the turkey on the scale but enter a code for a cheaper item, e.g. 59 cent/pound bananas. Here’s a link.

Thanksgiving in Canada was October 14. This video caught a woman in Ontario who thought she could stuff the bird under her shirt and masquerade as pregnant. No report if she suffered frostbitten belly.

Thieves stole 85 turkeys and pheasants from Gary and Val Ertman’s Thumb Egg Ranch in Unionville, Michigan.

According to the Saginaw/Bay City News: “The farm produces birds for purchase as babies, egg layers, and meat for a variety of customers. The farm raises ducks, geese, pheasants, quail, peacocks, chickens, and turkeys. The Ertmans also sell young birds to 4-H kids for their poultry projects.”

Normally, the Ertmans butcher turkeys on the Monday before Thanksgiving for customers who want a fresh bird. Unfortunately this year, there’s no time to raise stock to replace the stolen poultry.

“If somebody is hungry, we would feed them…but don’t steal that many,” said Gary Ertman.

Last but not least, here’s tidbit of North Dakota history. In 1925, “grand theft turkey” was a felony punishable by up to five years in the penitentiary. The law was passed after a rash of thefts from farms. The most notable case involved nine stolen birds and a high-speed (50 mph) automobile chase where neighbors pursued rowdy young locals. Thieves released the birds but were caught with two feathered kidnapping victims still in the trunk of their getaway car.

~~~

Today, among many blessings, I especially give thanks for my husband, reasonably good health, and the opportunity to pursue writing surrounded by wonderful friends including TKZ readers.

Wishing you a bountiful Thanksgiving! Hope the worst crime you experience is that darn brother-in-law who steals the drumstick you had your eye on.

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Happy 100th Birthday

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

One hundred years ago today, my father-in-law, Arthur Burke, was born.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing historical fiction. Arthur’s life contains a wealth of dramatic raw material on which a novel could be based. My imagination itches to step back in time and write about that era.

Grinding poverty defined Arthur’s childhood. His father, Daniel, was a violent Irish drunkard. Periodically, he would abscond with Arthur and his brother, then leave them in Catholic orphanages in various states. Their mother, Naomi, had to track down and recover her two young sons.

Daniel Burke with his sons and second wife

Naomi

Naomi’s death in 1978 opened up a mystery. Among her papers, my husband and I found three different birth certificates in three different names with three different birth dates. The woman we’d known as “Naomi” had hidden lives.

 

Today, identities are indelibly recorded in databases. Not so in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when adopting a new name was common practice for people who wanted to leave problems behind. Reinventing one’s identity was as simple as providing a handwritten statement signed by a relative or friend. One of Naomi’s birth certificates was a sworn statement by an uncle, dated years after her supposed birth date.

On another certificate, her name was Ida Mae Dalton, listing her father as Frank Dalton, a deputy marshal related to the notorious Dalton Gang. In a sad reflection of that era, Ida Mae’s mother was not even given the respect of a name on that document but was identified only as “an Indian squaw or breed thereof.”

Who was Naomi really? Did she adopt aliases to hide from the abusive Daniel? Questions linger that can never be answered. 

Naomi worked as a waitress to support the family. They were already poor enough that they hardly noticed the Great Depression. For heat, Arthur scavenged bits of coal that fell from train cars. He told about being so hungry, he ate grass.

In 1933, his life took a turn for the better when Naomi married Leonard Bloodsworth, a Navy chief who was the Pacific Fleet heavyweight boxing champion. Daniel no longer represented a threat since Len could knock the brutal father into next week.

But growing up in San Pedro, California during the Depression was still difficult.

Stepfather Len became Arthur’s best role model and champion. He would sneak the hungry boy onto his ship for chow. Thanks to Len, Arthur saw a doctor and dentist for the first time in his life.

The gangly, red-headed, freckle-faced Arthur had a brush with Hollywood when he appeared in the pilot film for a short comedy. He played a character named Alfalfa in the Little Rascals and was paid 50 cents, a fortune to a poor Bowery kid. What a different direction his life might have taken if another boy, Carl Switzer, hadn’t wound up playing the memorable, enduring role.

~~~

In high school, Arthur showed extraordinary inventiveness when he built a radar set for a science project. The FBI confiscated the set because the U.S. would soon be involved in World War II and wanted to keep advanced experimental technology a secret from enemy powers.

Despite Arthur’s genius, college seemed an unattainable dream because of poverty.

Then came a stroke of luck.

Appointments to prestigious military academies like West Point and Annapolis were granted by members of Congress, usually as political favors to wealthy constituents. However, one honest politician opened the opportunity to competitive exam, allowing any young man in his district to apply.  

On a lark, Arthur accompanied a friend to take the exam for the Naval Academy. His friend was accepted and Arthur made the cut as an alternate. When his buddy had to withdraw, Arthur took his slot.

After a cross-country train trip, he reported for duty in Annapolis, Maryland with cardboard liners as soles for his worn-out shoes. His classmates, mostly sons of wealthy, influential families, looked down their patrician noses at the lanky, malnourished kid from the Bowery.

Nevertheless, his scientific brilliance earned him a place in the top 10% of his class.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 forced the U.S. into World War II and, only days afterward, led to early graduation for Arthur’s Class of 1942.

Arthur Burke and stepfather Leonard Bloodsworth

During that devastating attack, his stepfather Len was serving aboard the USS Tennessee. Eight battleships, including the Tennessee, were moored together in a group on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombs and torpedoes destroyed or disabled the most powerful ships in the U.S. fleet.

Battleship Row

As injured shipmates were pulled from fires below decks, Len threw sailors over the side of the ship into the water to save them from the onboard inferno. When the nearby Arizona exploded, searing powder and shrapnel horribly burned Len’s back. He spent a year in a hospital before returning to duty to finish out the war.

The Pearl Harbor attack left the U.S. badly outnumbered and outgunned. A battered handful of surviving ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise CV-6, represented the only defense against the advancing Japanese fleet and probable invasion of the U.S. west coast.

Arthur served on the Enterprise which became the most decorated ship of World War II.

Painting of USS Enterprise by Richard DeRosset

Painting of USS Enterprise by Richard DeRosset

He described the feeling of being totally alone, desperate, and vulnerable in the vast Pacific Ocean while being hunted by the enemy. Before radar and other detection systems were commonplace, ships operated under strict blackout rules because the tiniest light could reveal the ship’s position to a patrolling submarine or plane.

One night while on watch, Arthur had a run-in with an admiral who decided to fire up his pipe on the flag bridge, a place of high visibility on the carrier. Arthur was a lowly lieutenant junior grade but he took his responsibility seriously. He told the admiral to put out the light because it was endangering the ship. The admiral refused. Arthur stood his ground and ordered the superior officer to his quarters. Fortunately the enemy didn’t spot the light.

The petty admiral never forgot and the episode dogged the rest of Arthur’s naval career, despite his stellar scientific achievements.

Arthur survived the pivotal battles of Midway and Coral Sea. During one attack, a bomb exploded in his quarters. Because he had traded duty stations with another officer, he was not in his bunk at that time and escaped death.

But, in the confusion, he was mistakenly listed as killed in action and his footlocker was shipped home. Naomi, who supported the war effort as an air raid warden, endured many grief-stricken months before she learned her son was still alive.

Arthur rose quickly through the ranks because of his scientific ability. He developed instrumental new uses for radar that played a major role in Allied victory.

Later, he returned to Annapolis to teach—not a bad achievement for a hungry kid who arrived on the Naval Academy campus with cardboard soles in his shoes.

Will Arthur’s experiences become my first historical novel? Time will tell. 

Meanwhile, Happy 100th Birthday, Pop!

~~~

TKZers: What books based on real-life experiences had a big impact on you?

Have family stories inspired your own writing?

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First Page Critique – Rooster Strut

Chamber pot – photo courtesy of National Park Service

Today’s Brave Author takes us on a tour of a piss-poor town. Please enjoy this first page entitled Rooster Strut.

Rooster Strut

My name is J.B. Hoehandel Jr. But most folks call me June Bug for short. Me and my buddy Wad Larson was pigging out on two for a dollar corn dogs one night at the Silver Dollar Drive-In restaurant. Anita Moore Love just started working the night shift. She’d been a stripper someplace up north and was down here running from the law. At least that was according to the local rumor mill which was headed up by Wad’s great grandmother.

Anita finished taking an order from a carload of high-school hoodlums in someone’s dad’s station wagon when she turned her back to them and bent down to tie her shoes. That was kind of strange considering she was wearing flip-flops. When those tight short shorts rode up to the point of Oh-my-dear- God- in-Heaven, the whoops and hollers from that carload of brain-dead teenagers could be heard way over in Dognut County. Wad laughed so hard he about choked on his chewing tobacco.

Wad’s had a golf ball-sized cheek full of Red Man in his mouth since he was ten. He’s never taken it out, not even to sleep. He keeps chewing it down and adding to it, which is how Wad got his name.

We all live in a small town called Rooster Strut. It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids. The odds are against them making it much past puberty with all the toxic shit that comes out of the Morgan Tillman Tannery.

You may not know it, but the way they turn animal hides into those expensive purses and high dollar leather goods you folks like so much, starts by soaking raw animal skins in a mixture of cow piss, chicken shit, quicklime, salt, and water.

Back in the day, people would save up their piss and sell it to the tannery. A tradition that gave us such sayings as “piss poor.” or, “He ain’t got a pot to piss in or a place to put it.” Nowadays there’s more money in cooking meth than saving up piss, but they both smell pretty bad which is why real estate in Rooster Strut is so cheap.

~~~

Several years ago, at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson gave a talk about world building. I walked into the session with minimal interest since sci-fi/fantasy is not a genre I foresee myself writing. Also, as a reader, I tend to skip over setting details because character development and plot action are more interesting to me than places.

Was I surprised and blown away!

Kevin kicked off his talk with an anecdote about his family’s home town purported to be the sauerkraut capital of the world. His mom held the title of Miss Sauerkraut of 1955. He described how the waste water from the sauerkraut factory was expelled into ditches around town. The inescapable, rancid smell permeated the area for miles around. In winter, the same polluted water froze and kids skated on it. Occasionally someone broke through the ice into the rank slurry below.

The specific details Kevin chose were so vivid and evocative that my nose still twitches when I remember his talk. I came away with a whole new appreciation for how a powerfully described setting adds to a story.

Rooster Strut is similarly memorable. Brave Author uses the sense of smell to build the world of a depressed, dead-end, small town. The reader is immediately pulled into a place stinking with the greasy aroma two-for-a-buck corn dogs, pungent cow piss and chicken shit, and meth cooking. We’re not sure we want to be here because the overall impression is pretty disgusting.

But it’s also irresistible.

Short, punchy descriptions sum up the atmosphere:

It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids.

Nowadays there’s more money in cooking meth than saving up piss, but they both smell pretty bad which is why real estate in Rooster Strut is so cheap.

Why would a reader want to stick around this crummy place where clearly nothing good will happen?

I believe the main reason is the wildly humorous voice.

The names are unabashedly corny: June Bug Hoehandel, Wad, a former stripper named Moore Love, Dognut. The narrator not only pokes fun at the residents, the locale, and the situation, but also makes observations full of ironic wisdom.

The description of Anita bending over to tie non-existent shoelaces on her flip-flops makes a strong visual impact in the reader’s mind. Then the author layers on a deeper meaning with the phrase to the point of Oh-my-dear-God-in Heaven, giving a hint at the cultural and religious mores of the narrator, probably shared by many residents of the town.

Some readers don’t care for the technique of directly addressing the reader as you but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, it felt particularly appropriate and in keeping with the mood of this piece.

The narrator issues an invitation to the reader, essentially saying, “Howdy, stranger, you’re not from around here. Why don’t you sit down and let me tell you a story about Rooster Strut and its local characters? And have a corn dog while you’re at it.”

That evokes instant intimacy between the narrator and the reader.

While the story doesn’t open with an obvious problem—like finding a dead body, for instance—the scene is set in a skillful way that promises lots of conflict ahead.

An outsider (the stripper from up north) is on the run from the law and causing a disturbance in the community. The illicit meth trade is juxtaposed with young victims apparently poisoned by a supposedly legitimate industry, Morgan Tillman Tannery. People are stuck in a hopeless economy that will likely lead to desperate acts to escape or improve their family’s circumstances.

Yet, as depressing as the set-up sounds, the humorous voice promises considerable fun along the journey.

Great work, Brave Author!

The typos I saw were minor and easily fixable.

Insert hyphens in two-for-a-dollar.

Remove extra spaces in Oh-my-dear-God-in-Heaven.

The time period wasn’t specified. Someone’s dad’s station wagon sounds like 1980s or earlier but, in Rooster Strut, Dad might well drive a 40+-year-old vehicle. A poverty-stricken small town can often feel stuck in time, harking back to the days when there were good jobs and opportunities. Consider including a quick notation that signals if this is contemporary or in years past.

Humor is subjective. Vulgar, earthy language and hokey humor may put off some readers and that’s okay because tastes vary. However, like habanero peppers, a little goes a long way. A challenge for the Brave Author will be to sustain this rollicking voice through the story without becoming tiresome. But I have faith s/he can pull it off.

I thoroughly enjoyed this page.

Thanks, Brave Author, for taking TKZ readers on a tour of Rooster Strut!

~~~

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions do you have for the Brave Author? Did you want to keep reading?

~~~

Please check out Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15. Here’s the link.

1+

True Crime Thursday – Halloween Phobias

Credit: Myriam Zilles, Pixabay

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Halloween is spooky.

Fear can be real, as in these true crimes that occurred on Halloween.

Fear can be from scary movies like these perennial favorites.

Spooky movies can trigger phobias like:

Optophobia – Fear of opening one’s eyes, especially when the sinister organ music gets really loud.

Bogeyphobia – Fear of the bogeyman; or Kinomortophobia – Fear of zombies

Pediophobia – Fear of dolls…like Chucky.

If you’re a vampire, you might suffer from:

Spectrophobia, the fear of mirrors and one’s own reflection; or Alliumphobia, fear of garlic.

If you’re an author, you worry your readers will develop logophobia (fear of reading) or hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (fear of long words).

Some phobias are head scratchers.

Ompholaphobia: Fear of belly buttons

Photo credit: Thorsten Frenzel, Pixabay

Lutraphobia: Fear of otters

Photo credit: hamikus, Pixabay

Anatidaephobia– Fear of a duck or goose watching you

Photo credit: Dighini, Pixabay

Arachibutyrophobia: Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. Our last dog, a German Shorthair, developed this phobia after I fed him an open-faced peanut butter sandwich. While watching him trying to lick it loose, I dissolved in helpless laughter. Come to think of it, maybe he didn’t have arachibutyrophobia, after all, but rather katagelophobia (fear of being embarrassed).

Photo credit: Robert-Owen-Wahl, Pixabay

Wishing you a safe and happy Halloween–just don’t answer the door or look under the bed! 

TKZers: What’s the weirdest phobia you’ve heard of?

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas contains no belly buttons, otters, ducks, nor peanut butter. But it does include a scary mountain lion. Check out the Kindle versionFREE today through November 2.

3+

Sneak Peek into Audiobook Narration

Photo courtesy of Basil Sands

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Jim Bell recently wrote an excellent post about doing his own narration for his audiobook. With training as an actor, attorney, and experienced public speaker, he’s a natural for his craft books.

For memoirs, the author is often the default choice as long as s/he has a good voice. (See recording artist Juni Fisher’s tips for DIY narration at the bottom of this post)

What narration styles do readers prefer for fiction?

In the 1990s, my husband and I browsed racks at truck stops for Books of the Road cassette tapes with great selections of mysteries, thrillers, and historicals. Listening to books made the hours and miles fly by. Several times I really hated to leave a compelling story, even for a dinner break!

Back then, most narrators were male. I recall being annoyed every time a man adopted a falsetto tone for a female character. It totally jerked me out of the story and had a ridiculously comic effect, not the best mood for a tense, life-or-death scene.

Conversely, the female narrator of an early Sue Grafton book sounded so silly when she attempted a phony deep voice for a male character, we ejected the tape.

Audiobooks have grown up a lot since the days of cassette tapes. With their increasing popularity, I went in search of the tastes of today’s listeners.

GoodReads featured a discussion on audiobooks prompted by a two-part question:

In general, would you say you read more books written by male or female authors?

Would you say you listen to, or prefer listening to, more male or female narrators?

Responses were evenly split on whether they read more female or male authors and not necessarily along gender lines.

Many reported they didn’t care which gender as long as the narrator knew what s/he was doing. Quality of performance made the strongest impression.

Several said a book written in first person point of view should be read by a narrator of the same gender.

A number cited irritation with a male narrator who made female characters sound like “bimbos” or a female narrator who sounded “dopey” trying to fake a baritone.

Some respondents had trouble hearing higher-pitched female voices and therefore generally preferred male narrators or females with lower-pitched voices.

A few mentioned preferring a male narrator for male characters and a female narrator for female characters. But a surprising number would rather listen to a single, skillful narrator throughout the whole book, regardless of gender.

Narrators develop their own fan bases. One fan said: “I can fall in love with narrators and try an audiobook simply because they narrated it, even if I’ve never even heard of the author.”

British accents entranced many fans.

Quite a few cited Davina Porter as a favorite. She narrated Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

Others said they would listen to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith read the phone book.

~~~

To learn what happens inside the recording studio, I reached out to two well-respected audiobook narrators, one male, Basil Sands, and one female, Marguerite Gavin.

Photo courtesy of Basil Sands

Basil Sands has narrated numerous novels by TKZ’s own James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap. Basil is also the author of the Ice Hammer series. He has his own studio in his Anchorage, Alaska home where he narrates and does post-production editing.

DB: Basil, would you give us an overview of the process of creating an audiobook?

BS: Writing a novel has a great many complex parts and narrating a book into audio format is similar.

The rights holder (author/publisher) contacts the narrator community for auditions. Once the narrator is chosen, contract and script are sent. The narrator should read through the entire text at least once. There will likely NEVER be time to read a book twice, or enjoy a leisurely read ever again. Time crunches may mean cold reads so improv skills are a must.There is literally no time for rehearsing.

In order to make a decent living, a narrator has to do two to four books a month or more.

DB: Do you ever consult with the author?

BS: In most cases, [publishers arrange contracts and] authors are off-limits to narrators. If I can, I love talking to authors to get their take on their characters.

Years ago, I recorded back-catalog books for Piers Anthony (sci-fi/fantasy author with unusual names and spelling). I emailed Piers (now 85). He had no idea his old books were being recorded and was delighted. He gave me free rein to perform as I pleased. I had a lot of fun with his series.

DB: How do you handle female voices and dialogue?

BS: With a fairly deep, resonant voice, I never go falsetto. My tactic is to soften my voice, slide up an octave or two, and give a less masculine impression.

Basil’s summation: Narrating is far from the easiest of acting professions but is one of the best ways an actor can really sink their chops into their trade. Every book is a marathon, playing all the parts, knowing all the details, in full control of the entire show. Did I mention I love my job?

~~~

Audiobook narrator Marguerite Gavin

Marguerite Gavin has narrated 600+ books and won multiple awards. She lives on the Delaware shoreline with her 19-year-old daughter. She likes to say she and author Dana Stabenow grew up together since Marguerite narrated Dana’s first Kate Chugak thriller and they’ve worked together for 22 books. Marguerite also brings to life Liam CampbellDana’s male protagonist.

During our phone conversation, when asked how she handles male voices, Marguerite says she narrates many thrillers where, inevitably, “five male cops all from the same hometown with similar accents wind up in a car chase. How do you distinguish among them?” She then demonstrated several voices with slight but distinct differences in tone, diction, and speech patterns.

In addition to narration, Marguerite is an actor/director and jokes, “Audiobook narration supports my theatre habit.”  She also teaches and coaches students “to understand the actor’s instrument of voice and to understand their own range.

If the character is a hulking male truck driver who smokes, “I throw air over my cords. It’s not always about pitch.”

She believes it’s easier for a woman to do male voices because women have more range. “I’m not afraid to sound like a man.” She suspects men have more trouble making the leap to sound feminine.

Marguerite loves to narrate series, watching characters evolve over time. She also enjoys collaborations with authors.

Her enthusiasm for her profession comes through with every word. “I’m fortunate to have the balance of financial stability with my passion. It’s important to keep your joy in your job.”

“The skill is to be inside the story as much as possible. You don’t want people listening to an actor act rather than getting lost in the story.” She always asks, “What makes a good reading experience? What is the feeling?”

Thank you, Basil and Marguerite, for giving us a peek inside audiobook narration! It’s always enlightening to talk with artists whose passion for their profession shines through.

~~~

Recording artist Juni Fisher’s tips for DIY narration, quoted with her permission:

  • Print script in 14-16 font, double-spaced, and make notes.
  • Recording can be done a few lines, a paragraph, a page at a time.
  • If you make a small error, clap your hands to make a “mark” so you know where to go back to re-record, and keep going.
  • Use your eyebrows when you read. Be more enthusiastic than you think. The engineer will have you back off if it’s too much.
  • Advice from the music recording industry: “Nice, but do it now so I BELIEVE you.”
  • Sip room-temperature water or warm water (never cold) every couple of pages or paragraphs.
  • No dairy and no sugar.
  • Use sugar-free throat lozenges (not numbing type).
  • Speak as you’d speak to someone you adore, sitting right next to you.

~~~

TKZers:

Do you have a preference for audiobook narrators of one gender over the other? If so, what are your reasons?

What audiobook quality is most important to you as a listener?

 

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new book, Stalking Midas, is FREE on Kindle today through November 2.  Here’s the link. 

 

 

6+

Reaching Out to New Writers

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

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.

3+

Bookstore Spotlight: Bad Rock Books

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_twitter

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.

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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?

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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.”

Whew!

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.

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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.”

Etc.

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.

 

 

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