About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Heart...and Sass. 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 Jealous God

Photo credit: Stefan Ringler, Unsplash

by Debbie Burke



Good morning, TKZers, and welcome to another Brave Author who submitted the first page of a domestic thriller entitled A Jealous God. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.




Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend. Thirty seconds into his sermon and sweat already dripped from his forehead. Black polyester stuck to his chest. Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. Poor Gilroy was about to melt into a puddle, but at least her father was comfortable.

“If I offer you an apple today,” Gilroy said. “Or promised you an orchard tomorrow, land and trees stretched out so far you can’t even count them all, just as certain as the sun rises in the East you’d choose the apple in my hand. Your hunger consumes you.”

Last week it was a penny over a dollar, the week before a lamb over the flock. God still wasn’t their friend.

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her. Her mother and four siblings squeezed into the front rows with the rest of the congregation, a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

“So you hold out your hand and take all that Satan has to give,” Gilroy said. “You’re proud, arrogant. Condemning your immortal soul into everlasting torment.”

Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.


Okay, let’s dig in.

This is a strong example of how to start off a story with conflict and tension even though there’s minimal action. The scene is set, several characters are introduced with brief but effective descriptions, and questions are immediately raised in the reader’s mind.

What the heck is going on with a teenage girl in church who’s being shunned by family and perhaps menaced by a stranger?

What struck me most about this beginning was the author’s excellent use of sensory detail to set the scene. The reader feels the sticky, oppressive humidity and perspiration running down his or her torso. Not only is the temperature stifling, so is the mood. As the preacher instills fear of eternal damnation in his congregation, the reader feels something horrible will soon occur.

Let’s go through a few lines (in blue) in closer detail. My suggestions are in red.

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend.

Punch up the first line by showing Gilroy’s exclamation rather than telling:

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible. “God is not your friend!”


Black polyester stuck to his chest.

That’s a great image—who hasn’t felt clinging, sweaty fabric that doesn’t breathe? But perhaps add a more specific detail:

The black polyester clergy shirt stuck to his chest.

The foreboding is already strong but Brave Author might add smell—the rank odor of nervous sweat.

When the focus shifts from Gilroy to Alice’s father, suggest you drop down and start a new paragraph:

Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. 

Maybe add a few words of explanation about the throne and why Alice’s father enjoys the elevated status.

Suggest you get inside Alice’s POV as soon as possible.

Alice watched her father nodding in agreement from his throne beside the pulpit. His legs were crossed and hands draped over the armrests, a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet.


Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her.

“No one dared join her” nicely conveys not only her physical position in the church but also her social position in the congregation. She is separate from her family and shunned for reasons not yet known. The reader wants to find out why. Well done.

Nice job of slipping in Alice’s age, 17, as well as time reference with the Bozo the Clown Pez dispenser. Bozo adds irreverent humor—another hint at Alice’s attitude toward these pious folks.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.


Suggest you move the line highlighted in red to its own paragraph. It’s clearly an important hint to the story conflict and shouldn’t be buried in the middle of a paragraph. The reader wonders who Tom is, what was his relationship with Alice, what accident, and did the accident happen in the “old” church.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident.


The next paragraph offers more vivid sensory details.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

While the pastor talks, the reader sees the image, feels the apple, hears and tastes the crunch. The verb choices squeeze and bite reinforce the underlying message of punishment. Good job.


A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

A stranger on guard foreshadows more conflict for Alice. Nice tight description of the man, especially the scar which makes him more threatening. His dry, starched shirt suggested he’s cool and removed, compared to everyone else who’s sweating.

But the last sentence of that paragraph was confusing.

Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

The reader’s attention is jerked from the man’s description to five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps. Is the mud inside or outside the church? If there’s mud at the entrance, why are his boots still clean?

Suggested rewrite in Alice’s deep POV:

How had his brown leather boots stayed so polished and shiny after slogging through five inches of mud at the entrance steps?


This line was confusing: Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

The stranger is standing guard at the side door. Alice is sitting in the last pew. When she slides across the pew, apparently intending to escape, how does the stranger follow? Does he sit in the pew with her and slide closer? Rewrite so the reader can visualize exactly the position of each character and how they are moving in relation to each other, the pew, and the side door.

Big picture: This unfortunate teenager apparently committed an unknown sin and is shunned by her family and the congregation. The reader wants to find out what she did. Her wry comments on the fire and brimstone sermon, the minister, and her pompous father show her rebellious spirit and make her likable.

What transgression was so serious that a stranger follows Alice and tries to keep her from escaping?

The title A Jealous God is compelling and effective. It conjures up fearful wrath and vengeance, fitting themes for the domestic thriller genre. Deuteronomy 4:24 reads: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

I did a short search and found only two novels with that title, one by John Braine published in 1964, and one by Simon Mawer published in 1996. Surprisingly, the title hasn’t been used that often, making it a good choice.

The exact locale isn’t specified but I’m intrigued enough to wait a few pages to find out where the story happens.

The heading “Alice 1979” sets the time period. It also might indicate this scene is a flashback.

The tweaks are minor. Clarify a few points mentioned above. Rearrange several sentences to increase the dramatic impact.

The Brave Author starts with action, introduces a sympathetic character in trouble, sets the scene, shows conflict, and raises questions. A lot of tension and suspense thrum in this first page.

The writing is vivid and full of sensory detail that puts the reader into the stifling, oppressive atmosphere beside Alice. I want to escape as much as she does. I also want to find why she’s in this situation and if she can get out of it. Compelling start!


TKZers: What do you think of this first page? Would you keep reading? Any suggestions for the Brave Author?



Introducing Audiobook Narrator Eve Passeltiner

by Debbie Burke


Audiobook narrator Eve Passeltiner

Gifts sometimes fall into my lap from benevolent angels who watch out for writers. During a book appearance last summer, good fortune smiled on me.

The venue was an outdoor bar/café on the shoreline of the Swan River in Bigfork, Montana.

About 30 people sat on socially-distanced lawn chairs, noshing, sipping, and soaking up sunshine while listening to me and three other authors chat about our books. For most of us, it was the first gathering since the pandemic began and everyone’s spirits were high.

Afterward a woman approached me and introduced herself as Eve Passeltiner, a stage actress who’d performed for years in New York and New England. She’d recently moved to Montana, had read my work, and said, “I’d like to narrate your books.”


Although I was flattered, I sidestepped. Readers often ask about audio versions but I wasn’t ready to take the plunge yet.

When we later met for coffee, I let her know my concerns but, bless Eve, she persisted. She had more faith in my books than I did and convinced me that an audiobook was worthwhile.

Market stats back her up and mirror the continued rise in audiobook popularity. According to a June, 2020 article in Publishers Weekly:

The Audio Publishers Association’s [APA] annual sales survey found that sales from 24 reporting companies rose 16% in 2019 over 2018, reaching $1.2 billion. The survey also found that unit sales increased by 16%. The gain in 2019 was the eighth consecutive year in which audiobook revenue rose by double digits, the APA said.

Another PW article about the 2020 online BookExpo stated:

APA retail member Chirp reported an initial dip in listening during commuting hours at the start of the lockdown, but it rebounded quickly as people discovered their new routines at home, and listenership has in fact increased to above the pre-shutdown level.

Authors need to put ourselves into the minds of our readers and figure out what they want.

Although I personally prefer written words over spoken ones, many book buyers choose to listen.

Eve convinced me I need to consider those buyers…and the sales I was missing.

During more coffee dates, I learned that Eve had been a flashlight-under-covers young reader who saved her babysitting money to buy books. Her early love of reading provides a solid grounding for audiobook creation.

In addition to performing and directing theatre, Eve is also an accomplished voice-over actor (video games, commercials and more). One of her most treasured projects was being the featured voice actor for the Washington Post’s Webby Award Honoree multimedia piece “The Women of Kabul” where she portrayed three different Afghan women, bringing each to life with a unique vocal quality and energy.

Eve Passeltiner with her Audie medal

In 2020, she was part of audiobooks that were nominated for awards including the Audie (the Oscars of the audiobook world) and an Independent Audiobook Award from the Audiobook Publishers Association (think Sundance Film Festival). She has also been reviewed in AudioFile Magazine, the source for everything audiobook.

Because Eve has traveled extensively, lived in big cities and small towns, and speaks several languages, she is skillful with accents and dialects (British, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, German, French, Russian, New York, Southern and more). She says, “Accents are a wonderful flavor that add to the work, but they shouldn’t overpower the storytelling.”

What is a day in the life of a narrator like?

Like most narrators, Eve wears several hats—researcher, actor, director, and engineer. Roughly half of Eve’s jobs come from publishers and half from indie authors. Although she does the initial engineering to record the book, publishers either have in-house staff or contract out the final editing, mastering, and proofing of the audiobook.

When I visited her home studio, it was a beautiful, carpeted, walk-in closet with a high ceiling. Eve says its unusual trapezoid shape is ideal because of the way sound waves move, making it preferable to a square room.

Hanging garments, covered with curtains, surround a desk with recording equipment. Eve says, “Clothing is a great sound dampener, along with the carpet.” Sound-absorbing pillows and blankets give the room a tranquil feeling. The studio is in the center of the house which acts as a natural barrier to noises from the outside world.

“What you want,” she says, “is a good dead sound, not boxy [echo or hollow].”

Dead sounds appropriate for crime fiction, doesn’t it?

When recording, Eve turns off the furnace, leaves her phone in another part of the house, and shoos Marco the cat out of the bedroom.

“Narrators are always looking for the sweet spot in terms of hydration and eating,” Eve says. “I start drinking water hours before I record—but not too much. And, of course as far as food goes, I want to avoid stomach gurgles. It is amazing how many sounds the body can make once you tune in to them.”

Eve does extensive preparation before she even starts to record. She reads the book, maps the story, casts the characters in her mind, studies relationships, character and story arcs, and looks up unfamiliar words and locations. She does a lot of the same in-depth research that writers do.

One of her favorite tools is her iPad. From it, Eve creates the master document for performance and recording. Using a special application, she inserts character notes, differentiates narration from dialogue, and includes correct pronunciation of names, places, or foreign words. She adds either an audio clip with pronunciation or types out the phonetic spelling.

For example, the name Kahlil Sharivar is noted as Kaw-LEEL SHAH-ree-var. She’ll be saying that name a lot as she records Instrument of the Devil, the first thriller in my series.

For each character’s dialogue, she color-codes the script: women’s voices are often highlighted in pink, orange, or purple, with the female lead in yellow. Men’s voices are often blue, green, or brown. She uses harsher colors for dangerous characters.

In addition to the script on the iPad screen, she monitors another screen in her studio that displays Twisted Wave, an editing software program for audio. Punch and roll is the industry standard for recording long-form audio and allows her to re-record or make changes to the audio file. If Eve misspeaks, coughs, or hears a car drag-racing in the distance, she can go back, reset the cursor, and start recording again. This allows for a seamless wave file that is ideal for editing, mastering, and proofing once the book is recorded.

On the tech equipment side, Eve is a big fan of Audio-Technica AT4047 microphones (she has two, one as a backup) because it perfectly matches her rich alto voice. Her Beyerdynamic headphones are easy (literally) on the ears and her pre-amp (a magic box that is a conduit between mic and computer) is an Audient iD4.

She prefers to sit when recording because it gives a more intimate feel, like telling a story to a good friend over coffee. Sessions last between 45-90 minutes, usually to the end of a chapter. During breaks, she stretches and uses a foam roller for massage. Then it’s back to the studio.

When asked how long it takes to record an audiobook, Eve gives the same answer that authors often give when asked how long it takes to write a book: “It depends.”  Variables include how many accents, the number of characters, and the writing style of the author. Plus, of course, the length.

Similar to acting, the narrator “lives” in the world the author created. She must get to know characters well enough to portray them with convincing, engaging voices. To differentiate the sound of a character, she uses pitch, speed, and even body placement to create an individual voice. To indicate internal thoughts, she may change her tone or volume.

My Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are set in northwest Montana where both Eve and I live. To further capture the story mood, Eve went the extra mile, checking out locations in the series, including the classic Craftsman bungalow that I’d used as a model for Tawny’s home and Hungry Horse Dam, the scene of the climax in the first book.

As a self-described “student of humanity,” Eve travels extensively and has a lifelong love of learning. New experiences help her relate to characters and make them feel more real.

Eve performs in three dimensions as if she’s on stage. Her body position and facial expression reflect what’s happening in a scene, whether she arches her back or hunches over, is wide-eyed or squints, etc. She says, “Stage actors make great narrators because they have endurance and know how to inhabit the character.”

During one of our visits, I saw firsthand how convincingly Eve inhabits a character.

The male lead in my series is a brilliant, intimidating lawyer named Tillman Rosenbaum who’s 6’7”, with a James Earl Jones voice, and an intense, dark stare that skewers his opponents.

How the heck could this pretty, petite, blue-eyed woman pull that off?

At the time, she was reading the second book in the series, Stalking Midas. She mentioned how much she liked my female lead, Tawny, and hated to see her suffer.

I made the smartass crack, “Wait until you read the later books where I really beat her up.”

Eve’s entire demeanor changed. In a flash, she grew larger and imposing. She leaned toward me and pierced me with a stare that was so threatening, it sent a shiver up my neck.

She became Tillman—a man who would kill to protect his beloved Tawny. 

At that moment, any doubts I’d had about Eve’s ability to capture Tillman  evaporatedNow we joke often about the “Tillman Stare.” 

Hearing my book for the first time is an author’s milestone that feels much the same as the first time holding the physical copy of my published books.

Here’s a small sample performed by Eve:

I didn’t go in search of an audio narrator but, by good fortune, I found one. Eve is not only hard-working and talented but is also a genuinely nice person who’s become a good friend.

How did I get so lucky? 


TKZers: Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like most about them? What, if anything, do you dislike?

Any authors with audio versions, please chime in with your experiences.


Stay tuned for the launch of the audio version of Instrument of the Devil. 


Meanwhile you can read ebooks or paperbacks in the series, Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart…and Sass.

For sale at Amazon and online retailers. 


Crime or Not?

by Debbie Burke


On March 20, an unidentified man rode a horse into the Town Pump convenience store in Bozeman, Montana.

I’m not sure if this constitutes a crime. After all, in Montana, it’s not unheard of to ride a horse into a bar and sometimes even a hotel lobby.

There is also the fuzzy legal question of whether or not DUI laws apply to horseback riding. The Montana code reads:

61-8-401 states that it is unlawful for any person to operate or be in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, intoxicants or any combination thereof with a blood alcohol concentration of .08% or greater.

One can argue the law doesn’t apply because the horse is not a motor vehicle. Also, the horse is quite likely to get the intoxicated rider home safely. So, ensuring public safety seems to come down on the side of Ole Dobbin.

That raises another question: if this rider is sober, what crime, if any, should he be charged with? Trespassing? Misdemeanor showing off?

What do you think, TKZers? Should this prank be considered a crime? If so, what’s the charge? 


Eugene Francois Vidocq and the Origins of Criminology

Photo credit – Jin Zan, Creative Commons license


By Debbie Burke


While casting about for today’s topic, I ran across an article about the Nigerian Prince scam, mentioning its origins could be traced back to early 19th century to the “Spanish prisoner” confidence game.

Spanish prisoner? What the heck is that?

Down the research rabbit hole I tumbled. 

In that vintage fraud, a con artist would contact a target, claiming a relative was being held prisoner in Spain and needed money to secure the prisoner’s release. If the target turned over money, the fraudster promised that, once free, the grateful prisoner would bestow generous rewards on the benefactor.

Of course, there was no prisoner and the only reward went to the fraudster who convinced the hapless victim to pay him/her money.

In more recent times, the scam evolved and is known as Pigeon Drop, Nigerian Prince, or 419 (the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that describes that fraud).

What caught my eye in the article was the name Eugene Francois Vidocq, who’d recounted the Spanish Prisoner scam in his early 19th century memoir. I’d previously read about The Vidocq Society, an organization of former law enforcement personnel who reexamine cold cases.

Achille Devéria (1800-1857). Portrait d’Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857), aventurier et chef de la police de sûreté. Lithographie. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

But who was this man behind the group’s name?

Farther down the hole, I veered onto a side trail.

Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857) was a French criminal. He started his dubious career as a teenager by stealing from his well-to-do parents. His father had him arrested and jailed for theft to teach his wayward son a lesson. However, two weeks in the pokey didn’t temper young Vidocq’s propensity for larceny.

A charming ladies man and skilled fencer, Vidocq was smart and wily but also lazy. He wanted money but earning it was too much trouble. He drifted through his misspent youth, deserted from the military, and continued to commit minor crimes.

Prison advanced Vidocq’s education. During his frequent jail stays, he evidently studied techniques from fellow inmates which gave him an in-depth understanding of the criminal mind. He learned forgery (he successfully forged pardons for other prisoners), how to fence stolen goods, and the art of impersonation. For one escape, he stole a nun’s habit to disguise himself and walked out of the prison hospital.

Perhaps the most valuable knowledge Vidocq acquired while incarcerated was human psychology. He understood how to gain someone’s confidence and trust as well as how to play on their dreams, desires, and greed…to his own advantage.

On the run after escaping from prison, he adopted aliases and hid out for several years. His various lovers and his mother helped him elude the authorities. He was a conniving scoundrel who charmed people even though he shamelessly used them for selfish reasons. When cornered or caught, he somehow cajoled them into giving him another chance.

An arrest in 1809 changed the course of Vidocq’s career. To avoid conviction, he offered to become a police informant and was sent to jail as a spy. He became a successful snitch because other prisoners respected his reputation. He’d perfected the ability to gain their confidence and use that trust against them.

Who better to catch a criminal than another criminal?

As Vidocq entered middle age, he’d finally found a niche to put his unique talents to work, eventually becoming known as the father of modern criminology with his revolutionary techniques.

In 1811, Vidocq organized an unofficial plainclothes police unit of secret agents. They soon were granted official status under the name Brigade de la Surete. In 1813, Napoleon proclaimed the state security police group as the Surete Nationale, with Vidocq at the helm.

He recruited agents who were often criminals from his past, sometimes straight out of prison, except now they worked for the law enforcement rather than against it.

Professional ethics were flexible with some agents foregoing a regular salary in lieu of favors, like licenses for gambling establishments they owned. Like his staff, Vidocq also  operated a side business, a private detective agency, likely the first in history. He earned fees for that work in addition to his salary.

According to Wikipedia:

Vidocq persuaded his superiors to allow his agents, who also included women, to wear plain clothes and disguises depending on the situation. Thus, they did not attract attention and, as former criminals, also knew the hiding places and methods of criminals. Through their contacts, they often learned of planned crimes and were able to catch the guilty red-handed. Vidocq also had a different approach to interrogation. In his memoirs, he mentions several times that he did not take those arrested to prison immediately, but invited them to dinner, where he chatted with them. In addition to information about other crimes, he often obtained confessions in this non-violent way and recruited future informants and even agents.

By 1820, Vidocq and his group brought about a substantial decrease in the crime rate in Paris.

However political changes led to friction with his superiors. After official reprimands, he resigned in 1827.

Vidocq had become a wealthy man, now married to his third wife. He bought a paper factory and employed ex-cons, a scandalous practice that caused public outcry. But business problems and his wife’s medical bills led to bankruptcy in 1831. Turns out he was a more successful investigator than an entrepreneur.

He returned to law enforcement work but rivalries with other departments, jealousy, questionable tactics, and political pressure eventually caused him to leave the Surete for good.

In 1833, he founded a combination detective agency and private security force called the Office of Information (Le Bureau des Renseignements). Using index cards, he established what would now be called a criminal database, which recorded personal information, aliases, convictions, and handwriting samples of thousands of people.

Photo credit: George Evans, Unsplash

Vidocq built the foundation for what became the field of criminology. He revolutionized police techniques, introducing undercover operations that included women. He set up a laboratory for scientific experiments, a precursor to the field of forensics. He used plaster casts to preserve footprint evidence. He invented indelible ink and tamperproof paper to prevent check forgery. He developed ballistic testing to prove whether or not a projectile had been fired from a particular firearm.

He also published several memoirs. His exploits and notoriety captured public attention, including that of authors Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, and Edgar Allen Poe. All of them modeled fictional characters on Vidocq’s adventures as both a criminal and criminalist. Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables are the best-known examples.

Despite Vidocq’s success bringing perpetrators to justice, his ongoing connections with criminals and ex-cons kept him under continuous scrutiny by police and politicians. He was arrested and jailed several more times for alleged fraud, corruption of public officials, and pretension of public functions. Ultimately the charges were dismissed.

Additionally, he made poor investments, was involved in expensive lawsuits, and remained a ladies man, further depleting his bank account. At the time of his death in 1857 at the age of 81, he was nearly broke. Nevertheless, eleven women and one stepson made claims on his estate.

The Vidocq Society was founded in 1990, named to honor the man who is widely recognized as the father of modern criminology. The Society meets monthly in Philadelphia to review cold case homicides and offer pro-bono assistance to law enforcement to investigate old crimes.

I originally started down the rabbit hole looking up a con game. But I also stumbled into the history of early developments that shaped modern criminology and forensics.

Research is so darn much fun.


Note: Apologies to French speakers for missing accent marks, cedillas and circumflexes. I don’t know how to insert them in Word Press.

TKZers: What favorite tidbit have you discovered on a side trip that led you astray from your original research quest?


Cover design by Brian Hoffman


In Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Flight to Forever, investigator Tawny Lindholm tumbles down a hole into danger and death during her search for a pair of aging fugitives hiding out in a remote mountaintop fire lookout.

Buy Flight to Forever at these links:

Kindle                Other online outlets


Guest Post by Agatha-Winner Leslie Budewitz

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

Today, I’m pleased to host Leslie Budewitz for this guest post. Leslie is an attorney, mystery author of two cozy series, and triple Agatha Award winner. For more than 20 years, she and I have been trusted critique partners and good friends.

Leslie offers insightful techniques to deepen emotion in our writing. Welcome, Leslie!

Emotional Research

by Leslie Budewitz

No matter what genre we write, readers come to our books in part for an emotional connection with our characters and the story. One way to give them that is to draw on our own experiences. We’ve all felt deep emotion—rage, betrayal, jealousy—that if pushed to extremes could lead us to do terrible things, planned or unplanned. I’m betting most of you have drawn on your own emotional experiences in your fiction, exploring your personal emotions, perhaps through a free-write, then giving that, or pieces of it, to your characters.

But sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. This is when need to call on our research and observational skills, as well as our empathy, to better understand a character’s emotional experiences, what motivates them, and how they will respond in a particular story crisis.

I first delved into this when writing my first published mystery, Death al Dente. When the series began, my main character, Erin Murphy, was a 32-year-old who had lost her father to a hit-and-run accident when she was 17; the crime was unsolved and I planned to solve it over the course of the first three books.

My father died when I was 30. That’s a very different experience. I’d worked on countless personal injury cases as a lawyer, including wrongful death cases, and knew some of what survivors went through. But I needed to know more about the emotion and how it might continue to influence this particular woman

I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew—well or not well—who’d lost a parent when they were young. Some of my observations were decades old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I remembered talking on the phone for an hour, back when daytime long distance was expensive, when my best friend from college lost her father at 21. I thought about some of the ways that loss at that age affected her—she’s still my BFF—and gave her a different experience than her older siblings got.

I remembered a conversation with a 35-year-old colleague whose father died when he was 18. “But you were grown,” a friend said, implying that that lessened the impact; “not really,” he replied, and his sadness told me how much he felt had been unjustly taken from him.

I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving her—and me—a dual perspective. I let my focus drift and I wrote about my reaction and that of my high school classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident junior year. Later that same week, a girl a year behind us in our small school lost her mother to wintry roads; the family lived near us and went to the same church. I thought about the baby, not a year old, who never knew his mother, and some poor decisions the oldest girl made that might have turned out differently if not for that tragedy.

Other options: Talk to people who’ve had your character’s experience, if they’re willing, or to people involved with it in other ways. I talked to my husband, who’s a doctor of natural medicine with a general practice and has treated many patients rocked by grief. Talk to your friend who teaches high school or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.

I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.

And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded; how the death affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship now. Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead Francesca to do—and say—when she sees her daughter investigating murder? Erin was on stage in the local theater rehearsing for the school play when the accident happened; fifteen years later, she still thinks about that every time she walks in the building. And the guilt she feels over having argued with him the last time she saw him doesn’t resolve until she solves the crime. It was just a teenager’s pique, but the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the emotions and the bigger the potential story impact.

Of course, all losses have ripple effects. In college, Erin was aloof, focused on school and her own grief. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her friendship with her childhood best pal is a big driver of the story as well, because of what the other girl thought she knew and how she responded—and because she’s now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.

For Erin, I did the emotional research during the first draft. For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut coming out later this month, I did the digging during revision, in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, appeared to be driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and blog posts by psychologists. Tip: This is one time when you want to read the comments! People will say the most amazing things when given the freedom.

All that helped me develop what I knew, and gave me specifics on how such a person views the world and the language they use. I was able to imagine more fully what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.

I said write by hand when you mine your memories and connections, and I mean it. Research shows that writing by hand bypasses our internal editors and judges, and gives us more direct access to our feelings.

You know how to research dates and car models and the color of prison jumpsuits. Turn those skills to your characters’ inner lives and you—and your readers—will connect with them more deeply, more fully.


Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a current board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in NW Montana.

Find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.

More about Bitterroot Lake, including an excerpt and buy links here: https://www.lesliebudewitz.com/bitterroot-lake/



A big thank you to Leslie for sharing her wisdom! 

TKZers: Do you have favorite techniques to portray emotions about experiences you haven’t experienced yourself? Please share in the comments section. 


First Page Critique – They Call it Street Justice


San Quentin
Photo credit: wikimedia

by Debbie Burke


Today, let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for feedback and suggestions. The genre is Private Eye Mystery. Please enjoy reading then we’ll discuss.

They Call it Street Justice

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

No matches so far.

I smiled at the guard stationed outside the front door.  I could tell he was pissed because I told him that Governor Gordon Knight had given me special permission to park at the curb.  I’d given him the Governor’s business card with ’Special Permission” handwritten on the back.  He still didn’t believe me, but couldn’t figure how to prove I was fibbing to him.

Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette out the bottom of my loafer.

“Are you Harold Darby?”

“Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

“Doing what?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What do you do for my lawyer.  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

“Why didn’t he come?”

“Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

He shrugged.

“Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A half-hearted laugh slipped out. “No.  No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“I doubt it.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

“You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?’

“I don’t like you.”

I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?


I always enjoy retro hard-boiled noir. We meet Jack Rhodes, a wise-cracking, smartass detective on a mission to pick up a newly-released convict at San Quentin prison. Rhodes’s employer is a lawyer with the nifty name of Walton Finesse Smith who wants to meet with his client, Harold Darby.

The Brave Author has done a good job of avoiding the dreaded info dump that bogs down many first pages. Details are slipped in seamlessly but a little too sparingly. The reader could use more information, like when the story is happening.

Except for the mention of former California Governor Knight (BTW, the correct first name is Goodwin, not Gordon), the time is not specified. Knight’s term ran from 1953-59 but few readers will know that w/o looking it up. I suggest pinning down the era with a year. For instance, you might identify Rhodes’s car as, say, a 1956 Ford Fairlane Sunliner.

Instead of saying “Darby had been in San Quentin for XX years,” the author uses a barely-recognizable photo to show how Darby has changed during a long prison sentence. Well done.

The author might further use the photo to describe what Darby looked like in his younger days, then contrast that appearance with how he looks now.

The “special privileges” card from the governor is another hint that’s smoothly inserted, implying either Rhodes or his boss enjoys political influence. That establishes the detective as higher on the food chain than the stereotypical hard-luck gumshoe. The reader’s curiosity is tickled—why did the governor grant that status? What’s the backstory?

More intriguing questions are raised when Darby claims “I didn’t kill him.” Murder usually earns a life sentence so why is Darby being released? Why does Walton Finesse Smith want to see his client now? Was a deal cut with the governor? Who is the victim?

Generally, the Brave Author has achieved a good balance between raising curiosity and avoiding confusion. This page intrigues but doesn’t overwhelm. With too little information, the reader becomes mystified and frustrated. With too much, the story bogs down. Enrich this page with a bit more detail and it will be even more effective.

Although not a great deal of action happens on this first page, there is still a good sense of forward momentum in the story.


I color-coded suggested edits.

Blue is the original text.

Red demonstrates ways to combine sentences and rearrange the order to convey information more concisely.

Green indicates possible ways to go deeper into Rhodes’s POV, revealing more of his thoughts and reactions to give the reader more insight into his personality.

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   [suggest you move the following passage to later] Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

To quickly establish that Rhodes flouts rules and has political influence, the author could rearrange the order as shown below:

I parked in the No Parking zone at the curb in front of San Quentin, got out, leaned against the front fender, and lit up. Before I finished my first Camel, the guard glared at me and approached. I flicked Governor Goodwin Knight’s business card at him. “The governor sends his greetings,” I said then indicated the handwritten notation on the back. It read: Special Permission.

The guard’s sneer said he didn’t believe me but he couldn’t figure out how to prove I was fibbing to him. He returned to his post at the gate, still casting suspicious glances at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile back. 

Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph [that] Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look[ed] different now.

            No matches so far.

The above paragraph could be tightened like this:

I smoked another Camel while I compared a black-and-white photo with the few men who walked out of the gate. Most looked like lawyers—big valises, fedoras, and shiny wingtips. No matches so far. 

Walton Finesse Smith, Attorney at Law, had given me the snapshot to identify Harold Darby. Good old Harold probably had a few more miles on him since the shot was taken. San Quentin did that to a guy.


            Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette on out the bottom of my loafer. 

            “Are you Harold Darby?”

Make clear that Darby came through the prison gate. Also give Rhodes’s reaction to the man.

A gray-haired geezer who might be my man stepped through the prison gate into the sunshine. Looked like 80 but was probably 60. He sighed.

I crushed out my cigarette on the sole of my loafer and walked toward him. “Are you Harold Darby?”

            “Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

            “My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

            “Doing what?”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “What do you do for my lawyer?  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Use this opportunity to set the time period with a short description of Rhodes’s car.

“What do you do for my lawyer?” He eyed my aquamarine ’56 Ford Fairlane Sunliner. “I’m not getting in a strange car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

            Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

            “Why didn’t he come?”

            “Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

Describe Darby through Rhodes’s eyes.

I scanned Darby’s features, deeply-lined forehead, gray eyes sunken in dark hollows. “Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A halfhearted laugh, more like a gag. “No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“Especially not her.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said. Delete dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward.

            I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

[Needs attribution] “You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”


Combine sentences to condense action. Add more of Rhodes’s thoughts about Darby.

We piled into the car and I lowered the convertible top. As I drove, he raised his face to the bright sun. How long since Darby had felt a breeze blowing his hair?

“I didn’t kill him.”

What is Darby’s tone? Defensive, bitter, defeated? Does he spit out the words? Or is he weary after repeating the denial a thousand times?

The statement signals what is likely the main plot problem—the wrongly-convicted, innocent man. Because that is a common trope in PI fiction, look for ways to give it a fresh angle.  

What is Rhodes’s internal reaction to Darby’s denial? Is there an unusual hint in Darby’s manner or tone that raises Rhodes’s interest?

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?”

Make Rhodes’s retort sharper. “Yeah, damn shame about you and all those other innocent guys in the big Q.”

            “I don’t like you.” Show Darby’s reaction with facial expression or gesture.

            [Missing quote] “I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, [missing comma] pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?” [Missing quote]

Suggest you cut the phrase ragging on my ass all the way. It doesn’t fit since Darby has mostly been neutral or quiet until Rhodes challenges his profession of innocence.

“I get that a lot.”  I braked at a stop sign then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, pal, it’s a long drive back to Los Angeles. You want the burger?”

General suggestions:

The title They Call it Street Justice sounds weak because “They” and “It” are vague pronouns. Who are They? What is it?

Street Justice is a stronger title but has already been used for books, TV shows, and movies. Maybe someone can suggest better title ideas in the comments.

Ending a name with an “S” adds unnecessary complication in the possessive form and makes editing consistency tough—hard to remember if you used Rhodes’ or Rhodes’s. Also, in audiobook form, Rhodes’s sounds awkward. For those reasons, I try to avoid names that end with “S”.

Rhodes seems a bit flat as a character. Try to add more of his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. He doesn’t necessarily have to be likable but give the reader a reason to follow him through the story.

When setting a story in the past, carefully check historical references (like Governor Goodwin Knight’s name). Factual errors undermine the reader’s trust.

There are several places with extra spaces after words or missing punctuation. Also, use only one space after a period, rather than two. Those of us who learned to type on a typewriter have trouble breaking that old habit. However, two spaces after a period in an ebook causes formatting to go wonky.

The author withholds information but offers enough details that the reader can follow what’s going on without becoming confused and frustrated. That’s a tough balance to achieve but this page succeeds. Well done!

This is a promising start with a strong sense of forward momentum. Thank you for sharing, Brave Author!


TKZers: Does this first page draw you in? Do you have suggestions for today’s Brave Author?

Many years’ worth of First Page Critiques are available in TKZ’s library in the top main menu bar. Writers often say reading critiques of others’ work helps them spot problem areas in their own. Check out the free, useful resource at this link


Side note: I recently interviewed Tillman Rosenbaum, the brilliant, cynical attorney in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Over Tillman’s vigorous protests, the interview was published on The Protagonist Speaks and you can read it here. Thanks again to Assaph Mehr!



Navigating Rough Waters

Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey, Esprit Whitewater

By Debbie Burke



What does whitewater rafting have to do with writing?

For one thing, rafters and writers often endure blasts of icy water in the face. For authors, the cold, wet shock is metaphoric—a stinging rejection, a hideous review, a kiss-off from a publisher.

Today’s story begins when my pal, former river ranger Susan Purvis recently sent me a link to a podcast about whitewater rafting. Susan often leads me into adventures that always pay off in unexpected rewards so when she recommends something, I listen.

That day, with a crammed to-do list, I didn’t have a spare hour for a podcast. Yet once I started to listen, I couldn’t stop.

The interviewer is Barry Kruse, entrepreneurial coach of Leading Steep, and his subject is Jim Coffey, founder and owner of Esprit Whitewater, a Canadian rafting company.

Jim’s rafting business began in 1992 and survives nearly three decades later, a rarity in the field. A seasonal operation is especially tough because he has to earn enough income in four, maybe five, months to last the entire year. Plus, recreation-oriented businesses are hit hard during recessions when people can’t afford vacation trips.

Jim believes entrepreneurs who succeed have “a high tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” He proves his point when he relates the setbacks he’s experienced that would tank most businesses— a fire that destroyed part of his facilities, a couple of floods, the Covid shutdown, and, last summer, his own diagnosis of throat cancer.

His attitudes and coping tools struck me as helpful advice for authors. The following are a few gold nuggets from his podcast.

Jim: “You never know where that first step is going to lead.”

When you’re stuck in your writing, take a step.

Inertia is not healthy for writers, in body, mind, or word production. If you’re bogged down, take a step in a new direction.

Write a public service announcement for a charity you admire. Write ad copy for a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause.

If your own ads don’t pan out, analyze what authors with similar books do for promotion. Try new avenues.

Learn a new skill—make a video, add fresh features to your website, try a different software writing tool, create an audiobook.

First steps sometimes lead to dead ends. But they can also lead to new universes.


Jim: “You never know who that [most] important customer is going to be. Treat every customer as if they are that person.”

Readers are the author’s customers. Building their loyalty and trust is key to selling books.

A major breakthrough opportunity for Jim’s company occurred when a particular customer was impressed with the fledgling operation. That man turned out to be an influencer who booked more trips for large groups and retreats, as well as recommending Esprit Whitewater to colleagues. A single customer hugely expanded Jim’s business.

For authors, treat every reader as your most important customer. They might place your book in Stephen King’s hands for a blurb. Or convince Oprah to feature it in her book club. Or catch Reese Witherspoon’s attention for a new movie production.

Not likely? Okay, but how about these possibilities?

A reader invites you to speak to their book club. That results in more sales and more readers.

A reader from that book club works for a major media outlet and wants to interview you.

The leader of a civic or professional organization hears/reads your interview and invites you to talk to their 500 members.

And so it can go.

When you treat each reader as that most important customer, their reach and recommendations carry you and your books into markets you never imagined.


Jim: “We manufacture our own luck. Preparation collides with opportunity.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Preparation can mean: take a class; read a new craft book; attend a conference; research new marketing angles.

When you’re doing the work, opportunities pop up in unexpected ways in unexpected places.


Jim: “Be unselfish and generous with your skills and pass them on.”

Help other writers.

The writing community is a continuum of authors at different levels of accomplishment, from beginners to multi-published bestsellers. We have all been helped by authors more experienced than ourselves and, in turn, we can help others less experienced than ourselves.

Freely share what you’ve learned. Teach a workshop. Write a guest blog post. Produce a newsletter for a charitable organization. Mentor a struggling writer.

You might think you’re too new at the craft to offer anything. Not so. You can beta-read. Judge a writing contest. Offer to talk to schoolchildren—most teachers are delighted to host writers and kids are eager to learn.


Jim: “It’s easier to train a great person to be a great whitewater guide than to take a great whitewater guide and turn them into a great person.”

For authors, attitude is more important than skill. Approach learning as a humble student.

I’ve known many talented authors who were positive they were destined to knock Michael Connelly off bestseller lists. They were usually so busy talking about how much they knew and how great they were that, not surprisingly, I haven’t noticed any of their names in USA Today.

C.S. Lewis said: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”

That advice spans to entrepreneurs, military, industry, and, of course, writing. Nobody knows everything.

Before you become a great writer, you must first be a great student.


Jim: “You never know when people you’ve contributed to will come back and contribute to you.”

At the beginning of the podcast, interviewer Barry said Jim had recently undergone chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. While Jim was laid low during the busy summer season, his team kept the business going and took care of hundreds of happy whitewater rafting customers. He’d earned the loyalty of his staff who came through when he needed them the most.

At the very end of the podcast, Jim mentions he gave the interview while lying in bed… with a feeding tube.

Wow. Just wow.

That left no doubt Jim Coffey is off the scale in his tolerance of adversity and uncertainty.

 Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Jim’s actions:

Help others and never give up.

Works for authors, too.


Many thanks to Jim Coffey and Barry Kruse for their permission to quote and reference the interview which can be heard here: https://www.leadingsteep.com/podcast


TKZers: What is your favorite advice, touchstone, or belief that helps you over treacherous rapids and shoals encountered in your writing career?



In Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, her main character persists in spite of lots of cold water thrown in her face. Please check it out here.


True Crime Thursday – Motorized Surfboard Fraud

Photo credit: Brent Storm – Unsplash

By Debbie Burke



Cowabunga! was a popular exclamation by surfers in the 1960s. An earlier iteration, kawabunga, was coined on “The Howdy-Doody Show” in the 1950s. In the 1990s, the Ninja Turtles revived cowabunga’s popularity.

In 2016, Roberto Clark, 50, of Palm Bay, Florida, had a concept for motorized surfboards he called “Jetboards” that apparently caused some investors to holler “Cowabunga!”

Between 2016 and 2019, Clark convinced people he met in bars, restaurants, and adult entertainment establishments in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. to invest in his company, KRM Services. KRM was supposed to manufacture Jetboards to be sold at big profits to cruise lines and water sports companies. Clark had a patent, purchase orders, and signed, notarized contracts to prove substantial buyer interest. He collected more than $350,000 from 14 investors.

Only one problem: he never manufactured any Jetboards.

The patent, purchase orders, and buyer contracts were falsified.

Investors’ money went, not to build Jetboards, but to finance Clark’s luxurious lifestyle. According to court filings by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, he spent: “at least $41,000 to restaurants and bars; at least $19,000 to hotels; at least $15,000 to family members; at least $8,000 to department and clothing stores; at least $5,000 to convenience and gas stores; at least $3,000 to grocery and liquor stores; at least $1,000 to gyms; at least $1,500 to spas and beauty salons; at least $1,000 to pet stores and groomers; and at least $200 to a bail bondsman.

That last expense might have been incurred in March, 2018, when the Fairfax County Police Department arrested Clark.

Yet he brazenly continued to solicit more investors as late as 2019. When suspicious victims demanded return of their money, Clark paid some of them…with checks that bounced.

Photo credit: Kurt Anderson – Unsplash

The Jetboard scam wiped out once and for all in January, 2021, when Clark was found guilty of multiple charges including securities fraud. He was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $400,000.

Here’s hoping his victims were compensated and hollered, “Cowabunga!”


No TKZer would ever invest in a company whose owner they met in a bar or adult establishment, right? Do you know anyone who has?





If you invest in Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, she absolutely guarantees she will yell: “Cowabunga!” Please check it out at this link.


Public Domain Day 2021 and Writing Advice from 1925

By Debbie Burke



Public Domain Day was January 1, 2020. Although today is February 22, a tad late, it’s still a newsworthy event for writers and readers because books like The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), Manhattan Transfer (John DosPassos), In Our Time (Ernest Hemingway), and An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), among many others, came into the public domain.

Same with films like Buster Keaton’s Go West and songs like “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Here is the link to Duke University Law School’s announcement and listing of many other artistic works whose copyrights expired as of January 1: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/

One book in the bunch caught my attention: The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence.

Has fiction writing changed much since 1925? Are 95-year-old insights from the first female Pulitzer winner relevant to writers in 2021?

The Writing of Fiction is short, fewer than 150 pages, originally published by Scribner in 1925. Much of the beginning section is literary criticism, comparing Proust, Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other greats of the era, contrasting them with the new “stream-of-consciousness” trend that shook up readers at that time. I confess I skimmed those parts.

But elsewhere Wharton reveals her views on the art and craft of storytelling.

I found several passages I thought might provoke interesting discussion among TKZers.

Wharton calls the “modern” novel “that strange chameleon-creature which changes its shape and colour with every subject on which it rests.”

In the following paragraph, she describes what writers often call being in the zone:

“To the artist his world is as solidly real as the world of experience, or even more so, but in a way entirely different; it is a world to and from he passes without any sense of effort, but always with an uninterrupted awareness of the passing.”

Here at TKZ, we often work on point-of-view problems.

Wharton is critical of “the slovenly habit of some novelists of tumbling in and out their characters’ minds, and then suddenly drawing back to scrutinize them from the outside as the avowed Showman holding his puppets’ strings.”

About character development, she writes: “[they are] the creatures of [the author’s] imagination, more living to him than his own flesh-and-blood…”

Further, she studies the tightrope that writers must walk while creating characters. On one hand, she cautions against the “author [who] is slave to characters” while, on the other hand, who risks becoming a “puppeteer manipulating marionette strings…”

Conflict is another topic that she addresses:

“The conflict, the shock of forces, is latent in every attempt to detach a fragment of human experience and transpose it in terms of art, that is, of completion.”

This is what she has to say about an artist’s sensitivity:

“One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.”

On the focus of a story, she writes:

“…the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”

The topic of inspiration:

“Many people assume that the artist receives, at the onset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as ‘Inspiration,’ and has only to let that sovereign influence carry him where it will. Inspiration indeed comes at the outset to every creator but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided, and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.”

Writers often ponder if their concept, plot, or characters are original enough to capture readers’ tastes. Wharton’s answer:

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.”


TKZers: Did any of Edith Wharton’s thoughts particularly strike you?

Are they out of date, no longer relevant?

Or does she express timeless truths about the art of writing fiction?



Debbie Burke is one of Montana’s Women of Mystery, along with Leslie Budewitz and Christine Carbo. Three crime novelists will reveal writing secrets and talk about their books during a Zoom appearance on Wednesday, February 24, at 3 p.m. mountain time. Email debbieburkewriter@gmail.com for the Zoom invitation.


When Characters Talk – Interview with Author Assaph Mehr


Felix the Fox business card

By Debbie Burke



Recently a writer friend turned me onto a site called The Protagonist Speaks, created by author Assaph Mehr, who was born in Israel and now lives in Australia. He writes a series described as Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic for lovers of urban fantasy, detective mysteries, and ancient Rome.

His main character is Felix the Fox, part sleuth, part magician, part fixer who handles occult trouble for Rome’s upstanding citizens who don’t want to dirty their hands.

Felix’s first interview appeared in 2016. The idea of an author interviewing the characters in his book intrigued readers. Soon, Assaph expanded the site to include other authors interviewing their characters.

The concept struck me as a fun, quirky marketing tool. I reached out to Assaph and requested an interview. That is today’s post, although I’m not quite sure who will show up—Assaph or Felix!

In Numina by Assaph Mehr

Debbie Burke: Please share a little about yourself and your background.

Assaph: I grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean, where every stone has a history – and the stone under it too, going back millennia. One of my favourite spots was an Ottoman citadel (we used to play LARP [live-action role-playing game] there), which is built on Mameluk foundation, laid on top of Roman village, which displaced older settlements to Egyptian times. Can’t grow up like that and not love history. Fantasy I discovered early on when introduced to The Hobbit, and thereafter I’ve been reading it voraciously. I now live in Oz (aka Australia), with various cats, kids, spiders, and water dragons.

Felix: I come from the city of Egretia, which Assaph assures me is very like your own ancient Rome. My father was in the antiquities trade, though I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Collegium Incantatorum. My father died, the family fortune was lost, and I could no longer pay tuition so never graduated. So, after a brief stint in the legions, I came back and by a stroke of luck apprenticed with a couple of the city’s most renowned investigators. When they didn’t want to take a case that had occult elements, I seized my chance. I combined whatever education in the magical arts I gathered in the collegium with the investigative skills I learnt, and set out to solve paranormal problems for the proletariat.

Assaph: In Ancient Rome tradespeople often advertised by chalking messages on public walls. That’s how I met Felix, and got him to tell me his stories so I could write them down. For our world we couldn’t quite spray graffiti everywhere, so we made Felix some business cards. Please, pass them on to your readers.

DB: Your books sound like an interesting mashup of hard-boiled detective stories, fantasy, and history. How did you come up with that combination?

Assaph: Quite simply, that’s what I always liked to read. I grew up on classic detectives and thrillers, loved ancient Rome, and often escaped into fantasy and Sci-Fi. I always wanted to see my name in print, so when it was time to write I combined my favourite elements into the stories I wanted to read. (sotto voce) Don’t tell Felix he’s a figment of my imagination – he gets offended, and besides I’d rather he not ask uncomfortable questions about some of the misery I put him through.

Felix: For me it was a stroke of luck – my name, Felix, means lucky, so I attribute everything to my patron goddess Fortuna. As everyone will tell you – or, rather, whisper so she can’t hear – she can be a fickle and capricious goddess. I was accepted to the collegium, but had to terminate my studies; with no prospects I joined the legions, but escaped honorably without injury; the two investigators took me in, and I managed to carve out a unique niche for my business. So those stories are just the cases I handle for my customers, which Assaph publishes here. I’m still waiting on those royalties he promised.

Assaph: Skinflint. I told you, I had to pay the editor and the cover designer. We’re waiting on that movie deal for the big payout.

DB: What inspired the seed for The Protagonist Speaks?

Assaph: It was one of those 3 a.m. ideas that stuck. Every reader talks about favourite characters, I thought it would be an interesting idea to let them meet those characters in person, as it were. A bit like a celebrity talk show, but centered about the characters rather than the authors.

DB: How do readers respond to interviews with characters?

Assaph: The responses I get are overwhelmingly positive. Both authors and readers enjoy the quirky experience of letting the character sit on a guest couch and be interviewed. Both authors and readers also tell me that they are sometimes surprised by the answers they get.

Felix: For my part, I can say that it was a bit weird at the start. I didn’t quite get what it was all about, and I was reluctant to share secrets. Now I do have a better understanding of what’s involved, and I can say it can be a phenomenal experience for the character as well.

Assaph: Right, so that’s you agreeing to do another one – proper one – for the next book launch.

DB: What is the site’s primary purpose? Promote author name recognition? A way to increase book sales? Fun and entertainment?

Assaph: Yes – pretty much all of that. Authors and readers get to have a bit of fun, it helps increase exposure of the books to potential readers, and authors end up with long-life marketing collateral, something that can be shared to help increase buzz. Running the site is my way of giving back and helping fellow authors.

DB: Have you experienced an uptick in sales from The Protagonist Speaks?

Assaph: Modest, but yes. As with most marketing, it’s about repeatedly putting good content in front of potential buyers, till they make the decision to buy. Having these quirky interviews helps do just that – it’s a way to come across new authors, it’s a reason to share the books again, it gives more view-points into the author’s style that may help convince a reader that this is a book for them. There is definitely more engagement from authors who understand that, and I see more engagement when authors share it on social media and newsletters (beyond what I normally see when only I share the interviews).

DB: What is the process for an author to submit an interview with a character? Is there any cost?

Assaph: No costs. As said above, it’s my way of helping fellow authors. Heck, I half do it for myself – besides having an excuse to chat up authors I enjoy, I also discovered a few new favourites.

For anyone interested in joining, just fill out the Contact form on TheProtagonistSpeaks.com/Contact.

DB: Anything else you’d like to share with Kill Zone readers?

Assaph Mehr

Assaph: Thanks much for hosting us, Debbie! I promise I’m not as crazy as I sound, despite the voices in my head. Should any of your readers like to meet Felix more, there are a few free short stories and a free novella on my website here: egretia.com/short-stories. Those will give you an idea of the trials and tribulations of a private investigator during antiquity, dealing with the supernatural world (and why he wants to get paid, and I don’t want him to think I’m the cause of all his troubles).

Website: http://egretia.com

Facebook: http://facebook.com/AssaphMehrAuthor

Twitter: @assaphmehr


As a side note, after chatting with Assaph, I dragged the male lead in my thriller series, Tillman Rosenbaum, kicking and screaming, to Assaph’s interview couch. Please check out Tillman’s reluctant answers on March 5 at The Protagonist Speaks


TKZers: Do you ever interview your characters? Do their answers surprise you?




Debbie Burke’s characters really startled her in her new thriller Flight to Forever.  Discover the surprises here. 


Cover design by Brian Hoffman