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 Thursday – Murderpedia

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Public Domain Review

Crime writers have—shall we say?—unusual research needs. We often joke that law enforcement could knock on our doors at any moment because of suspicious internet searches.

Recently, I ran across a site called Murderpedia. It claims to be the largest free database of serial killers and mass murderers around the world. It lists more than 5800 male murderers and more than 1000 female murderers going back hundreds of years in history.

It’s indexed alphabetically by both the killer’s name and by the country where the murder(s) occurred. Each entry chronicles the crime(s), method of death, and ultimate disposition of the case–hanging, firing squad, guillotine, life in prison without parole, etc. Additionally, there are photos, artists’ renderings, and illustrations to go with some stories.

At random, I chose a link to Bridget Durgan, an Irish housekeeper who was so horribly mistreated by her various employers that she vowed to kill them if she ever had the chance. In New Jersey in February, 1867, an opportunity arose. Durgan stabbed and clubbed her employer, Mrs. Mary Ellen Coriel, to death then set the Coriel house on fire, blaming the crime on robbers. Nobody believed her and she was found guilty at trial.

While in prison awaiting execution, Durgan revealed her sad life to the Reverend Mr. Brendan who published her story as a cautionary tale. The illustrated pamphlet was also likely sold to spectators at Durgan’s hanging.

Public Domain Review

Lurid pen and ink drawings show the mortally wounded Coriel still alive, lying on the floor near her baby, Mamey, and the wild-eyed Durgan standing over them. Durgan reportedly said she allowed Coriel to kiss her child goodbye before finishing her off.

Durgan was hanged in August, 1867.

After perusing the Murderpedia site for an hour (or three!), I was struck by the immense amount of work that had gone into researching and cataloging thousands of cases. Then I noticed the last update was in 2017.

What had happened to Murderpedia?

Down the rabbit hole I tumbled.

I found out that the curator/director was a Spanish criminologist and author named Juan Ignacio Blanco whose own story is nearly as strange as the cases he chronicled. In 1992, he investigated the triple murder of three teenage girls, known as the Alcasser case. He believed two men accused of the crimes were scapegoats who’d been set up by wealthy, politically-connected, Spanish power brokers to cover their own guilt and to divert attention from their other crimes, including pedophilia.

Blanco was branded a conspiracy theorist.

After he published a book about his findings, he was convicted of insulting and slandering officials in charge of investigating the case and served time in prison. His book was judicially seized in 1998 because it included autopsy photos of one victim without her family’s consent. Accusations swirled that Blanco and the father of another victim in the case had set up and operated a foundation that resulted in hefty profits to both of them.

Shortly before Blanco’s death from cancer at age 63, he appeared in a 2019 Netflix series that reexamined the Alcasser Murders.

Was Juan Ignacio Blanco a greedy opportunist who capitalized on a terrible tragedy or a courageous crusader against corruption seeking truth and justice?

Whatever he was, he left behind the vast library of Murderpedia, crammed with painstaking research that’s a fascinating resource for crime writers.

~~~

TKZers: What’s your favorite crime research rabbit hole?

~~~

 

 

If Hurricane Irma doesn’t kill Tawny Lindholm, a shady sports dealer will when she becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.   

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff is now on sale at the introductory price of $.99. Here’s the link.

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Crime Dogs

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Gruesome WarningThis post contains graphic details of a horrific bombing that killed three people, including a two-year-old child.

Luna, Gauge, Ace – photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges

Dogs are helpmates that do most anything their people ask of them…including jobs that no one, human or animal, should have to do…like finding body parts after an explosion. 

Kerrie Garges has spent nine years as a volunteer dog handler for Alpha K-9 Search and Rescue (SAR) in Chalfont, PA, population 4,000. Until the COVID 19 crisis, her day job was teaching environmental education at Peace Valley Park Nature Center in Bucks County.

She fell into SAR “by accident” as a dog-loving empty-nester looking for a way to help her community. At a training exercise with her then-new Labrador, Ace, the instructor observed that Ace showed an aptitude for “air scent” (tracking smells through the air rather than on the ground) and invited her to join SAR.

Luna hot on the trail with Kerrie – Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges

Ace, age 10, is now retired but Kerrie continues to train and work with two more Labs: Luna, age 5, is Trailing Certified and is training for Human Remains Detection (HRD). She practically yanks Kerrie’s arm out of the socket when she’s on the hunt.

Gauge is Kerrie’s rambunctious one-year-old about which she jokes, “Just shoot me in the head!” He’s gradually growing out of puppyhood as he trains for certification in Live Find and HRD. She says, “When Gauge has his vest on, he knows he’s working.”

Most searches Kerrie has worked involve people with dementia who’ve walked away from home and gotten lost.

A completely different—and hideous—search would test the mettle of Kerrie and other dog handlers who were called in by the Lehigh County assistant coroner to work a murder-suicide crime scene in 2018. 

On September 29, at 9:30 p.m., an explosion shook the Center City neighborhood in Allentown, PA. The cause was initially believed to be a car fire. First responders instead found that a powerful homemade bomb had detonated inside a car, killing three people and damaging surrounding buildings and homes for blocks.

Investigation determined the bomb had been built by Jacob G. Schmoyer, 26, with the express intention of killing himself, his two-year-old son Jonathan (“JJ”), and a casual friend David Hallman, 66, to whom Schmoyer owed $150. Before the explosion, Schmoyer had sent letters to family members and the Allentown Police Department in which he expressed anger as well as concern that JJ might have autism.

That night, Schmoyer lured Hallman into his Nissan Altima, where he and JJ were already sitting, with the promise to pay back the money.

Instead, he detonated the bomb which killed the three occupants, shredded the car, and cast debris and body parts over a five-block area.

Following the initial investigation, Lehigh County’s assistant coroner requested help from Alpha K-9 SAR to locate human remains amid the rubble. Kerrie said, “We’re a small group without a lot of resources, so we were honored to be called for this important mission.”

For this job, Kerrie did not bring her own dogs, which are still in training. Dogs must be tested and certified by National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) to perform real-world work. Kerrie acted as a support person to handlers and three dogs that are certified in HRD.

On the morning of October 2, the Alpha K-9 SAR volunteers arrived in Allentown, an hour’s drive from Chalfont. An eight-block area had been cordoned off. They were escorted past crime scene tape into destruction that Kerrie described as “a war zone.”

Following the blast, residents of surrounding blocks had been evacuated. Broken glass, tree limbs, chunks of buildings, and hazardous debris were everywhere, causing Kerrie concern because the dogs didn’t have protective footwear. Coroner’s office personnel offered to adapt the knee-high protective coverings that humans wore to fit the K-9s. After discussion, the handlers decided that, since the dogs weren’t accustomed to working with booties, wearing them might be too distracting. They closely monitored the dogs’ paws but fortunately there were no injuries.

Kerrie expressed “new respect for disaster dogs” working under similar dangerous conditions.

The day was hot and coroner’s office personnel made sure the volunteers and dogs had extra water and could cool off in air-conditioned vehicles when necessary.

The densely-populated, inner-city area of Allentown contrasted sharply with the suburban schools, parks, and rural locations where the Chalmont team normally worked. Older houses were crowded together, many converted to multi-family apartments. Narrow passageways called “bakers alleys” separated the buildings.

Adjacent to the cordoned-off crime scene area, Kerrie smelled meth cooking. Although law enforcement was nearby, she was startled to see bystanders carrying on drug deals and smoking marijuana. Those scents, mingled with dust and smoke caused by the explosion and fire, created a confusing mix for the dogs to sort out. She said, “It took about twenty minutes for them to get acclimated to the scene” in order to focus on finding human remains.

The coroner’s office created a map of the areas to be searched. Each dog team was assigned a different sector. Coroner’s assistants accompanied the teams, taking photos of pieces of burned flesh as they were found. The evidence was then “bagged and tagged” and taken to the crime lab.

One dog kept wanting to climb over a stone wall to get into a particular house. Inside, the searchers found shattered windows and furniture overturned by the explosion. A TV was still on, forgotten when residents quickly evacuated. The team also found a frightened puppy that had been left behind, tied up with no food or water. “That bothered me a lot,” Kerry said. Officers carried the pup to safety.

As they proceeded through the area, the dogs kept raising their heads, looking up, which mystified the handlers who couldn’t see anything. At last, they discovered “a giant flap of flesh” stuck high in the gutter of a four-story building, a horrifying indication of the power of the blast.

“We [searchers] felt disgust,” Kerrie said. “Not stomach-churning kind of disgust but rather mental and emotional disgust that the man had killed his little boy and his friend and caused all these poor people to be ousted from their homes and businesses.”  

The search lasted four hours and located human remains as far away as five blocks from where the bomb had exploded. Each dog found at least three pieces, the largest being the flap of flesh in the gutter. The smallest was a charcoal-colored, wafer-thin piece of burned flesh the size of a quarter. Kerrie recalled, “I’d watched a documentary about [the atomic bomb at] Hiroshima and that’s the first thing I thought of when I saw this piece.”

Even veteran law enforcement officers were shaken by the devastation and the senseless death of a toddler. Counselors were offered to those struggling with what they’d seen.

When I asked Kerrie how the dogs reacted to such horrors, she said, “Dogs consider it a job.” They were just happy to please their humans.

Letter of appreciation from Lehigh County Coroner to SAR – photo courtesy Kerrie Garges

The handlers had a hard time expressing their emotions about the gruesome mission but they all felt pride in the dogs and the teamwork of SAR. “The memory always stays with you. You never forget,” Kerrie said. “But this is what we train for every week. We want to utilize the skills we’ve learned. We almost felt rejuvenated, as well as proud and humbled to be called to do this important work.”  

Investigations continued for more than a year by local police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which determined Schmoyer acted alone and the explosion was not related to terrorist activity.

No amount of investigation will ever explain why Schmoyer intentionally killed his own child and a friend who’d been decent enough to lend him money.

Gauge after a successful training session – photo courtesy Kerrie Garges

SAR volunteers perform difficult jobs few people could endure. They can be summoned in the middle of the night or during miserable weather. They finance training out of their own pockets. They work without pay. They’re proud of the job they do and the strong bond they develop with their dogs.

Crime dogs perform other functions, too. One recent evening, Kerrie felt particularly blue because of current events in the world. Her youngest dog, the often-exuberant Gauge, came from two rooms away and climbed on the couch beside her. He laid one paw on her shoulder and snuggled his face in her neck. “He made me feel better,” Kerry said. “He made me smile.”

That may be a dog’s most important job.

 

 

~~~

TKZers: Have you been involved in SAR work? Have you been in a situation where search dogs were deployed?

~~~

 

 

A big shout-out of appreciation and gratitude to TKZ regular reader Brian Hoffman who designed this beautiful new cover for Dead Man’s Bluff.

Brian, you’re the best! 

Today is launch day for Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, on sale for only $.99 for a limited time at this link.

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Interview with Kathleen Reardon, mystery author

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Reardon

Today, I’m visiting with mystery author Kathleen Reardon, Ph.D. She is professor emerita in management at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and now lives in Ireland. Her website is aptly named comebacksatwork.com because she is an expert in comebacks!

We “met” through the Authors Guild discussion group while discussing new strategies for book launches during the pandemic. The more we “talked,” the more I thought her story of persistence in the face of daunting setbacks would interest TKZ readers.

While Kathleen’s accomplishments are extraordinary, the challenges she had to overcome are even more extraordinary.

Welcome to The Kill Zone, Kathleen!

Debbie: Your background is academia and you have written numerous award-winning, bestselling business books. What prompted you to write fiction?

Kathleen: As a teenager, I loved writing fiction and poetry. My junior year English teacher, Judith Kase, was particularly encouraging. Back then, I expected to be a writer and English teacher for life, but my career took me on to an MA and Ph.D. in communication sciences, college teaching and research. There was little time for creative writing, especially prior to tenure. At thirty-two, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Recovery took a while as did salvaging my career.

The fiction writing bug finally bit and wouldn’t let go in my early forties. My father had encouraged me to write fiction. He thought I’d pushed it aside long enough, but there was still the challenge of becoming a full professor. I also had three young children. So, I wrote most of Shadow Campus, my debut novel, during summer breaks until 2012 when I focused and got it done.

DB: What was the spark for this book and/or your series?  Please share how you came to write it.

KR: The spark for Shadow Campus was being the first woman to go up for tenure at a top business school. Breaking the glass ceiling is never easy. Change is hard. Sometimes resistance leads to incivility. One day I woke up early and began writing. Over the next week, I got the bones of the story on paper. I just couldn’t stop. Shadow Campus was born that week and I was en route to becoming a mystery author.

 Damned If She Does (2020) is a stand-alone sequel. Here again, the spark was experience as a female professor. I wrote most of the novel before MeToo began. It’s first and foremost a New York City crime mystery. But fiction often conveys messages about reality. A major subplot deals with abuse and the potential consequences of secrecy. Is there a best way forward? Is it better personally and for society to identify a perpetrator? Or are women damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

DB: A reviewer of your debut novel draws an interesting comparison between academia and organized crime! Is there an element of truth? Does it apply to Damned If She Does too?

KR: In my nonfiction, especially The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics, I write about levels of politics in organizations from church choirs to multinationals – the worst of these is pathological politics. In my first trade book, They Don’t Get It, Do They?,as well as my Harvard Business Review classic, “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk,” my focus was on the challenging road many women travel when they endeavor to be recognized and promoted for exceptional work. Weaved throughout both of my novels are insights from that work.

In Shadow Campus, Meg has all the credentials for promotion. Yet, in the opening scene – the night before her tenure decision – she is found hanging in her office, nearly dead. We learn that this crime was facilitated by several characters. I think that’s what the reviewer saw as “organized crime.”

DB: Readers are interested in your particular process for writing. Do you have special or unique techniques you use?

KR: People ask me how I keep readers from knowing who did it. The answer: I hide it from myself. Any of the primary characters could be the killer and I keep several as candidates until near the end. It’s a lot like spinning a number of plates, but that’s what I enjoy about mysteries. If I know precisely “who done it” while writing, there’s a good chance that I’ll accidentally telegraph that to my readers. So, keeping me in the dark keeps them in the dark too. I truly enjoy that aspect.

DB: You “interviewed” one of your main characters for a post on your website. What a great idea (which I’m going to steal)! Tell us about that.

KR: Shamus Doherty, Meg’s older brother, is a diamond in the rough. Many women who’ve read my two novels consider him very appealing. He’s complex and caring but a bit rough around the edges – gruff when he means to be tender. These characteristics wreak havoc with his love life. He can be overbearing as an older brother. To his credit, however, he does learn.

My interview with him was a chance to get inside his head a bit. He didn’t want to be interviewed, but he felt obliged because I’d created him. His wit and charm came through. I merely wanted to give him a chance to speak for himself. I can hear him now denying that altruistic claim. Be that as it may, I think he kind of likes me.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with TKZ?

KR: I was fortunate to attend an Authors Guild webinar with Margaret Atwood and Judy Blume. It was great. Margaret said you need to grab the reader by page 5. By then he or she knows whether this is a door worth walking through. I think that’s great advice. Judy said she misses the freshness of being a new author. That’s food for thought. How do we get that back each time we sit down to write? I tend to take walks, enjoy nature, step away from the story and then allow myself to become enthused with where the characters are likely to take me next.

Book three of the trilogy is calling me. It will be based in West Cork, Ireland.

Thank you, Kathleen, for visiting TKZ! Congratulations on your new release, Damned If She Does, which Kirkus Reviews named among “Great Indie Books Worth Discovering.” 

~~~

TKZers: Do you have special tricks that propel you over the hurdles of writing? Have you come back from misfortune? 

~~~

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is available for pre-order at this link for only $.99. Publication date: June 23.

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True Crime Thursday – Armed and Dangerous

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit – Pixabay

Montanans are no strangers to bear encounters. Most times, it’s hard to tell who’s running away faster—the bear or the human. But when bears are hungry, not much stands in their way. They push through fences to eat calves, bust into chicken coops, knock down bird feeders, and pillage unattended campgrounds.

If bears become aggressive, pepper spray is recommended. However, if that’s not handy, you might have to improvise.

In 2010, near Huson in Missoula County, a woman let her three dogs out around midnight, not realizing a bear was a short distance away, snacking in an apple orchard. Two dogs started out into the yard. A third dog, a 12-year-old collie, remained with the owner in the patio. The two dogs sensed the bear and ran back into the house.

Before the owner could react, the 200-pound bear was at the door, mauling the collie. The woman screamed and kicked the bear but it persisted, scratching her leg through her jeans.

When she tried to close the door, the bear shoved in, blocking the door open with its head and paw.

Fortunately, the woman had a ready weapon. While holding back the bear with the door, she grabbed a fourteen-inch-long zucchini she’d harvested earlier that day from her garden. She threw it at the bear, bouncing it off its head.

Wikimediaimages – Pixabay

The bear turned tail and fled.

The collie recovered from injuries and the brave woman only needed a tetanus shot.

The bear escaped and is still at large.

~~~

TKZers: Have you heard stories about someone who used an unusual weapon to ward off an attack?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is now available for pre-order at this link. If you order now, the special price is $.99. Dead Man’s Bluff will be delivered to your device on June 23.

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First Page Critique – The Lies of Murder

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

PublicDomainPicures-Pixabay

Today we welcome another brave anonymous author with a first page entitled:

The Lies of Murder

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board. Someone had left her a note on lined white paper dotted with drops of blood.

NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.

From behind, Merli heard a familiar voice. “Hands up and turn around slowly.”

She obeyed the command, turning to face two police officers pointing guns in her direction. “Hello, Ian. Been a long time.”

“Merli?” She was the last person he imagined seeing. “What are you doing here?”

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked.

“Cuff her.”

While Officer Urbane spouted the Miranda warning and cuffed her hands behind her back, Ian read the note under the bloody knife. Merli sat on a kitchen chair.

Ian pulled out a second chair and sat three feet away. “You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”

Because I always follow my premonition dreams is what she wanted to say. Only her father and Aunt Cordelia knew about her dreams. “I haven’t been able to reach my father in three days. I finally jumped on a plane to find out why.”

“What did Vivian tell you?”

“My feelings toward Vivian haven’t changed.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Officer Urbane took a step forward, hands placed on his hips.

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

“Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom. Why don’t you find out what’s happening at the other scene?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Once Officer Urbane left the house, Ian returned his focus to Merli. “When was the last time you spoke to Vivian?”

“I don’t know. Probably a couple weeks ago. She has an unpleasant habit of interjecting herself when I’m face-timing with my dad.”

“And you came home because you couldn’t reach your dad?”

“He always returns my calls within a couple hours. I even tried texts and emails and no response for three days. If you know something, tell me.”

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

~~~

This submission races out of the gate. Congratulations to the Brave Author for starting with action and a major crime. Merli Whitmore enters her childhood home for the first time in years and immediately finds a blood-spattered note fastened to a wood cutting board with a bloody knife. The message is a real punch in the gut—the note writer claims to have killed an unnamed woman for Merli. That’s some homecoming!

Then two cops pull guns on her and she knows one of them.

Merli has obvious, ongoing conflict with her step-mother and there’s a strong suggestion Vivian has been murdered, making Merli a suspect. Additionally, Merli’s premonition dream hints that her father is also at risk.

This page definitely grabs the reader’s attention early and piles lots of complications on the main character. Well done!

There is also potentially interesting backstory between Merli and Ian who know each other from school days. The author gives intriguing hints without an information dump. Her old classmate orders his partner to immediately handcuff her. Whoa! The reader wonders why–she’s cooperating and is not armed or combative. The author establishes things have already gone terribly wrong for Merli and only promise to get worse. Excellent!

Several plausibility problems jump out but are easily fixable.

  1. The cops appear only a few seconds after Merli enters the house and finds the note. If they were that close, wouldn’t she have seen their car before she goes into the house? Or hear sirens as they arrive?
  2. If a murder had already been reported, the house would be a cordoned-off crime scene and Merli couldn’t just walk in.
  3. As Jim Bell often reminds us, police do not immediately deliver Miranda rights. They gather background and hope the suspect will reveal information before requesting an attorney.
  4. Although putting Merli in handcuffs right away is an attention grabber, it seems excessive if the author wants to portray police procedure realistically. After all, they didn’t catch her standing over the body with a bloody knife in her hand.

However, if, as part of the plot, you want to establish these officers are overly aggressive or Ian is paying back an old grudge, then it does work to slap the cuffs on her as an intimidation tactic.

Merli’s character seems cool and confident, especially with guns pointed at her. She gives short, coherent answers but also shoots questions back at the cops. The reader roots for her because she doesn’t cave in to their heavy-handed tactics.

She has premonition dreams that predict the future—her dreams can be her curse but also her power. That makes for a complex, interesting character the reader wants to learn more about. Well done.

Some small suggestions:

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

Short, simple sentences might work better to convey the startling event.

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension for entering unannounced. She expected tension from her stepmother Vivian.

She didn’t expect the sight that made her heart pound: a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

 

She was the last person he imagined seeing. This is a point of view inconsistency because it briefly goes inside Ian’s head:

Maybe instead: His startled expression said she was the last person he imagined seeing.

 

Weak gerunds: there are three verbs that end in -ing in three lines—turning, pointing, seeing. For stronger verbs, here are a couple of suggestions:

turning to see two police officers who pointed guns at her.

the last person he expected to see.

 

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked. How does Merli know his name? Does she see a nametag? A few paragraphs later, she asks his name even though it has been used several times.

 

Attributions: Even though there aren’t many attributions, the dialog generally makes it clear who is talking. However, this passage was a little confusing:

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

Clarify who’s talking with a few action tags:

Merli faced the cop who’d cuffed her. “You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in, “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

Urbane’s face screwed into a frown. “She knows my brother?”

 

The author does a quick, efficient job of explaining the relationships without an info dump: “Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom.”

 

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

Obviously, a crime happened between six and nine this evening. But would a responding officer ask about her whereabouts/alibi? That sounds more like an interrogation by a detective.

Also, where did the crime occur? There’s a reference to the other scene,” perhaps where the bloody knife was used. However, if the murder weapon is found inside this house, it would also be cordoned off. Ian would not disturb a crime scene by sitting and having Merli sit. He would take her outside and call for officers to secure the scene.

If the crime happened elsewhere, what caused the police to respond to this location?

I’m raising these questions because they will occur to a reader and will need to be answered within a few pages.

There is virtually no description or scene setting in this first page. The Brave Author might consider slowing down to include a few words to establish what the kitchen looks like (aside from the chopping block and bloody knife, which are great!) as well as the physical appearance of the officers, especially Ian since he appears to be an important character.

The time is this evening sometime after nine p.m., meaning it’s dark outside. Maybe include that detail: She expected tension entering unannounced at ten-thirty at night.

Merli displays almost no reaction to startling events that would normally provoke strong emotional responses—a bloody knife, a note confessing to a murder, cops who pull guns on her, being cuffed. While I admire her cool confidence, maybe include more reaction from her—the shock of cold, hard metal biting her wrists, a brief worry that her premonition dream about her dad is coming true. Let the reader inside Merli’s head to bond with her as she faces these frightening circumstances.

This submission features action, conflict, strong writing, and effective dialog that keeps the story barreling forward. The main character has a gift/curse of dream premonitions that offers great potential for present and future complications. Excellent work, Brave Author.

~~~

TKZers: Would you turn the page? What suggestions or comments can you offer this Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is now available for pre-order at this link. If you order now, the special price is $.99. Dead Man’s Bluff will be delivered to your device on June 23.

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Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

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True Crime Thursday – Invasion of the Body

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: atimedia – Pixabay

What if a device measures your heart and respiration rate, body temperature, and blood pressure from almost 200 feet away without you ever knowing it? What if that intimate information is collected into a database? Who uses that information and what do they do with it?

Is this the premise for a dystopian/sci-fi/horror story?

Nope. It’s reality.

Pandemic drones created by the Canadian company Draganfly can do all that and more. In a video interview here, Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell claims the software will help public safety officials (in other words, law enforcement) track and prevent spread of disease.

Huh? Cops are now in charge of public health?

On April 21, 2020, Westport, Connecticut police announced implementation of pandemic drones that measure people’s body temperature, heart and respiration rate, and coughing and sneezing. Drones are already being used for enforcement of social distancing in New Jersey, Florida, and elsewhere.

The next day, the ACLU filed a protest statement saying, “Towns and the state should be wary of self-interested, privacy-invading companies using COVID-19 as a chance to market their products and create future business opportunities.”

Following public outcry, on April 23, Westport reversed its decision to use pandemic drones.

Is sneezing, coughing, or running a temperature a crime?

Does invasion of a person’s body by technology constitute unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

TKZers: What do you think?

 

~~~

 

 

Drones play a sinister role in Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, available here

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My Brief Life and Tragic Death – First Page Critique  

 By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Please welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for a story entitled:

My Brief Life and Tragic Death

Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins

I met Frank and survived an assassination attempt between lunch and teatime.

I suppose it started with the whistling. I had the palace library all to myself, as usual. The hush was shattered when a boy walked in, whistling. He caught sight of me and approached. It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it. When he reached my table, he stopped whistling and stood smiling at me. It was a good smile. It invited me to smile back, which I didn’t, of course.

He was a handsome boy of about thirteen, a year older than myself, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

His smile and likability made me uncomfortable. I gave him a cold stare. “This is a library, you know.”

He looked around in pretended astonishment.

I added, “You can tell from all the books? At least, I hope you can.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Hey, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a sweet little girl named Flavia.”

I placed a bookmark and closed my book. “Are you being irritating on purpose?”

“Of course I am. How about you?”

I was taken aback. “Why?”

“Look, babe, do you know where Flavia is or not?”

“I’m Princess Flavia.”

“Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.” He stuck out his hand.

If you ignored his actual words, he was wonderfully well-spoken, especially for his age. He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends. I was a bit regretful when I said, “Princesses don’t shake hands.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I’m not a princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “But I am.”

~~~

First impressions:

Let’s start with the title: My Brief Life and Tragic Death.

It implies the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Princess Flavia, is apparently already dead. Is this fantasy? Magic realism? Is it similar to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, told by a murdered teenager watching her family deal with the repercussions of her death?

I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m intrigued.

The first line drops a provocative bomb about an assassination attempt. That definitely qualifies as a disturbance in anyone’s life. But the tone struck me as too casual and matter-of-fact. I can’t imagine a 12-year-old girl, even a self-possessed princess, being this blasé about someone trying to kill her.

Next, the scene flips back to earlier that day. Flavia is alone in the palace library when her reading is interrupted by the entrance of a whistling boy who’s looking for her. This also qualifies as a disturbance, although on a much smaller scale than an assassination attempt.

Foreshadowing and disturbances, major and minor, kick off a good start, enticing the reader into the plot. Nice job, Brave Author.

Setting and Time:

The mention of teatime suggests the locale is the British Isles, so a haircut from the California side of the gateway sounds exotic and faraway to the cloistered Flavia. Although the haircut and the gateway aren’t clearly defined yet, that’s okay. Longer descriptions could bog down the forward momentum at this point. I’m willing to wait for more explanation.

The time period isn’t defined. Physical books in a library could be contemporary but might also indicate a past before digital books. Again, I’m willing to wait to find out.

Characterizations:

Right away, Flavia’s character interests me. She sounds much older than her age. She’s alienated from people and may be lonely but won’t admit it: I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

She doesn’t react in predictable ways: His smile and likability made me uncomfortable.

And she’s irritated by her reactions, as if she can’t control her own mind: I liked him at once, which annoyed me.

The author raises questions: Why does Flavia react like this? Why does she expect herself to be detached from normal human emotions? As a princess, is she pressured to behave a certain way? Does she secretly want to rebel against those conventions?

Flavia is a character in conflict with herself. Already she’s presented enough complicated psychology to make a reader want to learn more about her. Well done.

Her observation of Frank is not superficial. Like a normal adolescent girl, she notices he is handsome but she also digs deeper, probing into his character.

Frank is brash, cocky, yet charming. She’s interested but, for some unknown reason, can’t allow herself to like him.

Brave author, in a very few lines, you’ve skillfully painted a picture not only of Frank’s appearance but also his personality. 

Flavia quickly sets Frank straight that she is a princess who won’t tolerate being called “babe.” Frank isn’t at all fazed by being put in his place and goes on to eloquently charm her, while at the same time giving readers a quick sketch of what Flavia looks like: Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. 

In first person, it’s difficult to find effective ways for a character to describe herself without resorting to cliches like looking in a mirror. This was a nice blending of dialogue and description that didn’t sound forced. 

Voice:

The humor works well. The banter between aloof Flavia and smartass Frank is entertaining. They keep trying to one-up each other, competing over who gets the last word. That creates ongoing tension between them. The reader wants to find out who wins the verbal jousting.

The author also nicely juxtaposes that humor with Flavia’s wistful longing for connection with another human.

The following is my favorite sentence:

He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends.

That really pins down both personalities and poignantly conveys Flavia’s loneliness.

Audience:

Flavia’s age indicates the target audience may be Young Adult. Overall, I like her voice, even though she sounds much more mature than an average 12-year-old. I know intelligent, articulate, well-read kids like her so she comes across as unusual but still realistic.

Line editing:

What if you rearrange the order of the first sentence like this?

Between lunch and teatime, I met Frank Barron and survived an assassination attempt.

Switching the assassination attempt to the end of the sentence creates a more dramatic punchline. 

Another thought about the first line: it could come off as a gimmicky ploy unless the author delivers a payoff within a few pages.

Is Frank the savior who thwarts the attempt on her life? That creates a compelling reason for an ongoing relationship between them.

Or is he the would-be assassin?

Because Flavia already knows what happens (even though the reader doesn’t), she could foreshadow a little more.To raise tension, perhaps she wonders how he got past security into the palace library.

The phrase If you ignored his actual words confused me.

Here’s what Frank says: “Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.”

His “actual words” show a sophisticated command of language so I don’t understand why Flavia talks about ignoring them. Maybe delete the phrase: If you ignored his actual words, 

~~~

Overall, this first page works well. The characters are likable, multi-dimensional, and complex. There’s conflict, tension, and suspense.

Additionally, the author proof-read and submitted a clean page without typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.

YA, fantasy, and magic realism are not genres I’m terribly familiar with. But the Brave Author did a good job of pulling me into this intriguing submission. Thank you for sharing it!

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of Flavia and Frank? Are you interested in the premise? Any suggestions for our Brave Author?

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True Crime Thursday – Crazy but True Laws

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Criminal Kissing
Photo credit: Vera Arsic – Pexels

In Elko County, Nevada, the law requires people to wear a mask at all times.

Since Covid 19, many cities and counties have enacted similar ordinances requiring masks so what’s strange about that?

Elko County’s law has been in effect for a century. It was passed at the time of the Great Influenza Pandemic in 1918-1919. No one got around to repealing it so it’s remained on the books all these years.

As of April 13, 2020, the Elko City Council considered passing a new ordinance requiring employees of businesses to wear masks and gloves. Maybe if they dust off old records, they’ll find they’ve already had such a law…for the past hundred years!

While they’re at it, legislators should consider repealing a late 19th century law in Eureka, Nevada, that prohibits a man with a mustache from kissing a woman. The lawbreaker in the above photo is reportedly still at large, armed and dangerous. 

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since 1961, it’s been illegal in Gainesville, Georgia to eat fried chicken with a fork—only hands are permitted. That law actually makes a lot of sense because it’s “finger-lickin’ good.”

 

 

 

In Florida, it’s illegal for a man to wear a strapless dress in public—no mention of other dress styles. It’s also illegal to sing in public while wearing a bikini or bathing suit.

A widely-circulated urban myth is that Florida bans sex with porcupines. Actually Florida’s 2011 law prohibits sexual relations with any animal, not singling out porcupines. However, a couple of Russian tourists decided to challenge that law…with predictable results.

Also in Florida, you cannot legally ride a skateboard without a license.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

Speaking of skateboards, on April 16, 2020 in Los Angeles, a front-end loader filled the Venice Skatepark with beach sand to prevent Covid 19. Hmmm.

 

 

 

Photo credit: Pexels

 

My home state of Montana has its share of unusual laws. For instance, it’s illegal to drive with a sheep in the cab of your truck unless you have a chaperone.

 

 

 

TKZers – What crazy but true laws does your state have? What is the weirdest law you’ve heard of?

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When a Character Comes to Life

Photo credit: Jaredd Craig – Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Fiction writers play with imaginary friends whenever we create characters. We put them in a pickle and see what they do; pile insurmountable challenges on them; make them fall in and out of love; tie them to the railroad tracks and see how they free themselves. They become as close and familiar as our own family and friends.

We design how they look—short, tall, slender, heavyset, muscular, flabby. Choose the color of their skin, hair, and eyes. Grow a beard or mustache. Add scars, tattoos, piercings.

Some authors cut out photos from magazines to use as their models. Or they draw parallels to real-life actors, musicians, celebrities, or politicians in the news.

Others prefer to keep descriptions minimal. They paint a general picture but let the reader fill in the fine details.

I lean toward minimalist but have an image in my mind. Often that vision shifts in the course of a story because of plot needs.

The main character in my series, Tawny Lindholm, is a fiftyish recent widow. She’s smart but also naïve and too trusting because of her sheltered life in small-town Montana. As the story unfolded, I piled on more flaws that enhanced important parts of the plot and themes.

She’s far-sighted and can’t read small print without glasses—also a metaphor for her initial blindness to danger.

Her meniscus is torn, which hampers fleeing from bad guys.

I broke the poor woman’s finger (how cruel, right?), which caused arthritis and permanent swelling. That injury means she can’t remove her wedding ring and becomes part of her personality, tying in the theme of mourning and loyalty to her late husband. More importantly, that seemingly insignificant detail served as a key element in the plot, proving her innocence.

Have you ever experienced a character who shows up in real life, as if s/he had just stepped out of your computer screen? Recently, that’s happened twice to me in a couple of unlikely places.

First incident: my car needed new tires. The manager at Les Schwab was fiftyish,  dark hair, barrel-chested, and muscular. He wore a blue uniform with his name on the pocket, hands a little dirty from showing tires to customers and helping out in the shop. His brown eyes twinkled with an inside joke he couldn’t wait to share. Although we kidded around as he wrote up my tire purchase, he was professional and business-like.

I don’t remember his real name because, to me, he was Dwight, Tawny’s dead husband. Through the series, Dwight occasionally appears in her memories with a joke or snippet of conversation.

Waiting time to install new tires was two hours. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a free bag of popcorn—at Les Schwab stores, you hardly smell the rubber because the popcorn aroma greets you as soon as you walk in the door (popcorn and coffee have since been discontinued since COVID-19). I settled in at a tall table, pretended to read a magazine, and did what writers love to do—people-watch and eavesdrop.

For two hours, I watched the real-life Dwight interact with other patrons, tire busters, and people on the phone. He was patient and polite with cranky customers, and firm but even-tempered when screw-ups happened in the shop. That twinkle in his brown eyes never wavered.

Not only did his appearance and manner exactly match the Dwight of my imagination, so did his personality. It was eerie but also thrilling.

Second incident: This happened in February while vacationing in Florida. When I’m there, I attend Zumba classes and, over several years, have gotten to know a number of regulars. I’m happy to reconnect with them because they’re loyal fans of my thriller series, bringing copies for me to sign, inviting me to talk to their book clubs, and eagerly asking when the next book will be out. They are terrific supporters for whom I’m very grateful.

One morning, I spotted a new woman in class—tall, willowy, with long red hair in a ponytail and a bright smile.

Tawny, my protagonist, in the flesh.

The woman must have thought I was weird because, for the next hour, I watched her instead of the instructor. After class, we chatted about dancing. She felt intimidated because it was her first time but she was game and didn’t give up. Persistence and determination are two major personality traits Tawny has and this lady checked off those boxes. She was also friendly, open, spirited, and a good listener. Check off more boxes.

After several minutes of conversation, I worked up the courage to tell her I was a writer and explained I’d been staring at her because she looked like the heroine in my books. Instead of being creeped out by a crazy old lady Zumba stalker, she was excited. A dozen other people who’d read the series also noticed the resemblance, affirming, “Yes! She does look just like Tawny.”

Her real name is Kim, a massage therapist from Minnesota and she was eager to read about her alter ego.

In #1, Tawny receives a confusing new smartphone that she believes is a gift from her son. The Instrument of the Devil actually came from the villain who tampered with the device as part of a terrorist plot. Tawny blames herself for the phone’s peculiar behavior when, in fact, he rigged it to stalk her and eavesdrop.

At the next Zumba class, Kim had read the first few chapters and said, “I totally identify with her struggles with the smartphone.”

As do all of us born before 1990!

A few days later, she finished the book and said, “She’s so much like me it’s giving me chills.”

That comment gave me chills.

As authors, connecting with readers is our best reward. But connecting in real life with characters we thought only lived in our imaginations is a close second.

This gracious doppelganger agreed to pose for a photo. Heeeeere’s Tawny!

Kim AKA Tawny

 

A big thank you to Kim for being an inspiration. She’s also a great sport as I continue to make her life miserable in the next books, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.

 

 

 

 

 

~~~

TKZers: Has a character ever stepped out of your book into real life? What happened? Did their appearance match their personality? How were they different from what you envisioned?

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