About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

Interview with a Vampire Mother: Charlaine Harris

By Elaine Viets

Charlaine Harris gave birth to vampires, werewolves, fairies, and other supernatural creatures in her Southern Vampire series. Charlaine breathed new life into musty old vampires, building a vibrant, complicated world in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, centered around Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress who hears what people are thinking. And that was just the start. Because a big-deal TV writer and producer was early for a dentist’s appointment, “True Blood,” the HBO series based on the Sookie books was born.
Charlaine seems like the nicest possible southern lady, but she has a delightfully twisted mind (and I say that with admiration). Full disclosure: I’ve known Charlaine for many years and we have the same agent.
Enjoy this conversation with Charlaine Harris.

Grand Master Charlaine Harris and her husband, Hal Schulz, at the Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards

EV: Congratulations on being named the 2021 Mystery Writers of America Grand Master – or is it Grand Mistress? How did you feel?
I was beyond excited when Greg Herren, MWA’s executive vice president, called me. He left a message on my phone, telling me not to worry, it was good news. I hoped that it was the same good news he gave me when we finally connected. Looking at the names of the other Grand Masters, I am humbled. Being on this list is amazing.
EV: Charlaine has been added to the roster of Grand Masters that includes Jeffery Deaver, Barbara Neely, Peter Lovesey, Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, Ken Follett, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.

EV: Where did you get the idea for the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire series?
The idea for Sookie’s world first occurred to me quite some time before I began to write the series. It gradually began to form in my brain, and then when I had it mostly settled, I was able to write the books. I still made a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions. (I always do.)

EV: Was Sookie a hard series to sell?
My poor agent, Joshua Bilmes, tried for two years to sell DEAD UNTIL DARK before John Morgan at Penguin took the book. (It was published in 2001.) That was the hardest sell I’ve ever had.

EV: Why did you end the popular series?
I decided to end the series because I had said everything I had to say about Sookie and her world. I’d reached my goal. It was a controversial decision, but I couldn’t face trying to write another book with my former zest.

EV: Was the ending of the series, when Sookie chooses the man she’ll marry, controversial with your fans? Is it true you needed a bodyguard for a while?
The ending was controversial, for sure, because some key elements got leaked before the book was even out. The book didn’t get a fair chance, and a lot of readers were very angry. I started to hire a bodyguard, but instead I just stayed home. That was a smart decision.

EV: What did you write after Sookie ended?
I wrote the Midnight, Texas books after I finished Sookie, and then I felt ready to write something completely new and different.
EV: The Midnight, Texas trilogy became another TV series on NBC for two seasons.

EV: Tell us about your latest series, featuring Gunnie Rose. It’s one of my favorites.
The world of the Gunnie Rose series is complex, and I have to be aware of a lot of history when I’m changing it to suit my narrative. America is split into parts following the assassination of Roosevelt, the Spanish Flu, and the collapse of Wall Street. Lizbeth Rose, a gunslinger by trade, lives in Texoma, the poorest of the new countries.

EV: AN EASY DEATH is the title of a Gunnie Rose novel. What does that mean?
“An Easy Death” is what gunnies wish each other. It’s a traditional farewell for gunnies going out on a job. It means, “I hope you don’t get gutshot. I hope you pass quickly.”

EV: Your vivid novels have been successful on TV. Alan Ball made the Sookie series into “True Blood” on HBO. How did Alan discover Sookie?
Alan told me he was early for a dentist appointment and went into a Barnes and Noble to get something to read. He loved the cover of DEAD UNTIL DARK and began reading. He loved it.

EV: You’ve also had several Hallmark movies based on your Aurora Teagarden mysteries. Is there another one coming up?
There are eighteen Hallmark movies in the Aurora Teagarden series on Hallmark. Since Candace Cameron Bure is leaving Hallmark, there may not be any more. But again . . . well, it’s up in the air.

EV: What’s the best part of your mega-success?
Not having to worry. And making friends with other writers. And buying a book if I want it.

EV: What’s next for you?
The fourth Gunnie Rose, THE SERPENT IN HEAVEN, will be out in November, I’m working on the fifth, and I don’t have a title for the one I’m writing at the moment. It’ll come to me, I hope.

Treat yourself to Charlaine Harris books at your favorite bookstore, online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or the Book Depository: https://www.bookdepository.com/author/Charlaine-Harris/

The Writer’s Voice

By Elaine Viets

We talk a lot about the writer’s voice, and how we develop our own.
But some readers want more than the writer’s voice on the page. They want to hear the writer’s actual voice.
They want to know what this author sounds like. Is their voice high and reedy, low and sexy, gruff, educated, or sweetened with a soft Southern accent?
When writers read their own work for audio, we readers hear their voice in our head every time we pick up their book. It changes the book: now the writers are speaking directly to us.
Their writing becomes more personal, more intimate.
We expect entertainers to be good at reading their own books for audio, and most are. Listen to Tina Fey read her book, “Bossypants.” Trevor Noah is terrific reading his “Born a Crime.”
And hearing Maya Angelou read her poem, “Still I Rise” brought tears to my eyes.

But what about ordinary writers? Should we read our own work?
Some years ago, I read my first four Francesca Vierling mysteries for audio. It was hard work. I was exhausted when I finished each day. I read my mysteries in the studio for six to eight hours a day.
Want to know what it’s like to read an audio book?
Okay, read this blog out loud, down to this line – without a single stumble, pause or mispronunciation. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you.
Start reading now. In three. Two. One.

Difficult, isn’t it? Every time you make a mistake, the producer has to stop the recording, back up, and have you start again.
I decided to read my first four mysteries because I’d had speech lessons in New York. To get ready for the studio, I went into training. I printed out the books in manuscript form and read from them several hours a day, to be familiar with the words. I outlined each character’s part with a special colored pencil, so I could change my voice at the right time.
I wrote notes at the top of the pages to remind myself. Mostly, SLOW DOWN!!!!
Finally, I thought I was ready. I flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico to begin reading in the studio. Santa Fe is a much drier climate than I’m used to, and my throat quickly turned scratchy. Now I sympathized with singers who babied their throats.
I had a patient producer and the reading went fairly smoothly. I followed the advice of some pros and drank warm water with lemon. No sugar, no tea, just warm water and lemon. I swilled gallons of the stuff. After a while, my mouth puckered when I even saw a lemon.

When I finished, I needed to put my tongue in a sling. My sore, scratchy throat took weeks to recover.
I was lucky to get kind reviews for my work, but when it came time to read my other mysteries, I left that to the pros. Tanya Eby and Amanda Stribling read many of my books now. Why did I stop reading my work?
Because I was good, but not quite good enough. And I wanted the best for my work.
So what about you? Have you read your own work for audio? Do you have a favorite audio reader?

Listen to my audio books free during your 30 trial with audible.com. Listen to my Dead-End Job mysteries, Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries, and the Angela Richman Death Investigator mysteries. https://www.audible.com/author/Elaine-Viets/B001HD2WX2

The Fine Art of Editing

 

By Elaine Viets

Here’s one reason why I like my London publisher, Severn House: Editing.
Like most writers, I try to turn in clean copy. I’m also an editor myself. So I appreciate the masterful way Severn House edited my latest Angela Richman mystery, Late for His Own Funeral, due out in the US this November. The editors took care to fine-tune the sentences with small but significant changes.
Take a look at these. The way I wrote the selection is first. The edited version is second.
(1) In this first example, Angela is recalling her friend’s doomed married. The change helps set the scene.
Elaine: Back then, Sterling had seemed awed by Camilla’s cool elegance, and she fell in love with his humor and energy.
Severn House: When they first met, Sterling had seemed awed by Camilla’s cool elegance, and she fell in love with his humor and energy.

(2) Elaine: I walked over to him and looked right into his red eyes. We were both the same height.
Severn House: I walked over to him and looked right into his red eyes. We were the same height.
This change gets rid of a redundancy. If Angela could look the man in the eyes, then they were the same height. I didn’t need that “both.”

(3) Elaine: The cut on her forehead had been stitched. She’d have a heck of a bruise there tomorrow.
Severn House: The cut on her forehead had been stitched. She’d have a heck of a bruise there.
I didn’t need that “tomorrow.”

(4) This change makes the sentence sing.
Elaine: The child wore a pink polka-dot T-shirt and jeans, and had pink ribbons in her hair.
My editor rearranged it as:
Severn House: The child wore jeans and a pink polka-dot T-shirt, and had pink ribbons in her hair.
(5) Here’s a shorter way of saying the same thing:
Elaine: We were at my car now.
Severn House: We reached my car.

(6) Elaine: I fired up my iPad and opened up the Death Scene Investigation form.

Severn House: I fired up my iPad and opened the Death Scene Investigation form.
No need for that second “up.”
(7) Another unnecessary phrase bites the dust:
Elaine: “It’s going to be rough for a bit,” I said. “But you’ll get through it. I promise. You have a real advantage – one of the best lawyers in the Midwest.”
With that, Mrs. Ellis entered the room carrying a tray. “I’ve brought you some food, Camilla dear.”
Severn House: “It’s going to be rough for a bit,” I said. “But you’ll get through it. I promise. You have a real advantage – one of the best lawyers in the Midwest.”
Mrs. Ellis entered the room carrying a tray. “I’ve brought you some food, Camilla dear.”

(8) This small change makes for a cleaner sentence.
Elaine: I was on duty at midnight tonight, so I packed a small overnight bag with my DI uniform and added my office cell phone charger.
Severn House: I was on duty at midnight, so I packed a small overnight bag with my DI uniform and added my office cell phone charger.

(9) Elaine: Millie watched fascinated while the server mixed the ingredients together in a large glass bowl, then added the dressing and tossed the salad.
Severn House: Millie watched fascinated while the server mixed the ingredients in a large glass bowl, then added the dressing and tossed the salad.
If the ingredients were mixed in a bowl, naturally they’d be “together.”

(10) Here’s another two-letter change:
Elaine: Linda’s apartment, 615, was in the middle of the hall. I could hear the TV on and hoped Linda was home.
No need for that “on.” If I could hear the TV, it was definitely on.
(11) One last one-word change.
Elaine: I went home to my place, feeling discouraged. Chris and I didn’t have a fight. I just wanted to be alone tonight.
Severn House: I went home to my place, feeling discouraged. Chris and I didn’t have a fight. I just wanted to be alone

Most of these changes were small and subtle. Also, I don’t have to accept any that I don’t like. Some got lost in translation when they crossed the Atlantic. Like this one:
Angela says: “I was a bridesmaid in her wedding ten years ago, and we marched down the same aisle now blocked by her husband’s casket.”
The copyeditor had changed it to: “I was a bridesmaid ‘at’ her wedding.” I had to explain that if you’re “at a wedding” you’re attending it, while if you’re “in a wedding,” you’re an attendant.
Sometimes we truly are two countries divided by a common language.

Now hear this: My Dead-End Job mysteries Murder with Reservations, Clubbed
to Death, Murder Unleashed and Killer Cuts are now on Scribd.com. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial.

Trending or Trendy?

By Elaine Viets

Before this day is over, more than fourteen new English words will be created. The Global Language Monitor says “around 5,400 new words are created every year.” Only about a thousand are “deemed to be in sufficiently widespread use to make it into print.”
Here are a few of them. Are they trending or trendy? Which do you have think have staying power?

Bands
According to the Urban Dictionary, this latest use of “bands” was created by rapper Ray Vicks. He “coined the term in his mixtape 36 O’s Later (track 4) when he said, ‘I got 10 bands on me.’” A band is a thousand dollars, so ten bands is ten thousand bucks.
Other sources claim “bands” are a big stack of money, often wrapped in rubber bands. Either way, the word is used in rap and hip-hop.

Buycott
A “buycott” is when you buy a company’s products because you support their policies. Hello, Ben and Jerry’s, with its campaigns to support gay marriage, the Great Barrier Reef, and much more. Activism has never been sweeter. Don’t agree with their policies? Boycott ’em!

Cool
“Cool” is once more cool again. It’s safe to use.

Doomscrolling/Doomsurfing
Webster has given its stamp of approval to both these words. Here’s how they’re defined. “Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.”
Yep, I’ve spent many a morning “doomscrolling.” Even cat videos couldn’t pull me out of my funk.

Fit
“Fit” has a number of alternative meanings. In teenage slang, it’s short for outfit, as in “She looks so hot in that black leather ‘fit.’”

Flex
Flex means to show off, to brag. If someone shows up way overdressed, dripping diamonds, you might wonder why they’re “flexing on you.” The Urban Dictionary says it’s “used by many rappers, most notable Ice Cube and the Geto Boys. “…no flexin’, didn’t even look in the nearest direction as I ran the intersection. (This is said because Ice is trying to get away from some people who tried to kill him the other day. In the song, of course)”– Ice Cube, “It Was a Good Day.”

Ghost

Shades of Casper, but not as friendly. Now, when it’s used as a verb, it means to stop talking to someone, to ignore them. “I thought my first date with Ron went well, but after he brought me home, Ron totally ghosted me.”

NFT
“NFT” is an abbreviation for “non-fungible token,” and the idea is puzzling, at least to me. NFTs have been around since 2017, and the term is in Webster’s. One website says an NFT is “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” Even the explanation is confusing.
People pay big bucks for NFTs. When Christie’s auction house sold an NFT by the digital artist Beeple for $69 million, it set a new record for digital art. Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey sold an NFT of the first tweet, which said, “just setting up my twttr.” This historic tweet was published on March 21, 2006 and has been shared more than 120,000 times. Still, it sold for $2.9 million bucks. I’ll give you a free peek here:

If you spend three million for a painting, you expect to have something unique. You can hang it on your wall and never show it, except to your friends.
But NFTs can – and are – duplicated. Everyone’s seen them. Genuine NFTs come with “a digital certificate of ownership that can be bought and sold.” Evidently, that’s enough for NFT lovers.

Savage
“Savage,” when used as a noun means “insanely hardcore. Incredibly cool.” Usually describes someone’s skill or talent, as in:

Lindsey Jacobellis is a savage at snowboarding. No wonder she snagged the gold at the Olympics.

Here’s my favorite example from a website: “Jill is a savage at drawing.”
I can see Jill at her easel, wielding a mean palette knife.

Sheeple
A combination of sheep and people, meaning “those who blindly follow the herd.” Used as an insult.

Sketch
Slang for “sketchy,” which means “questionable or iffy.” If you and your friends accidentally make a wrong turn into a dark, rat-infested alley, you might say, “Let’s get out of here. This place is sketch.”

Sus
Slang for “suspicious.” If I get an email from a Nigerian prince promising me a million bucks, I would instantly know that was “sus.” The last one offered me two million.

Whip
An expensive, flashy car:
“Wow, that’s some whip you got there, Josh. That Ferrari must have cost you a stack of bands.”

WYA
WTF? Another texting acronym is invading the language. “WYA” is short for “Where you at?”
It can have a double meaning. For instance, if a young woman is looking to hook up with her boyfriend, she might text him “WYA.” Just between friends, WYA really does mean, “Where are you at?” And if your parents text you that, report in instantly.

**************************************************************************************************

Fans of J.A. Jance and Lisa Gardner will love this exploration of the little-known job of death investigator in small-town Missouri where Angela Richman finds herself investigating the lives and secrets of the one percenters in Chouteau Forest.

Life without Parole, my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery, is now on sale in hardcover. Buy it here:  https://www.amazon.com/Without-Parole-Richman-Investigator-mystery/dp/0727850288/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1644453158&sr=8-2

 

Naming Your Baby

 

By Elaine Viets

I’d rather write an entire mystery than come up with a title for it. So much depends on choosing the right name for your baby: Will your title grab the reader? Describe your book? Boost your sales?
If you’re writing for a traditional publisher, your contract will probably call your mystery Untitled Work. It’s your job to give it a snappier name. You’ve lived with this book for months, even years. Maybe you’re too close to think of a good title. It’s time to step back and take a look at tips for mystery titles.
Ask your family and friends. I originally wanted to call my Angela Richman mystery about the murder of an aging Hollywood diva, Death Star. My editor said the title sounded too much like science-fiction. My husband Don came up with a play on a classic movie title. The new book was christened A Star Is Dead.
Keep Your Title Short. Yes, I know The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t hurt by its long name. But short, snappy titles sell well. Consider Michael Connelly’s mysteries, starting with Black Echo. His titles are short and to the point. Stephen Cannell was another master of titles. My favorite is The Vertical Coffin, which he said was a cop term. When the first law enforcement officer rushes the door in a takedown, that doorway can quickly become a vertical coffin. Especially if firearms are used.
Early in my career, I wrote a collection of humor columns called The Viets Guide to Sex, Travel and Anything Else that Will Sell This Book. Lots of laughing readers didn’t line up for that title. Instead, drooling old men infested my signings, saying, “I want that book on sex travel.” Apparently the old boys missed that comma between Sex and Travel in the title. My mystery novels with titles like Killer Cuts attracted a better reader.


Search Shakespeare. Some authors, including Marcia Talley, find titles in the Bard’s work. My favorite Talley title is Unbreathed Memories, a phrase from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You can hunt for titles in OpenSourceShakespeare.org
Hymns and the Bible. Julia Spencer-Fleming has found a number of titles in hymns, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter. They are perfect for her Rev. Clare Fergusson series.

Want to go trendy? For a while every third book had “Girl” in the title. That trend started with novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, not to mention  The Girls With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. None of these women were the girl next door, but their books sold. By the way, The Girl Next Door was used by a wide range of writers, from Brad Parks to Ruth Rendall. It’s even a horror story.

There were also a raft of “Daughters,” as in Leslie Welsh’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Now I’m seeing lots of “Wives,” including Daisy Wood’s debut novel, The Clockmaker’s Wife, and Alice Hunter’s The Serial Killer’s Wife.
One word titles can sum up the book. This works well for thrillers, such as Jeff Abbott’s Panic and Aaron Elkins’ Loot. I had a one-word title for a Dead-End Job mystery. I wanted to call the book Catnapped, but there was another mystery with the same name that year.

My editor added an exclamation point to the title and made it Catnapped!, leaving me with a punctuation nightmare. How would you end this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!
Should I add a period at the end of this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!.”
Or keep the exclamation point and look like a hyper-excited ditz?
Some words have a mystery mystique. Currently on the Pub Alley Fiction Mystery Bestsellers list are titles with words that seem to grab readers:
Paris. Gets them every time. At the top of the list is The Paris Detective: Three Detective Luc Moncrief Thrillers by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo.
Curse. Another intriguing word. Curse of Salem by Kay Hooper made the list.
Midnight. Two titles with “Midnight” are on the list: The Midnight Lock by Jeffrey Deaver and The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
Book Title Generators are another tool for clueless mystery writers. You can find several of them here: https://kindlepreneur.com/free-book-title-generator-tools/
I sampled the Mystery Book Title Generator, which claims to be the “Ultimate Bank of 10,000 Titles” that will “generate a random story title that’s relevant to your genre. You can pick between fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, or sci-fi.” http://blog.reedsy.com/book-title-generator/mystery

I clicked on “I’m just starting to write” and got this title: “The Mystery of the Three-Inch Stranger,” which struck me as a bit personal. It’s not the size of the stranger, it’s what you do with him.

Series titles: Sue Grafton has her alphabet series, beginning with A Is for Alibi and ending with Y Is for Yesterday. Mary Higgins Clark and her partner-in-crime Alafair Burke have a song title series, starting with You Don’t Own Me. Stephanie Plum uses numbers. Her latest is Game on: Tempting Twenty-eight.
I’d wanted to call my first novel for Penguin The Dead-End Job. My editor thought that would make a good series title, so that book became Shop Till You Drop.
When you write for a publisher, potential titles are batted back and forth. My fourth mystery in that series featured the murder of an overbearing mother of the bride. I wanted to call it One Dead Mother.
My publisher nixed that title as “too urban.” The novel was named Just Murdered.

Enter to win a free copy of Life Without Parole, my latest Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Stop by Kings River Life magazine: https://www.krlnews.com/2022/01/life-without-parole-angela-richman.html

 

Short Stories: Small and Twisted

By Elaine Viets

Did you ever say this? “I’m trying to write a short story, but I’m blocked. I’m getting nowhere.”

That happens to every writer. It certainly happens to me. Short stories are hard to write. In some ways, they may be harder to writer than novels. Here are a few tips for when you feel blocked working on your short story:

Think small – and think twisted.
There are good reasons why you can’t continue your short story. You could be blocked because you have too much going to on. In short, you may be writing a 5,000-word novel instead of a short story.
In a short story, you don’t need long, dreamy descriptions of the scenery.
You don’t need six subplots.
You don’t need to tell us your character’s awful childhood – unless it’s vital to the plot.
It’s a short story.
Think small.

Here’s another reason why your short story may be blocked: How many characters does it have?
If your short story has more than four major characters – you may — accent on may –have too many. It’s like being in a small room with too many people. You can’t move.

The short story is a small world.
Don’t make work for yourself. Giving all those people something to do is hard labor. Think small. Cut back on your characters.
If your story is going nowhere, consider some pruning. Clear out all the extraneous details, the unnecessary characters, the descriptions of the weather.
If you’re still not sure, read the story out loud. Read it to your spouse, or your dog, or your wall. But tell the story instead of looking at it on the page.
That’s a good way to find out what works – and what doesn’t.
Lawrence Block is a master of the traditional short story.
Let me show you what he does in one paragraph – one – in a short story called “This Crazy Business of Ours.” It’s in Block’s anthology called Enough Rope. If you’re interested in traditional short stories, I recommend this anthology.

“This Crazy Business of Ours”
The elevator, swift and silent as a garrote, whisked the young man eighteen stories skyward to Wilson Colliard’s penthouse. The doors opened to reveal Colliard himself. He wore a cashmere smoking jacket the color of vintage port. His flannel slacks and broadcloth shirt were a matching oyster white. They could have been chosen to match his hair, which had been expensively barbered in a leonine mane. His eyes, beneath sharply defined white brows, were as blue and as bottomless as the Caribbean, upon the shores of which he had acquired this radiant tan. He wore doeskin slippers upon his small feet and a smile upon his thinnish lips, and in his right hands he held an automatic pistol of German origin, the precise manufacturer and caliber of which need not concern us.

See how Block establishes a character in one paragraph? That is true economy of writing.
Make sure your story is about what it’s about. In a novel, you don’t have to get to the story right away. You have time to develop it. Time to build. Slowly.
In a short story, you have to hit them and run.

This is one of my favorite short story leads. It’s by Maria Lima in the Chesapeake Chapter Sisters in Crime anthology called Chesapeake Crimes I. Here it is:

“The telegram said it all: AUNT DEAD. STOP. BUTLER DID IT. STOP. FLY SOONEST. STOP. GERALD.”

That’s short and to the point. The writer has hooked you and she’s ready to move on to the story.


That takes me to the second requirement of a good short story. It needs a twist. It needs a surprise – either in the beginning or the end. But get that surprise in there.
Here’s the lead to my short story, “Red Meat,” which was nominated for an Agatha and a Macavity. It was in Blood on their Hands edited by Lawrence Block, and now in my own anthology, Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories.

“Ashley has a body to die for, and I should know. I’m on death row because of her.
“You want to know the funny thing?
“My wife bought me Ashley. For a present.”

There’s your twist – in three sentences.
Maybe your short story has all those things, but so what? It still feels lifeless.
You can’t make it get up and walk. You need something to liven it up. Ask yourself what specialized knowledge you have that could make your short story unique, and then build the story around it.
I was asked to write a short story for a gambling anthology. I panicked. I was going to tell my editors no. I don’t know how to gamble. I don’t play poker or blackjack. What am I doing in a gambling anthology?
Then I realized I did know gambling. My aunts used to take me to bingo. I was brought up Catholic – and I learned how people can cheat at bingo, and especially, how they can cheat at cruise ship bingo. Do you know what the prize is for cruise ship bingo?
Twenty thousand dollars on some cruises. That’s major money. That’s big-time gambling. Bingo! I had a short story.


The result was “Sex and Bingo,” which was nominated for an Agatha Award.
At a short story seminar in New York, I heard top editors talk about what made a good short story, what they buy, and what they won’t buy.

Here are some things editors DO NOT want:

– No more stories about husbands who kill wives, or vice versa.
– No more stories ending, “And then I woke up.”

What do they want?
A fresh voice.
An unusual location.
An offbeat character.
An opening that grabs them.
That was the most important part. You have one sentence – maybe two – to catch an editor’s eye with a short story.
Make every word count.
***
Elaine Viets was nominated for a 2021 International Thriller Award for her short story: “Dog Eat Dog” in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pacher. Crippen & Landru has published Elaine’s own collection, Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories Stories. Buy it here:  https://www.amazon.com/Deal-Devil-Elaine-Viets/dp/1936363275

The Man With the Gun

By Elaine Viets

Most mystery writers know this quote by Raymond Chandler: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
Like most mystery writing advice, this “man with a gun” needs more explanation.
According to author Louise Tondeur, Chandler was talking about “the demand … for constant action” and how “this could get to be pretty silly.”
“In other words, he was NOT issuing a tip for budding crime writers. He’s saying something closer to: there’s a demand for constant action in detective fiction, men are always rushing in with guns, there’s no time to look around, that’s sort of a shame, but that’s what you’ve got to do to get published these days (these days being 1950).”

So let’s look at that man with a gun metaphorically, as a constant need for action. Chandler’s quote is really about pacing and surprises in your writing.
You can’t have guys with guns running around loose in your novel and surprises popping up like Whac-A-Mole. Here are some points to consider:


Why not a woman with a gun?
Even Chandler had his femme fatales. For this discussion, the man with the gun could also be a woman. Your surprises are not bound by gender.
Is the man with the gun threatening or killing someone?
That threat can lead to several spicy chapters: your protagonist may manage to persuade the man with the gun not to kill him, or somehow overpower him. The man with the gun could become an ally or remain a deadly enemy. Either way, you’ve gained some plot points.


What if the man with the gun kills someone?
That’s good, right? I mean, it’s good for your story, not your victim. It moves the plot along.
Maybe. But this man could create more problems. Consider this.
Who is he killing and why?
Is he shooting a witness? Will that complicate the plot? Is he killing someone he’s always hated? Or a lover who betrayed him? Think about it. This can’t be a random murder. Ask yourself, do I need this surprise/killing here? Or should I use another way to pick up the pace?

Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.
When I first started writing mysteries, I killed like a serial killer on a spree. Unfortunately, I killed one of my better characters, Lee the Rehabber, in my first mystery, Backstab. As the series went on, I realized I could have used the chatty home renovation expert in other books, but it was too late. I couldn’t even claim he had amnesia and returned from a long trip. I’d already autopsied him. Consider your character’s future usefulness before the bullets start flying.

If you’re writing a cozy, for heaven’s sake, don’t let him shoot anyone.
Not in front of your readers, anyway. They don’t want to see all that blood.
Cozies are a delicate balance of family, friendship and murder. You can’t let the corpses start piling up.
Murder according to your genre. You may want more murders in an action-packed thriller or noir mystery.
Finally, if you’re going to have a second (or third, or fourth) murder in your mystery, tie the murder into the plot.
The killing could be a red herring or a clue, a friend of your protagonist or an enemy, but the murder should be tied to the story in some way. I got this advice from one of my editors, and it’s served me well. She did not like random murders showing up in my books.
Just remember: You are the god of this world you’ve created, and in your world, all murders (and surprises) must happen for a reason

This Friday, Nov. 12, I’m appearing in-person 7:00 PM, at Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore to sign my new Angela Richman mystery, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE.
Murder on the Beach is at 104 West Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, FL 33444. This will be a free and safe event, with masks and social distancing. You can Zoom, too. Email Murder on the Beach for your free Zoom link. StaceyMOB@gate.net.

The Proper Use of Improper Words

By Elaine Viets

CAUTION: Pearl-clutching zone. This blog contains R-rated language. If you’re offended by off-color words, please don’t continue.

Hah. I knew you’d keep reading this.
When I was a kid, my mother would wash my mouth out with soap if I used bad language. I can tell you from personal experience, Dial soap does not taste good.
Now that I’m grown up, those same forbidden words are in the dictionary. Yes, sometimes I mourn the good old days, when no one dared to use these words in public. But we can’t go back.
So why am I writing about offensive words?
Because if we want to write realistic stories, that’s how some people talk.
When I lived in a rough neighborhood in Washington DC, I was approached by would-be purse thief. He didn’t say, “Madame, hand over your reticule, please.” He said, “Give me your money, bitch.” (He didn’t get it, but that’s another story.)
In our novels, offensive language can be in indication of character (or lack of), social status, and age. Younger people are more likely to use these words than older ones.
Here are some cuss words from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Badass. One word, no hyphen.
This is my favorite off-color word. Often used for men, lately it’s been describing strong women (see kickass). Gal Godot in Wonder Woman, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and Michelle Yeoh, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all examples. Dania Gurira, the all-women army leader in Black Panther, is the epitome of badass.

Webster says badass can be an adjective and both usages are “chiefly US, informal and sometimes offensive.”
Badass means “ready to cause or get into trouble.” Or, “of formidable strength or skill” as in “a badass guitar player.”

As a noun, badass is “a person who is badass.”

Badassery. Noun, one word.
It means “the state or condition of being a badass.”
This example in the Village Voice would have had Mom buying a case of Dial.
“The Seattle quartet, hailed as godfathers of emo back when that word made you think of something other than ‘eyeliner,’ indulged the distorted guitar badassery of their grunge-era brethren …”

Bitch. Noun.
We all know that bitch is a female dog. That’s excuse I used on Mom when she was brandishing that soap bar. She wasn’t fooled.
Like Webster, Mom knew that word was “informal and often offensive” and meant, “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman.” It was also “a generalized term of abuse and disparagement for a woman.” And finally, “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant.”
Or, as the novelist Harold Robbins wrote: “July and August were always a bitch in the subway.”
Bitch also means “complaint,” and is both a transitive and intransitive verb.
“They bitched up their lives.”

SOB. Noun, capped with no periods.
Webster downgrades this cuss word to “slang, sometimes offensive” and gives this example: “. . .. A guy who brought two dozen roses to a first coffee date and told you he felt like the luckiest SOB on the planet in the first five minutes.”

Asshat. Here’s a word that seems to be gaining in popularity in novels.
Webster says it’s a noun and “vulgar slang. A stupid, annoying, or detestable person.” See, asshole.
The first known use of this was in 1999. Then Webster has this odd “History and Etymology for asshat.”
“The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious prehistory. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from late-twentieth-century films: ‘Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!’ (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, in Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen). . . .”
Webster wonders: “If we have been calling people assheads for almost 500 years now, why did it take so long for ass and hat to get together in similarly pejorative fashion? One reason may be that while ass lends itself well to the beginning of an opprobrious compound, hat leaves something to be desired in terms of mordant wit.”
Amen. Few of these words can be considered witty, and most are a blight on the language.
Now we get to the cuss words I really dislike.

Asshole. A noun, “usually vulgar.”
The first meaning is “anus,” but Webster also says it can mean “a stupid, annoying, or detestable person,” and “the least attractive or desirable part or area —used in phrases like asshole of the world.” This is an ancient word, first used in the 14th century.
But not by Mom.

We can skip “shit” – we know too about that word and its variations. I hate that word, though I’ve used it occasionally. Mostly in traffic.

Let’s go to a fairly harmless phrase:
WTF. Harmless, that is, until you see what the abbreviation stands for.
Now if Mom was around with her bar of soap, I’d try to weasel out by quoting the Acronym Finder.
“Hey, Mom, WTF stands for Well and Truly Freaked, or What’s This Foolishness? Where’s the Fudge?, or heh, heh, Welcome to Florida. In fact there are 105 definitions of WTF, so put down that soap, Mom, and let’s talk.’”
Webster authoritatively says the phrase is all caps and “informal.”
“WTF means ‘What the f– ’” Webster uses the actual f-word and says WTF is “used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion, or bemusement.”
Mom would not be bemused. Or amused.

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, my new Angela Richman mystery, is out. Publishers Weekly says, “Colorful characters match the crafty plot twists. Viets consistently entertains.” Read the review and order your copy here: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780727850287

Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/490552091/Death-Grip

First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Today’s Brave Author gave us an intriguing story with a touch of the supernatural. Take a look, and then I’ll make my comments:

A Delima worth Millions

The man that just walked in the bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day. If he plays. He stood in line. Waiting his turn. Like everyone else, he wished to wake up tomorrow as the mega lotto prize winner of 25 million. On an empty table to his left, a newspaper had a headline that caught his attention: LOTTO WINNER FOUND DEAD with the victim photograph and name-Pascual Montenegro. “That’s me,” he said. The hair on his body bristled as he walked slowly to the table and grabbed the paper. It was him. Short black hair, shaved, blue eyes. “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

A slight chill quivered his chest. The published date was two days from today. He scrutinized every word. According to the article, the police found him dead without a clear cause the same day he won. No further details revealed.

“Do you mind giving me back my paper,” said a voice. Pascual lowered the newspaper. There sat an old man he never seen before, dressed in a black suit with a fedora hat. “Do you mind?” the old man asked again. Pascual slammed it against the table. “Why is my picture here?” He looked at him.

The old man remained unrattled and sneered back with his dark eyes on a stone face. “Can’t you read? That is Sunday’s headline. You play, you win millions, you somehow die and its newsworthy,” he said. Pascual shook his head and pointed his finger at the old man’s face. “I don’t know who think you are. I do not appreciate this joke, scam or whatever bullshit lie you trying to pull with here” he said.

The old man sneered again. Then he leaned forward, the chair squeaked “buy the ticket and you will find out,” he hissed. Pascual shrugged his shoulders and grabbed and crumbled the paper. “Go to hell old man” he said and dropped it in front of him. He returned to the line. The old man smiled as he unwrinkled the paper with thump sounds like a judge gavel. Louder than the cracking sound of eggs being fried in the kitchen. “Go ahead, buy the ticket, you can’t stop what’s coming” he said. Pascual grabbed his cross necklace and kissed the image of Christ, a habit since childhood whenever he shivered in distress.

ELAINE’S CRITIQUE: I saw real possibility in this first page – and an author that needs help with some awkward phrasing and spelling. My changes are in bold. The problems start with the misspelled title:

Dilemma Worth Millions

The man that just walked in the bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day.

ELAINE: That opening grabbed me, but Brave Author, please use it to tell us where we are. For example: The man that just walked in the San Antonio bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day. If he plays.

BRAVE AUTHOR: He stood in line. Waiting his turn. Like everyone else, he wished to wake up tomorrow as the mega lotto prize winner of 25 million.

ELAINE: Twenty-five million what? Dollars? Pesos? Euros?

BRAVE AUTHOR: On an empty table to his left, a newspaper had a headline that caught his attention: LOTTO WINNER FOUND DEAD. He stared at the victim’s photograph and name – Pascual Montenegro. “That’s me,” he said. The hair on his body bristled as he walked slowly to the table and grabbed the paper.
There was no mistake. It was him. Same short black hair, shaved, blue eyes.

ELAINE: That “shaved” is puzzling. Do you mean “clean-shaven”?

BRAVE AUTHOR: “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

A slight chill quivered in his chest.

ELAINE: “A slight chill”? This is a man who just read that he was dead. He’ll need more reaction than that.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The published date was two days from today. He scrutinized every word. According to the article, the police found him dead without a clear cause the same day he won. No further details were revealed.

“Do you mind giving me back my paper?” said a voice. Pascual lowered the newspaper. There sat an old man he’d never seen before, dressed in a black suit and a fedora hat. He had dark eyes set in a stone face. (This phrase is moved up from below.)

ELAINE: You don’t need that “hat.” We know what a fedora is.

BRAVE AUTHOR: “Do you mind?” the old man asked again.
Pascual slammed the paper against the table. “Why is my picture here?” he demanded. He looked at him.

ELAINE: Cut the line in italics. It adds nothing.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man remained unrattled and sneered back: “Can’t you read? That is Sunday’s headline. You play, you win millions, you somehow die and it’s newsworthy.” he said.

ELAINE: Yikes! The dreaded “it’s” contraction was without an apostrophe. This mistake alone will send an editor screaming into the night. Also, you don’t need that “he said.”

BRAVE AUTHOR: Pascual shook his head and pointed his finger at the old man’s face. “I don’t know who you think you are. I do not appreciate this joke, scam or whatever bullshit lie you’re trying to pull with here,” he said.

ELAINE: We don’t need the word “lie”  or “with” and the punctuation is wrong for “he said.”

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man sneered again. Then he leaned forward, and the chair squeaked. “Buy the ticket and you will find out,” he hissed.
Pascual shrugged his shoulders, and grabbed the paper and crumpled it. “Go to hell, old man,” he said and dropped it in front of him. He returned to the ticket line.

ELAINE: Again, there are some punctuation errors and the italicized “and” can be cut.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man smiled as he smoothed the wrinkled paper, the sound louder than the crack of a judge’s gavel.

ELAINE: “With thump sounds like a judge gavel” is an interesting image, but it doesn’t quite work. And it should read “with a thump that sounds like a judge’s gavel.” The same goes for “louder than the cracking sound of eggs being fried in the kitchen.” And do you mean “cracking” or “crackling”?

BRAVE AUTHOR: “Go ahead, buy the ticket, you can’t stop what’s coming,” the old man said.

Pascual grabbed his crucifix necklace and kissed the image of Christ, a habit since childhood whenever he was shivered in distress.

ELAINE: Cut “shivered.

ELAINE’S CONCLUSION: I was impressed with this first page. I want to know what happens to Pascual: does he win his fortune and cheat death? Will his faith help save him? And who is this mysterious old man – the Grim Reaper in a fedora? The devil? Or a nameless charlatan?
However, this first page presents a real writing dilemma: numerous misspellings and grammatical mistakes, starting with the title. No editors worth their red pencil will read this novel, and that’s a crying shame.
A writer has to know grammar and spelling. These are the tools of our trade. If we don’t, we’re like builders who can’t use a nail gun or a circular saw.
So what can our Brave Author do?
Take an adult education course in grammar and spelling.
Have someone who understands grammar and spelling read your manuscript.
Hire an editor to correct your grammar and spelling before you send out your manuscript.
I teach English as a second language, and judging by some of these errors, I suspect our Brave Author is not a native speaker. But I believe our Brave Author is a natural storyteller. Keep writing.

This Saturday, August 14, 10 AM to noon, I’m teaching “Dead Write: Forensics for Writers” a Zoom workshop at the Florida Authors Academy.
I passed the Medicolegal Death Investigators Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. I’ll discuss the proper methods and pitfalls of body identification, and other tips that will give your mysteries authenticity. Handouts are included. Contact Murder on the Beach Bookstore. Registration is required. It’s $25. Call 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net.