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

Writers Beware: Here’s what readers really hate

By Elaine Viets

Does the novel you’re writing have a long dream sequence? And it’s in italics, to enhance the ethereal effect? How about sizzling sex scenes? And, for comic relief, a talking cat who solves crimes and a wisecracking kid who’s five going on forty?
Uh, you may want to rethink that work in progress.
Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic, “asked readers of our Book Club newsletter to describe the things that most annoy them in books. The responses were a tsunami of bile.”
Here are some things that Ron salvaged from the tsunami.

(1) Readers hate dream sequences.
Yes, I know dream sequences are a staple of literature. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov has guilty dreams, including one about a whipped mare. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Boy Who Lived is deceived by thoughts implanted by a bad guy. Winston in 1984 worries his dreams will get him in trouble with the Thought Police. A Christmas Carol is a long life-changing dream. And then there’s Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So why should we be wary of dream sequences?
Raging readers told Ron Charles this:
“‘I absolutely hate dream sequences,’ writes Michael Ream. ‘They are always SO LITERAL,’ Jennifer Gaffney adds, ‘usually an example of lazy writing.’”
Aha! So readers hate lazy writing and literal dream sequences. Writing coaches caution writers to avoid cheap tricks, especially the old “and then I woke up” dodge. They say you can use dream sequences if the dreams are premonitions, illustrate an important inner conflict, or help a protagonist realize something major. In short, the dreams must advance the plot. So craft your dream sequences carefully.

(2) Readers hate historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies.
The Washington Post says, “Karen Viglione Lauterwasser despairs over errors ‘like calling the divisions in a hockey game “quarters” or having a pentagon-shaped table with six chairs.’ Deborah Gravel warns authors that taking a cruise to Alaska is not enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier. Kristi Hart explains that when your characters are boiling maple sap to make syrup, they should not be stirring it. ‘You just boil it until the sugar content is correct, and then you’re done.’”
My pet peeve includes the treatment of black people in historical novels in the first half of the Twentieth Century. With some exceptions, until the late 1950s or 1960s, black people were not allowed to eat in most white restaurants or sit at lunch counters with whites. Nor could they stay at white hotels, go to white schools, use white toilets, or even drink out of white people’s water fountains.
In 1968, I encountered my first segregated water fountain, on a trip through Mississippi. In the local courthouse, the white people drank chilled water from a modern metal fountain. Black people had to drink warm water from a dinky white porcelain fountain. At a Catholic church in the same state, my family arrived late for the service, so we sat in the back. An usher told us that section was for black people (actually, he said “Negroes”) and we had to move.
Encountering this segregation was shocking, but it existed, and to deny it in novels is to deny the shame, hurt and humiliation black people suffered – and still do.
(3) Readers hate typos and grammatical errors.
This is also bugaboo for TKZ readers and writers, and we’ve written often about how to catch typos, while understanding those slippery little devils slip into the best books. But typos seem to be getting worse, especially since traditional publishers are cutting back on copy editors and some indie authors don’t hire them.
The Washington Post noted: “Patricia Tannian, a retired copy editor, writes, ‘It seems that few authors can spell “minuscule” or know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt.’ Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, laments that so many ‘authors don’t know the difference between “lie” and “lay.’” TKZ’s Terry Odell wrote a helpful blog on that subject. Read it and sin no more. https://killzoneblog.com/2023/03/are-you-lying-or-laying-around.html

Personally, I wish writers would know the difference between grizzly and grisly murders. While it’s true the Cocaine Bear and some bears in the wild do kill humans, in most mysteries humans performing those grisly murders.
And please realize that the South American country is spelled Colombia, not Columbia. There’s more, but it’s not a good idea to get me started.
“While we’re at it,” the Washington Post wrote, “let’s avoid ‘bemused.’ Bemused ‘doesn’t mean what you think it means,’ says Paula Willey.”
And please, please learn how to use “chute,” as in where you toss your dirty clothes. I’ve seen major writers call it a “laundry shoot,” which can put holes in clothes.

(4) Readers hate bloated books.
According to the Washington Post, “Jean Murray says, ‘First books by best-selling authors are reasonable in length; then they start believing that every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut.’ She notes that Elizabeth George’s first novel, A Great Deliverance, was 432 pages. Her most recent, Something to Hide, is more than 700.
“But it’s not just the books that are too long,” the WashPo says. “Everything in them is too long, too. Readers complained about interminable prologues, introductions, expositions, chapters, explanations, descriptions, paragraphs, sentences, conversations, sex scenes, fistfights and italicized passages.”
(5) Readers hate long italicized passages.
“‘Long passages in italics drive me nuts,’ Susan Spénard told the Washington Post.
“‘Cormac McCarthy does entire chapters in italics,’ adds Nathan Pate. ‘Only the rest of his writing redeems that.’”
(6) Readers hate when writers don’t use quote marks.
“‘Sometimes you have to reread a passage to determine who is speaking,’ one reader said.
Quick now, a few more complaints:
(7) Readers hate “gratuitously confusing timelines.”
“‘Everything doesn’t have to be a linear timeline,’ concedes Kate Stevens, ‘but often authors seem to employ a structure that makes the book unreadable (or at least very difficult to follow). There seems to be no reason why this is done other than to show off how clever they are.’”
(8) Readers hate two kinds of show-offs.

“Unrealistically clever children or talking animals . . . are deeply irksome in novels — along with disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.”
Some cozy readers adore talking animals who solve crimes, so this objection doesn’t apply to everyone.
(9) A few more things readers hate, according the Washington Post:
– “Susan C. Falbo is tired of ‘protagonists who have had a hard day, finally stagger home and take a scalding hot shower.’” My protagonists sometimes do that, so I guess the key here is to not overdo it.

– “Connie Ogle and Susan Dee have had it with ‘lip biting.’ Ogle explains, ‘If real people bit their lips with the frightening regularity of fictional characters, our mouths would be a bloody mess.’
– “Gianna LaMorte is tired of seeing ‘someone escape a small town and rent a large house, get a job at a local paper or make a living gardening.’” The person who flees to a small town and makes a living writing for a newspaper gets my goat. Especially if they have their own office and come and go as they please. Small town newspapers barely pay enough to keep reporters in cat food. And editors want to know where they can reach you at all times.

And I’m with Tobin Anderson, who wrote, “Vomiting is the new crying. I think it’s part of the whole hyper-valuation of trauma — and somehow tears seem too weak, too mundane. But imagine a funeral filled with upchuckers.” I’m seeing a lot of barfing on TV these days, and watching folks toss their cookies while I’m eating in front of the tube makes me want to . . . well, you get the point.
So, TKZ readers, what are your pet peeves?

Pre-order my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, The Dead of Night, to be published April 4. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1448310350/ref=ox_sc_saved_image_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1



Naming the Baby


By Elaine Viets

I just turned in my latest Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. You know the hardest part of that novel? Coming up with a title.
Without a good title, the book can’t go forward – there’s no cover, no editing, nothing – without the title.
Here’s a brief teaser:
“Everyone in Chouteau Forest knows the legend of the Cursed Crypt. It’s claimed that the restless spirit of a professor nicknamed Mean Gene Cortini, buried in Chouteau Forest University’s crypt, has been causing death and destruction in the Forest for almost two centuries.”
My publisher’s contract calls this novel Untitled Angela Richman Mystery #8. Doesn’t sing, does it?
I gave the novel this working title, The Cursed Crypt.
But my editor didn’t like that name. Others dismissed it as “too Nancy Drew.”
So I spent the next couple of weeks trying to find a new title. This was serious work. I batted titles around with readers, friends and my agent. Finally, far I had:
A Cryptic End
Murder Most Cryptic
Murder at the Tomb
The Dead of Night
Death in the Night
Death Comes at Night
A Grave Ending
Money, Murder, and Madness
After much discussion, it was whittled down to one title. I checked Amazon and other online databases to make sure someone else wasn’t using that title. This was an important step. One New York publisher released two books with the same title. In the same year. I can’t imagine the confusion that caused both authors.
At last, the title was approved by the publisher’s editorial board.
The new novel would be called The Dead of Night, and it has this gorgeous cover.

But there’s still one pitfall.
Choose the wrong title, and my book could wind up on the Goodreads list of “Worst titles: Some titles don’t go with the books.” About 227 books made the list. Here are two obvious examples:
Truth, Dare, or Handcuffs or Threeway.

Not as catchy as Fifty Shades of Grey, is it?
It addresses this dilemma: “When two men love the same woman, what are they to do?”
Then there’s this one: Such a Pretty Fat: One Narcissist’s Quest to Discover If Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big, or Why Pie Is Not the Answer.

I expected to be hit by lightning just for reading this title: Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The astonishing relationship between two of the world’s most popular literary characters: a historical investigation into the mythology and literature of Jesus Christ and the religious symbolism in Rowling’s magical series.

This next example is a truly terrible title for a romance novel: How To Catch Crabs.
It’s not about those crabs. It’s about a seagoing man who catches crustaceans: “A tale of crabs, cricket bats and catching your heart’s desire in Jazz Age Western Australia.”

And here’s a really trashy novel: Dumpsterotica: How Dirty Are You? Described as an “erotic comedy series,” this short story “puts the ‘rot’ in erotica; after reading this you’ll never look at a Dumpster the same way again.”I’ve already changed my mind about Dumpsters.
I was surprised to see big-time titles on this list, including all four books in the Twilight saga: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society also made the list. I liked the book and the movie, but the cover has nothing to do with the title.
Some titles on the list are so disgusting I won’t print them. Others have one or more F-bombs. But I was sorry to see Walter the Farting Dog there. If you’re not familiar with William Kotzwinkle’s children’s book, here’s the story:
“Walter is a fine dog, except for one small problem: he has gas. He can’t help it; it’s just the way he is. Fortunately, the kids Billy and Betty love him regardless, but Father says he’s got to go! Poor Walter, he’s going to the dog pound tomorrow. And then, in the night, burglars strike. Walter has his chance to be a hero. A children’s beloved classic, this story will have kids rolling on the floor with laughter. Adults are permitted to laugh too.”
I have my own story about Walter. I was working behind the register at a Barnes & Noble, when a dignified woman in a Chanel-style suit (in Florida, yet!), came up to the counter holding the Kotzwinkle book by one corner, as if she couldn’t bear to touch it. She was livid. Her voice was cold, soft and deadly. “Someone. Gave. This. Book. To. My. Child.”
She didn’t have a receipt, but the store took it back. I felt sorry for the poor kid, but Kotzwinkle and his crepitant canine didn’t need my sympathy. There’s a new book in the saga: Walter The Farting Dog Farts Again.


The Dead of Night will be published April 4. Preorder your copy now.

Murder! Murder!

By Elaine Viets

Several years ago, when I was chosen for jury duty in St. Louis, we were asked if we’d ever had any connection to a murder: did we have a friend or relative who was a murder victim? Did we know someone who was convicted of murder?
I was astonished at how many people raised their hand – almost two-thirds of that massive jury room. Those who raised their hands seemed to be so-called solid citizens – well-dressed men and women, old and young, black and white. The last people you’d think would be involved with violent crime.
Including the grandmotherly woman next to me, who’d brought her knitting. She told me her brother was murdered. He was a kindhearted man who gave a co-worker a ride home on a dark, rainy night. The colleague’s husband shot and killed him. He was convinced his innocent wife was having an affair.

Murder seems to touch us all. When I thought about it, I realized I’d watched a murderer grow up in my city neighborhood. We lived on a shady street with big, old redbrick houses. One house, halfway down the block, was known as “the trouble house.” The police were there two or three times a week. The neighbors often called the cops on the boy, who I’ll call Billy, because that’s not his name. Billy broke windows, supposedly stole things out of yards, and may have tortured a stray cat.
The neighbors would call the cops, who would show up at the house and talk to Billy’s mother. Billy’s father was long gone. Soon after the complaint, there would be a fire in a trash can at the home of the person who complained – or a mysteriously broken garage window. After awhile, the neighbors quit complaining, but many lived in fear of the trouble house.
Then one morning, Billy was in the newspaper. He 18, and arrested for murdering a man in the neighborhood park. Supposedly, the man was gay and paid Billy for sex. Billy stabbed him to death.
Shortly after that, Billy’s mother sold the house to pay for her son’s legal bills, and moved away. Billy went to jail for murder.

In 2020, some 17,754 people were murdered in the USA. More than 40 people are murdered every day in the US. That statistic led to a jury room full of raised hands, and lives filled with sorrow and regret.
As mystery writers, we deal with murder professionally. But how many of us have dealt with murder personally? Tell us your story.

Late for His Own Funeral “ is a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” — Kings River Life. Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Funeral-Angela-Richman-Investigator-mystery-ebook/dp/B09SM41TVJ 


Having trouble posting a comment? We’re sorry. We’re having technical problems and are working to resolve it. –Elaine

The Nearly Impossible Triple Jump

Most writers hope we’ll have long-running series: John Sandford has written 32 Prey thrillers, featuring Lucas Davenport. Sue Grafton’s alphabet series has 25 mysteries, and with her untimely death, the alphabet ended at the letter Y. And Marcia Talley has written 19 Hannah Ives mysteries since 1999. She’s managed to take her series to three publishers, a nearly impossible feat.
Booklist magazine said this about her latest mystery, Disco Dead, which debuted in November, “Some long-running series have their ups and downs, but the Ives series has been remarkably consistent.”
We’ve asked Marcia about her long-lasting series, and how she’s kept up the quality.
– Elaine Viets

Elaine: Who is Hannah Ives, and why did you create her?

Marcia: I don’t have to tell you that the real world is a messy, violent, frequently unjust place. Mysteries can be a respite – in my fictional world I call the shots. Justice is served and the villain suitably punished. I love the puzzle aspect of the mystery, planting clues and dropping red herrings. As for me personally, there have been a lot of people in my life who needed to die. In a mystery, I can bump them off with a stroke of my pen, and it’s cheaper than a therapist. I’ve bumped off former bosses, an ex-brother-in-law, a real estate agent, a crooked developer (the list goes on!) and even my husband a couple of times.

Elaine: How much of you is in Hannah?

Marcia: Is she my alter ego? Yes and no. She reminds me a bit of what Nancy Drew would be like at 55 or so. Like me, Hannah is a breast cancer survivor who enjoys sailing and is married to a professor at the Naval Academy. She’s funnier than I am, though, and braver—I would never break into a doctor’s office and riffle through his medical records, but Hannah would. Hannah’s younger and prettier, too, although just as curious and fiercely independent.

Her name was always Hannah, by the way, but I didn’t realize until my first editor emailed to inquire about it that my heroine didn’t have a last name. In a semi-panic, I called a friend who suggested the name Ives. I found out later that my friend’s phone was mounted on a kitchen wall next to a Currier & Ives illustrated calendar, so Hannah might well have been named Hannah Currier.

Elaine: How was your first Hannah mystery received?

Marcia: It still amazes me! Sing It to Her Bones won the Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished mysteries, then, after it was published by Bantam Dell, was nominated for an Agatha Award for best first novel. At the Malice Domestic conference that year, I appeared on a panel with the other nominees that was moderated by Margaret Maron (I was such a fan girl!). Hannah lost out to Donna Andrews and her wrought-iron flamingos, but the boost the award gave me spurred sales. Reviews were uniformly positive – “a shining new talent” OMG! – and I was thrilled to get cover blurbs from mystery authors I admired tremendously like Margaret, Laura Lippman, Sujata Massey and Deborah Crombie.

Elaine: Cancer is a grim topic. How do you keep Hannah entertaining?

Marcia: With humor and pragmatism. The opening lines of Sing It to Her Bones are:

“When I got cancer, I decided I wasn’t going to put up with crap from anybody anymore.”

And over the course of the next nineteen novels, she certainly doesn’t.

Take this example in a scene from the first chapter of Sing It to Her Bones. Here, Hannah is receiving the devastating news that she’s being laid off from the prestigious D.C. accounting firm she’s worked at for years:

While Coop oozed on about severance pay and maintenance of health benefits, I stared at Fran, who sat straight-backed and immobile, like an ice sculpture. I willed her to look at me, but she focused on his reflection in the tabletop. If Jones of New York had issued shotguns along with its suits, I thought, Old Cooper’s shirtfront would have been a sodden mass of red and we would have been picking bits of lung and rib out of the oriental carpet. I concentrated on the way his yellowish hair sprouted from his upper forehead in spiky clumps and how his earlobes wobbled when he talked. Frankly, when he laid the news on me, I didn’t know whether to run out and hire a lawyer to sue his ass or fall down and kiss his feet.

Elaine: Who was your first publisher and why were you dropped?

Marcia: My first contract was a three-book, mass-market paperback deal with Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. At some point between Unbreathed Memories and Occasion of Revenge, Random House was bought out by the German publishing giant, Bertelsman and their whole mass-market paperback mystery line was axed. Up until that time, B/D had been publishing two paperback mysteries a month; twenty-four authors were instantly orphaned. I remember (barely!) commiserating with a bunch of homeless B/D authors around the bar at Bouchercon Denver in September of 2000.

Elaine: Were you expecting your series to be canceled? What did you do when you got the news?

Marcia: I was completely blind-sided. My then editor had already told my agent that they would be wanting a fourth book in the series. I got the bad news on my cell phone, directly from my editor while sitting in a parking lot outside a Shaw’s supermarket near my sister’s home in Gorham, Maine. After sulking for a while, I marched into the store and bought a pint of Haagen Dasz rum raisin ice cream and ate it all by myself.

Elaine: Conventional wisdom says when publishers drop writers, these authors have two choices: indie publish their series, or start a new series. Did you consider either alternative?

Marcia: Back in 2001, indie publishing was about as respectable as printing your manuscript out at Kinko’s and selling it out of the trunk of your car, so it was never a consideration for me. Conventional wisdom at the time was to Keep Your Name Out There. So, I began to write short stories, the first of which, “With Love, Marjorie Ann” was short-listed for an Agatha award. Fans of my Hannah Ives mysteries will be surprised to learn that I am also a serial novelist. I wrote novels with other women. And not just one woman either. TWELVE other women.

My then agent called shortly after the aforementioned rug had been pulled out from under me, to say he’d heard that some publisher had paid Big Bucks for a serial novel about golf. He suggested I write a novel set in an exclusive health spa, with, say, a greedy owner, a star-struck daughter, a drunken senator, an aged rock star … and Naked Came the Phoenix was born. Naked was followed by I’d Kill for That, my second expedition into collaborative serial novel territory. For the uninitiated, let me explain that the novel, like its predecessor, was written in round-robin style: one author writes the first chapter then passes it to the second who picks up the story where the first author left off, then passes it on to the third, and so on.

For me, coming up with the scenario – murder in an exclusive gated community — and creating a smorgasbord of fascinating characters for the others to play with was just the beginning. The fun really started when I turned it all over to my fellow authors, sat back and waited to see where my dream team would run with it, and they didn’t disappoint.

Under the talented pen of Gayle Lynds, the “greedy real estate developer” suggested in my proposal leapt to life “with a clash of cymbals and a drum roll” as Vanessa Smart Drysdale, a petite, chestnut-haired beauty in black leather slacks who possesses all the compassion of Cruella de Vil. Little did I know what Lisa Gardner had in store for poor, tormented Roman Gervase, and Julie Smith’s take on Sunday services at St. Francis of Assisi Interfaith Chapel had me chuckling for weeks. Other equally delightful chapters were penned by Rita Mae Brown, Linda Fairstein, Kay Hooper, Kathy Reichs (lending her customary forensic expertise, of course), Heather Graham, Jennifer Crusie, Tina Wainscott, Anne Perry, Katherine Neville and, ahem, me.

The authors seemed to enjoy the game, too. The rules were simple. Each chapter was to be written in the third person, with a definite solution in view, even thought we were well aware that subsequent authors might take – indeed were expected to take – the plot in divergent directions. Speaking of her chapter in Naked Came the Phoenix, which was set in a luxury health spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Nancy Pickard said, “It was dangerously liberating to know I didn’t personally have to deal with the consequences of whatever I put in my chapter.” Good thing, too, as she left our heroine struggling to extract the body of the spa owner from a mud bath.

Although writers were cautioned to avoid cliff-hanger endings that would require Houdini-like efforts on the part of the next author, the “real fun” comes, according to Laurie R. King who wrote the final chapter of Naked Came the Phoenix, “in seeing thirteen sweet-tempered lady crime writers stab each other thoughtfully in the back.” Judy Jance gleefully ended her chapter in that novel with Phyllis, the spa’s resident psychic, floating face down in a lake. Fortunately, however, someone in Faye Kellerman’s chapter knew CPR and revived Phyllis long enough for her to deliver a critical clue before lapsing into a coma.

As you might guess, my job as editor/contributor resembled a cross between tour guide and traffic cop as I assembled the team and worked out the intricacies of scheduling – each author had just a month to complete her chapter – and made sure, for example, that each author received packets of background information and copies of the chapters that preceded hers. Timing was critical. We met at conferences, spoke on the telephone and exchanged emails at a furious rate. As we raced to the finish line, Anne, Katherine and I kept the trans-Atlantic telephone lines hot as we brainstormed and worked out plot details – Anne Perry pointed out that the novel needed a love story, and she was right – so we put one in. And Val McDermid vowed she would not participate unless she could use the word “incarnadine,” a request I happily granted. Often we found ourselves revisiting an earlier chapter to plant a clue or clear up a discrepancy, and it fell to the amazing Katherine Neville – who volunteered for the job, I should point out – to tie up all the loose ends as our novel sprinted to its stunning conclusion.

Elaine: How many books did you do with your second publisher, and why did you jump to a third?

Marcia: My second publisher was Morrow/Avon. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the very night I won the Agatha Award for my short story, “Too Many Cooks” in 2002, I was approached at the awards banquet by Caroline Marino, a senior editor at M/A who was well aware of the bloodbath that had taken place over at B/D and said, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Caroline was already familiar with the Hannah series and introduced me to editor Sarah Durand. Within a week, my agent received an offer of a 3-book deal. In Death’s Shadow, This Enemy Town and Through the Darkness were all published by Morrow/Avon until they met the same fate as my first three books: the victim of a corporate takeover, this time by Harper Collins, and a decision to ax the mass market mystery line in favor of trade paper format. I was already well along with Dead Man Dancing, set in the world of competitive ballroom, which was immensely popular at the time with TV shows like “Strictly Come Dancing” in the UK and “Dancing with the Stars” in the US, so that may have been one reason the series was picked up by Severn House. I’ve been with them ever since.

Elaine: How has Hannah changed since your first book?

Marcia: If I had known when I was writing Sing It to Her Bones that I was writing a series, I would have made Hannah much younger. At the end of the first book, we learn she’s about to become a grandmother. My novels are roughly contemporaneous—Occasion of Revenge, for example, climaxes during New Year’s Eve celebrations in 1999, the eve of the New Millenium – so Hannah must be at least twenty-two years older than she was back then, but, uh, let’s not mention it.

Elaine: What do you do to keep your series fresh?

Marcia: Every time I finish a book, I think, “I’ll never get an idea for another one.” But all one needs to do these days is pick up a newspaper or watch television to find something that gets the creative juices flowing. The first thing I ask is how do I get Hannah believably involved in this? Writers of mystery series call it avoiding the Cabot Cove Syndrome. After twelve seasons of “Murder She Wrote” and years in syndication, there can’t be anyone left alive in Cabot Cove, Maine, and would you risk having tea with Jessica Fletcher? Once I figure out how to involve Hannah – and her network of cancer survivors is a big help there – I hop on the Internet and begin researching the issue. In Mile High Murder, for example, Hannah is invited to go on a fact-finding trip to Denver, Colorado by a Maryland state senator in their cancer support group who is looking into legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland. In Tangled Roots, I explored what happens when Hannah’s Ancestry.com DNA test comes up with totally unexpected results. The expertise she gained with forensic genealogical research in that novel and the subsequent one, leads her to being invited to join a small group of quirky “citizen detectives” dedicated to solving cold cases in my latest novel, Disco Dead.

Marcia and her husband Barry are sailors, and spend winters in the Bahamas. Here’s Marcia (with a broken finger, no less) writing her novel on their boat, Iolanthe.

Elaine: Thank you, Marcia for an informative interview. TKZers, you can buy Sing It to Her Bones here: https://www.amazon.com/Sing-Bones-Hannah-Ives-Mystery/dp/0440235170?ie=UTF8&qid=1464306300&ref_=tmm_mmp_swatch_0&sr=1-1
And this is the link for Disco Dead: https://www.amazon.com/Disco-Dead-Hannah-Ives-Mystery/dp/1448307953/ref=sr_1_1?crid=AUSQ28331C5Y&keywords=disco+dead+marcia+talley&qid=1670508658&sprefix=disco+dead%2Caps%2C1810&sr=8-1

Killer Deadlines

By Elaine Viets

Throughout my writing career, I’ve lived by deadlines. I started as a newspaper reporter and then became a columnist, where I often had four deadlines a week – with no time off. When the holidays rolled around, I had to write my columns ahead of time. That meant six or even eight deadlines a week.
As a mystery writer, I still have deadlines, but the pace seemed easier. Newspapers moved swiftly, like a cold through a kindergarten. Publishing seemed slower than a Manhattan traffic jam.
At first, I wrote two novels a year. Now I’ve cut back to one a year.

No problem with deadlines, right?
Wrong. No matter how much time I have to write a novel, the last week is always jammed up.
This August 31, I turned in my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery to my London publisher, Severn House. This time, I spent that final stretch writing twelve-hour days, trying to finish. As I read through the book, a straggling subplot had to be cut. Its crabgrass-like tendrils were deep in the book. I dug them out.
Errors popped up – difficult characters deliberately changed their hair color and didn’t tell me. One nasty customer gave himself two different names. Typos appeared out of nowhere.
As I struggled to finish on deadline, I wrestled with my recalcitrant manuscript. I could feel it squirming. It refused to settle neatly in place.
I read and reread it until my eyes were blurry. Finally, I pressed the button and emailed it off to London, hoping all was well. I couldn’t read the book one more time.
Exhausted, I slept for two days.
Then I waited and worried, my head buzzing with questions:
Would my editor like the new book? Would she want a rewrite? What if she rejected it?
Finally, I got a brief note two weeks later – that’s lightning speed for publishing. My editor was reading the manuscript and “enjoying it hugely.”
Whew. I felt so much better. What was I going to do while I waited?
I could write a short story. Clean off my desk. Answer my emails. Plot my next book.
I could do that, but I didn’t. I couldn’t get up the energy.
My editor didn’t like the working title, so I came up with a new one – “The Dead of Night.”
I didn’t do much else. I just need to lie fallow, I told myself. I was so fallow I was turning into a puddle of goo. I moped around my home. I’ll get my energy back soon, I thought.
I got it back this Tuesday. My editor emailed me the copyedited manuscript. It needs some tweaking and a small rewrite. And I have one week to finish. It’s due next Tuesday.
Suddenly I was awake. Galvanized. Ready to work. I quit moping. I had a purpose.
Better yet, I had a deadline.

What about you, writers? Do you need deadlines?

PS: I’m also working under another deadline. Hurricane Nicole is heading this way, and I’m going to drag in the plants on the balcony. Wish us luck.

I’m celebrating! My short story, “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About,” in the anthology, “The Great Filling Station Holdup: crime fiction inspired by the songs of Jimmy Buffet,” edited by Josh Pachter, won Silver at the Royal Palm Literary Award.
Buy the anthology here: https://tinyurl.com/4nr7a9pm

Rejection Slips

By Elaine Viets

Feeling discouraged, writers? Tired of papering your walls with rejection slips?
When I feel down, I turn to the good book. Not THE good book, but a good book by Elaine Borish called “Unpublishable! Rejected writers from Jane Austen to Zane Grey.”

If you’ve been rebuffed by a publisher, you’re in good company. So was Agatha Christie. Borish says it took Dame Agatha four years to find a publisher for her first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” – and then it sat on a desk for another eighteen months. The publisher suggested some changes to the ending, and Agatha made them. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finally made his debut in 1920.
Agatha Christie wrote more than ninety titles, and “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” is still in print.
Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit and Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, was a hybrid author. Her “Peter Rabbit” was rejected by six publishers. She used black-and-white sketches, since she was worried that color pictures would make the book too expensive for children. Beatrix finally self-published “Peter Rabbit.” It went through two printings.
In 1901, Beatrix submitted Peter Rabbit again, and the traditional publisher politely rejected it: “As it is too late to produce a book for this season, we think it best to decline your kind offer at any rate for this year.”
The next time Beatrix submitted the book, she had color illustrations. The first edition sold out before the 1902 publication. By 1903, sales were multiplying like, well . . . rabbits. She’d sold 50,000 copies, and lived hoppily ever after.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ books were definitely not for children. “Whose Body?,” the first mystery by the rebellious Oxford scholar, was rejected by several UK publishers for “coarseness” in 1920. Today, the risque parts wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. The novel opened this way:
“Oh, damn!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
Besides that four-letter word, Dorothy L.’s first book is about the disappearance of a Jewish financier, Sir Reuben Levy. Borish tells us, “When a naked corpse turns up in a bath, Inspector Sugg is eager to identify him as Levy.” Lord Peter says it can’t be “by the evidence of my own eyes.”
And the evidence? The body was (gasp) uncircumcised.
Dorothy L., desperate for money, revised her story, making sure the body could not be mistaken for a rich man. The deceased had “callused hands, blistered feet, decayed teeth” and more. An American publisher bought “Whose Body?” It was published in New York in 1923, and Dorothy was on the way to fame and fortune. Borish writes, rather gleefully, “consider the last words spoken by Lord Peter in the last novel: ‘Oh damn!’”

George Orwell had his masterpiece, “Animal Farm,” turned down by no less than T. S. Eliot, a big deal at UK publishers Faber and Faber. Like many in the upper echelons of publishing, Eliot missed the point when he rejected Orwell: “Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm . . . What was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”
Another publisher, Fredric Warburg, took the book and paid Orwell a hundred pounds. Orwell had the last laugh – Borish says the book sold 25,000 hardcovers in the first five years.
Anthony “A Clockwork Orange” Burgess had a novel about his grammar school experience – “The Worm and the Ring” – rejected because it was “too Catholic and too guilt-ridden.”

Publishers outdid themselves with boneheaded reasons to reject bestsellers. Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” was turned down by the prestigious Cornhill magazine because it was too much like the other “shilling shockers” already on the market. The editor said it was too long “and would require an entire issue” – but it was “too short for a single story.” Another publisher sent the manuscript back unread. A third bought the rights for a measly twenty-five pounds, and let it sit around for year. It was published in 1887, and then brought out as a book, but Conan Doyle didn’t get any money from that because he’d sold the rights. Worse, the book was pirated in the U.S. Doyle wrote a couple of historical fiction works. Then an American editor, looking for UK talent, had dinner with Doyle and Oscar Wilde and signed them both up. Wilde wrote “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Doyle did “The Sign of the Four.”
These writers endured humiliation, insults, swindles – and in many cases, poverty – and still went on to write books that are read today.
Orwell talked about an embittered Russian who said, “Writing is bosh. There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry the publisher’s daughter.”
Obviously, we writers have to pay attention to rejections sometimes. My agent gave me a good rule of thumb: “If you get the same reason for rejection repeatedly – your plot isn’t twisty enough, or you have too many secondary characters – it’s time to pay attention.”
How many times have you ignored rejections?

Kings River Life says “Late for His Own Funeral” is “a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” Buy my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery here.  https://tinyurl.com/4dn2ydfd

On the Other Side of the Microphone

By Elaine Viets

I’ll admit it. Being interviewed terrifies me. I was a reporter for more than twenty-five years. When I have to sit on the other side of the notebook, or the microphone, my palms sweat, my throat is dryer than Death Valley and my knees go weak.
Recently, I had a TV interview in St. Louis that was painless. The reporter did her research, and she read my books – most interviewers don’t do that.
We talked about books, writing, research and more and it became a conversation. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I did.

Today, I’m traveling to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Minneapolis. If you’re going to Bcon, please stop by my panel on 4:15 Saturday, September 10. It’s called “House of Cards: Power and Privilege: Power is everything . . . or is it? Like a house of cards, one false move causes everything to come crumbling down.”
You’ll see many of your favorite authors, including moderator Jason Allen, Joseph Finder, Vera Kurian, Rick Mofina, Hannah Morrissey. Oh, yeah, and me.

First-Page Critique: A Mind Trap

By Elaine Viets

Another Brave Author has given us what looks like a spy thriller. First, let’s read the first page. Then I’ll offer my comments, and you can add yours.

A Mind Trap
Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared
to be as it should. And for Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of
some packing crates, everything was as it should be. His digital wristwatch showed it
was midnight and every employee except one security guard had gone home many
hours earlier.
Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in a murky realm of lighter
and darker shades of black. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates of
all sizes were stacked in rows like giant tombstones in a netherworld. Malver stood up
and hurried toward the exit downstairs.
He didn’t want to remain any longer than was absolutely necessary. The risk of
discovery increased with every passing minute, and the dark made him uneasy. Malver
shuddered. If he stayed in it too long, he knew the terrible memories would resurface to
savage him.
Malver was relieved to see how well his black pullover sweater and slacks blended in
with the surrounding darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame and rendering him
almost a part of the darkness. He checked his blue nitrile examination gloves to be sure
they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black
hair. Walking with the silence of a shadow, he glanced around while listening for any
out-of-place sounds. All was as quiet as the grave.
Malver’s lock picks, both manual and electronic, rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d just taken of the secret Raptor missile. The Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually
impossible to fool or escape from. Really bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot it
was fired at. The Raptor had taken dozens of scientists seventeen years to develop
and perfect. Malver could have targeted the minds of some of the key scientists but it
was so much easier to just steal what he needed; truly a rare opportunity too good to
pass up, he thought.
He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams
three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance,
the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was
going, on schedule and with no glitches.
Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk

Elaine’s Comments:
Our Brave Author gets this novel off to a creepy start, but we need someone to root for – or against. Is Malver a good guy or a bad one? Is he an operative for the United States, or an enemy spy? Why does he need these plans and who will he give them to?
It’s important that we know.
For the sake of this critique, let’s say he’s a villain. Then this  thriller can have a dramatic race to keep the Raptor plans from falling into enemy hands.
Also, the opening needs to ratchet up the tension. In the first paragraph, I’ve made some small cuts to move the pace along. I also had Malvern checking his wrist watch, getting rid of the passive voice “his wrist watch showed it was . . .” I left the second paragraph untouched.
In Paragraphs 3 and 4, I’ve done more tightening, getting rid of unnecessary words such as “in,” “just” and “so” I changed “darkness” to “gloom” to avoid repeating the word. Nitrile “examination” gloves is unnecessary. Your readers know what nitrile gloves are. I cut “as the grave.” It’s cliched.
The phrase that puts manual and electronic lock picks in apposition has been recast, so the sentence moves smoothly. Also, I cleaned up some other phrases. The last paragraph is fine, except it needs a period at the end.

PARAGRAPH 1 Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared to be as it should. AndfFor Russian agent Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of some the packing crates, everything was as it should. be. His wristwatch showed it was He checked his digital wristwatch. Midnight. ed it was midnight and Every employee except one security guard had gone home. The lazy Americans didn’t stay late. The new Cold War had started when President Vladimir Putin offered to support the Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine. The clueless West called his actions an invasion, but what did they know? History was on Mother Russia’s side. manyhours earlier.
PARAGRAPH 2 Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in the murky blackness. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates were stacked in rows like giant tombstones. Malver stood up and hurried toward the downstairs exit.
PARAGRAPH 3 Malver’s black pullover sweater and slacks blended in with the darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame, and rendering him almost a part of the gloom. darkness. He checked his blue nitrile examination gloves to be sure they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black hair. Walking silent ly as a shadow, he glanced around, while listening for anything out of place sounds. All was as quiet. as the grave.
PARAGRAPH 4 Malver’s lock picks, both manual and electronic lock picks rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d just taken of the secret Raptor missile. Developed by the US, the Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually impossible to fool or escape. from. Really Bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot in its path. it was fired at. The Raptor had taken dozens of scientists seventeen years to develop and perfect. Malver could have targeted the minds of some of the key scientists’s minds, but it was so much easier to just steal what he needed. This ; truly a rare opportunity was too good to pass up, he thought.
PARAGRAPH 5 He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance,
the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was
going, on schedule and with no glitches.
PARAGRAPH 6 Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk.

Here’s a clean version:
Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared as it should. For Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of the packing crates, everything was as it should. He checked his digital wristwatch. Midnight. Every employee except one security guard had gone home. The lazy Americans didn’t stay late. The new Cold War had started when President Vladimir Putin offered to support the Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The clueless West called Putin’s actions an invasion, but what did they know? History was on Mother Russia’s side.

Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in the murky blackness. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates were stacked in rows like giant tombstones. Malver stood up and hurried toward the downstairs exit.

Malver’s black pullover sweater and slacks blended with the darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame, rendering him almost part of the gloom. He checked his blue nitrile gloves to be sure they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black hair. Walking silent as a shadow, he glanced around, listening for anything out of place. All was quiet.
Malver’s manual and electronic lock picks rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d taken of the secret Raptor missile. Developed by the United States, the Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually impossible to fool or escape. Bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot in its path. The Raptor had taken scientists seventeen years to develop and perfect. Malver could have targeted some of the key scientists’s minds, but it was much easier to steal what he needed. This rare opportunity was too good to pass up, he thought.
He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance, the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was going, on schedule and with no glitches.
Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk.

TWO MORE NOTES: Some of your manuscript was in purple ink, and some in black. Please be consistent when you show it to an editor.
And finally, I like the name of your villain.
Keep writing, Brave Author.

LATE FOR HIS OWN FUNERAL is “a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” Enter to win a copy here:  https://kingsriverlife.com/08/06/late-for-his-own-funeral-by-elaine-viets/


You Never Forget Your First

By Elaine Viets

My first mystery was “Backstab,” which featured Francesca Vierling, a six-foot-tall newspaper columnist for the St. Louis City Gazette. Francesca wasn’t much of a creative stretch, since I used to be a newspaper columnist and yes, I’m six feet tall.
In my first series, I wrote about a newspaper world that is long gone. In “Backstab,” two of Francesca’s favorite local characters are murdered. One is the bartender at a landmark saloon, and the other is a rehabber – the local term for someone who remodels homes. Francesca is convinced their deaths are linked. Driven by grief and anger, she sets out to find out why the men were murdered. Francesca uncovers a secret someone has already killed to keep. And that if she keeps digging, the killer will have to murder Francesca, too.
When “Backstab” came out twenty-five years ago, I was so proud of it my Aunt Betty made me a miniature baby carrier for it. I loved going into bookstores to see if it was on the shelves – until I went into a bookstore in DC’s Union Station and asked for “Backstab” by name.
“Oh, yeah,” the clerk said. “We have it. That’s the one with the weird cover.”

Okay, even in my biased opinion, the “bleeding newspaper and beer glass” cover didn’t work. I like my new cover much better.
“Backstab” has all the passion you find in first novels, but some parts went on too long, so I trimmed them. Others needed to be revised to keep up with the times, including Francesca’s visits to transvestite nightclubs.

But “Backstab” includes some funny stories from my time as a newspaper columnist in St. Louis. One favorite was a true story of a parking spot. St. Louis is a city where the parking spot is sacred — and never more so than on a snowy day. Those of you who have survived snowy winters know this.
There was a terrible snow storm. My friend Janet Smith shoveled out a parking space for her husband Kevin to use when he came home from work. Forget Romeo and Juliet, when a woman shovels a parking spot for her man, that’s true love. It took Janet two hours. When she finished, her yuppie neighbor pulled into the spot like she owned it. She refused to move her car.
Janet told her, “You are going to move.”
The yuppie said, “I’ll try.”
Janet said, “My husband gets home at five and you will be out of there.”
The yuppie said, “I’ll try.” Janet told her that she had two hours to move. The yuppie didn’t. So Janet called the police. Janet wanted her neighbor arrested for stealing.
The officer explained that the police couldn’t do anything. “There is no law protecting your spot,” he said. Then the officer said, “There is also no law that says you can’t water your lawn in February. If her car happens to be in the way, that’s too bad. You’d be surprised what that water does. It freezes doors and locks. It freezes wipers to the windshield and tires to the ground.”
Janet said, “But won’t the police arrest me?”
The officer said, “For what?”
Janet took his name, just to be on the safe side, and then she brought out the garden hose and watered her lawn. Too bad that yuppie didn’t move her car. The water froze the locks. Froze the windows. Froze the tires to the ground. She had an inch of ice on that car. It took the yuppie two hours to chip off all the ice.
So there was justice after all.

See what you think of my first novel. Backstab is now on sale for $1.99. Buy it here: tinyurl.com/2p83usfm  

First Page Critique: At Forbidden Lake

By Elaine Viets

Another Brave Author has submitted a first page for critique, a moody murder scene by a lake. Let’s read it, then I’ll comment and you can add your suggestions.

Smoke from the forest fires had turned the sun into a red dot. In the lake, a faded yellow kayak bobbed gently next to a rotting dock, its occupant slumped over as if in deep sleep.
Detective Kenneth Tingle watched from the shore as paramedics maneuvered a small motorboat toward the kayak. There was no urgency in their movements as they untied it from the dilapidated dock. Even from his vantage point, at least thirty feet away, the gash on the woman’s neck and the blood on the kayak were indication enough: she was dead dead.
Directly behind Detective Tingle, a vacant lot stretched up toward the two-street village of Forbidden Lake. To his left, the Forbidden Lake Resort sprawled along the shore. To his right stood a run-down house that the lake was reclaiming as its own—the roof had more moss than shingles, the paint had peeled beyond recognition. A slight movement in one of the windows was the only indication that the house was occupied. Otherwise, Tingle would have assumed it was condemned.
He tried to scan the faces of the dozen or so people milling around, looking for a guilty expression, an averted gaze, or a perverted smile. But the smoke stung his eyes, so all of the faces were blurred into a mass of homogenous voyeurism. Despite the blur, he liked to think he could tell the difference between the locals and the visitors—the visitors had better posture, their movements more confident. The locals, or at least the ones he assumed were locals—a woman in long, flowing skirts; another woman in a crisp polo shirt and white visor; a few rough-looking men; a teenage girl with her arms tight across her chest—their body language screamed anxious defeat, as if a dead body in a kayak was something they’d come to expect.
Constable Artois appeared at his side, breathless.
“How was the drive?” Tingle asked.
“Slow. Visibility wasn’t great.” Artois’ forehead glistened with sweat. “How was the chopper ride?”
“Visibility wasn’t great either.” Tingle wasn’t a fan of helicopter rides in the best of conditions. He and the paramedics had flown from Campbell River through a dense screen of smoke. His stomach had been in knots, and he’d hated how the paramedics had expressed concern in the chopper—asking him if he was okay, if he needed a vomit bag.

Well done, Brave Author. This is a tightly written, intriguing opening page. Even the title has an air of foreboding, though I might change it to something like “Murder at Forbidden Lake.” Consider finding some way to get rid of that “at” in the beginning. Articles such as “at” are not used in cataloguing a book on many sites, and may lead to confusion.
The page’s details give us the feeling of sadness and decay, such as the “dilapidated dock,” and “the rundown house the lake was reclaiming as its own – the roof had more moss than shingles, the paint had peeled beyond recognition.” And then there’s the mysterious movement in a window.
Also, when Detective Tingle is scanning the faces in the crowd, I love that phrase he uses: “perverted smile.” I can actually see it.
I do have a few suggestions and questions.
(1) First, where in the world are we?
Is this story set in the US, Canada, or another country? What state or region are we in? You could introduce this in a variety of ways, including giving your protagonist a title, such as “Detective Kenneth Tingle of the Minnesota State Police.”
(2) Forest fires are a timely topic, but you might want to give your readers some sense of this fire’s duration. In your opening sentence you could say something like: “Smoke from the forest fires had turned the sun into a red dot. The fires had been burning for three days and were rapidly approaching the lake.”
(3) What time of year is it? Is it summer, and the height of the tourist season? Or November, when there are only a few tourists? Are people evacuating the area because of the fire? Visibility is becoming limited. The “smoke stung” the detective’s eyes. Why are these people staying? A well-placed sentence or phrase could answer these questions.
(4) What is “homogenous voyeurism”? And “anxious defeat”?
(5) The detective says the “woman in a crisp polo shirt and white visor” was a local. Really? She sounds more like a tourist to me.
(6) Finally, “Constable Artois appeared at his side, breathless.”
Who is Constable Artois? Is he local? Why was he called? Let us know. And give him a first name, please. Maybe a sentence like: “Martin County Constable Luc Artois appeared at his side, breathless. Artois knew the area better than anyone.” And why is he breathless? Is it because of the smoke? Did he run to the scene from his car?
These are small points, Brave Author, and only suggestions. You may choose to ignore them and keep your tightly written style and add the specifics later. Either way, I’m looking forward to reading your story.
Congratulations on a well-written submission that grabbed my attention.
What do you think, TKZ readers?