When the Cows Come Home to Roost

Rita, my wife, manages cashiers at a mad-dog, inner-city supermarket where going bananas from loose cannons is the norm. “It’s like herding cats,” Rita says about her staff, although she knows every cloud has a silver lining, and Rita says, “I also fight an uphill battle with bat-crap crazy and cold-as-ice customers who drive me nuts.”

At the end of the other day, Rita came home and vented—as usual. I’m her sounding board, but I have selective hearing so often, with me, it’s beating a dead horse. Rita went on to tell me about this, that, and other things going on in her shift.

Then she asked, “Ever hear, ‘When the cows come home to roost’?”

I looked up, smiled, and replied, “No. But it’s a clever play on clichés. Where’d you hear that?”

“A regular customer and I got in a Covid conversation. He’s sick of the mask thing. The double vax and now the third. And Stop! Show me yuh papuhs, as if we’re in Nazi Germany. So am I. Then he says, ‘Well, at the end of the day, when the cows come home to roost, catching Covid boils down to this. You’ll live happily ever after or you’ll give up the ghost.’”

———

Rita’s regular customer got me thinking about clichés.

Growing up in small-town Manitoba, Canada, was cliché emersion. I could go on and on with local cliché examples like “Pissed as a nit, liquored as Larry the Lizard, and drunk as a skunk”. Life in the fast lane was, back then, alcohol-fueled.

How often do we say clichés in daily conversation? How often do we write them—subconsciously—into our WIP and fail to recognize these easy-as-pie, easy-peisie, sneaky snips of syntax? How often do we miss clichés only to catch a few in the nick of time before we hit the publish button that can bring the perfect storm—that can of worms—of bad, bad reviews?

I did a little Googling on clichés. The Wonderful World of Wiki had this to say:

A cliché is a French loanword expressing an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. In phraseology, the term has taken on a more technical meaning, referring to an expression imposed by conventionalized linguistic usage.

The term is often used in modern culture for an action or idea that is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. Typically pejorative, “clichés” may or may not be true. Some are stereotypes, but some are simply truisms and facts. Clichés often are employed for comedic effect, typically in fiction.

Most phrases now considered clichéd originally were regarded as striking but have lost their force through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

A cliché is often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience. Used sparingly, it may succeed, but the use of a cliché in writing, speech, or argument is generally considered a mark of inexperience or a lack of originality. 

When I think of clichés, I often grin at how badly sports stars cliché in their media interviews. Take the golfer, “Yeah, just gotta keep the head down, eyes off the leaderboard, stick to the process, and let the putts drop.” Or the hockey player, “We gotta bring our A-game, give it a hundred ten percent, keep the other team on the boards, and get pucks to the net.”

But what about us common-place writers? How regularly do clichés slip into our WIP and how hack-like does that make us sound? Writing gurus say using clichés shows a lack of original thought, makes us appear unimaginative, and unmask a lazy writer.

I did a little more Googling and found some defense for clichés. One article said it was okay to use clichés when you’re trying to sync with a readership and use familiar phrases like back in the day for Boomers and the struggle is real for Millennials.

The article also said clichés were great to simplify things like explaining beginner concepts. It dropped an example of writing a how-to guide for expectant mothers. In this case remember, you’re eating for two was okay.

And the piece I found suggested clichés were fine, if not expected for dialogue and characterization. A fiction writer might use clichés to show a character’s sophistication level or their sense of humor. I’m wondering how when the cows come home to roost fits in with sophistication and humor. (Rita said the guy seemed dead-serious about it.)

I think we’re all somewhat guilty of dropping clichés. I know I am. Thankfully I have Grammarly Premium that tracks and highlights common clichés. You know, stuff like:

“The wrong side of the bed.”
“Think outside the box.”

“What goes around comes around.”
“Dead as a doornail.”
“Plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Ignorance is bliss.”
“Like a kid in a candy store.”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Take the tiger by the tail.”
“Every rose has its thorn.”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
“If only walls could talk.”
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“The pot calling the kettle black.”
“The grass is always greener on the other side.”

My cliché article gave a bit of helpful advice on avoiding clichés:

  1. Think about the meaning of the cliché. Use a dictionary to identify synonyms that could replace the word or phrase that is cliché.
  2. Decide whether or not you need to include the cliché. Often, clichés are unnecessary placeholders in writing and can be deleted.
  3. Rewrite the sentence with new words in place of the cliché. For example, if you’re describing a musical with the cliché “comes full circle,” the description could be changed to say that the musical “returned to the themes with which it started.”

My last Google cliché search rabbit-holed me into the mother-of-all cliché pieces. It’s a great site that I’ve never stumbled on before called Be A Better Writer which I’d certainly like to be. However, this article’s well was just a little too deep for me. It’s called 681Cliches to Avoid in Your Creative Writing.

How about you Kill Zoners? On a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being cliché free and 10 being cliché down & dirty), how guilty are you of letting clichés slip into your work? And is there a time when it’s okay to use clichés? Oh, and can you make up a better cliché phrase than when the cows come home to roost?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner—pretty much Doctor Death for over thirty years. Now, Garry is a caped crime writer who fights villainous words rather than crafty crooks and deadly stiffs.

Check out books by Garry Rodgers on his website at DyingWords.net. You can also follow his bi-weekly blogs by hitching onto his mailing list and make sure you connect with him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1.

Characterization

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

I don’t know where I found this quote. But it had enough impact for me to print and pin it within my mess of motivational messages. It’s some of the best writing advice I’ve got, and it arrived right when I was characterizing a new fiction series.

Ah, yes, the old plot-driven vs. character-driven debate. I’m not going there with this post, as it’s probably been done to death on The Kill Zone and by far more qualified fiction writers than me. But I will share with you a list of 234 Interesting Character Quirks I found while rabbit-holing tips on fleshing-out characters. First, let me tell you about Harry—one of the most interesting and quirky characters I ever met.

Harry was my detective partner. Harry and I paired for five years, and I loved every day of working with Harry. Harry’s real name wasn’t Harry. It was Sheryl. Sheryl Henderson. Sheryl was a large lady with large hair and an even larger personality. We nicknamed Sheryl “Harry” after the Sasquatch/Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons,

Where do I start describing Harry and her character quirks? First of all, Harry was 100 percent Nordic. Her hair—all of it, I assume—was totally blonde with none of those dark roots you see on wanna-be blondes. Harry’s eyes were blue—a shade of blue that had to be seen rather than chronicled. And Harry’s skin was flawless. I’m sure Harry never suffered one zit in her life.

Harry was the most intuitive, innovative, and invigorating cop I ever knew. I don’t know Harry’s IQ, but it had to be high. Once, we gave Harry a Myers-Briggs personality test and she scored an ENFP. Here’s the M-B character synopsis for an ENFP like Harry:

You have a rare ability to be charming and completely rebellious at the same time. You have almost zero respect for traditions or doing things the way they’ve always been done. You think everything can be made newer and better, which sometimes leads to grand innovations and other times leads to “reinventing the wheel”. But even if your ideas don’t always come to fruition, you do everything with such contagious enthusiasm and curiosity that we can’t help but get swept away in the excitement of it all.

Harry was born into policing royalty. Her great-grandfather was a constable in the Northwest Mounted Police that morphed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which Harry’s grandfather joined. Harry’s dad, Hendrik (Hank) Henderson followed suit, and Hank was a high-ranking RCMP commissioned officer when Harry became a recruit.

I’ll never forget meeting Harry. She was assigned to the uniformed patrol division in the same department where I was a plainclothes detective. It was an evening shift when I walked into the bullpen. Harry was there with a circle around her, and she just delivered the punch line of some sexually-explicit joke.

She reared her head and let out a whinny followed by a winded snort and some sort of snot that shot from her nose. She wiped it with her hand, brushed past me, and headed for the locker room.

“Who the &@#* is that?” I asked the harness bulls.

“Our new addition,” a young bull said. “She swears worse than the Sergeant Major who once made a grammatically-correct sentence using nothing but a run of &@#*s with one noun and a single conjunction, but she has a better sense of humor.”

“Smarter, too,” said an older bull. “You’ll wanna keep your eye on this one.”

It wasn’t long before Harry made a name for herself—good, bad, or otherwise. I did keep my eye on Harry as investigative potential and, when a rotational position came open in our Serious Crimes Section, I asked for Harry. It was the best request I ever made.

Harry came on board for three months as part of an experience-building program the department ran. It was a good program, but when Harry’s three months expired she was too good to lose. She stayed my partner until I retired.

Harry’s character quirks? Too many to list.

Harry was left-handed but ate with her right. On dayshift, we always went to lunch at the same diner and Harry always ordered breakfast. Always the same—she hated substitutes. Pork sausages, eggs lightly steamed, shredded hash browns, dry white toast, and black coffee that she loaded with curdles of cream and sacks of sugar. Once served, Harry held her fork in her right, her knife in her left, and chopped everything into one large mangled mess which she mawed down while constantly talking.

Harry was a Starbucks gal. She constantly had a Verdi in her dented, stainless steel travel mug which she slurped and followed with a muffled belch and a “ ’Scuse me.” sort of non-apology.

Harry wasn’t married. Nor did she have, nor want to have, kids. Rumor was Harry played for the other team, but I had it from an unimpeachable source that wasn’t the case. We had an unmentioned agreement, Harry and I. I didn’t probe Harry’s personal life, and she didn’t mine mine.

Harry had money. Detectives make decent salaries, but Harry was better off than most. I believe it was an inheritance and that was okay. She wasn’t a flashy spender, but her house was paid for and she drove a Range Rover.

She was a classy dresser, Harry was. Black on black with a hint of red and a slight white surrender was her style, like her supercharged Range Rover, and I remember one day when Harry and I made a trip to a native reservation on a culturally-sensitive murder investigation. Harry slipped and slid on res-dog crap in her north-of-$300 leather boots which she took off, plastic-bagged, and threw in the back of our police-issued Explorer, driving back in her sock feet. I think she threw the boots away rather than having them cleaned.

Harry was a nervous passenger. She always drove while I rode shotgun. That was okay because Harry was an excellent driver, although she talked non-stop and habitually made eye contact as she spoke.

Harry exuded confidence… but not that in-your-face attitude that turned people off. The longer I worked with Harry the more I noticed how she leaned into people during conversations. One day, when Harry was too close in my zone, it hit me…

Harry was hard of hearing.

She completely and hostilely rejected my concern so, confidentially, I had the boss request a hearing test at her annual physical. After that, Harry reluctantly had hearing aids hidden by her large hair. (We, the other detectives, used to mess with Harry by raising and lowering our voices.)

Some of Harry’s quirks were sucking her teeth when deep in thought, blurting out while writing reports, subconsciously bouncing her left knee, and her stomach chronically growling after her lunch breakfast. She was a bit OCD—a neatish freak—and she’d organize other people’s desks. (We’d also intentionally mess our desks to mess with Harry.)

Harry wore no jewelry, she didn’t apply makeup, she played the same lotto numbers religiously, she listened to George Strait like a George Strait junkie, she line danced Brooks & Dunn’s Boot Scootin’ Bogie like a cow-girl-pro, and she always read the morning paper to which Harry would blast comments at leftish and alt-right columnists that’d make a biker blush.

I could go on and on about Harry, but I’ll leave it with the time she smashed a prized porcelain Confucius statue then cussed-out the Taoist monk who owned the thing. You can read about that in Beyond The Limits.

Now, for the list of 234 Interesting Character Quirks I told you about. I stumbled upon this site while rabbit-holing at yourdictionary.com. Here’s the link:

https://examples.yourdictionary.com/reference/examples/list-234-interesting-character-quirks

If you don’t feel like visiting the site, I’ve copied & pasted most of the content which, I’m sure, you’ll find enlightening for fleshing out your fictional characters. (I make no apologies for the C&P—I’m a big believer that good writers borrow and great writers steal.)

Personality Quirks

  • adrenaline junkie
  • brags about one’s own accomplishments
  • high levels of enthusiasm
  • likes to be the center of attention
  • makes assumptions about others’ motives
  • makes snap judgments about other people
  • needs the approval of others
  • obsessive about personal hygiene
  • overly trusting of other people
  • plans things to the most minute detail
  • quick to recognize others accomplishments
  • seeks adventure or new experiences
  • seeks stability
  • suspicious or distrustful of others
  • takes credit for other’s work
  • tendency to one-up other people’s accomplishments
  • tendency to pull for the underdog
  • tendency to react emotionally
  • tendency to respond objectively
  • tendency to take things personally
  • tenderhearted nature
  • tends to be argumentative just for the sake of arguing
  • tends to see how things unfold without planning ahead
  • very outgoing in demeanor
  • won’t touch people, even to shake hands

Behavioral Quirks

  • always wants to sit facing the door
  • bites lip when thinking or trying to remember something
  • chain-smokes
  • chews gum all the time
  • clears throat frequently
  • eating all of one type of food before moving on to the next item on the plate
  • flipping hair back over one’s shoulders
  • grasping a fork or spoon with one’s full fist to eat
  • jingles keys
  • laughs very loud
  • licks lips frequently
  • makes humming noises
  • makes very intense eye contact with people
  • moves around a lot when talking to a group
  • paces when thinking
  • points at people when talking to them
  • prefers to sit at the end of a row rather than between people
  • sniffs frequently
  • snorts when laughing
  • taps chin or nose when thinking
  • taps fingernails on surfaces
  • tends to giggle
  • uses air quotes when talking
  • very distinctive laugh noises
  • whistles the tune to songs

Quirks Related to Eating and Drinking

  • always orders the same food in a restaurant
  • barely chews food before swallowing
  • brings snacks everywhere
  • burps or belches loudly at the end of meals
  • constantly talks about dieting
  • counts the number of chews before swallowing
  • drinks coffee or tea very frequently
  • eats while driving the car
  • extremely delicate eater
  • grazes throughout the day
  • makes nasty remarks about other people’s food
  • makes sure everyone knows they’re vegan
  • messy eater
  • only eats organic food
  • picks food off other people’s plates
  • prefers junk food to home-cooked meals
  • pretends to be a dainty eater but pigs out in private
  • refuses to eat leftovers
  • snacks excessively
  • takes huge bites of food
  • takes other people’s food without asking
  • tries to win over everyone to their way of eating
  • tucks a napkin into one’s shirt when eating
  • won’t eat in front of other people
  • won’t eat food that other people cook

Quirky Movement and Walking Habits

  • adjusting sleeves frequently
  • bouncing one’s leg when sitting
  • bouncy walk
  • cracking knuckles frequently
  • determined, purposeful walk
  • enters rooms hesitantly
  • extent to which a person’s arms swing when they walk
  • loose-limbed way of walking
  • meandering walk
  • often breaks into a jog when walking
  • picking at nail polish
  • pulling down on one’s jacket or skirt
  • pulling sleeves down over one’s hands
  • scratches one’s head frequently
  • scratching one’s face
  • shakes foot when sitting with legs crossed
  • sidles up to people
  • takes large steps
  • takes tiny, mincing steps
  • tends to push past other people abruptly
  • tugging a sweater or jacket from left to right
  • twisting to crack one’s back or next
  • walks at a very rapid pace
  • walks with a limp
  • walks with an even stride

Posture Quirks

  • crossing legs at the ankle when seated
  • favors one side vs. the other when standing
  • frequently shifts from side to side
  • lays head down on desk or table
  • leaning back in one’s chair
  • leans in toward people who are speaking
  • leans on things when standing up
  • leans to one side when standing
  • looks straight ahead
  • propping one’s feet up on furniture
  • rests head in hands when seated
  • shifting from one foot to another when standing
  • shifts or squirms when sitting
  • sitting with one’s legs crossed
  • stands or sits extremely still
  • stands up extremely straight
  • stands with hands behind back
  • stands with hands on hips
  • stands with hyperextended knees
  • tends to lean away from people
  • tends to slouch
  • tends to stretch a lot
  • tilts head down most of the time

Physical Traits and Quirks

  • a lot of freckles
  • a lot of tattoos or unusual tattoos
  • always too cold
  • always too warm
  • asymmetrical features
  • athletic build
  • different color eyes
  • distinctive moles
  • extremely tall or short
  • lanky build
  • messy, free-flowing hair
  • missing or extra appendages
  • perfectly coiffed hair
  • red nose
  • twitchy eye
  • unique birthmark
  • unusual color eyes
  • unusual facial features
  • unusual hair color
  • unusual hairstyle
  • very long fingernails
  • weight range

Communication Style Quirks

  • chats nervously when there is a lull in conversation
  • chooses words very carefully; speaks in an exacting way
  • describes things very precisely
  • doesn’t speak up unless directly asked a question
  • embellishes or exaggerates stories or information
  • enunciates words very precisely
  • gestures a lot when talking
  • habitually avoids eye contact
  • hinting at one wants rather than stating it directly
  • insists on face-to-face conversations (rather than phone or text)
  • insists on having the last word
  • makes up a nickname for everyone
  • pauses a long time before speaking
  • restating what other people have already said
  • speaks in a way such that statements come across like questions
  • speaks with an accent
  • talking to oneself
  • talks very fast
  • talks with a sing-songy cadence
  • unreadable facial expressions
  • uses a particular dialect
  • very expressive facial expressions
  • very reserved in demeanor
  • winks at people when talking to them

Quirky Clothing Style

  • always looks perfectly pressed
  • always wears boots
  • always wears tennis shoes
  • appears to have been professionally styled
  • becomes disheveled with very little activity
  • doesn’t worry about whether clothing items coordinate with each other
  • dresses in a flashy style
  • dresses in exercise apparel even when not exercising
  • dresses in very revealing apparel
  • overdresses or underdresses for occasions
  • squeezes into clothing that is too small
  • wears cheap knock-offs of designer fashions
  • wears clothes made for much younger people
  • wears loose-fitting clothes
  • wears only designer labels
  • wears shorts even when it’s freezing outside
  • wears socks with sandals
  • wears stiletto heels all the time
  • wears the latest styles
  • wears the same color clothing all the time
  • wears the same style of clothes all the time
  • wears very outdated styles
  • wears wrinkled clothes

Quirky Signature Accessories

  • always carries an umbrella
  • always wears a scarf
  • carries a briefcase everywhere
  • carries a huge purse
  • constantly wears a hat
  • has earbuds in (or headphones on) all the time
  • is never seen without a certain piece of jewelry
  • keeps a pocket square in a suit jacket
  • keeps sunglasses on all the time
  • never seen without a backpack
  • totes a pet in one’s purse or other bag
  • uses a pocket watch
  • wears a flower in one’s hair
  • wears a headband
  • wears a large fitness tracking device
  • wears a lot of jewelry
  • wears a nametag
  • wears an overcoat or other distinctive outerwear
  • wears bangle bracelets that jingle
  • wears enormous earrings
  • wears huge glasses
  • wears socks with weird patterns or in strange colors

Other Characterization Quirks

  • answers for other people instead of letting them speak
  • complains about everything
  • constantly complains about aches and pains
  • constantly correcting other people’s grammar
  • constantly misplaces certain items, like keys or glasses
  • expects unquestioning loyalty from people
  • frequently gets hiccups
  • gets heavily involved in campaigning for political candidates
  • has hypochondriac tendencies
  • holds other people to higher standards than themselves
  • is easily influenced or swayed
  • makes snap judgments about other people
  • makes unusual snoring noises
  • participates in marches and protests
  • quick to find fault in others
  • seeks out flattery
  • seems to turn all conversations political
  • takes in stray animals frequently
  • tends to look for the bright side in every situation
  • tends to make biased remarks about others

I see a lot more Harry-quirks in this list, but I’ll leave the rest of Harry to your imagination. By the way, Harry is now also retired and serving as an elected city counselor in my community. I think I’ll call Harry up and take her to lunch breakfast.

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

That phrase is well worth remembering. Over to you, Kill Zoners. What unique quirks have you embraced in your characters? And if you want to open the character-driven vs. plot-driven debate, go for it, but I’m stayin’ out.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second investigative stint as a coroner. Now, Garry is a writer with based-on-true crime books as well as building a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.

Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast is home to Garry Rodgers where he boats around the Pacific saltwater. You can track down Garry’s blog at DyingWords.net or try him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1. His email is garry.rodgers@shaw.ca.

How a Ghost’s Evidence Convicted a Murderer – True Crime Story!

In July of 1897, Edward Stribbling (Trout) Shue was convicted of first-degree murder for strangling his wife and breaking her neck. Trout Shue’s trial, held in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, rested entirely upon circumstantial evidence that strangely proved Shue’s guilt—beyond a reasonable doubt—to jurors who were presented evidence from beyond the grave.

The “facts” included postmortem statements from Shue’s wife, Zona Heaster Shue, who was said to appear before her mother four weeks after death and reportedly told what truly occurred in her murder. It was the first—and only—time testimony from a ghost was admitted as evidence in a United States Superior Court trial, and it helped secure a conviction.

At 10:00 a.m. on January 23, 1897, twenty-three-year-old Zona Shue’s body was found by an errand boy. She was lying on the floor in their house, face down at the foot of the stairs, stretched with one arm tucked underneath her chest and the other extended. Her head was cocked to one side.

Trout Shue arrived home before the coroner, Dr. George Knapp, attended. Shue had already moved his wife’s body to their bed where he’d dressed her in a high-necked gown. As Dr. Knapp began examining Zona, Trout Shue exhibited overpowering emotions and cradled Zona’s head and her shoulders, sobbing and weeping. Dr. Knapp stopped his exam out of respect for the grieving spouse and signed-off the death to “everlasting faint”.

A traditional wake was held before Zona’s next-day burial and attendants noticed peculiar behavior from Trout Shue. When the casket was opened for viewing, he immediately placed a scarf over Zona’s neck as well as propping her head with a pillow and blanket. Shue then put on another spectacular show of grief and made it impossible for mourners to get a close look at her face.

Zona Shue was buried in the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery in Greenbrier County. Initially, everyone who knew the Shues accepted Zona’s death as not suspicious—except for her mother, Mary Jane Heaster.

Mrs. Heaster disliked Trout Shue from the moment they met, and she suspected foul play was at hand. “The work of the devil!” Heaster exclaimed. She prayed every night, for four weeks on end, that the Lord would reveal the truth.

Then, in the darkness of night, when Mary Jane Heaster was wide awake, Zona’s spirit allegedly appeared.

It was not in a dream, Heaster reported. It was in person. First the apparition manifested as light, then transformed to a human figure which brought a chill upon the room. For four consecutive nights, Heaster claimed her daughter’s ghost came to the foot of her bed and reported facts of the crime that extinguished her life.

Zona’s ghost was said to reveal a history of physical abuse from her husband. Her death resulted in a violent fight over a meal the night before she was found. Trout Shue was said to have strangled Zona, crushing her windpipe and snapping her neck “at the first joint”. To prove dislocation, Zona’s figure turned its head one hundred and eighty degrees to the rear.

Mary Jane Heaster steadfastly maintained her daughter’s ghost was real and Zona’s reports of the cause of her death were accurate. Heaster was so compelling in her paranormal description that she convinced local prosecutor, John Preston, to re-open the case.

Preston’s investigation found Trout Shue had a history of violence. In another State, he’d served prison time for assaults and thefts. He’d been married twice before—one other wife dying under mysterious circumstances. By now the Greenbrier community was reporting more peculiar behavior from Shue. He’d been making comments to the effect that “no one would ever prove I killed Zona”.

Combined with Coroner Knapp’s admission that he failed to conduct a thorough exam, Preston established sufficient grounds to exhume Zona’s body and conduct a proper postmortem examination.

Zona was autopsied by three medical doctors on February 22, 1897 with the official cause of death being anoxia from manual strangulation compounded by a broken neck. Bruising consistent with fingermarks was noted on Zona’s neck, her esophagus was contused, and her first and second cervical vertebrae were fractured. Anatomically, they’re known as the C1 Atlas and the C2 Axis which combine to make the first joint at the base of the skull.

An inquest was held, and Trout Shue was summoned to testify. Although he denied being present at the time of Zona’s death and bearing culpability, he was unable to establish an alibi and was considered an unreliable, self-serving witness. It was ruled a homicide and Trout Shue was charged with her murder.

Trout Shue’s first-degree murder trial began in Greenbrier Circuit Court on June 22, 1897. A panel of twelve jurors was convened who heard evidence from a number of witnesses, including Shue himself.

John Preston was reluctant to subpoena Mary Jane Heaster as a witness, fearing her ghost story would damage credibility. However, Shue’s defense lawyer opened that can of worms and called Zona’s mother to the stand. Evidently, it backfired.

This verbatim excerpt is from the transcript of Mary Jane Heaster’s testimony. It’s still on record in the West Virginia State Archives:

Defense Counsel Question — I have heard that you had some dream or vision which led to this post mortem examination?

Witness Heaster Answer — It was no dream – she came back and told me that he was mad that she didn’t have no meat cooked for supper. But she said she had plenty, and said that she had butter and apple-butter, apples and named over two or three kinds of jellies, pears and cherries and raspberry jelly, and she says I had plenty; and she says don’t you think that he was mad and just took down all my nice things and packed them away and just ruined them. And she told me where I could look down back of Aunt Martha Jones’, in the meadow, in a rocky place; that I could look in a cellar behind some loose plank and see. It was a square log house, and it was hewed up to the square, and she said for me to look right at the right-hand side of the door as you go in and at the right-hand corner as you go in. Well, I saw the place just exactly as she told me, and I saw blood right there where she told me; and she told me something about that meat every night she came, just as she did the first night. She cames [sic] four times, and four nights; but the second night she told me that her neck was squeezed off at the first joint and it was just as she told me.

Q — Now, Mrs. Heaster, this sad affair was very particularly impressed upon your mind, and there was not a moment during your waking hours that you did not dwell upon it?

A — No, sir; and there is not yet, either.

Q — And was this not a dream founded upon your distressed condition of mind?

A No, sir. It was no dream, for I was as wide awake as I ever was.

Q — Then if not a dream or dreams, what do you call it?

A — I prayed to the Lord that she might come back and tell me what had happened; and I prayed that she might come herself and tell on him.

Q — Do you think that you actually saw her in flesh and blood?

A — Yes, sir, I do. I told them the very dress that she was killed in, and when she went to leave me she turned her head completely around and looked at me like she wanted me to know all about it. And the very next time she came back to me she told me all about it. The first time she came, she seemed that she did not want to tell me as much about it as she did afterwards. The last night she was there she told me that she did everything she could do, and I am satisfied that she did do all that, too.

Q — Now, Mrs. Heaster, don’t you know that these visions, as you term them or describe them, were nothing more or less than four dreams founded upon your distress?

A — No, I don’t know it. The Lord sent her to me to tell it. I was the only friend that she knew she could tell and put any confidence it; I was the nearest one to her. He gave me a ring that he pretended she wanted me to have; but I don’t know what dead woman he might have taken it off of. I wanted her own ring and he would not let me have it.

Q — Mrs. Heaster, are you positively sure that these are not four dreams?

A — Yes, sir. It was not a dream. I don’t dream when I am wide awake, to be sure; and I know I saw her right there with me.

Q — Are you not considerably superstitious?

A — No, sir, I’m not. I was never that way before, and am not now.

Q — Do you believe the scriptures?

A — Yes, sir. I have no reason not to believe it.

Q — And do you believe the scriptures contain the words of God and his Son?

A — Yes, sir, I do. Don’t you believe it?

Q Now, I would like if I could, to get you to say that these were four dreams and not four visions or appearances of your daughter in flesh and blood?

A I am not going to say that; for I am not going to lie.

Q — Then you insist that she actually appeared in flesh and blood to you upon four different occasions?

A Yes, sir.

Q  Did she not have any other conversation with you other than upon the matter of her death?

A — Yes, sir, some other little things. Some things I have forgotten – just a few words. I just wanted the particulars about her death, and I got them.

Q — When she came did you touch her?

A — Yes, sir. I got up on my elbows and reached out a little further, as I wanted to see if people came in their coffins, and I sat up and leaned on my elbow and there was light in the house. It was not a lamp light. I wanted to see if there was a coffin, but there was not. She was just like she was when she left this world. It was just after I went to bed, and I wanted her to come and talk to me, and she did. This was before the inquest and I told my neighbors. They said she was exactly as I told them she was.

Now, whether jury members accepted Mary Jane Heaster’s ghost story as being credible, or if it made any difference to their interpretation of the facts, will never be known. And it’s on record the trial judge cautioned jurors about the reliability of circumstantial evidence:

“There was no living witness to the crime charged against Defendant Shue and the State rests its case for conviction wholly upon circumstances connecting the accused with the murder charged. So the connection of the accused with the crime depends entirely upon the strength of the circumstantial evidence introduced by the State. There is no middle ground for you, the jury, to take. The verdict inevitably and logically must be for murder in the first degree or for an acquittal.”

The jury was out for an hour and ten minutes before returning to find Trout Shue guilty of murdering his wife, Zona, in the first degree. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and died of an epidemic disease three years later.

I’d love to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall during that deliberation. What they discussed in that sequestered room has long gone to the grave, but I find Mary Jane Heaster’s testimony about Zona’s fractured vertebrae to be downright spooky.

———

What about you Kill Zoners? From reading Mrs. Heaster’s evidence, do you find her credible? And, by all means, please share with us your true ghost stories!

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating sudden and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry’s come back from the forensic dead and has reincarnated himself as a crime writer.

Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast is the haunting grounds for Garry Rodgers. In spirit, he maintains a popular blog at DyingWords.net and he occasionally floats in and out on Twitter — @GarryRodgers1. You can find Garry’s flesh-and-blood crime writing works on leading E-tailers —Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Nook, and Google.

The Astounding Secret Behind Leonardo Da Vinci’s Creative Genius

Leonardo da Vinci had the world’s most observant and creative mind. With an estimated IQ well over 190 — probably 200+ — da Vinci was a true, versatile Renaissance man. He was far ahead of his time in art, anatomy, architecture, engineering, mathematics, and many other disciplines. Few came even close to Leonardo’s prolific output of artistic masterpieces and scientific discoveries. And many deeply pondered the astounding secret behind Leonardo da Vinci’s creative genius.

Author Leonard Shlain spent years exploring da Vinci’s work and analyzing what made him so outstanding. In the book Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius, Shlain makes an excellent case that Leonardo da Vinci was biologically different from practically all other humans. According to Shlain, da Vinci’s brain was the perfect balance of right and left hemispheres. It was because of a one-of-a-kind abnormality in Leonardo da Vinci’s corpus callosum—the part of the brain responsible for controlling analytical left-brain observation and right-brain creativity.

In Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius, Leonard Shlain did what he calls a “postmortem brain scan”, seeking to illuminate the exquisite wiring inside Leonardo da Vinci’s head. It’s an in-depth psychological/neurological profile about what’s known of da Vinci’s phenomenal behavior and the ingenuity of his works. At the end of this fascinating book, Shlain concludes that Leonardo da Vinci’s brain was so advanced that his understanding of all things in nature and his grip on personal creative ability allowed him to access unique ways of thought.

Shlain postulates that da Vinci saw universal interconnectedness in everything… everywhere. Biologically advantaged by some quirk of nature, da Vinci elevated his mind to a higher state of consciousness than achieved by other people. Leonardo da Vinci—according to author Leonard Shlain—evolved into a superhuman.

— — —

Genetically, there didn’t appear to be anything special about Leonardo da Vinci. He was born out of wedlock in 1452 at the Italian town of Vinci in the Florence region. His mother was a peasant and his father was a notary—somewhat of a playboy. Infant and toddler Leonardo was raised by his mother and neglected his father who only supplied modest child support.

Because Leonardo da Vinci came from low class, he wasn’t eligible for a formal education as were nobility associated with the church and state. In fact, da Vinci had no conventional schooling as a youth. He wasn’t able to learn the “secret code” associated with the education of the time. That was learning to speak, read and write Latin and Greek which unlocked the doors to classical learning. Without knowing these two prominent languages, it was practically impossible for da Vinci to conventionally participate in making the Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci was taken from his dysfunctional mother at age 5 or 6. His kindly uncle Francesco did the best he could to provide for the boy. Regardless of his lack of formal schooling, da Vinci showed a remarkable curiosity and intellectual ability right from a young age. He seemed “gifted” and was able to visualize abstracts including art forms and mathematical equations far beyond normality. Soon, the Florentine painter and artistic leader Andrea del Verrocchio saw a protégé and took Leonardo da Vinci under his wing.

For most of his life, the European world recognized Leonardo da Vinci as a painter. In reality, da Vinci wasn’t a prolific painter. He painted sporadically and nominally as a side-line commission. Art experts at Christie’s auction in New York estimate that over 80 percent of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings were lost over the years. Today, there are only 15 verified da Vinci paintings in the world including Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Annunciation. Salvator Mundi sold in 2017 for $450.3 million US.

But Leonardo da Vinci was really prolific in his drawings and writing. His anatomical sketches, scientific diagrams, and thoughts across the spectrum fill volumes now held in private collections and public museums. Da Vinci’s unquenchable curiosity and feverishly inventive imagination consumed his waking hours. The world is extremely fortunate that many of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks still exist.

Da Vinci’s interest held no bounds. He was a true polymath who studied astronomy, anatomy, architecture, botany, engineering, science, music, math, language, literature, geology, paleontology, ichnology, painting, drawing, and sculpting. Leonardo da Vinci also invented. Concepts for the helicopter, parachute, and airplane wing came from da Vinci. He even built the first automated bobbin winder before the sewing machine came to be, and Leonardo worked with solar power, double-hulled ships, and even armored military tanks. He also thought out a robotic knight.

Unlike most innovators who are a fine line between nut and genius, Leonardo da Vinci was incredibly well-balanced on an emotional scale. Besides having an extremely high intelligence quotient (IQ), it’s said Leonardo had a tremendous emotional quotient (EQ) as well. Nowhere is there any suggestion he was an egomaniac or unapproachable. History indicates da Vinci was a pacifist, vegan, and humanitarian with a good sense of humor.

So what made Leonardo da Vinci so special? Short answer—his brain. There was something nearly out-of-this-world going on in da Vinci’s mind. And there might be a scientific explanation about what it was.

Twenty-first-century science knows a bit of how the human brain functions. But, it’s far from comprehensive knowledge. Science has almost no grasp or understanding of how human consciousness works, and there’s a good reason for that. Brain science is tangible where grey matter can be physically dissected and electrophysiological waves are recordable on computerized graphs. You can fund, study, and measure with reports.

Consciousness is a whole different matter. Conventional science has no grip on what human consciousness—or any form of consciousness—really is because it’s non-tangible and can’t be defined within current terms. Because consciousness is slippery, it’s not fundable. There’s no money in it. You can’t measure to monetize it. So consciousness study is left to individual groundbreaking leaders like David Chalmers and Sir Roger Primrose… but back to da Vinci.

Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius takes a really good look at how LDV’s brain activated his mind to tap into a higher state of consciousness—the world of “Forms”, as Plato termed it, or the source of where all “in-form-ation” sits. In current consciousness research, there’s a distinct difference between the physical brain, the non-physical mind, and the plane of infinite intelligence where all ideas come from.

Leonardo da Vinci’s brain was so evolved—author Shlain writes—that his mind easily accessed information not readily there for normal people. Da Vinci’s brain/mind power was so special that he “thought” his way to fantastic ideas. It also let da Vinci observe what was going on in the universe and record it. That might have been simplistic beauty as in the Lady With an Ermine, an anatomical analogy like Vitruvian Man or a geometric complexity seen in the Rhombicuboctahedron.

Despite Leonardo da Vinci being bright, talented, and affable, he was an outlier in the Renaissance period. Da Vinci was biologically different. He was a misfit in the world of conventional ideas and creativity. He thought different. He acted different. He dressed and talked different. That made others uncomfortable. Back then, da Vinci sat at the back of the bus, and today he’d still be so far ahead that the rest of us would see dust. Author Leonard Shlain tells us his version of why:

“Leonardo da Vinci’s left and right brain hemispheres were intimately connected in an extraordinary way. Because of a large and uniquely developed corpus callosum, da Vinci’s left and right sides constantly communicated and kept each other in the loop on observations and creative options. Each brain side knew what the other was doing, and this gave da Vinci’s mind unprecedented and unrestricted freedom to observe, understand and create.

In current brain science, the left hemisphere is the analytical and conservative side. The right is the creative, liberal sphere. Brain scientists think that’s nature’s safety mechanism to prevent humans from getting too stupid or smart in either extreme. Da Vinci’s brain seems to have found the middle ground—the apex of the triangle or the tip of the see-saw.”

In Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius, Leonard Shlain backs up his theory with facts. The most interesting fact supporting da Vinci’s left/right corpus callosum uniqueness is his handiness. Leonardo da Vinci was a southpaw—he was left-handed.

Left-handers aren’t that unusual in the human population. Studies show approximately 8-10 percent prefer left-hand prominence. A tiny proportion are ambidextrous, but the vast majority have manual-dexterous abilities with their right. However, there are unusual advantages south-paws have. They tend to be far more creative than right-handers.

It’s no news the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body—same with vice-versa. When one hemisphere is dominant over the other, a person is usually analytical or creative. But, when both sides are equally balanced, something phenomenal happens.

Anatomically, the corpus callosum—aka the callosal commissure—is a wide and thick nerve bundle sitting at the brain’s foundation. It’s the largest white matter brain structure that binds the left and right gray matter. The corpus callosum isn’t big. It’s about 10 centimeters or 4 inches long. Neurologically though, it’s huge—having about 250 million axonal projections.

The corpus callosum regulates electrical activity happening in the left and right brain sides. It’s got a big job to do. One of its jobs is responsible for the primordial fight-flight response ingrained in all of us. But the corpus callosum also lets humans get imaginative, like the right brain inventing tools to slay saber-toothed tigers while the left side stays alert.

The Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius book goes beyond a left/right brain dichotomy. It delves deep into something uniquely known about da Vinci’s left-handedness. Leonardo da Vinci’s brain let him write left-handedly in a mirror image. Da Vinci’s writings, notes, and diagram annotations have him writing right to left where you need a mirror to decipher them.

This mirror-image phenomenon provides profound insight into Leonardo da Vinci’s psyche. Here was a poor boy without formal education who developed his own style independent of traditional academic influences—even choosing which hand to use and how to communicate with. Da Vinci was the poster boy of self-taught, self-investigating, and self-assured individuals—the likes the world never experienced in his time or so-far thereafter.

Leonardo da Vinci’s lack of indoctrination by limiting dogma taught through conventional institutions like the church and its lap-dog societal constraints liberated him from mental restraints. Combined with perfect neuro-equilibrium between inquisitive left and creative right brain functions, da Vinci broke free of earthly bounds and set his mind soaring into airy lofts not there for common minds.

Author Leonard Shlain of Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius makes another interesting observation and conclusion. Because da Vinci was removed from his biological mother’s hold so early, he became mentally self-reliant. Da Vinci was also gay or at least asexual. He wasn’t driven by a common male preoccupation with the little head thinking for the big one.

Brain science recognizes that “normal” human brain thoughts primarily focus on survival concerns like food, shelter, and sex. That didn’t seem a factor with Leonardo as he progressed in life. He just abnormally sensed reality. Then he painted, sketched, or wrote what he knew.

No, Leonardo da Vinci was much more than “normal”. He was the prime exemplar of a universal genius whose brain far out-thought humankind. Looking back… and forward, if da Vinci showed up for a job interview, his unique selling proposition on his resume would be “I have an unusual brain and my mind knows how to use it”.

That’s the astounding secret behind Leonardo da Vinci’s creative genius.

What about you Kill Zoners? Have you read this book or anything on Da Vinci? And as for your own creative genius, what’s your secret sauce?

— — —

Garry Rodgers’s creative genius was his ability to fool the authorities into keeping him employed as a homicide detective and coroner for over three decades. Now, he’s managed to hoodwink the public into believing he’s a competent crime writer.

Part of this ploy of deception is Garry’s blog on the DyingWords.net website. He has another ruse where you can follow him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1. By the way, Garry Rodgers may or may not be his real name. Same with the headshot.

Our Brains Are Wired For Story

Wired For Story by Lisa Cron was one of the first writing craft books I read. It was published in 2012, just as I was drafting my debut novel. Wired For Story, A Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence was game changing. It caused me to go back and rewrite—a good thing because my book did well on opening day.

I was so inspired by Wired For Story that I contacted Lisa Cron and thanked her. She graciously responded, and that led to Lisa sharing a guest post on my blog at DyingWords. I’ve dug it from the archives and am happy to repurpose it here at The Kill Zone. Hopefully, Wired For Story can have the same effect on others as it did on me.

——

What would you say if I told you that what the brain craves, hunts for, and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for? What’s more, that it’s the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller?

You’d probably say, prove it. Fair enough.

First, the mistaken belief: From time immemorial we’ve been taught that things like lyrical language, insightful metaphors, vivid description, memorable characters, palpable sensory details, and a fresh voice are what hooks readers.

It’s a seductive belief, because all those things are indisputably good. But they’re not what hook the reader. The brain, it turns out, is far less picky when it comes pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe.

What does the brain crave?

Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling that seduces us into leaving the real world behind and surrendering to the world of the story.

Which brings us to the real question: Why? What are we really looking for in every story we read? What is that sense of urgency all about?

Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, these are questions that we can now begin to answer with the kind clarity that sheds light on the genuine purpose of story and elevates writers to the most powerful people on earth. Because story, as it turns out, has a much deeper and more meaningful purpose than simply to entertain and delight.

Story is how we make sense of the world. Let me explain . . .

It’s long been known that the brain has one goal: survival. It evaluates everything we encounter based on a very simple question: Is this going to help me or hurt me? Not just physically, but emotionally as well.

The brain’s goal is to then predict what might happen, so we can figure out what the hell to do about it before it does. That’s where story comes in.

By letting us vicariously experience difficult situations and problems we haven’t actually lived through, story bestows upon us, risk free, a treasure trove of useful intel – just in case.

And so back in the Stone Age, even though those shiny red berries looked delicious, we remembered the story of the Neanderthal next door who gobbled ‘em down and promptly keeled over, and made do with a couple of stale old beetles instead.

Story was so crucial to our survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it, especially once we realized that banding together in social groups makes surviving a whole lot easier.

Suddenly it wasn’t just about figuring out the physical world, it was about something far trickier: navigating the social realm.

In short, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes people tick, the better to discern whether the cute guy in the next cubicle really is single like he says, and to plan the perfect comeuppance if he’s not.

The sense of urgency we feel when a good story grabs us is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to it. It turns out that intoxicating sensation is not arbitrary, ephemeral or “magic,” even though it sure feels like magic. It’s physical. It’s a rush of the neural pleasure transmitter, dopamine. And it has a very specific purpose.

Want to know what triggers it?

Curiosity.

When we actively pursue new information – that is, when we want to know what happens next — curiosity rewards us with a flood of dopamine to keep us reading long after midnight because tomorrow we just might need the insight it will give us.

This is a game changer for writers.

It proves that no matter how lyrical your language, or how memorable your characters, unless those characters are actively engaged in solving a problem – making us wonder how they’ll get out of that one – we have no vested interest in them.

We can’t choose whether or not to respond to story. Dopamine makes us respond. Which is probably why so many readers who swear they only read highbrow fiction are surreptitiously downloading Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m just saying.

I know that many writers will want to resist this notion. After all, the brain is also wired to resist change and to crave certainty.

And for a long time writers were certain that learning to “write well” was the way to hook the reader.

So embracing a new approach to writing – even though it’s based on our biology, and how the brain processes information — probably feels scary. The incentive to focus on story first and “writing” second, however, is enormous. To wit:

  • You’ll reduce your editing time exponentially because story tends to be what’s lacking in most rough drafts. Polishing prose in a story that’s not working is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • You’ll have a 1000% better chance of getting the attention of agents, editors and publishers. Yeah, 1000% is arbitrary, but it’s not far off. These professionals are highly trained when it comes to identifying a good story. They like good writing as much as a next person – but only when it’s used to tell a good story.
  • You’ll have a fighting chance of changing the world – and I’m not kidding. Writers are the most powerful people on the planet. They can capture people’s attention, teach them something new about themselves and the world, and literally rewrite the brain – all with a well-told tale.

Indeed, the pen is far mightier than the sword.

That is, if you know how to wield it.

——

Lisa Cron is an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She has worked in publishing at W. W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Kill Zoners – What’s your view on brain science and storytelling? Is it something you consider when writing?

Can You Fool The Polygraph?

The polygraph, or lie detector, is a forensic investigative tool that’s used as an aid to verify the truthfulness, or isolate the deception, in a person’s statements. Polygraph examinations—properly conducted by trained professionals on competent subjects with a clear issue—are remarkably accurate, but they’re not foolproof. Yes. They’ve been known to be fooled. The question is—can you?

Polygraph examination interpretation is not admissible as evidence in court. They’re not a replacement or shortcut for a proper investigation and a thorough interview of the subject. Statistics show that the majority of people who undergo polygraph examinations are found to be truthful. Perhaps the term Lie Detector should be replaced with Truth Verifier.

In my policing career, I’ve been involved in around a hundred polygraph examinations, including getting hooked up myself for a test drive. (Turns out I’m a terrible liar—not sure how I’m gonna make out with this career as a fiction writer.) The subjects I’d had polygraphed were a mixture of suspects, witnesses, complainants, and victims. I’d say that sixty percent of the subjects were truthful, thirty percent were lying, and ten percent were inconclusive but leaning toward truthful.

It makes sense, when you think about it, that the majority are truthful because they know it will work to their advantage. I can’t think of the number of times I’ve had subjects refuse to take the test, giving excuses everywhere from “Those things are rigged to frame me” to “I heard you get testicle cancer from it”. Then, of course, there’s, “My lawyer told me not to” to which I responded, “You don’t even have a lawyer.”

Before giving you some tips on how to fool a polygraph when you’re dead-ass lying, let’s look at what the thing is and how it works.

The word “polygraph” comes from the Greek word “fecalpolugraphos” which means “to sniff-out bullshit”. (Go ahead—call me a liar). Polygraphs have been around since the 1920s and have evolved from clunky paper-reel machines with ink-pen devices to modern laptops with automated scoring systems. Clinically, the process is known as psychophysiological detection of deception.

The instruments are a computerized combination of medical devices that monitor a subject’s physiological responses to a set of questions designed to put the subject under the stress; the stress associated with deception. The involuntary bodily functions include heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, galvanic skin conduction, and perspiration.

Polygraphic theory dictates that a subject will show a stress spike in some, or all, of these functions when asked a question and forced to knowingly lie. In a criminal investigation, the examination questions are formed between the polygraphist and the subject during an extensive pre-test interview.

There are four categories of questions—all must be answered  “Yes” or “No”. Three categories are control questions and one is issue questions.

Category One is where the subject conclusively knows they’re truthful:

Q — Is your name Garry Rodgers?  “Yes”

Q — Are you a retired police officer?  “Yes”

Q — Do you write books? “Yes”

Category Two is asking the subject ambiguous questions:

Q — Is there life after death?  “Yes”

Q — Did the chicken come before the egg? “No”

Q — Are you still beating your wife?  “No”

Category Three has the subject intentionally lie:

Q — Were you kidnapped by aliens?  “Yes”

Q — Did you ever ride a camel?  “No”

Q — Were you knighted by the Queen?  “Yes”

Category Four deals with the issues:

Q — Did you murder Jimmy Hoffa?  “No”

Q — Do you know who murdered Jimmy Hoffa?  “No”

Q — Do you know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa’s remains? “No”

Only “Yes” or “No” answers are acceptable during a polygraph examination because the issue has to be clear in the subject’s mind. Black and White. All clarification is worked-out in the pre-test interview. The subject is never surprised by the question, but the question order is completely unknown. This creates an atmosphere of anxiety as the subject waits to hear the questions that really matter.

The biggest concern that I’ve heard from people who are asked to submit to a polygraph is “What happens if I’m nervous?”

This is expected. Anyone, police officers included, would experience anxiety when being examined. Part of a polygraphist’s skill is to build a rapport with the subject and put them at relative ease before the questioning starts. One of the reasons in building this rapport is to get the subject to volunteer information that the investigation hasn’t uncovered. I’ve seen subjects give critical facts because the right questions weren’t asked during the investigation, and I’ve seen subjects fall apart and confess before being strapped into the chair.

The key to successful polygraph examinations is the the examiner’s skill. The polygraph is just a tool—an extension of the examiner’s mind and voice.

So—given there’s proven science and skill behind polygraphs—how can you fool one?

Like I said, given a professional examiner, a competent subject, and a clear issue, polygraph results are remarkably accurate. There are always exceptions, and here’s some tips on how to pass the graph when you’re truly a liar.

1. Prepare well in advance.

2. Research and understand the process so you won’t feel oppressed. The examiner will take every advantage of your ignorance.

3. Know the issue(s) and know what the examiner is looking for.

4. Talk to someone who has experienced a test.

5. Approach the test as an extreme job interview. Dress for the job. Arrive on time. Sober. Rested. Do not reschedule. Make a good first impression.

6. Know that you’re going to be video and audio recorded.

7. Understand the test starts right when you arrive and ends when you leave. It’s not just the time you’re hooked to the instrument.

8. Be on guard. There will be trick questions in the pre-test interview. It’s part of the process.

9. Listen carefully to what the examiner says and respond accordingly. Do not try and monopolize the conversation. The examiner is not your friend, despite how nice she comes across in the pre-test. Her job is to get to the truth. Remember—you’re dealing with a highly trained professional who intimately knows psychology and human behavior. If her exam shows you’re deceitful, she’ll go for your jugular in the post-test.

10. Recognize the relevant and irrelevant control questions. Focus on what’s relevant and do not offer more information than what’s pertinent to the issue.

11. Play dumb. Don’t try to impress the examiner that you’ve studied up. You’ll only look stupid.

12. Breathe normally. Shortness of breath naturally triggers the other body functions to accelerate and it will increase nervousness.

13. Take lots of time to answer.

14. Think of something mentally stressful when answering a control question—like the time when you were a kid and your dog was hit by the train. That will raise the ‘normal’ graph peaks.

15. Think of something calming when answering issue questions—like getting a new puppy. That will flatten stress peaks.

16. Keep your eyes open during the questions. The examiner will ask you to close them because this significantly alters your sensory awareness and puts you at a disadvantage. This is very important.

17. Bite your tongue during every question except the truthful control ones. This levels the playing field.

So, who’s got away when facing a lie detector?

I call her The Mother From Hell. I investigated a bizarre case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy—a rare form of child abuse where a parent causes harm to their child to bring attention to themselves. This woman repeatedly complained that her infant daughter was choking, then was caught by hospital staff with her hands around the little girl’s neck. She denied it. We polygraphed her. She blew the needles off the instrument and confessed. But, The Mother From Hell got off in court because they found her confession inadmissible due to it being “elicited under oppression” from the polygraph examination and subsequent interrogation. It was a total horseshit ruling.

Gary Ridgway, The Green River Serial Killer from Seattle, strangled over fifty women in the 1980’s. He was on police radar early in the serial killing investigation, ‘passed’ a polygraph, and got warehoused as a suspect. He went on to kill many more before being caught on DNA.

So, can you fool the polygraph?

Maybe, but I doubt it.

The best advice I can give is, if you tell lies, don’t take a lie detector.

———

Over to you, Kill Zoners. Has anyone out there taken a polygraph examination? Would you take one? And has anyone ever used a polygraph examination scene in their books?

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating unexpected and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry passes himself off as a crime writer and enthusiastic indie publisher. Possibly a podcaster, too. 😉

One of Garry Rodgers’s writing projects is a series based on true crime cases he was involved in. Investigating them, that is. Not committing the crimes. Garry lives on Vancouver Island at Canada’s west coast where he hosts a popular blog that you simply must follow at Dyingwords.net. You can also connect with him via Twitter @GarryRodgers1.

 

65 Bits From 65 Trips

I never thought I’d live this long. I turned 65 on Tuesday. Officially, I’m a Senior. I legitimately qualify for sympathetic elderly discounts, and I’m gonna pocket the 10 percent—not feeling the least bit guilty over getting geezer graft.

I’ve made 65 trips around the sun. Some were easy. Some were hard. One year, I survived three fatal gunfights within two months—one leaving my police partner and best friend dead beside me. And I witnessed two miraculous childbirths within three years—our daughter Emily and our son Alan—one of whose delivery was not at all easy on my wife Rita’s body.

Many of my life experiences, from trauma to triumph, were terrific.

Some I’d love to relive. Some I’d like to reverse. But I’m happy, very happy, to be here and continue enjoying life.

I guess I’ve lived this long because, despite the odds of succumbing to high-risk behavior, the Creator purposely let me trip 65 times around the sun and learn a few bits. I believe in the Creator, and I believe the Creator approves of me passing-on these 65 bits from 65 trips.

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  1. Whatever the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve by taking action with a positive mental attitude. This is the core of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich personal growth and success philosophy which, in my experience, is pure truth.
  1. You become what you think about most of the time.
  1. Be careful with your thoughts, because your thoughts become your words. Be careful with your words, because your words become your actions. Be careful with your actions, because your actions become your habits. Be careful with your habits, because your habits become your character and your character becomes your destiny.
  1. Dream big. The first step in achieving a big dream is by having one.
  1. It doesn’t matter what came first—the chicken or the egg—as long as you stay alive and remain healthy enough to eat them.
  1. I’ve been rich. I’ve been poor. Rich is better.
  1. Always read the instructions. Twice. Then save them.
  1. Don’t buy extended warranties, timeshares, or cheap tools.
  1. Persistence is to character as carbon is to steel.
  1. If you must read the news, read for fact and data, not for opinions.
  1. Murder doesn’t round out anyone’s life except the murdered’s and sometimes the murderer’s.
  1. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
  1. If you chase a badger across a field and it goes down a hole, don’t follow and poke its backside with a pick handle. Seriously, I tried this and it wasn’t good.
  1. People of accomplishment rarely sit back and let things happen to them. They go out and happen to things.
  1. Do not steal the parking spot reserved for the guy who’s about to interview you for your dream job.
  1. And don’t bother searching for your eyeglasses while wearing them.
  1. Speaking of eyeglasses, when you go searching for your glasses and finally find them, don’t put them back where you found them. Put them where you first looked for them.
  1. Once you get it all down to one shopping cart, you’ve got it made.
  1. The Golden Rule will never fail. It’s the foundation of all other virtues.
  1. I don’t judge your age, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, political beliefs, education, occupation, body shape, or any other thing that makes you as a human being. You are you. I am me. I’ll be nice to you even if you’re not nice to me and I’m okay with that.
  1. Never get involved in an Asian land war.
  1. To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting to, and taking personal responsibility for, the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.
  1. Optimize your generosity. No one on their deathbed ever regretted giving away too much.
  1. I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a trailer loaded with a ski-boat, an ATV, or a full-dresser Harley.
  1. A vacation + a disaster = an adventure.
  1. Ancient Jewish wisdom says not to argue to win the argument. Argue to discover the truth.
  1. The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.
  1. The best way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas and then discard the bad ideas.
  1. Seek to be the wisest in the room, not the loudest, and never miss a good chance to shut up.
  1. Never take down a fence until you know why it was put up.
  1. If you have to convince someone to stay with you, then they’ve already left.
  1. You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book is too difficult for adults, then write it for children.
  1. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer. No surprise in the reader.
  1. Always apply the duck test.
  1. The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it.
  1. The two founding points of human existence are consciousness and entropy.
  1. Everything in moderation, including moderation.
  1. Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, bad and good, and see how they do it. Just like a stonemason who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window and write something else.
  1. Carl Sagan said, “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called leaves) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you’ll hear the voice of another person, perhaps a person who’s been dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time—proof that humans can work magic.”
  1. And Lady Gaga said, “When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.”
  1. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots.
  1. You don’t stop flying when you get old. You get old when you stop flying.
  1. A ride in a US Navy F-18 Hornet flight simulator is a mind-blowing and condomless, sexual experience. Been there. Done that. MUST do again.
  1. A business rule: Pay every invoice within 48 hours. You’ll be amazed at how many people give your work top priority.
  1. Ungulates like deer, moose, elk, and caribou have antlers for a reason.
  1. Bears have claws and teeth for a reason, too. Don’t poke the bear like I poked the badger.
  1. The cost of perfection is inaction, but boring progress produces exceptional results.
  1. The less you need the approval of others, the easier it is to get what is right rather than what is easy.
  1. “I don’t pay no attention to no kind of critics about nothing. If they knew as much as they claim about what they’re criticizing, then they ought to be doing that instead of standing on the sidelines using their mouth.” ~Muhammad Ali.
  1. Multitasking is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.
  1. Ninety percent of success can be boiled down to consistently doing the obvious thing for an uncommonly long time without convincing yourself that you’re smarter than you are.
  2. That thing that made you weird as a kid could make you great as an adult—provided you don’t lose it.
  1. If someone tries to convince you it’s not a pyramid scheme, it’s a pyramid scheme.
  1. If you have any doubts about your ability to carry a load in one trip, do yourself a favor and make two trips.
  1. Anything real begins with the fiction of what it could be. Imagination is the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.
  1. For every dollar you spend on something substantial, expect to pay another dollar in repair, maintenance, and disposal fees by the end of its serviceable life.
  1. Eliminating clutter makes room for your true treasures.
  1. Art is in what you leave out.
  1. Never start a fight. Like, don’t get in a pissing match with a skunk, because you’re going to end up taking a tomato juice bath while the skunk reloads and carries on to defeat the next idiot.
  1. A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
  1. People shouldn’t look for perfect leaders. They should look for authentic leaders with human-flawed competence and integrity, not consumed with presenting their title’s self-importance.
  1. Near the end of his life, Steve Jobs said, “I learned that life is like a river. At first, you think that if you’re successful, you get to take many things from that river… products people have made or ideas people have come up with. But, eventually, in life you realize that it’s not what you take from the river, it’s what you get to put into that river.”
  1. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not their facts.
  1. Learning is not compulsory. Neither is survival.
  1. When you die, you take nothing with you except your reputation.

Bonus Bit: When playing Monopoly, spend all you have to buy, barter, or trade for the strategic orange properties at the end of the second stretch just before Free Parking. Don’t bother with Utilities or Railroads.

——

What about you Kill Zoners? Whether you have more or less than 65 trips under your hat, how about sharing life bits you’ve found?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner with over three decades of experience in human death investigation. Now, Garry has reincarnated as a crime writer who regularly contributes to the Kill Zone.

Garry Rodgers also runs his own blog at DyingWords.net where he provokes thoughts on life, death, and writing. Check it out. You can also follow Garry at GarryRodgers1 on Twitter.

The Excruciating Death of Mister Red Pepper Paste Man

Coroners are different folk. A coroner requires a blend of things. Investigative skill, comprehensive training, personality quirk, life experience, legal and forensic knowledge, compassion, empathy, curiosity, gray or white hair, strong stomach, and a good sense of black humor. I guess I was a good fit as a coroner.

I was involved in around 2,500 human death investigations during my run as a coroner. That’s an approximation because I never kept track. I could go back through my notebooks and count but, at my stage, I really don’t care about stats.

I can’t possibly remember them all. Nor can I remember names. What I remember are unique cases which we, in the Coroner Service, appropriately nicknamed according to their death circumstances.

For instance, I distinctly recall Betty Cutter, not Betty Crocker. She cut her own throat with her kitchen’s electric carving knife and her name was Elizabeth. Same with The Flying Dutchman— a guy named Hoogenstratten (sp?) who, with an alcohol level three times the legal driving limit, crashed his sizzled ultralight after buzzing into high-voltage power lines. Then there was Grizzly Adam whose name was Adam and was mauled to death by a grizzly bear.

Who could forget Dallas? He doused himself with gasoline, lit himself on fire, and blazingly ran around in a snowy backyard until he extinguished for good. To establish time of death, I canvassed a neighbor. She watched it all from her kitchen window and timed her snackage interruption as being the commercial break three-quarters through watching the TV show Dallas.

And I’ll never forget another case. I was a junior, understudying with a coroner who I describe as like travelling with Yoda. Barbara McCormick was, without a doubt, the highest IQ person I ever encountered. And it was Barb who monickered the death victim Mister Red Pepper Paste Man. Let me tell you his story that I once posted in my blog at DyingWords.net.

———

“Sounded like someone was skinning a live cat,” the next-door lady told us. She sniffed, wiping her eyes. “Then loud crashing and banging, then… everything went quiet. I waited a while, didn’t hear nothing more, so I went and checked and found him dead on the floor.”

I was in my first year of coroner service and shadowing my mentor, senior coroner Barbara McCormick. We were in the kitchen of a tiny suite at the low rent side of town, standing over this skinny, old guy who was in a semi-fetal position with one arm wrapped around his abdomen and his other hand clutching his throat. I’ll never forget his wide-open eyes or the gritting grimace of teeth—the expression of excruciating pain etched in a cold, deathly stare.

“Heart attack or brain aneurysm, Barb?” I asked, ready to flip a coin. I was new to the coroner service, but no stranger to dead bodies after a career as a homicide cop. There was zero sign of foul play at this scene, and my experience told me people usually drop dead from one of these two natural events.

Barb was bent over, starting the head-to-toe examination that coroners do before removing a body for a thorough autopsy back at the morgue. “Wouldn’t bet on either.” Barb was trying to pry his jaw for a look down the throat. “Check his color. Blue-gray. Looks like he’s asphyxiated. I’m thinking he might have choked on something but, for the life of me, I don’t know how he could let out a curdling cat-scream if something was stuck in his yap.”

While Barb was messing with his head, I snooped around. It was typical digs for a single pensioner—a bachelor suite crammed with junk. Empty booze bottles and overflowing ashtrays testified to a lifestyle that suggested he should be dead of something by now. I checked for meds, which was routine. The pathologist would want to know what was likely in his system and the toxicology lab would want it for sure.

I found the usual pill vials indicating treatment for coronary and respiratory ailments that heavy drinkers and smokers all have. The place was relatively clean, although cluttered, and didn’t reek of garbage and bodily waste like most of these places do. I saw a part-eaten sandwich on the table and a freshly cracked beer—seemed like the old boy was doing lunch when violently seized by the death monster and taken down hard to the mat.

Barb stood up. She was puzzled. “I have no idea. Should be an interesting postmortem.” We finished photographs, bagged the man, then stretchered him out to the transport van and drove him off to the morgue.

We’d recorded his personal details, which is part of a death investigation, but his real name never stayed with me. Most are like that. In the death business it’s not a good idea to get too close to your clients, but some you never forget because of how they checked out.

It’s normal—in black humor behind the scenes—for coroners to name their files by earned handles. I’ll always remember Capn’ Crab Bait, Voltage Vern, Methlab Mikey, Arachnoid Ann, Lawn Tractor Guy, Tarzan of the Caterpillars, Freight Train Ference, The Krosswalk Kidd, The Drill Sergeant, Pole Dancer, Cats-Sup, and… as long as I live… I’ll never forget Betty – the Electric Carving Knife Lady.

And, it came to pass, I’ll also never forget the dead little man we’d just rolled into the cooler.

Next morning my favorite pathologist, Dr. Elvira Esikanian, was on the roster to autopsy our guy from the kitchen floor. I loved dealing with Elvira. She’s Bosnian with a wicked sense of dry humor and an equally wicked curriculum vitae, including exhuming mass graves for the UN and serving in some of the busiest morgues around the world where she’d often do a dozen different cuttings per day.

Although Elvira was exceptionally thorough, she was a go-to-the-throat prosector. She’d assess the circumstances, then head straight to the most likely cause.

“I’m suspecting an acute respiratory event,” Elvira stated. “Note the petechiae in the eyes.” She pointed to pricks of blood in his whites. “We normally see petechiae in cases of sudden and severe loss of oxygen, such as in strangulation, although on this man I see no sign of exterior trauma.”

We Y-incisioned the thorax/abdominal cavities and began removing organs.

“His lungs are clear, with the exception of tobacco effects.” Elvira had cross-sectioned them. “And his airway is unobstructed. This man did not choke, nor was he suffocated by fluid.” She examined the heart, which showed expected signs of advanced coronary artery disease. “And he did not suffer a heart attack.” Elvira placed the gastro-intestinal tract in a plastic tub and set it aside on her bench.

She proceeded straight to a cranial exam, inspecting for the tell-tale bleed of a cerebral hemorrhage. “Nothing obvious here.” Elvira put the brain in a stainless bowl. “You indicated this man was eating lunch when he expired.” She looked at me. I nodded. She reached for her plastic tub. “I’m going to examine the stomach.”

For most pathologists and coroners, digging in the digestive tract is the most unpleasant part of the job. It was no different with this man. Elvira incised the stomach and poured its contents into a clear, glass tray. She flipped on her magnifiers and bent a gooseneck light overtop. Immediately, she let out a wolf-whistle. “Look at this!”

To me, it was a messy slime-goo of chewed bread mixed with some rude and red, pasty substance.

To Elvira, it was the smoking gun.

I watched Elvira excise a culture, fix it in a slide, and examine it under her microscope.

“Have a look.” She directed me to the eyepieces.

What I saw was a squiggling biological mass of sub-terrain aliens—looking out-of-this-world like agitated, animated, turquoise tampons breathlessly mingling in a magnified mess of greenish-gray snot.

I swear they had heads, horns, and hoofs.

“Clostridium  Botulinum,” Elvira announced. “Botulism. I’m sure this man died from the deadliest food poison known.”

Now, I’d heard of botulism. Everyone has. That’s why my mum would sniff the tin cans when she opened them and why she’d boiled preserves for four hours. But this was the first time I’d seen a real case of botulism.

“We won’t know the strain or the severity level until we get toxicology results but I can tell you, given how quickly this poor fellow expired, it must be an extremely toxic ratio.”

Elvira went on. “What happens is the neurotoxin produced by the botulinum bacteria acts as a blocking agent preventing neurotransmitters from issuing instructions to the muscles. Once this poison hit his system, every nerve in his body would have felt on fire and he’d quickly fall into total paralysis. That would soon stop his lungs and he’d fall into a state of anoxia, or lack of oxygenated blood to the brain. He’d be conscious throughout and would feel everything… but would be unable to react.”

She glanced at the cut-open cadaver on her examining table. “What a positively excruciating way to die.”

Barb McCormick already had her digital camera out and was scrolling through shots from the scene. “This might be it.” Barb enlarged a photo showing the kitchen. Evident was a jar with its top off, containing a reddish substance.

Realizing the lethality of the situation and the danger to others, Barb and I immediately went back to the apartment. There, on the counter, was a jar of red pepper paste with a label indicating it originated in China and was far past its expiry date. A tag showed it’d been purchased at the Dollar Store.

Cautiously, we peered inside.

And—I’m here to tell you—that red, peppery, pasty scum was actually moving.

It took over a month for the toxicology results to come back. They proved positive for Botulinum toxin—Type E—and the dosage was staggering.

Toxicology measures the presumed lethal dose of a substance in digital units of LD50/ (mg/kg) which translates to the Lethal Dose (LD) required to kill half of the tested laboratory animals in a controlled volume and time.

The LD for Botulinum toxin is 0.00001. Our red pepper paste man’s reading was over 0.02000—two thousand times the amount needed to kill a human being.

———

It’s been a few years since the red pepper paste case and I thought I’d review the pathology around Botulinum toxin. Here’s a quote from a paper by the World Health Organization on the medical process of how botulism works on the human body:

To understand the role of Botulinum toxin, it is necessary first to understand how the brain initiates a muscle contraction as it is in this process that Botulinum toxin intervenes.

Muscles are connected to the brain by the nervous system which is a complex network of neurons – these are long cells that can pass information using either electrical or chemical signals. Chemical signals pass between neurons and muscles through synapses, which are specialized connections linking cells. The chemicals that are used to pass these messages are called neurotransmitters.

In the case of a muscle contraction, the chemical signal is passed using a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This sits in the neuron in a vesicle, a small bubble surrounded by a membrane, until it is required. When the neuron receives a message from the nervous system to initiate a muscle contraction, the acetylcholine is released from the vesicle and passes through the synapse into the muscle fiber.

To achieve this, the vesicles need to be transported to, and fuse with, the neuron membrane that adjoins the synapse between the nerve and the muscle. This process is controlled by a group of proteins called the SNARE complex.

The three main proteins involved are Syntaxin (which connects to the nerve membrane), Synaptobrevin (which connects to the vesicle) and SNAP-25 (which helps the other SNARE proteins link up). These proteins join together to cause the vesicle to move to the nerve membrane and fuse with it. The acetylcholine can then be released across the synapse and pass into the muscle. This then triggers a chain of events that causes the muscle contraction.

Botulinum toxin prevents the release of acetylcholine through the synapse.

Botulinum toxin is produced by a bacterium called Clostridium Botulinum. This bacterium is associated with causing botulism, a rare but deadly form of food poisoning.

Botulinum toxin is exceptionally toxic but, when purified and used in tiny, medically controlled doses, it can be used effectively to relax excessive muscle contraction and is now commonly used in cosmetic surgery.

———

Hmmm… BOtulinum TOXin… BoTox.

The same gruesome stuff in the red pepper paste that painfully killed our old man is commonly stuck into people’s faces to make them look younger and pretty.

I’m sure, for the most part, BoTox injections are perfectly safe. But… if you’re thinking of cosmetically shedding some years, remember the Excruciating Death of Mister Red Pepper Paste Man.

———

What about you Kill Zoners? Would you take Botox injections? And does this post make you wanna check expiration dates in your fridge and in your cupboard? BTW, feel free to use this toxin to kill off your characters.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner. Now he’s reinvented himself as a crime writer and deadly blogger. Probably an upcoming podcaster, too. 😉

Garry has a popular website at Dyingwords.net and a Twitter handle—@GarryRodgers1  Followers say Garry Rodgers is cool so be like Garry.

My 50-Cent Masters Degree in English Language

Earning your Masters Degree in English Language takes intense concentration, five years of dedicated study, social-avoidant application, and plain old hard work. It also takes considerable funding—around $117,421.65. Mine cost 50 cents.

Now, I’m not knocking formal education from a reputable and prestigious institute of higher learning. No. Not at all. Nothing compares to personal exposure from profs and peers. But the end result, knowing linguistic principles and how to find/use English writing resources to polish your prose, is what an English language degree is all about.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m a cheap SOB. I rarely pay full pop for anything, including books. The other week, I was snooping in a thrift shop and checking their used book section. There it was. This behemoth titled The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

It was on an upper shelf and darn near took out my rotator cuff lifting it down. Whoa! This thing is like new! It was hard covered, bound in faux leather with faux gold-gilded page ends, and—I swear to God—had nearly two thousand of them chocked-full of every detail on the English language you can imagine.

I set it on a display counter and browsed. The copyright page said 1988, but that didn’t worry me none about being outa date. We’re talkin’ English here. Surely the words and structures haven’t changed much in thirty-three years except for some new-fangled lingo like “smartphone”, “pumpkin spice”, and “Covid19”. Let’s look at the good stuff—timeless stuff—like gerunds, compound predicates, interjections, inverted orders, irregular comparison of adjectives, prepositional phrases, and that elusive eunuch called a dangling modifier.

There’s something about a book of quality. You know. The paper book that’s perfectly typeset—bound so you can lay its front cover-spine-back cover on a surface and each page, as you turn, lies perfectly flat without having to weight one side and the other with a cordless drill and a ceramic garden gnome.

This is exquisite. The table of contents aroused me. Preface. Staff. History of the English Language. Languages of the World. Guide and Use of the Dictionary. Editorial Abbreviations. Pronunciation Key. English Handbook. An 1144 page dictionary?  If I knew everything in here, it’d be like having a masters degree in the English language.

With both hands that should’ve been in white gloves, I carried this treasure to the till. “I don’t see any price marked,” I said to the till-lady who looked like a hard-core, 50’s librarian crossed with an inked biker-chick, reluctantly volunteering at the hospital auxiliary store or maybe completing a plea-bargained, community work service program.

Anxiously, I awaited her answer.

Over cat-eye glasses, she read a corrugated poster board suspended from the ceiling by thick butcher twine. It stated their general price assignments. “Let’s see… looks like all our books are fifty cents apiece.” She cat-eyed at me. “No dickering, though.”

My vitals reacted. “You… you… you only want fifty cents for this?”

“Says fifty cents for all books.” She looked at something below the cat eyes. “Looks like you found yourself a bargain.”

Start The Car!  I did. I got the equivalent of a Masters Degree in English Language for a half-buck. Call it two quarters or a fifty-cent piece. Far, far less than a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte or the ridiculous rate for the parking ticket pinned to my windshield.

I took her home, this big book of English language. I call her “her” because I think English gets the Germanic short schtick from romance languages like French which is my wife, Rita’s, first language and I try to be romantic with Rita because being romantic with Rita usually pays off even though I don’t speak more than five words of proper French nor does Rita want me to.

I poured two fingers of Scotch and sat down to enjoy her. Her title somewhat perplexed me—The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Now, everybody’s heard of Noah Webster, and everyone’s got his dictionary. Encyclopedia? Duh. Remember back in grade school when you were either on Team Britannica or Team World Book?

Hmmm… I see what they’re doing here. They’re blending an all-encompassing dictionary in with an encyclopedia strictly dedicated to English language structure. Right on! But, what’s a Lexicon?

I was tempted to Google it. However, the answer was right in the preface. “Lexicon can be a book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions; the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject; or the total stock of morphemes in a language.”

Morphemes? I had to Google that one, and I suppose that anyone with a Masters Degree in English Language would know that “a morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not necessarily the same as a word. The main difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone.”

I didn’t know that. I found out there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the English language as I paged through her, The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. There was a short history lesson that clearly documented our language’s evolution from Old English through Middle English and on to Early Modern English. I especially got a kick out of the spelling and sound of the West Saxon version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6 of the Bible’s King James Version. It’s impossible to reproduce on my modern keyboard so I’ve attached a photo/screen shot.

Try pronouncing this gibberish after a few triple whiskeys. Reminds me of a guy named Rod Tubbs who was in our police poker club. Tubbs spoke like this halfway and worse through every evening.

Enough sidetrack. English study is a serious business and, if I wanted to get my money’s worth, I needed to keep paging. I’ll save you from regurgitating the 1144 page dictionary, but I do say the Practical English Handbook part was fascinating. I didn’t think it could happen, but it blows Elements Of Style out of the water. Here’s the prelude to the most concise, 45-page guide I’ve ever read:

The purpose of this Handbook is to provide a quick, easy-to-use guide to grammar, correct usage, and punctuation. It is intended for use in the business office, in the home, and in school. Secretaries, writers, teachers, and students will find it especially useful. The Handbook is divided into 25 sections or chapters each covering an important aspect or problem in English. The book is designed so that it may be used as a step-by-step complete self-study English review. But, in addition, it is a complete reference handbook for day-to-day use whenever a question arises concerning English useage or punctuation.”

I’m not going to list each chapter, as I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post full of lexiconal morphemes. But I do want to highlight the Parts Of Speech chapter, the Sentence Patterns chapter, and the Punctuation Review chapter. There were more goods packed in short spaces than I could ever imagine. Just the information on commas alone was worth my price of tuition.

Speaking of the price of tuition, you’re probably wondering how I came up with the Masters Degree in English Language figure of $117,421.65. Well, I went to the University of British Columbia’s website and looked up the details of their Masters of Arts — English Language program. Here’s a snippet from the UBC MAEL page:

The UBC English Graduate Program, one of the most vibrant and wide-ranging in Canada, has been awarding the M.A. degree since 1919. Students may earn the degree in each of two areas: English Literature and English Language. Indeed, the UBC English Department is one of the few departments in North America to offer a language program in addition to its literary programs.

The English Language program includes specializations in history and structure of language, discourse and genre analysis, and history and theory of rhetoric. Faculty members in the Language program teach and supervise research in descriptive linguistics, historical linguistics, cognitive linguistics, functional grammar, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, stylistics, genre studies, and history and theory of rhetoric. Students in the English Literature program can take advantage of Language graduate courses; recent offerings include courses on reported speech and its rhetorical versatility across genres; the uses of classical rhetoric for contemporary critical practice; and cognitive approaches to the language of literature. By the same token, Language students can take advantage of the wide variety of Literature courses our department offers.”

Below this pitch is their rates. Basic tuition is $6,358.13 per year and their living-within costs are starting at $17,126.20 per year. That adds to a total yearly amount of $23,484.13. Seeing as it takes five years to earn an MA, that means getting a Masters Degree of English Language will set you back $117,421.65.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think I really can get the equivalent of an expensive, five-year university program by reading my fifty-cent book. I have a high regard for education and highly educated people, and I truly respect their degrees. But what I did buy with my half dollar was access to a wealth of knowledge in The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

I don’t know if you can stumble upon this language beauty in a used book store. If you can, by all means grab it. I do know, however, that you can get copies on Amazon. They list a used hardcover for a very reasonable $15.68.

Okay, Kill Zoners. Have any of you got a copy of The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language? And what English language resources do you recommend? The University of Kill Zone floor’s mic is now open.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner in the Province of British Columbia. Now, he’s an indie writer with an eight-part series of based-on-true-crime stories as well as many stand alones.

Garry also hosts a popular blog on his website at DyingWords.net. You can follow GarryRodgers1 on Twitter or follow him around in his boat floating on the Pacific saltwater at Vancouver Island.

Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules

When it comes to pure storytelling, is there a company doing better than Pixar? Pixar Animation Studios is a Disney subsidiary based in California and, since 1979, has produced some of the best-ever, film-presented stories. Part of Pixar’s success was thanks to early influence from George Lucas’s vision and Steve Jobs’s money, but much of their ongoing success comes from 22 storytelling rules Pixar writers religiously follow.

Toy Story. Finding Nemo. Dory. The Incredibles. Wall-E. A Bug’s Life. Monsters, Inc. Cars. And now Luca, to name just a few. What these blockbusters have in common is storytelling. Pure storytelling. But storytelling that follows Pixar’s rules.

 

Here at the Kill Zone, we have storytelling in common. Whether we’ve got our writing hat on or our reading hat off, at the end of the day, on the bottom line (insert your own concluding cliché here), we all love good stories well told. Must be something in our ancestral DNA.

Let me go around the Kill Zone room and spec out people’s storytelling style / rule adherence. (Sorry if I miss one or more of the usual suspects, but there’re only so many musical chairs at this party.)

Let’s see. Gonna start with JSB. Jim’s a crime guy, now working on a great hardboiled series starring Mike Romeo and HB has genre rules that Jim well knows, but probably breaks. Terry writes mystery & romance series. Same with her, she probably rule breaks. Debbie? She’s into action mysteries, I’d call them. John cranks out high octane thrillers; reportedly doing well. Kay and Ruth are traditional cozy gals with rules of their own while Deb does tall tales and short stories of redemption. Dale. Where’s Dale? He’s got his niche in empowered library cozies which, I’m sure, has its unique genre rules.

Joe’s retired from the contributing mill but always has time for an insightful and highly intelligent comment. Plus, he’s first to get up in the morning. Dr. Steve is building a legacy with middle-grade fantasies while Harald writes about Neanderthals who could be plucked straight from the Canadian Senate.

Sue—your crime works are so bloody powerful that if they get any stronger you’ll need to be institutionalized. Harvey writes right across the board. He’s, by far, the most prolific among us, and I think should be tested for meth. And Reavis Z is in a league all his own, making up rules as he writes along, and up there with GOATs like Brady.

Yeah, we’re a diverse pack, us Kill Zoners. But we’re storytelling fans and creatives at heart with one more thing in common. We understand there are storytelling rules. (I think it was Somerset Maugham who said, “There are only three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”)

And we’re a delinquent bunch here at the Kill Zone. As much as we respect “the rules”, we know rules are supposed to be broken. Provided, that is, we know what rules to broke and do so intentionally at potential peril of killing our darlings.

Pixar calls BS on the 3-rule crap. They have 22 rules their screenwriters follow, and they’re generous enough to share these storytelling rules with us lowly novelists.

What got me going on this post was a piece on Jane Friedman’s site the other morning titled Why Write This Book? The contributor, Jennie Nash, opened by stating that in 2013 Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats wrote down the 22 rules her collaboration team used to generate content—Academy Award-winning content. Ms. Coats shared them on Twitter, to which they went viral, and are now quoted so often that they’ve taken a life of their own. In no particular order, here are Pixar’s storytelling rules (guidelines, if you’d like):

1.  You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2.  You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

3.  Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4.  Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5.  Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6.  What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7.  Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8.  Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9.  When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10.  Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

11.  Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

12.  Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13.  Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

14.  Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

15.  If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16.  What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

17.  No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

18.  You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19.  Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20.  Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21.  You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

22.  What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Kill Zoners — What Pixar storytelling rules hit home to you?  And what rule or rules could you add to the Pixar list? Don’t be shy. Let us know in the comments!

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Garry Rodgers is a retired murder cop and coroner who specialized in forensic death investigation. Now, Garry’s reinvented himself as an indie crime writer working on a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.

Outside of crime-style storytelling, Garry Rodgers hosts a popular website and blog at DyingWords.net. Garry’s also a Transport Canada certified marine captain. Sometimes he putts around the Pacific saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island at British Columbia’s west coast.