Indie Publishers — Exclusive or Wide?

“Amazon is not too big to fail… in fact I predict one day Amazon will fail.”

What? Who said such a thing?

“Companies have short lifespans, and Amazon will be disrupted one day.”

Bullshit. Gimme a break.

“Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be thirty-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.”

———

You know who said such things? Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. The guy who killed bookstores. These are direct quotes from Bezos’s 2017 letter to shareholders.

Bezos goes on, “Starving off death is a thing we have to work at, but it’s inevitable for Amazon, just like other companies, to die. The world will always try to make Amazon more typical—to bring us into equilibrium with our environment. It will take continuous effort to stay alive as long as possible but, eventually, Amazon will fail.”

Reading this makes me think of the logic behind my move two years ago from publishing exclusively on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDPS) and additionally partnering with Kobo, Apple, and Nook—commonly called “going wide” in indie publishing terms. Two years later, I have no regrets leaving Amazon’s bubble and casting about with the competitors’ nets.

Exclusive or wide is a big debate among indie publishers. Many indies don’t use the term “self publishing” because indie publishers rarely produce products on their own. I, for example, work with others like a cover designer and a proofreader as well as many nameless humans busy behind the scenes keeping day-to-day operations going at Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and Nook who sell my entertainment products and deposit proceeds into my bank account.

Am I worried about Amazon going broke? Not anytime in the immediate future, I’m not. Same with Kobo and Apple, but I wouldn’t bet a plug nickel on Nook’s future as Barnes and Noble have been shaky for quite some time.

I didn’t go wide for fear of Amazon’s financial failure which would end my publishing days if I remained exclusive with The Zon. No. I went wide because it made good business sense to distribute my entertainment products as widely as possible.

I have eleven indie publishing acquaintances making decent money writing and selling their entertainment products. All are wide—except for one who finds it easier to manage his business by being Amazon-exclusive. He says he’s making sufficient bucks at Amazon and prefers his time spent producing new work than fussing about on all the platforms.

I see two solid reasons to remain exclusive on Amazon and, let’s face it, in the indie publishing world you’d be crazy not to have an Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) presence. One is the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDPS) program. The other is Kindle Unlimited (KU). KDPS gives you some marketing perks for your exclusivity. KU lets you share in a monthly pot for lending your products and being paid in a percentage related to page reads.

Reasons one and two? Insufficient to retain my loyalty to Amazon alone. Last month, I made 52 percent of my indie income at Amazon, 37 percent on Kobo, 10 percent on Apple, and 1 percent on Nook. I haven’t published on Google yet, but that’s on the blackboard task list.

Notice how I keep referring to entertainment products and not books? I developed this mindset two years ago when I was mentored by a high-selling indie publisher who lives in the UK. He forced me to treat my writing as a commercial business, not as a when-I-got-around-to-it hobby. Fortunately, I was in a financial position where I could then devote full time to commercial entertainment writing production which allowed me to build this business into an increasingly well-paying return.

Part of my going wide mindset was viewing my books as products, not babies. I well know what it’s like to have the first-born alive on The Zon. It’s a thrill like few other thrills in life, but the novelty does fade away. It’s like the baby soother story. Your first child spits the soother out on the playground dirt . You take it, boil it, before you hand her soo-soo back. By your fourth kid, you don’t even wipe it off.

Actually, I’m not so callous with my books, er, ah, entertainment products. I love them all but I was taught—as a business— this is a numbers game. The more products you have out there, the more sales opportunities you have.

To appreciate the wide opportunities-in-numbers, it’s important to get the old head around the concept.

One ebook is one product. Published on Amazon exclusively, it’s one product for sale.

Two ebooks published on Amazon are two products for sale and ten ebooks are ten products for sale

Two ebooks published on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and Nook are eight products for sale.

Ten ebooks published on the four platforms are forty products for sale.

Ten ebooks with print editions multiply the sales opportunities again.

Add in audio books, boxed sets, or whatever concoction you can cook and the numbers are exponential.

There’s another catch to this wide angle. That’s the areas of distribution each platform has that increase the product exposure. This is where the numbers really grow.

My Amazon portal allows distribution in thirteen countries: US, UK, Canada, Australia, India, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico. Kobo has a far, far greater worldwide reach—practically anywhere a free citizen can get internet access.

In the past two years, I’ve had Kobo ebook downloads in ninety-six different countries. I have eleven products listed on Kobo, and Kobo provides a great tracking system. It includes a bubble map showing the countries and the proportion of downloads relative to the location. Here’s a screenshot of my Kobo overlap map from March 2020 till today:

Apple gives similar stats. I’ve only been there less than a year, but I like how I see the progression. They serve over fifty countries whereas Nook, I believe, is strictly American. I can’t speak for Google—yet.

This brings me back to the thought of Amazon failing. I don’t believe for one moment that DoomZday is approaching any time soon. But, some disturbing trends are happening with Amazon’s value.

Today (16March2022) Amazon’s market capitalization is $1.51 trillion. The stock price is $2,996 USD which is a drop from its high of $3,719 in July 2021. That’s a 21.5 percent haircut. Is it a long-term concern? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now the entire stock market is up and down like a new bride’s pajamas.

Do all big companies eventually fail, as Jeff Bezos says? The precedent certainly is out there. Sears. Lehman Brothers. Kodak. PanAm. Blockbuster. Poloroid. Pontiac/Oldsmobile.

Amazon, though? I wouldn’t worry. But if you’re an business-minded indie writer—exclusive with Amazon—seriously, you should consider going wide. This is a numbers game, and there’s money in them thar wide numbers.

Kill Zoners—let’s further this exclusive or wide discussion. If you’re an indie, which camp in do you sleep? If you’re traditionally published, do you consider going indie (or at least hybrid) and what way would you go—exclusive or wide?

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner. Now, he’s reincarnated as an indie crime writer who’s left the dark side of Amazon exclusivity for the wide light of other publishing platforms like Kobo, Apple, and Nook.

Garry is a west coast Canadian product who happily writes in his mind lab on Vancouver Island. He contributes bi-weekly to the Kill Zone as well as hosting a deadly blog at DyingWords.net. You can follow him at @GarryRodgers1.

 

The Secret to Being a Successful Writer

Rachel Thompson, today’s guest, is my mover & shaker writing friend who hosts two sites, Bad Redhead Media and RachelInTheOC.com. We’ve cross-blogged over the years and hang around on Facebook and Twitter. Rachel shared her popular post titled The Secret to Being a Successful Writer on my website a while back, and it had great reception—it’s a real motivational kick-in-the-a. I thought it’s well worthwhile for Kill Zoners to read, so Rachel generously gave me permission to repost it here. Let’s welcome writer, book marketer, and social media expert Rachel Thompson to the Kill Zone.

———

Regardless of how you publish your books, articles, or blog posts, the secret to being a successful writer is not anything pie-in-the-sky or full of inspirational goo-gah. Besides, I’m not the kind of person to spray glittery sunshine up your you-know-what, so here’s the real deal. It’s the big secret. Ready? Grab your pen.

Don’t Be Lazy.

That’s it. Let me deconstruct this a bit. Pull up a chair.

Make It Happen

You. Yes, you. Stop looking around.

I’ve worked with writers in all kinds of ways since hmmm, gosh, 2009-ish. Ten years of observing that unique species of human we refer to as, writer. I’m a writer myself (six books released so far , been in a few anthologies, two new books on deck for this year), so I fully comprehend the challenges of balancing writing, marketing, the day job, real life, chronic pain, mental health, and single parenting.

Completely and totally get it.

There isn’t room in any of those roles to be lazy if we’re being #TruthBomb honest here. Yet, in my ten years of working directly with writers, I can count on one hand the writers who are get-out-of-my-way go-getters.

Not the kind who will eat you for lunch with some fava beans and a nice chianti. I mean those who actively set aside time for writing AND marketing AND promoting strategically — not creepy, spammy, ‘must take a shower after seeing this’ ways. Nope, I mean those who treat their publishing career as a business, not a hobby where they lollygag around on social media arguing politics or talking about writing their book, then hope and pray someone eventually buys it.

In fact, I so related to that panicky, ‘Where do I even start?” feeling I experienced with my first book back in 2012, that I created an entire month last year (year two is happening right now! and every May going forward if I decide to continue this exhaustive effort) where I’ve wrangled publishing experts this entire month of May to generously donate books, guides, and consultations, and yet shockingly (she says not shocked), few writers are taking advantage of it.

When I speak with them as to why not, several have told me they know about it but don’t want to participate because then they’ll HAVE to work on their writing and marketing.

This baffles me. And yet, nah, it doesn’t.

Lazy Writer Syndrome 

It’s a thing, right? We all get it. I get it, too. It’s not that I’m not writing. I’m here, aren’t I? I also write for my own author blog, RachelintheOC.com as well as on Medium, which are important parts of my author marketing and business marketing. I have those two manuscripts mentioned above on my desktop: one is in edits, and the other is in draft. I also keep a journal, a planner, and a book just for creative notes and ideas.

So, yea, I’m writing. Yet sometimes it feels like I’m not writing writing.

Am I accomplishing stuff? Am I climbing the mountain? Well, yea. Kinda.

It feels like this: it’s a big mountain, full of mud. It’s raining. Hard. I’m carrying this heavy weight. But I’ve got this! It’s just that some days it’s just…so exhausting. Or I have a migraine. Or I’m running my kids around (single mom). Or I’ve got client deadlines (solopreneur).

So, I set the weight down and make camp. For a little while. To rest and recuperate. And then get back out there when I’ve got my wind back.

That’s okay. I’m getting there. We’re all getting there (wherever the hell there is). (Maybe lazy doesn’t describe me. I am a Capricorn, after all.)

Are You a Lazy Writer?

These are the hard questions you have to ask yourself:

  • What am I doing to move my writing career forward?
  • What am I not doing?
  • What actions am I taking to build relationships with readers?
  • How can I learn more about how to market my work?
  • How am I standing in my own way?

Creating an author platform is not a choice in today’s market. It’s not an option. At least, not if you want to sell books and be taken seriously by not only readers but also other writers, book bloggers, and book reviewers (as well as agents and publishers, if you go that route, or plan to). Many writers refuse to treat their writing like a business — they think if they can just sign with a traditional publisher, and then that publisher will swoop in and do all that work for them.

If only.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I deal with many stumbling blocks: anxiety, depression, chronic pain. There are days where all I can do is the bare minimum for my business, kiss my kids, and that’s it. And that’s okay. Big fan of The Four Agreements: always do your best, and if your best is just getting out of bed that day, okay. I Scarlett O’Hara that bitch: tomorrow is another day.

In my business, many of my clients are traditionally published. Big 5 even. They hire me to do their social media and book marketing because no publisher does that for them. It’s on you, writer friends. Start early, share often. Learn author branding (we brand the author, not the book).

You don’t need to hire someone to do this marketing stuff for you. You learned how to write. You can learn how to market.

The other big secret I’ll share with you is this: Book marketing isn’t about spamming your book links with everybody (that’s desperation). It’s about building relationships with readers early on.

I do a free weekly chat on my @BadRedheadMedia business Twitter, #BookMarketingChat, every Wednesday, 6 pm pst, 9 pm est. Every week for the last 4 years, I share my time and/or recruit an expert in publishing and marketing to share their expertise with you, the writing community.

Invariably, someone says, “Yea, I should do that,” or “I’ll give that a try.”

Writing is great. Publishing is a business. Treat it like one.

———

Rachel Thompson released the BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge in December 2016 to rave reviews. She is constantly updating the book, and released a newly updated version in 2020 in both ebook and print.

She is the author of the award-winning, best-selling Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in both the Los Angeles and the San Francisco Book Festivals), and the bestselling, multi-award-winning Broken Pieces (as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed).

Broken People was released in 2020.

Rachel’s work is also featured in Feminine Collective anthologies (see Books for details).

She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington PostFeminine CollectiveIndie Reader MediumOnMogulBlue Ink Reviewand several others.

Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live weekly Twitter chats, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with Cee Streetlights and Judith Staff (Tuesdays, 6 pm PST/9 pm EST), and #BookMarketingChat, co-hosted with Melissa Flickinger and Dr. Alexandria Szeman (Wednesdays, 6 pm PST/9 pm EST).

She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. A single mom, she lives in California with her two kids and two cats, where she daydreams of Thor and vaguely remembers what sleep is.

———

Thanks so much, Rachel, for joining us here at the Kill Zone. What about you KZers? Am I the only writer here who gets lazy from time to time and have someone else do their bi-weekly post for them? Does the L bite you too? Let’s hear the comments!

Ya Gotta Wanna

“Ya gotta wanna,” isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a highly achieved man’s mouth. However, that’s exactly what multi-billionaire Jim Pattison said when asked for his key to success.

Jimmy, as Mr. Pattison is affectionally known around his home city of Vancouver, British Columbia, is the self-made, sole owner of the Jim Pattison Group. It’s a diverse empire employing 48,000 people in businesses like supermarkets, soft drink manufacturing, auto dealing, forestry, fishing, magazines, outdoor advertising, and theme parks. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and The Guinness Book Of Records are two Pattison holdings. Forbes lists the 93-year-old’s personal net worth at $10.2 billion.

Jim Pattison

Jimmy Pattison is a philanthropist. He’s donated millions of dollars to hundreds of causes, yet the most valuable give-away he has is business guidance to others. I believe writers, like us, can learn from folks like Jimmy Pattison. Here’s an expansion of his “you gotta wanna” quote:

At the end of the day, you have to want it. You have to have a deep desire to keep moving forward in the face of opposition. You have to have fire in your belly that keeps you focused on the task at hand and on the goal ahead so you don’t give up. If we don’t have passion to persevere, we will not succeed. Those who don’t ‘wanna’ end up giving up. And remember, failure isn’t falling down. It’s refusing to get back up again.”

I’ve never met Jimmy Pattison, but I’d have to say he’s a mentor. So is Napoleon Hill (long deceased) who authored Think And Grow Rich—one of the most influential self help books of all time. One of Napoleon Hill’s seventeen success principles is having a definite purpose backed by a burning desire to achieve it. It’s a guiding force driving my current WIP.

My definite purpose—my wanna—is creating the series titled City Of Danger. It’s a concept long brewing in my mind but activated by a chance opportunity with the film industry. I committed to City Of Danger on April 7, 2021 and steadily worked on developing it for the last ten months. I expect the pilot episode releasing this summer.

Regardless if this project gets green lit on screen, I’m retaining ebook, print, audio, and foreign translation rights. To give you an idea of the concept, the logline is A modern city in crisis enlists two private detectives from its 1920s past to dispense street justice and restore social order. You can read a bit more about City Of Danger on my website.

When I started the project, I realized I knew little to nothing about the film industry—at least not about content production. I immersed in screenwriting lessons, and the best value I got was from an online course called Immersed In Story with tutor Anne Helmstadter. If you check out Anne’s home page, you’ll see a testimonial I did for her.

This screenwriting course was the best money and time investment I could have made when I started City Of Danger. At the course’s opening, Anne had me write out why I wanted to create this series. Writing out my definite purpose—my burning desire—gave me the clarity and motivation to keep moving forward. Call it my gotta wanna spirit.

I read this affirmation every day. It’s very personal, but I’d like to share it with others here at the Kill Zone so my ongoing experience can possibly benefit others. Here goes:

Motivation for Writing City Of Danger Series

What’s old is new again. I believe there’s a resurgence coming in hardboiled detective crime fiction. I see this as the right timing for a leading-edge product that capitalizes on successful series like The Wire, Dragnet, etc. as well on diverse HB storytellers like Leonard, Spillane, Hammett, Chandler, Paretsky, and Connelly. Yet, this takes an entirely new approach in blending the 1920s and the 2020s. I see this as a niche-base market for episodal ebooks, print, video streaming, and audio with a large audience resonance.

I’m writing City Of Danger for these reasons:

  1. Financial — I want to make decent money from this project.
  2. Sense of Purpose — I want to be creative and constantly moving.
  3. Sense of Accomplishment — I want to have something to show from this. (A social statement.)
  4. Recognition — I want my family, friends, fellow writers, and audience to know.
  5. Learning — I want to learn from this and take my craft to the next level.
  6. Opportunity — I want this project to lead me to new and influential people.
  7. Legacy — I want to leave something behind that others can enjoy and benefit from.

In summation, City Of Danger is about creating a unique and valuable consumer product that I can enjoy building and be compensated for in these seven ways.

I want to create this.

Garry Rodgers

April 7, 2021

How about you Kill Zoners? How badly do you want what you’re pursuing? Have you written an affirmation? Have you defined “success” for yourself?

I trust your want includes family, friends, faith, your contribution to the community, and your purpose in life—and isn’t just about money. But however you define success, you gotta wanna.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner. In all, Garry has over three decades in the human death investigation business. Now, he’s reinvented himself as a crime writer and indie publisher who’s experimenting in other storytelling mediums.

Vancouver Island is home to Garry Rodgers where he spends a lot of time cruising the Pacific saltwater. While he’s never seen Jimmy Pattison in person, he’s been broadside the Pattison yacht, Nova Spirit, many times.

Jim Pattison’s Nova Spirit

Dieter Rams — 10 Principles of Good Design

“Who is Dieter Rams?” you ask. “And how do his ten principles of good design apply to writing and publishing books?”

I wondered the same when I opened Farnam Street’s weekly newsletter on Sunday morning (if you’re not an FS subscriber, you’re missing out) and saw the headline Less but Better: Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles. I clicked and read a short article. It had such an impact that I printed and dissected it with my red pen and yellow highlighter.

“Man! Does this ever apply to writing and publishing books!” I said out loud. My wife, Rita, ignored me. She stayed glued to one of her Apple devices. “This is good stuff,” I said as I read a Dieter Rams quote. Everything interacts and is dependent on other things. We must think more thoroughly about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why we are doing it.

Dieter Rams is German and, true to being German, is quality-orientated and detail-driven. Rams, now 89, was schooled in architecture but transformed into one of the world’s leading consumer product designers. His ingenuity and vision were instrumental in thousands of items sold by giants like Braun, Gillette, and European furniture maker Vitsoe.

Rams trailblazed the path for product designs to be more than beautification of consumer products focused on marketing purposes. Design, according to Rams, is innately human and serves as one of the foundational underpinnings of society as a whole. Rams observed: You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people. Therefore, design should involve a moral and ethical responsibility and designers should understand and consider the societal implications of their work, using design as a force for positive change and human preservation.

“Wenniger, aber besser,” said Dieter Rams. It translates to, “Less, but better.”

Right now, I imagine every Kill Zone writer and publisher is thinking Yep. Heard that advice many times. Less is More. And it’s some of the best writing advice there is with the economizing of words to make our writing and publishing simple, clear, and effective.

Rams stayed with Braun from 1955 to 1995 which included the transition from Braun to Gillette. He spent another decade freelancing with Vitsoe and, during his career at these companies, remained the prime design influence behind Steve Jobs and Jonathon Ive to shape the future of all Apple products. Yes, Rita’s Apple devices are based on Dieter Rams’ ten design principles.

So what are these ten design principles and how do they apply to book writing and publishing? Let’s do a dive into what Dieter Rams said about good design followed by my comments:

1. Good design is innovative. The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

Me – We’ve seen monstrous changes in our storytelling delivery over the past decade, and there’s a lot more coming at us fast. Print on demand. Ebooks. Audio. Interactive. Editing apps. And artificial intelligence. We, as writers and publishers, need to be innovative.

2. Good design makes a product useful. A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Me – Our stories must be useful. Meaningful and memorable. We must satisfy our reader psychologically and visually. We must respect our reader’s time and leave them feeling they got good value—something useful.

3. Good design is aesthetic. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

Me – Aesthetics, in our products (yes, books are consumer products), goes beyond the mechanics of cover graphics. Aesthetics goes beyond the interior layout of fonts and spacing. Aesthetics goes to the heart of the story where the reader sees the story in their mind.

4. Good design makes a product understandable. It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Me – Less is more. Understandable. Can the reader follow what’s going on? Are they turning the pages ahead and not back?

5. Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

Me Get the writer out of the reader’s eyes. We’ve all absorbed that advice. Book products are tools for the mind—for the reader’s self-expression. Suspension of disbelief 101.

6. Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Me – Keep your promise to the reader. That’s another timeless tip. Deliver on what you say.

7. Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

Me – A beauty of digital publishing is longevity. Digital products are evergreen which gives two sides to the coin. One is they stay on the shelves as long as the server survives. Two is they reflect trendy styles.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.

Me – This principle hits home about book writing and publishing. We must output the most professional piece we can. That includes more than the story itself. Cover. Editing. Layout. And, yes, marketing.

9. Good design is environmental-friendly. Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Me – Is there anything more environmentally friendly than an ebook or an audiobook? Compared to a print book where trees die and ink pollutes? I’m not against the print book industry by any means. I’m just sayin’.

10. Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Me Wenniger, aber besser.

What about you Kill Zone writers and publishers? How do you see Dieter Rams’ ten design principles fitting in with your work? Can you add other principles that help us to be better at writing and publishing?

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career investigating deaths as a coroner. Now, he’s a crime writer and indie publisher with some twenty works in the public arena.

Garry also hosts a popular bi-weekly blog on his DyingWords.net website and flirts with the feed on Twitter @GarryRodgers1. Vancouver Island on Canada’s southwest coast is home to Garry Rodgers.

Watch for Garry’s new series City Of Danger coming this summer. 2022.

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.