About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling author of the Grafton County Series and Mayhem Series. In 2017, Feedspot named her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Learn more about Sue and her books at http://www.suecoletta.com

Can Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

By SUE COLETTA

This video sent me down a rabbit hole of research.

As you can imagine, my writer brain lit up. Turns out, the research was even more fascinating than the video. A scientific study showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm or eggs and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations. This breakthrough is an important discovery in the fight to treat phobias and anxiety.

Do you fear spiders, heights, or small spaces for no apparent reason? This may explain why.

Neuroscientists trained mice to fear a cherry blossom scent prior to copulation. While breeding these mice, the team at the Emory University School of Medicine looked at what was happening inside the sperm. Incredibly, the sperm showed a section of DNA, responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent, was indeed more active.

The mice’s offspring, and their offspring — the grand-mice, if you will — were all extremely sensitive to cherry blossom and avoided the scent at all costs, despite never experiencing a problem with it in their lives. They also found changes in brain structure.

In the smell-aversion study, scientists believe either some of the odor ended up in the bloodstream, which affected sperm production, or the brain sent a signal to the sperm to alter the DNA.

The report states, “Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels.”

Enivronmental change can also critically affect the lifestyle, reproductive success, and lifespan of adult animals for generations. Exposure to high temperatures led to the expression of endogenously repressed copies of genes — sometimes referred to as “junk” DNA. The changes in chromatin occurred in the early embryo before the onset of transcription and were inherited through eggs and sperm. In mealworms, they traced the DNA changes through 14 generations.

Why mealworms? It’s quicker to test generation after generation on an animal with a short lifespan.

Another study showed that a mouse’s ability to remember can be affected by the presence of immune system factors in their mother’s milk. Chemokines — signaling proteins secreted by cells — carried in a mother’s milk caused changes in the brains of their offspring, affecting their memory later in life.

Memories are passed down through generations via genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors. These switches, however, can be turned on and off, according to Science Daily. Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences must be passed to future generations through personal interactions. However, this research shows that it’s possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Creativity counts as a learned behavior, but I also believe it goes deeper than that. Think about how deeply you feel about your writing. For most writers I know, when we’re “in the zone” our soul does the writing. One could argue we’re merely vessels who type. Have you ever read a passage that you don’t remember writing? Our ability to create burrows into the core of who we are, and thus, leaves an indelible mark. How, then, can we not pass that part of ourselves to future generations?

How many of you have creative folks in your family tree, be it writers, artists, musicians, singers, or other forms of creativity?

To test my theory, I asked the same question to my fellow TKZ members. Please note: this revelation occurred to me yesterday, so I’ve only included the members who saw the email in time. Hopefully, the others will add their responses in the comments.

For those I did catch on a Sunday, check out what they said …

Elaine Viets said, “My late cousin Kurt was a talented wood carver, and my grandfather was known as a great story teller in the local saloons.”

I love wood-carved pieces. The smell, the texture, the swirl to the grain. It’s not an easy creative outlet to master.

Jordan Dane comes from a long line of creative people. Here’s her answer: “My paternal grandfather was a writer for a Hispanic newspaper. My dad was an architect and artist (painter), my older brother went into architecture too, specializing in hospital design. My dad is a real renaissance guy. He could sculpt, paint, draw and he has a passion for cooking. My older brother Ed and I share a love for singing. I sang in competitive ensemble groups. He played in a popular area band and has sung in barbershop quartets. My mom was the original singer in our family. She has a great voice.”

Joe Hartlaub has two talented children. Here’s what he said, “Annalisa Hartlaub, my youngest daughter, is a photographer. My oldest son Joe is also a highly regarded bass guitar player locally.”

He’s being modest. When I checked out Annalisa’s photographs on Facebook and Instagram they blew me away. A photography project she created at 15 years old also went viral.

When I prodded further, Joe added, “My maternal grandfather played guitar, but we never knew it until we came across a picture of him taken at a large Italian social club gathering where he was strumming away. He was in his twenties at the time. As far as the source of Annalisa’s talent goes…her mother is a terrific photographer. The conclusion is that Annalisa gets the form of the art from her mother and her creativeness from me.”

Laura Benedict stunned me with her answer. “Someone doing genealogy linked my maternal grandfather’s family to Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Talk about a creative genius!

Laura added, “I remember a few very small watercolors that I believe my maternal grandmother painted. Trees and houses. But while we were close, we never talked about art. My aunt also did some drawing.”

John Gilstrap also came from a long line of creative people. Here’s his answer…

“My paternal extended family has always been fairly artistic.  My grandfather, I am told–he died long before I was born–had a beautiful singing voice, and for a period of time worked whatever the Midwest version of the Vaudeville circuit was.  My father, a career Naval aviator, wrote the Navy’s textbook, The Principles of Helicopter Flight, and had two patents on helicopter cargo handling operations.  He passed away in 2006.

My brother, four years older than I, plays a number of instruments, but his primary proficiency is the piano.  His daughter is a very accomplished cellist who makes her living as the director of a high school orchestra that consistently kills at competitions.
Closer to home, my only musical talent is to be a passable tenor in the choir.  For years, I sang with a choral group that performed all over the DC area, including a number of gigs at The Kennedy Center.  As a high schooler, our son was a pretty good cellist, but he walked away from it in college and never really looked back.”

 

Although I wasn’t able to catch her in time, PJ Parrish is the sister team of Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols.

As for me, my maternal grandfather was a highly regarded artist (painter) in his time. My mother was a beautiful writer, even though I never knew it while she was alive. After she passed, I discovered notebooks full of her writing.

So, can creativity be passed through our DNA? Judging by this small pool of writers, I find it hard not to entertain the possibility.

I’m betting the same holds true if I expand the test subjects to include you, my beloved TKZers. How many of you have creative folks in your family tree?

On a picturesque fall morning in Grafton County, New Hampshire, a brutal murder rocks the small town of Alexandria. In the backyard of a weekend getaway cabin, a dead woman is posed in red-satin, with two full-bloomed roses in place of eyes.

In her hand, a mysterious envelope addressed to Sheriff Niko Quintano. Inside, Paradox vows to kill again if his riddle isn’t solved within 24 hours.

With so little time and not enough manpower, Niko asks his wife for help. But Crime Writer Sage Quintano is dealing with her own private nightmare. Not only did she find massive amounts of blood on the mountain where she and her family reside, but a phone call from the past threatens her future–the creepy mechanical voice of John Doe, the serial killer who murdered her twin sister.

Together, can Niko and Sage solve the riddle in time to save the next victim? Or will the killer win this deadly game of survival?

Pre-order for 99c and save! Releases July 25, 2018. Want an early peek? Read opening chapter HERE.

 

4+

6 Unusual Forensic Techniques

By Sue Coletta

The forensic community works tirelessly to improve techniques to aid law enforcement, and much of this work is done at body farms across the country. The Texas body farm has conducted some amazing work. I’ve complied my top six forensic advancements, which I think you’ll find fascinating.

Teeth Show Time of Death

When no clues exist to identify a corpse, investigators have a serious problem. The determination of age and sex of the body can be crucial to limit the search for individuals that could possibly match missing persons records. Today, gender can be determined through DNA, as well as the skeleton itself, but believe it or not, it’s not as accurate as testing done on teeth. Age estimation in children and adolescents often depends on radiological examination of skeletal and dental development. In adults, however, age estimation is much less accurate.

Enter: aspartic acid racemization and radiocarbon dating.

At the sprawling 26-acre Freeman Ranch in Texas, over 50 human corpses reside at the body farm. Many of which are checked via drone. Scientists examined 44 teeth from 41 individuals using aspartic acid racemization analysis of tooth crown dentin and radiocarbon dating of enamel. Of those, ten were split and subjected to both radiocarbon and racemization analysis. Combined analysis showed that the two methods combined worked better than relying on one or the other.

Radiocarbon Dating, a forensic tool also done on eyes, is an accurate way to determine environment, date of birth, age of deceased, nutrition, diet, and even date of death. I’ve written about Radiocarbon Dating before (see link above). Briefly, similar to counting rings on a tree to determine its age, same applies to the eyes and teeth. Only with teeth researchers aren’t looking for crystallins.

Twice a year each permanent tooth is anchored to the gums by tiny, distinct fibers. A bright line is laid in the spring or summer, depending on where you live, and a dark line in the fall or winter. The number of bands, as well as the color and width of the outermost ring, help scientists estimate the deceased’s age at death and also narrows the TOD (time of death) window.

Plants and Trees Love Dead Bodies

Human remains act like any other type of fertilizer, producing nitrogen that leeches into the soil. and provides nutrients to plant-life. Trees and plants thrive on this added nutrient, growing taller, fuller, and greener than those not living near the dead. By studying their size compared to other plant-life in the area, experts can determine where and when bodies were buried.

Insects, Rats, and Squirrels Help Determine Date of Death

I’ve written about entomology before, but did you know scavengers — like rats and squirrels, for example — prefer different types of human bones? It’s true. Rats like their bones greasy, and tend to chew on the ends in order to gain access to the marrow. Scientists can then look for these signs to determine how long the body has been in its earthly grave.

Conversely, squirrels prefer drier, more brittle bones that have been fully exposed to the elements. They use the calcium in bone to aid in the breeding of strong litters. By examining the different bite marks and narrowing when the bites occurred and by whom, forensic anthropologists are then able to determine if the body was skeletonized while fully exposed to the elements = squirrel activity. Or if buried in a shallow grave with nibbles on the ends of the bones = rats. Also, they can estimate how long the body has been dead and if the body has remained undisturbed.

Quick fun fact: it takes vultures only a few hours to strip a body down to bare bones — a time frame previously estimated to be weeks.

Mosquitos Can Aid Investigators

In bodies that are badly degraded obtaining DNA becomes a chore, and sometimes isn’t possible at all. Researchers at the body farm, however, have a solution. Mosquitos and other biting insects, believe it or not, preserve portions of the DNA in the bodies they feed on. By trapping and dissecting these insects, DNA could be recovered.

How cool is that? It’s also a bit disturbing to think of mosquitos flying around with our DNA inside them. Or worse, when you smack a mosquito and it leaves a trail of blood, someone else’s DNA could be splattered on your palm. Yuck! I swear, the more I learn, the more paranoid I become. I don’t know about you but these things haunt me. LOL #writerslife

Decomposition Follows a Set Process

The body farm discovered a set pattern to decomposition. One week exposed to open air equals two weeks in the water and eight weeks buried underground. The latter refers to murdered victims, not people who’ve been embalmed or mummified. Environment, temperature, clothing, and weather all have to be taken into account as well, but as a baseline this formula aids investigators a great deal.

Drones Help Find Buried Remains

In bodies not visible to the naked eye, drone flights are part of an ongoing study using near infrared imaging to detect bodies above and below the ground. This technology can also spot locations, where a corpse was previously buried for up to two years after its removal.

“The search for clandestine bodies is a very time-consuming ordeal,” Wescott told the Texas Tribune. “Even then, a lot of times you can walk right by them and not realize that they’re there.”

As corpses decay, they release carbon and nitrogen into the soil, which decreases the amount of light the soil reflects. The influx of chemicals first kills plants, but as it disperses into the soil around the body it morphs into a fertilizer that reflects a ton of light. By using near infrared imaging the drones can detect these reflections. Two extremes show up as black and white on the mostly gray near infrared imagining. Anyone searching for a body doubles their chances of finding it.

Cool, right?

Have you found a fascinating forensic technique in your research? Did you use it in a story?

Wishing all of you a safe and happy 4th of July! Stay cool.
.

Can they crack the riddles in time to save the next victim?

I’m excited to announce my new release, SCATHED, is now available for pre-order. Only 99c. Yay!!!

13+

Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

Untitled

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

Over to you, TKZ family. What tips would you give this brave writer?

 

 

3+

Let Me Tell You a Story [Video]

By Sue Coletta

In the video, I tell you a story. After you watch it, we’ll deconstruct how and why I told the story this way. I’m hoping this will help new writers who submit their first pages for critique. For the seasoned writers, please add tips that I’ve missed.

Pardon my lack of acting skills. LOL Catch ya on the flipside.

Did you notice all the things I didn’t say? Learning what not to write is just as important as learning what to put on the page.

The first line tells the audience “someone I buried thirty years ago visited” but I’m vague. The audience doesn’t need to know more than that yet. Tease the reader into finding out on their own.

Our characters experience a slow build of emotion. In the video, I breeze over sharing my emotions because it’s visual. With the written word, we need to describe what the character is feeling, thinking, internal body cues, what she smells, etc., to paint that same vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Which, in my opinion, is why books are more visceral than movies. The reader experiences the story right along with the characters.

Let’s tear apart the transcript to see the inner workings of the scene. 

Please note: For some reason I told the story in present tense. Let’s blame the humidity.  🙂 In writing, however, we should remain in past tense, with a few exceptions that’ve been discussed on TKZ before. I corrected the tense in the transcript below. 

Blue brackets show the structure, green shows Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs). Notice the rhythm.

Ready? Here we go …

Someone I’d buried over thirty years ago visited me last night. [HOOK] Hooks the reader right away and plants story questions in their mind. A good opening line forces the reader to continue. It also hints at the story to come and defines the genre.

The next paragraph introduces the main character without bogging down the writing with backstory. At the same time, we’re giving the reader a reason to empathize with, or relate to, our hero.

I was sitting at my desk, reading my manuscript, reading the story through one last time, second-guessing every move I made from the opening scene to the end, when static from the TV drew my attention. <– First hint of trouble. [GOAL] [MOTIVATION IS 2ND PART AND TWO LINES BELOW]

It was off. Yet, it popped, crackled, hummed. <– We’ve begun to build suspense. I should add, in writing it’s best to substitute a generic word like “it” with the item we want the reader to visualize. [CONFLICT]

We’d just bought the television last December. <– One line of backstory to show why this situation is unusual. Don’t tell me it’s goin’ already. <– Inner dialogue helps the reader relate to our hero. [REACTION] 

When silence enveloped the room, I shrugged it off as one of life’s mysteries and got back to work. <– Adds to characterization and sets up the following inner dialogue, so the reader doesn’t get confused. [1ST HALF IS MOTIVATION, 2ND IS REACTION]

Gee, I really love the storyline, the way it ebbs and flows. But is that the right word? Is this the right reaction for the scene? I don’t know …

Pop. Crackle. Hum. <– There’s the conflict again — the antagonist force isn’t going away. [DISASTER] [MOTIVATION]

My gaze shot to the flat-screen. That’s weird. It’s almost like it’s trying to turn itself on. That can’t be right … can it? <– Reaction, emotions building. If written, I’d trigger the senses here. [REACTION]

As my jaw slacked, voices in the other room whirled me around. I was alone in the house. <– Stakes. [MOTIVATION]

Maybe the breeze carried my neighbor’s conversation through the screens. Wouldn’t be the first time. <– Reaction. Even though emotions are on the rise, our hero still tries to reason the strange happening away. [ABOVE IS ALL REACTION] [REACTION FOR MRU, TOO]

Once again, I focused on my manuscript. <– Hero tries (and fails) to ignore the conflict. I guess that word works. Yeah, it’s pretty good. Plus, I’m running out of time. <– Inner dialogue allows the reader inside the hero’s head.

I glimpsed the clock. One hour left to turn it in. <– Micro-conflict.

I read on.

The voices from the sunroom grew louder and more intense. <– Antagonist force grows stronger and more visible. Stakes rise. Suspense increases. [DILEMMA] [MOTIVATION]

What the heck’s goin’ on? <– Reaction. If this was a written scene rather than a visual one, I’d add more emotion and inner turmoil here. [REACTION]

Unable to concentrate, I swiveled out of my desk chair. <– Our hero is forced to act. 

Slow. Cautious. I snuck through the kitchen to the French doors. <–Action, punctuated with sentence fragments to help build suspense. Crackling blurs the voices of talk radio. <– The hero realizes what’s happening. This also sets up the reveal at the end of this scene. [LAST SENTENCE IS MOTIVATION]

My eyes widen in disbelief. With my head swiveling like a pinwheel on a stick, scoping out the room in all directions, I tiptoed toward the stereo. <– The hero’s emotions have reached a crescendo. If written, add more visceral details[DECISION] [REACTION] Sure enough, the switch clicked up one notch to AM. <– The antagonist force is revealed, but we still don’t know why or what it wants. When we raise more story questions we force the reader to flip the page. [MOTIVATION]

Oh. My. God. She’s come back. <– Sets up future scenes and, hopefully, makes the reader fear for our hero. [REACTION]

Now, could I have shared a better story? Absolutely. But the reason I chose to use this particular story is because everything I told you in the video is true. This happened to me last week.

Quick SEO tip: When including video in your post add [Video] to your title. The bracketed word tells bots to crawl the post. Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. give video the highest priority. I’ll share more SEO tips with you soon.

TKZ family, please share your favorite writing advice, writing quote, or something that resonated with you that will help new writers on their journey.

 

 

Read the opening scene of CLEAVED, and you’ll see the same storytelling structure in action.

 

 

 

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: She Said No

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their opening page for critique. Your help is encouraged and appreciated. Catch ya on the flipside with my comments/suggestions.

She Said No.

1996

She walked with a steady clip down Wilshire Boulevard as she did every morning, looking forward to nothing but the usual. The bank where she worked as a telephone operator was two blocks away, but she was early and not in a hurry. With the sun warming her skin, she reached the familiar theater where she spent many free nights.

Her gaze sought out the movie posters and her feet dragged. She veered right and followed the worn path as if programmed. Won’t take but a minute to see what’s playing. An alien hovered over New York in Independence Day. A girl with wide eyes and open mouth filled the poster for Scream. Richard Gere under a circle of light in Primal Fear. She enjoyed being alone in a dark theater. A few quick hours in the worlds of romance, adventure, and mystery replaced her dull existence of money troubles, loneliness, and an uncertain future.

At eighteen she was on her own for the first time. Kicked out of the house, living at the YMCA, she had no regrets. She got what she wanted. The freedom to live with nobody telling her who to befriend or how to pass the time. After her boring job paid for the room and a few necessities, she used what was left to see a flick once a week.

A movement inside the theater caught her attention. A young man opened the door and stepped outside. He used a rag to swipe the window next to the entrance then stopped to admire his handiwork. Or his own reflection. He must have seen her in the mirrored shine because he turned and flashed a smile. She couldn’t help but stare. He was Brad Pitt in her favorite movie, Thelma and Louise. His streaked blond hair swept casually across his forehead. His tight shirt showed off a muscular torso. He beckoned with a friendly wave. She started to wave back, but let her hand drop. Is he flirting?She stifled a giggle. Shouldn’t encourage him. She had to get to work.

She hadn’t met any young men since she moved to L.A. Even if she did meet someone, the YWCA didn’t allow male visitors in her room, and who wanted to sit with a date in the common area?

“Come here, don’t be shy,” he called out. “Want to show you something.”

***

Okay, time for a little tough love. Anon, please know what follows comes from a place of genuine concern. I want you to succeed, I really do.

By the title I assume this story will deal with date rape. Which promises a landscape rife with conflict, yet nothing interesting happens on this first page. Nothing. As written, the protagonist—by the way, please use her name right away so we know who’s head we’re in—has a boring job and boring life. Why would we want to spend time with her? We read to escape, to experience adventure, to live through heroes we relate to or yearn to be more like. Readers don’t necessarily need to like our MC as long as they “empathize” with them. I’m sorry, but you didn’t accomplish that in this opening.

The only thing that intrigues me is that title—a promise of an emotional journey.

Let me tell you where I’m comin’ from real quick. My Grafton County Series features a rape survivor as the MC, and she’s not an easy character to write. I’m so invested during the writing process, it emotionally drains me. Nightmares resume. I’ve even screamed in my sleep and woken my husband. By the time edits roll around, part of me dreads having to relive the hell I’ve put my MC through. My dark side revels in it. The point is, if we play it safe, readers will able to tell. As writers, we risk losing pieces of our soul, our blood spilled across the keyboard, raw emotions on display for all to judge.

I tell you this, Anon, to show you I understand how difficult it is to read a harsh critique. In fact, I delayed working on this first page for the same reason. Trust me when I tell you, there isn’t one professional writer who hasn’t read similar notes about their own work. Myself included.

Okay, so, now that we know what the problem is, how can we improve this first page?

START OVER

Choose a better place to start your story. Keep the important parts of this first page for a later scene. I’m guessing the dude at the theater is the rapist? If so, showing how they met may be crucial to the plot. Include the backstory by sprinkling it in after their encounter. An option is opening with this woman in the hospital undergoing the rape exam, which many victims say feels like being raped all over again. While nurses poke and prod her, she thinks back to the first time they met.

Quick example …

On the first day she met [insert name] he reminded her of Brad Pitt. Aqua cleaner trickled down the windows of the theater as he scrubbed the glass, muscle upon muscle testing the seams of his T-shirt. A blazing sun burned through morning clouds, warming her face, chest, and arms, tricking her to believe this was an ordinary day. Why didn’t she keep walking?

Then get back to the action in the room. You’re doling out information little by little but leaving out tidbits to intrigue the reader. Thereby setting up a future scene.

If you plan to show the actual rape rather than the aftermath that stems from such brutality, Chapter Two could start x-amount of days earlier. The readers are already invested in her story, because they know something terrible is about to happen. Showing how humdrum her life was before the rape will take on new meaning. Here’s the thing, though. Even with this technique, we still need some sort of conflict in each scene. Skip the parts where nothing happens and get right to the good parts. The more visceral the experience, the better.

STRUCTURE THE SCENE

By structuring our scenes, the story keeps moving forward. Proper structure makes it nearly impossible to leave the MC musing about nothing.

Scene structure looks like this …

GOAL: What does your POV character want?

CONFLICT: Obstacles she encounters that prevents her from reaching that goal.

DISASTER: Things get even worse for her. Pile on the conflicts to prevent her from reaching that goal.

REACTION:  How does she feel about it? Try triggering all five senses for a more emotional read.

DILEMMA: If she does this, then that will happen. A situation where there’s no right answer. If she does X, then Y will happen. She has an impossible choice to make with no good options.

DECISION: What will your MC do? This decision is often the GOAL of the next scene.

MOTIVATION-REACTION UNITS

Motivation = external

Reaction = internal

Humans are emotional creatures. Outside stimuli causes us to react. Sometimes it’s on a micro-level, other times it manifests physically. It’s our job to match the reaction to the motivation. To see MRU’s in action check out this post.

Once we learn how to use MRU’s in our writing it becomes automatic.

 

Anon, you’ve got a firm grasp of POV which puts you ahead of the game. Let us feel your character’s emotions, let us experience her terror, joy, fear, and sadness. Force us to care and we’ll stick around to see what happens. Best of luck to you, Anon. You can do this!

Over to you, TKZ family. Please weigh in with your suggestions and/or comments. I’m in final edits for SCATHED (deadline Friday), so please excuse my delay in responding to comments.

4+

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

By Sue Coletta

Whenever I’m plotting a new novel, I read a lot of true crime stories for inspiration. I may even steal character traits from one real world serial killer or victim and combine them with another. Reading triggers the muse to fire off plot, character, and subplot ideas. Somedays, though, the stories are almost too bizarre to believe. In which case, I’ve merely entertained myself for a while. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t call it wasted time, because true stories have a way of worming into our subconscious mind. When we’re in the writing zone, these alleged “useless facts” can morph into an intriguing scene that we never expected. Don’t you love when that happens?

With that in mind, I pose the following question to you, my dear TKZers. Did you know serial killing families existed? I’ve written about them before on my blog, as well as serial killing couples, which aren’t as rare.

Wes Craven found inspiration for his 1977 slasher film The Hills Have Eyes when he read about the horrors of one particular family of serial killers — the Sawney Bean clan. This is their story. (Did anyone else hear Law & Order’s theme song when they read that line?)

In the times of King James I, Mr. and Mrs. Sawney Bean transformed Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire, Scotland, into their home. Long, twisting tunnels extended for more than a mile underground. The cave also featured several side passageways to accommodate a growing family. And grew they did. Over the years they created their own army of psychopathic cannabals.

Opposed to getting a job to support his new bride, Sawney Bean resorted to robbery. On the lonely back roads that connected the villages, he’d lie in wait for travelers to pass by. Townsfolk believed the roads were haunted due to the massive amount of disappearances.

A budding serial killer stalked those streets.

Bean’s sole reason for escalating to murder was to not leave witnesses. But then, Agnes, his wife, had an even sicker idea. If they butchered their victims, their remains could provide a high-protein diet, which had the added benefit of evidence disposal. Their relationship had already forced them to flee from their homeland in northern Scotland, after locals repeatedly made accusations of Agnes being a witch, claiming she’d been involved in human sacrifice and conjuring demons.

Over the years Sawney and his wife had fourteen children — all as twisted and evil as their parents — who became an army of serial killing cannibals.

During the next two decades, through incest, the children bore more children, who refined the art of murder and cannibalism, often salting and pickling human flesh. According to the Bean family ledger, found many years later, these incestuous acts brought Bean and Agnes a total of 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, now bringing the Bean clan to a total of 48 inbred, cannibalistic monsters.

Decaying body parts washed up on the beaches surrounding Bennane cave. Which prompted massive search parties. But no one thought to check the cave.

In about 1430 A.D., fate intervened when the Bean army — who had split into several small groups to hunt — attacked a man and his wife while on their way home from the fair. Half the Bean clan dragged the woman off her horse and had already disemboweled her before the other half of the group had a chance to wrestle the man to the ground. Fighting for his life, the distraught husband trampled several members of the Bean clan with his horse. This caused such a commotion a group of twenty bystanders came to his rescue.

During an all-out war, the Bean clan found themselves outnumbered for the first time in their pathetic lives. They retreated to the cave, leaving behind the mutilated remains of the man’s wife and a score of witnesses. The surviving victim was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to tell his tale. With the longest missing persons list the country had ever seen, they reported to King James I, who arrived in Ayshire with his own army of 400 men and a pack of dogs.

Together with several hundred volunteers, another search was underway. Yet again, no one thought to search the cave. Until one cadaver dog alerted at the entrance.

Nothing could have prepared them for the horrors inside. The Bean family lived in that cave for 25 years. In total, the number of missing persons during that time is said to be over 1000.

Bennane Cave

Torches in hand and swords drawn, the army soldiered into Bennane cave and into the mile-long twisting passageways to the inner sanctum of the Bean lair. Dank cave walls held row after row of human limbs, heads, and torsos displayed like the window of a butcher shop. Bundles of clothes, jewelry, and picked-clean bones littered the ground.

A fight broke out between the King’s Army and the forty-eight Bean members, resulting in the arrest and apprehension of Sawney Bean and his kin.

Their crimes were so heinous that normal channels weren’t enough, so King James I sentenced them all to death. Twenty-seven Bean men were left to exsanguinate after executioners disarticulated their limbs. The twenty-one Bean women were hung, staked, forced to watch their male kin bleed out, and finally. set ablaze. Through the entire ordeal not one member of the Bean family showed any sign of fear or remorse. Instead, they spit obscenities toward their captors.

Until the moment Sawney Bean drew his final breath, he repeated one continuous phrase, “It isn’t over, it will never be over.”

Legend says, one of the daughters escaped during the fight with the King’s Army and a local family adopted her. At seventeen years old, she married and had a son. In hard times they also killed and cannibalized to stay alive. When the villagers caught wind of their gruesome activities they hung the Bean daughter and her husband, but not before her son escaped to America, settling what was then known as Roanke Island. The entire colony later disappeared without a trace.

Legend also says that if you sit under the hanging tree in Scotland, you can still hear the Bean daughter’s bones scrape against the bark.

I’ll end this post the same way it began. Where do you find inspiration?

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Eavesdropping on Quora

By Sue Coletta

Crime writers do their research in various places. Many of us have experts we can call on, but I hate to bother friends unless I can’t find the answer elsewhere. A great place to look is Quora. Numerous LEOs volunteer their time to answer questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Quora, you can follow topic feeds, like Police and Law Enforcement, and scan the Q&As. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask a new question.

Because I write about serial killers I also follow Psychopathy and Psychopaths. Some of the information is valid, other times alleged “real” psychopaths write in. Although it’s not unheard of for psychopaths to brag, Quora allows anonymity. Any time the poster doesn’t need to reveal their true identity, the information becomes unreliable.

Even if the poster has a valid profile, still double check the information. I recommend confirming with least two or three reliable sources for any internet information you intend to use in a book. Two of my favorite sites are Psychology Today and Explore Forensics, depending on what I’m looking for. I also need to give a quick shout-out to my dear friend Garry Rodgers, RCMP (Ret.), weapons expert and forensic coroner, who blogs at Dying Words. Quora also has its place in the pecking order.

In the Q&A below, I did not edit the answers for two reasons:

1. It’s not my writing; full credit goes to the poster;

2. The voice, including grammar and/or spelling errors, helps with the overall mental image of the officer who’s answering. After all, that’s one of the best parts of eavesdropping.

How many of you have listened in on a conversation while shopping or out to eat? You may not be able to see the person, but their language paints an image in your mind. As you read the following stories, I want you to imagine the officer who’s speaking. There’ll be a fun exercise at the end of this post.

Please note: the s-word is used a few times. Cussing and cops go together like peanut butter cookies and milk. You’ve been warned. 🙂

As a cop, what are the weirdest things you ever experienced?

Scott Conroy, 17 year veteran of law enforcement, answers:

Years ago some construction workers found some human bones in a a concrete patio that they were tearing up in the Venice Beach Area. In looking into the concrete we noticed that there were cavities in the concrete that were made by the now decomposed body. We summoned the Scientific Investigation Unit (LAPD’s version of “CSI”) and we came up with an idea to inject latex rubber into the cavities to get the body contours. Lo and behold we pulled out a latex rubber hand impression of the person to whom the bones belonged.

The detail of the latex replica was amazing. We could see defensive knife wounds and more importantly we saw fingerprints on the latex. We printed the “fingers” of the latex cast and discovered they belonged to a teacher who had disappeared around the time the concrete patio was poured. The ensuing homicide investigation revealed that the primary suspect in this homicide was a nephew who had worked in construction and on that particular patio job.

Epilogue: The suspect, however, had suffered an industrial accident a few years before the discovery of the bones in the concrete and was existing in a vegetative state. In the interest of justice, he was not charged or put on trial for that crime.

What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a police officer?

Jim Lee, Former Military Police officer (8 years) answers:

I was running a solo unit one unseasonably cold (for San Diego) November night over 20 years ago when dispatch sends me to an on-base bowling alley; apparently, security personnel were dealing with a D&D (Drunk/Disorderly) individual running around the parking lot half-dressed and beating on cars. I arrive on scene 5 minutes later and see the contact, and something wasn’t right about the situation. As I attempted to make contact with the individual I already didn’t like what I was seeing: no shirt in 40 degree weather but still sweating like a pig; dilated pupils; blank thousand-yard stare and wandering aimlessly. I’d seen these symptoms before, and they had jack sh!t to do with alcohol from what I’d remembered.

As I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to this guy he starts toward me in a threatening manner; I decided to deploy my collapsible baton and warn him off, but he wasn’t listening. That’s when I realized what I was looking at: My new “friend” was on PCP (aka “Angel Dust”).

Officers who have experience dealing with contacts on PCP are familiar with the dangerous situation I found myself in. But for those who don’t know: PCP prevents the actions normally caused when a neurotransmitter, called glutamate, attaches to its receptor in the brain.

It also disrupts the actions of other neurotransmitters. PCP distorts sights, sound and other senses. The user may experience “out of body” sensations that are related to the dissociative effects, feel like they are “floating” with strange impressions of space and time, or imagine things that aren’t real. Some abusers experience euphoria and invulnerability while others experience drowsiness and calming sensations.

PCP is dose-dependent and the effects on the brain intensify with greater doses depending on the methods of consumption and certain biological or psychological factors of the abuser with effects, generally, last from 4 – 6 hours. While the intoxication effects on the brain may be short-lived, the disruptions in neuronal activities can cause the person to feel unpleasant symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings, and general dysphoria when the intoxication effects subside.

I threw the baton to the security personnel; I knew, thanks to the effects of PCP, that I could beat the brakes off this guy all night long and he wouldn’t feel a damned thing, so the baton was absolutely pointless. I requested a cover unit to the scene; it usually takes several officers to subdue someone who is on this stuff, and I couldn’t trust the barely-trained security personnel, so I knew I’d have to keep the suspect at bay for a few minutes until “real” help arrived.

This is when things went sideways.

The suspect immediately went for my 9mm Beretta sidearm. I knew I had to keep him from getting to my service weapon at all costs, even if it meant taking an ass-kicking; a bloody nose or broken jaw would pale in comparison to what would happen if he were to somehow get hold of my pistol. Fortunately there were two things going in my favor:

  1. Our department issued retention holsters as standard equipment. Retention holsters serve the same purpose as regular holsters with one exception: instead of simply lifting the gun on of the holster one has to use a sort of “twisting” motion to be able to get to the weapon, otherwise it won’t budge. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know that.
  2. This guy was about 140 pounds soaking wet; this meant he gave up about 80 pounds to me (I was about 220–225 back then).

With a simple “bear hug” I was able to slam this guy on the pavement, as I was hoping to knock the wind out of him for a second. That was the easy part.

But now the fun was about to start.

Remember what I said about PCP’s effect of the human body’s nervous system? I finally got to see this effect first-hand; no amount of punching, arm bar holds or pressure point manipulation was going to stop this freak. It took all I had just to wrestle this guy and hold on for dear life (namely, mine). Despite the fact that I outweighed him by such a large amount I could barely hold this guy down, and he was determined to get his hands on my weapon. I’m not sure how long it took the cover unit to finally show up; it was probably about another 5 minutes but it felt like an hour.

Fortunately the officers in the other unit (they were riding a partner unit, thankfully) immediately recognized the situation I faced and helped me hold the drug-crazed nutjob down while security personnel contacted a paramedic unit under our orders. Upon the paramedic’s arrival it took no less than five of us to apply restraints to the suspect, “hogtie” him and prepare him for transport to the medical facility for treatment and evaluation. A subsequent search revealed that he was also armed with a 4-inch blade; I wondered why he didn’t use it but was relieved that he must have forgotten about it (otherwise this story would have been about a police shooting).

After I was also examined by the paramedics (and found to be still intact) my watch commander ordered me back to the station to take a rest and start my report. Good thing, too, because that was probably the longest 10 to 15 minutes of my life at that point; I was worn out, and someone just tried to kill me.

Yeah, fun times.

Benjamin Bender, Retired Police Detective St Louis Metropolitan Police, answers:

For me its almost getting thrown off a 6 story bridge that was over a freeway while fighting a guy who outweighed me by 100 lb or watching a Woman burn alive 3 feet from me that I would have saved if I had arrived literally 10 seconds earlier.

Bridge incident story starts as all my stories do. One day while on “routine” patrol (again on a day my permanent partner had a Kelly Day…which was a common thing for me to get the call of the century while he was off….drove him nuts).

I got a call for a “vehicle accident” on the Freeway, I-55 near the North Bound exit onto the Poplar Street bridge. Traffic often backed up on that on ramp and rear end collisions were common. I was in an area not my normal one because my partner Blake was off I got stuck in a sector car that a guy was off and would be deadheaded. When I got the call it was crucial that I take one particular hidden on ramp to arrive at the location the quickest. I unwisely chose to go to one that was 2 blocks further (because the other was hard to find off an alley hardly marked and it was dark).

When I pulled up 3 cars had been in an accident. A drunk in the rear slammed into a guy who slammed into a 3rd car in front. The furthest car in front had a Mother in Law in it. The Son in law was the middle car. Drunk as I said..in the rear ramming and causing it.

Well as I pull up the Mother in laws car erupts in flame from gas leaking out of the tank by the back bumper. She is trapped in the car but nobody had got her out by breaking the window. Nobody noticed the leaking fuel. By the time I run to her the flame is fully over and in the back seat of the car. I break the window and cut her seat belt …go to pull her 100 LB body out like a kid but just before I can the flame billows over and engulfs both of us…the entire car bumper to bumper. I drop away and lose most of my exposed hair and a shirt. She burned alive in front of us..and the Son in law. I then had to take him to the station and sit there while he called his wife and told her he just rear ended her Mother and she died.

If that was my beat or I knew that exit better she would have lived. 100%

Second was a Home Invasion robber wanted for many crimes was leading Cops from 6 or more jurisdictions on a high speed chase through the City and County. I was listening in on the radio and correctly guessed he would go for the bridge over the Mississippi to get to Illinois. The chase went on for over an hour and I correctly deduced he was circling the rabbit hole to get home to Illinois and couldn’t find the bridge on ramp.

I went to the easiest one for him to get to based on his location north of the city. I then cause a traffic jam on the 1 lane on ramp by ordering 1 car to stop on the ramp and not move until I said ok. 10 Min of round about chase later…sure enough…here he comes. Goes on the side of cars as much as he can till its blocked..gets out on foot and starts running up the ramp to the bridge on foot with me 10 feet behind..letting him run a bit and get tired before we fight.

So…he gets higher up and apparently then did get tired and want to fight. When it didn’t go well for him he tried to jump off the side of the bridge (he didn’t realize that the earth rise fell away to a long drop the higher you went up…he thought ground was about 10 feet down or something). I instinctively grab his forearm as he went and I held a second. Then I felt his weight pulling me over. I knew I was going over now…I saw the terror in his eyes as he realized he had screwed up and was about to get very hurt and or dead. I then made the split second decision to let go. I saw his eyes go wide as saucers as I said…”bye”…and let go. He fell 60 feet and shattered both legs and his pelvis and lived. Almost got ran over too. That scared the shit out of me. He came sooo close to pulling me over head first…not feet first like he fell.

Love the dark humor, love the voices. I hope you enjoyed them as well. Ready for a fun exercise? Take one of these fascinating stories and describe the officer who told the tale. No clicking the name to peek at their profile picture!

5+

How To (Legally) Get Away With Murder

By Sue Coletta

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched Population Zero, a documentary-style movie based on the alleged true account of a murderer who walked free after confessing to a triple homicide.

In the documentary, the killer even videotaped the murders and summoned this documentarian (our hero) to find the motive behind his killing spree. To entice him, he sent a photo of a bear chasing a horrifically burned buffalo — a symbolic message for the murders he committed in Yellowstone National Park.

The entire ninety-minutes shocked me, not only because a loophole in our constitution allowed a murderer to walk free but because of the explosive ending (no spoilers). It also made me suspicious. I thought, you mean to tell me an entire sheriff’s department couldn’t unravel the mystery but a film-maker cracked the case in a matter of days?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. True story? Ah, not so much. The legal loophole, however, is real. Within the United States there’s a stretch of land where you could, in theory, get away with murder. Fact.

How Is This Possible?

Most of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, but a portion of the federal land extends into Montana and Idaho. That’s where the problem begins. The 50 square miles of Idaho’s section of the national park is called The Zone of Death, and it’s because of a loophole in the U.S. Constitution. If, like in the documentary-style movie, someone committed a spontaneous murder on that 50 square mile strip, the U.S. Constitution may be their ticket to freedom.

Here’s why. Yellowstone National Park is federal land that was established in 1872, years before the three states. Montana joined the union in 1889, Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. Across the United States federal land is split-up and divided into its corresponding state and district courts. Yellowstone National Park is the only exception. 

In 2005, Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University of Law, published a paper entitled The Perfect Crime, where he pointed out that all of Yellowstone National Park was assigned to the District of Wyoming. But now, the District of Wyoming includes land in other states. So, Kalt asked the question, “What happens if you’re caught for a crime within that 50 square miles of the Idaho region of the park?” 

The first thing LEO’s would do is bring you to the District Court of Wyoming, because the crime happened within Wyoming’s jurisdiction. But Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be a such place or places as the Congress may be law have directed.

A smart killer, like the one depicted in Population Zero, could assert his right to have his case heard in Idaho. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. 

Amendment VI states: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This is called the Vicinage Clause.

Picture two overlapping circles, with Wyoming (the District) on one side and Idaho (the State) on the other. Where these two circles intersect is that 50 square miles of Idaho land. The legal loophole exists because it has a population of zero. No humans live there, therefore, no jury can be called. Kalt argues, the court must let you walk free to avoid violating your Sixth Amendment rights.  

“The more I dug into it, the more interested I got,” Kalt told Vice. “People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there’s just this one spot.”

Kalt proposed numerous solutions to Congress, but they have yet to act. In Kalt’s words, “All they have to do is redraw the district lines so that the District of Wyoming is Wyoming, the District of Idaho is Idaho, and the District of Montana is Montana. And if they do that, this all goes away.”

In Population Zero, the hero set out to prove the killer had preplanned the murder. If so, he could be tried in the district court where the murder was planned. But in the confession, the killer stated that one of the victims started a fight, and he just snapped. In which case, there’s nothing within the law that let’s the court hold him accountable. All events happened within The Zone of Death. Therefore, he walks.

Crazy, right?

I know what you’re all thinking. What a fantastic plot for a novel! Sorry, folks. C.J. Box beat us to it with his 2007 thriller, Free Fire. I should also mention the author tried to fight Congress to close the loophole but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. The only way it’ll happen is if someone dies within The Zone of Death.

The loophole also inspired a 2016 horror film with the same title as the documentary-style movie, Population Zero. Although, I don’t recall the legalities being mentioned.

Has the Loophole Ever Been Tested?

In 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk. When he fired he was standing in the Montana section of the park. Authorities indicted him in Wyoming. He successfully argued he had a right to be tried by jurors from Montana, and while people do live in that section, there are too few residents to call a legitimate jury. The court dismissed the argument out of hand, simply because it would imply that Yellowstone National Park contained a Zone of Death. 

I’ll leave you with this: the Buffalo Campground, a popular tourist destination with a gorgeous lake and some of the best fishing for miles, is located within The Zone of Death. If you feel lucky, why not add it to your summer vacation plans. Any takers? 🙂 

Have you seen Population Zero or read Free Fire? What do you think of this legal loophole? Let’s discuss.

 

7+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

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Nature Provides Amazing Opportunities

By Sue Coletta

It’s no secret that I’m a huge animal lover. Folks who follow me on Twitter may’ve noticed my interest in wildlife, conservation, and protecting our ecosystems.

When our last two dogs crossed the rainbow bridge, part of me died right alongside them. In 10 years we’d lost eight dogs, seven of which died to cancer and one to a brown recluse spider bite. I longed for another to help fill the void, but my husband couldn’t go through the pain again. I understood. Nonetheless, I still grappled with the lack of pitter-pattering of paws across the hardwood. The house didn’t feel the same.  

To help heal, I turned to nature. The woods surrounding our house had to be teeming with life. Surely some little fella needed love.  

At the time, I was writing Blessed Mayhem and had studied crows extensively. How hard could it be to befriend a crow?  

One day, I piled peanuts on the grass. Circus peanuts, unsalted. In my research I’d discovered that circus peanuts are high in carbs. It takes a high-carbohydrate diet to flap wings. Within thirty minutes, a crow landed in the yard. A bubble of joy burst inside me, a tidal wave of love shattering the protective layer of my heart.  

“Poe?” I said, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.   

Unlike in my book, my Poe turned out to be female. The only reason I knew this was because a few days later, she brought her mate, Edgar, who was noticeably larger. Poe struts with an unmistakable wiggle to the hips and Edgar acts as the great protector. A real man’s man, if you know what I mean. The proud parents flew peanuts back and forth to their nest … in the woods across the street.  

OMG, they had chicks! The helplessness that had consumed me each time cancer stole another dog from us, withered away like lilies in a frozen pond.  

Days turned into weeks as I marveled at their intelligence, grace, and loving nature. My husband got swept up, too. 

Then we had a new visitor. The Marilyn Monroe of squirrels, this gorgeous dirty-blonde with a swanky strawberry-blonde tail sauntered into the yard. Hesitant at first but making a b-line for the peanut pile. Uh-oh, she could be trouble. Would Poe and Edgar accept her, or would they retaliate for the intrusion?  

Since I’d already matched the crow names to fictional pets, why not stay consistent? From that day forward, the sexy squirrel became Shawnee. Then I noticed she was pregnant. If Poe didn’t accept her, how could I ever kick her out? Better lay out two piles of peanuts from now on. 

Fights broke out between the two mothers as I bit all my fingernails to the quick. And then something amazing happened. Little by little, day by day, the taunts, lunges, and overall discourse lessened. It’s like they’d struck a deal — you stay on your side of the yard and we’ll stay on ours. With tiny mouths to feed, the kids remained their top priority.  

Just like that, harmony was restored.  

Neither Poe nor Shawnee cared when Hippy joined the party. Hip is a tiny chipmunk who at the time hadn’t even formed stripes yet. Instead, two dotted lines trailed down his back. My heart puddled into goo. Hippy must be the most enthusiastic of his kind. Each time he scores a peanut he leaps a good four-to-six inches into the air, as if screaming, “Hip, hip, hooray!”

Poe and Edgar brought the chicks once they were old enough to fly. Tears teemed my eyes as they taught their babies how to crack peanut shells against the rock. Their beaks weren’t strong enough yet to pry the shell apart. Shawnee brought her babies, too. Two older chipmunks joined Hippy. That was it. No other birds, no other animals of any kind. Until the sun set in the night sky, when Foxy Lady and her kit, Cornelius, ensured the yard was properly licked clean. Jeff, the opossum, and two of the fattest raccoons on record, the Fatty Patty Twins, also helped with the clean-up. Albeit in shifts. The night crew story I’ll save for another time before this post morphs into a book. 

Back to Poe, Shawnee, and Hip … 

In the yard, I designated a pile of peanuts for each family and they stayed at their respective piles, never encroaching on their neighbor. The two mothers formed the foundation for a mutually beneficial arrangement and everyone played fair.  

The nice thing about crows is, they know how to keep a secret. This becomes especially true with places they feed. Sure, they may bring a guest here and there, but it’s a one-shot deal. If the visiting crow(s) try to hang around, Poe and Edgar escort them past the property lines. Crows also aren’t opposed to playing dead next to a consistent source of food, so other crows flying by will think the feast is toxic. They really are smarter than fifth-graders! 

In New Hampshire, winters are long and brutal. This fact alone worried me. How would my new fur-and-feathered-babies weather harsh conditions? Little did I know, they worked out a solution ahead of time: me. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m an easy mark, and they knew it from day one. A tilt of the head, a swish of the tail, and I’m out the door, trudging through two feet of snow. My husband also isn’t immune. Thank God, too, because someone needs to shovel a path for them. He’ll even clear the snow around the bottom of Shawnee’s tree so her feet don’t get cold when she climbs down.

During the same blizzard, Odin, our chatty raven who loves to hang out on my deck railing, sang for his breakfast around 6:00 a.m.  

Crows and ravens have an amazing range of calls, which include mimicking other animals. They can even imitate us!  

Once the snow arrived, I moved peanut piles up a level to shorten my trek. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that slight alteration caused a major shift. The waft of peanuts caught the attention of blue jays, who wasted no time in muscling in on the action. Shawnee’s kids had kids of their own, or she’d spilled the beans to one of her squirrel suitors. Between you and me, she’s a bit of a floozie.  

The harmony in the yard became a massive feeding frenzy, new squirrels zigzagging around crows, blue jays divebombing from all directions, warring with one another in mid-air while Poe and Edgar played referee. Add in an adorable red squirrel, aptly named Wile E. Squirrel, and I created the perfect storm. Absolute madness unfolds daily around here … but everyone’s fat and happy.   

The truly beautiful thing is, Poe and Shawnee still eat wing to tail without even so much as a harsh glance. Even after all this time they’ve never broken that initial vow to put family first. Can’t say the same for their offspring, though. If a baby squirrel tries to take off with one of the suet squares (yes, I cut them into bite-sized pieces), the Poe clan gangs up on the poor little fella. Massive black wings flapping behind you will make anyone drop their stash.  

I’ve also witnessed new behavior. Poe and Edgar’s kids – who are huge by the way; they take after their Dad – line up on the lower level, their backs concealed by the skeletal-branches of the bushes. When one of the baby squirrels takes off down the hill with a mouthful of nuts, the wings spread. If he makes it past the defensive line, they soar after him. It’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around, either. I go through 15-20 lbs. of peanuts per week. Maybe stolen food just tastes better.  

Spending time with wildlife is one of my favorite ways to relax. Enjoying nature is an excellent excuse for taking a well-needed break from the computer. Thanks to Jim, TKZers know why it’s important for writers to step away from their WIP from time-to-time.  

My neighbors probably think I’ve lost my mind … again. Passerby’s certainly do. Twice a day, if I haven’t been beckoned, I stand in the yard, hands cupped around my mouth, and call into the sky for Poe. A caw always echoes in return. Within minutes of closing the sunroom door, the yard erupts – a Coletta family signal that a new day has begun.  

It’s impossible to have a bad day when you’re surrounded by tiny paws and talons. Let’s start the week off on a fun note. Do you feed the wildlife around your house? Tell me about the animals in your life.  

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