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

Writers and Dreaming

By SUE COLETTA

Most of us are able to recall one or two of our dreams, but what if there were ways to increase that number?

We’ve all heard the stories of hugely popular novels which stemmed from the author’s dreams. For example, Stephanie Meyer and Twilight. Dreams serve health benefits, too. Researchers believe dreams help with memory consolidation, mood regulation, and/or conflict resolution.

Nightmares aren’t fun. Night terrors are even worse. It’s important we pay attention, though, because they can signal a disruption in our lives and sometimes, provide the answer.

Sigmund Freud believed dreams were a window into our subconscious, that they paved the way to satisfy urges and secret desires that might be unacceptable to society. I agree with the first part of his theory, but I think the latter depends on the dreamer. When it comes to dream interpretation there’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all definition.

Case in point: crime writers dream about murder. If an average Joe plotted revenge in his dreams, it might be cause for alarm. When writers delve into the dark recesses of the subconscious mind, it’s research. 🙂

While some sleep experts believe dreams are an anomaly of sleep, others think they may help us save memories, problem-solve, and manage emotions.

Dreams and the Brain

During REM — rapid-eye movement, when brain activity piques — and non-REM sleep, we have the potential to dream.

Dreams are connected to the creativity part of the brain, called the Superior temporal gyrus.

We have three creativity sections of the temporal lobe…

  • Superior temporal gyrus — mainly auditory, this gyrus is responsible for processing sounds, sound level and frequency, as well as interpreting language and social cognition.
  • Middle temporal gyrus — connected to recognizing familiar faces, contemplating distance, and interpreting word meanings while reading.
  • Inferior temporal gyrus — visual stimuli processing and recognition, memory and memory recall, particularly with objects. This gyrus stores the color and shape of objects so they’re easily recognized when we see that object again.

This could explain why serial killers, who often have temporal lobe damage or malformations, experience different phases before, during, and after they kill. And why, during the Aura Phase colors become vibrant.

Did you notice in the 3D image the temporal gyri aren’t limited to the right-side?

Right Hemisphere vs. Left Hemisphere

Dreams and the brainBrain cells in the left hemisphere have short dendroids which pull in information.

The right hemisphere branches out wider to absorb distant unrelated ideas, connections between concepts, and is responsible for insight and Ah-ha! moments. It’s here where our creativity comes alive.

Part of the Brain Responsible for Dreaming

The cerebral cortex is responsible for our dreams. During REM sleep, signals are sent from an area of the brain called “the pons” and then relayed through the thalamus to the cerebral cortex, which attempts to make sense of these signals. The end result is dreaming.

The pons also send signals to neurons in the spinal cord, shutting them down, causing temporary paralysis of the limbs. This safety switch prevents the dreamer from physically acting out dreams and harming themselves. However, there are exceptions. A condition called REM sleep behavior disorder exists. Can you guess what this causes? If you said, the pons fail to paralyze the limbs during REM sleep, you’re correct.

Why Dreams Are Difficult to Recall

Some researchers believe we’re not designed to remember our dreams. If we had perfect recall, dreams might get confused with real-life memories. During REM, maybe our brain shuts off the Inferior temporal gyrus, responsible for memory recall. And why, we may only recall our last dream before waking, because that part of the brain is now switched back on.

Studies show people actually have more brain activity and more vivid dreams during REM. Others say our brains store dreams, which is why the tiniest detail later in the day can trigger the memory of what we’d dreamed the night before.

8 Tips to Recall Dreams

Sound sleepers are less likely to recall dreams. If you fall into this category, consider yourself lucky; the rest of us don’t sleep as well. Even so, maybe these tips will help:

  1. Don’t use an alarm clock. We’re better off waking naturally. When that annoying buzz startles us awake, we’re concentrating on slapping the snooze button rather than dream recall.
  2. Once you get in bed tell yourself to remember your dreams. This may sound silly, but sometimes making the conscious choice to do something works wonders.
  3. Upon waking, don’t move. Studies show if we remain in the same position as when we had the dream, we’re more likely to remember the details when we wake. Keep your eyes closed and concentrate on the emotions you felt while dreaming. Were you frightened? Exhilarated? Blissful? By first tapping into our emotions, we’re more likely to recall the circumstance. In this case, the dream.
  4. When you wake, concentrate on recalling your dream rather than reviewing your to-do list for the day. Easing into your day promotes healthy living and helps with dream recall.
  5. Regular routine. Going to bed and waking at the same time each day aids in dream recall.
  6. Keep a dream journal next to your bed. When that perfect plot idea jolts you awake, scribble the scene in a notebook before you forget, the more detailed the better. Or sketch pictures of what you envisioned. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense yet. Author Ruth Harris suggests several pads, pens, and notebooks that would make perfect dream journals.
  7. Tell your significant other, roommate, or writer friend your dreams. By bringing dreams into your reality, it helps to recall the next one. Maybe skip the intimate dreams if they do not include your partner. I can hear it now, “Don’t blame me. Sue told me to tell you my dreams.” An angry mob of jilted lovers storms my home, with pitchforks and murder on their mind! Seriously, though, the above link is fascinating and might also help explain why you’re having sexy dreams about Mr. or Mrs. X.
  8. Studies show pleasant aromas cause happy dreams. Whereas unpleasant odors cause bad dreams and/or nightmares.
  9. Don’t get discouraged. Mastering dream recall takes time. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, my beloved TKZ family, are you able to recall dreams? Have you ever used dreams in your writing?

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Does Your Story Have a Solid Foundation?

By SUE COLETTA

Most writers know this business can be soul-crushing at times, even if we don’t like to talk about it. As can life. This past week, my husband and I secured a mortgage and were over-the-moon excited to close on Friday. The house we’ve been living in for almost 7 years would finally be ours. On Wednesday, we received a call that told us the house had been deemed unsellable. Briefly, 30 years ago a mobile home stood on the land. Rather than remove the old mobile in its entirety, the then-owner stripped it down to the steel beam and built a beautiful 1 ¾ story country contemporary on top of it, rendering the property unsound. Unpredictable. Unsellable, except to a cash buyer who doesn’t glance at the deed.

Because the previous owner cut corners with the foundation, it throws off the entire house. Same holds true for our stories. Without a solid foundation — key milestones, properly placed — the story won’t work, no matter how well-written. The pacing will drag. The story may sag in the middle. The ending might not even be satisfying. It all comes down to the foundation on which the story stands.

After the mountain of paperwork involved to secure a loan, that day our mortgage disappeared. The closing got cancelled. It felt like someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through our living room window, and the fireball obliterated our hopes and dreams. We’d invested a lot of time, money, and effort into this property. We built a home. To receive a call like that two days before closing likened to a gut-punch.

Once we formed Plan B, a scary but exciting venture, I envisioned a parallel to writing. Specifically, the early days when harsh critiques and rejection letters cut deep. It’s never personal, even though sometimes it may feel like it. Writers, however, need to learn this lesson on their own, in their own time. More experienced writers can try to help those who aren’t as far along in their journey — like we do on the Kill Zone — but it’s all part of the process. Writers’ skin thickens over time. The trick is to allow yourself to fail, allow yourself to feel the pain of a harsh critique, poor review, or rejection letter, and then learn from it and move forward.

There is no rewind button for life, but we can press pause.

I applied this same logic to the house situation. For about 36 hours, we didn’t tell a soul. No one. My husband and I needed time to gather facts, talk through what happened, and then re-evaluate our options. The same holds true for writing. If you receive hard-to-handle news, step away from the keyboard and give yourself permission to absorb the blow. It may take ten minutes; it may take two weeks. We bounce back at different rates. When you’re ready, return to the source and re-evaluate with clear eyes. I guarantee you’ll see things differently.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.

After 36 hours, we informed “The Kid” who immediately jumped online to look for properties. Kids don’t like their parents’ lives in disarray, which is why we waited to tell him once we’d processed the initial shock. Then we told our closest friends. They sprinted across the dirt road to offer encouragement. My point is, we surrounded ourselves with positivity.

Positivity begets a renewed outlook on life (and writing). Negativity brings nothing but sorrow and unnecessary turmoil.

Trash-talking about how Agent X has no idea what she’s talking about won’t change the fact that she rejected the manuscript. Nor will lashing out at the writer who critiqued your first page. Instead, find writers who will tell it like it is, writers who’ve stood where you might be standing now, writers who will help you see the forest for the trees. I love that expression. It’s visceral. It’s raw. It’s truth.

In life as well as writing, sometimes the unapologetic truth isn’t an easy thing to hear. Yet it’s exactly what we need to move forward, to grow, to find acceptance in the unacceptable. Even if my husband and I had a spare $150K kickin’ around, buying an unsellable house would be a horrible investment.

When life hands you lemons …

I truly believe we’re meant to walk a certain path. When we misstep, life has a way of nudging us back on course. So, after I came to terms with the fact that moving was inevitable, the question then became: If we weren’t meant to buy this house, then why put us here in the first place? Admittedly, the anger may have lingered a bit longer.

Now I understand why.

A little over a year ago, “The Kid” bought 3.5 acres a few house lots down from us. It’s a gorgeous parcel of land nestled under a canopy of tall pines, maple, birch, and oak trees, with a stunning mountain view and a wildlife trail that runs through the back. My husband logged out truckloads of timber, clearing a secluded but serene house lot. At the same time, “The Kid” installed a driveway and had the land surveyed and perk-tested before he and his wife decided to put the land on the market. With three children under the age of 4, it ended up being a stressor they didn’t need.

The land never sold.

When one door slams shut, open a window.

Had we never moved into this house and stayed as long as we did, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to build our dream home now … a few house lots over on land we already love. We envision relaxing on the back deck, watching black bear, moose, and deer stroll through the yard. That’s the plan, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t pan out, we’ll readjust again.

Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true.

Ellle James’ new press ensured Fractured Lives released in paperback before she left for vacation, which added some well-needed excitement to the week.

Three couples, the perfect Maine vacation, and a fateful night that blows everyone’s mind.

Also available in ebook.

 

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Dear Writer’s Mate …

By Sue Coletta

The other day I jotted down a juicy detail from my research on the corner of yellow scrap paper. Hours later, after I’d used the tidbit in a scene, I spaced throwing away the note.

You know how we get when we’re obsessed focused on our WIP.

Anyway, later that night, while hanging with the hubby in the sunroom, I went to blow the steam off my tea and the note traveled with the mug. Somehow the note had adhered itself to the base. I slid my fingers down the ceramic, but my husband — always the helper — beat me to it.

When he peeled off the paper, he read my scribbling aloud. “It’s called raccooning. The head acts as a vacuum.” Visibly forcing down a grin, he said, “Well, someone’s had an interesting day.”

I laughed so hard I could barely speak through the tears. Once I managed to regain composure, I shared all the gory details of my research into decapitation, the guillotine, and a chicken who lived 10 months with no head. After 21 years together, this conversation didn’t even faze him. He gets me. But it made me wonder what a different spouse might think if they’d found a similar note.

Let’s face it, writers can be fascinating and entertaining at times, but there must be days where a writer’s mate must shake his/her head in disbelief. It’s in this spirit that I share helpful advice for the good-natured, supportive, and understanding folks who live with a writer.

Dear writer’s mate, you may find your writer staring at the ceiling, or out the window, or even at a blank wall. And you may be tempted to think it’s okay to barge in and chat about your day. Make no mistake, there’s a lot going on behind-the-scenes that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Your writer is hard at work, creating, visualizing the story, agonizing over that one missing piece that’ll bring it all together.

Please don’t interrupt. Instead, back away from the desk — nice and slow — with no sudden movements. Trust me on this. You don’t want any part of causing your writer to lose focus. It’s not a pretty sight.

At other times, your writer may have some “unusual” documentary requests. Dear writer’s mate, just go with it. Creative decisions are not easy to explain. Your writer may not even know what s/he’s searching for; it could be anything from plot details to a twist that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Being immersed in similar story elements, situations, locations, conflicts, unsolved mysteries, or even a killer’s modus operandi may help spark ideas.

Dear writer’s mate, your writer may experience a spontaneous yet overwhelming urge to drag you to desolate swamplands, woodlands, back alleyways, or back roads that lead to nowhere. Don’t panic. Your writer is simply looking for the perfect place to dump or pose a corpse, and 99.99% of the time it’s not your dead body s/he’s envisioning. I should warn you, though. Should you ignore the advice contained herein, the latter could change. You don’t want to be amongst the unfortunate .01%, do you?

Rest easy, dear writer’s mate. Nine times out of ten the victim is the rude waitress who served you and your darling writer on Friday night. Fun fact: while you were figuring out the tip, your dinner date was plotting the waitress’ excruciating demise. Did you not notice your writer’s unflinching stare? The eyes tell the story. When the lids narrow but your writer’s gaze doesn’t seem to focus on anything in particular, it’s a telltale sign that s/he’s thinking about murder. Oh, while we’re on this subject, it’s safer for the entire family if you never — I repeat, never — peek at your writer’s search history. If panic sets in, you might be tempted to phone a friend. The next thing you know, your writer’s face is plastered on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Dear writer’s mate, your normal routine is subject to change without notice. You know those three-course meals you love so much? Yeah, well, at times they may be replaced with frozen dinners, crock pot dishes, and takeout menus. Leftovers will almost always make their way to the dinner table, especially if your writer is on deadline. Also, your writer could try to make it up to you by firing up the grill, but you may want to keep an eye on those steaks. They can, and will, turn to ash if your writer jumps back into the WIP.

Granted, at the time s/he slapped the meat on the grill s/he had every intention of fixing you a nice meal. But then, something within range diverted his/her attention — the disembodied call of a pileated woodpecker, an unusual tree stump with a silhouetted face embedded in the grain, a stick snapping in the yard for no apparent reason — and this propelled your writer into the office where s/he only planned to write one quick paragraph before the story enveloped him/her into its warm embrace. The time continuum is difficult to explain to a non-writer, but just think of it as your writer’s Bermuda triangle.

Dear writer’s mate, at some point you may need to save your writer by gently reminded him/her to step away from the keyboard. Please use caution. Only use this step in an emergency, like if your writer has stayed up all night, downing copious amounts of coffee or tea and resembles a strung-out raccoon. Or if your writer has skipped breakfast and lunch because the words are flowing faster than s/he can type. Or if your writer has spent a full week in his/her pajamas. Otherwise, please refer to my initial advice.

Dear writer’s mate, I realize I’m throwing a lot at you. What I haven’t mentioned is how fortunate you are to love a writer. Writers are fun, loving, dedicated, intelligent, witty, weird, nutty, unique, passionate, humble, and above all else, loyal. Consider yourself lucky to share in your writer’s imaginative world, where nothing has limits and anything is possible.

Over to TKZers. What advice would you give to a writer’s mate?

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How To Write a Press Release That Works

By Sue Coletta

Writing a press release is something we all need to learn sooner or later. I’ve written my share of boring press releases that I’m sure no well-respected journalist ever read. Recently, however, I hunkered down and studied the finer points of how to make a book signing or new release newsworthy — and that’s the magic bullet right there. Envision the press release as an article in the newspaper, or on the radio, or, dare I say, as local news on television.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable writing a press release to announce a new release, most bookstores will ask you to write one from their perspective to announce your upcoming signing at their store. When this first happened to me, I panicked. I’m hoping this post will help erase some of the frustration for you. So, let’s discuss how to write a press release for a book signing. The same principals apply for announcing a new release.

All press releases must follow a specific format …

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE should be in all caps, bold, and justified (left margin).

Underneath, write the date, space, slash mark, space, the location i.e. July 30, 2018 / Annie’s Book Stop

The heading comes next and it should also be in all caps and bold. This time, centered. The most important thing to remember is we want the journalist to click our email out of the hundreds they received that day. So, it’s important that we take our time with the heading and make it newsworthy. A savvy bookstore will use it as the subject line of their email.

This is the headline I used to announce an upcoming signing for my new release, SCATHED …

SERIAL KILLERS STALK GRAFTON COUNTY, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Can you imagine a journalist not clicking that email? That’s why it worked.

Next line, still in bold but not all caps …

Meet the Author Who Has Residents Locking Their Doors

Then our sub-heading, which tells the journalist exactly what we’re announcing. This line is in lower case, centered, and in italics.

Book singing on August 18, 2018 at Annie’s Book Stop

In the first paragraph we need to get straight to the point. Journalists don’t have a lot of time to wade through fluff. Also, this paragraph should include the 5 W’s (who, what, where, why, when).

As an example, this is what I wrote for Annie’s Book Stop. Perhaps it’ll spark ideas for you. Notice just the town and state are in all caps. Which is exactly how it’ll look in the newspaper.

LACONIA, NH, August 18, 2018 — Annie’s Book Stop, a book store dedicated to serving the Lakes Region since 1983, is hosting a book-signing event with Bestselling Crime Writer Sue Coletta, author of the much-beloved Grafton County Series and award-winning Mayhem Series, on Saturday, August 18th from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Annie’s Book Stop is located at 1330 Union Ave. in Laconia, NH.

Include interesting information in the next paragraph or two. Our goal is to make it easy for the journalist to use the same wording in the newspaper. Here’s mine again …

Just as Stephen King reimagined Bangor, Maine, Sue Coletta toys with Alexandria, Hebron, Bridgewater, Bristol, Groton, and local treasures such as Wellington State Park and Sculptured Rocks in SCATHED, the latest psychological thriller/mystery in the Grafton County Series, which released on July 25, 2018 by Tirgearr Publishing. Even WMUR’s ULocal plays a pivotal role in the story.

Come meet Sue Coletta at Annie’s Book Stop and pick up a signed copy of SCATHED. All books in the Grafton County Series and Mayhem Series will be available.

***

(Note: I’m only including the asterisks for clarity, don’t use them in the press release)

Do you have a blurb from a celebrity? If you do, include it next. If you don’t, use a review from an author your target audience will recognize. If you don’t have either, use a line or two from a reviewer. Choose wisely. The quote should align with the focus of the press release. Since I focused on serial killers, I used a quote from a NY Times bestselling author that included the words “serial killer.” I also was lucky enough to know someone my target audience would recognize, and I included a quote from him, as well. We can’t skip this part, because this is where we show “social proof.”

The last paragraph is reserved for our bio. Don’t use a regular bio, though. Mix it up, make it personal so people can connect with you. Most importantly, it should align with the rest of the press release. Here’s what I wrote …

Sue Coletta has always been fascinated by why people kill. What pushes someone to the edge of a dark abyss? Researching crime, forensics, psychology, and psychopathy is a passion she shares with fans on her award-winning crime blog, where she delves into the minds of serial killers, explains groundbreaking forensic techniques, and writes true crime stories. Sue prides herself on striking that magical balance between realism and fiction … so much so she even locked herself inside an oil drum in order to experience her character’s terror.

Last line is short and to the point …

For more details visit Annie’s Book Stop: www.anniesbookstop.com

At the end of our press release write the word ENDS, all caps, bold, and centered.

This press release worked for me. Not only did I make the local papers, but I now have journalists who’ve reached out to me for interviews. It’s only been a couple days since the bookstore released it, so I’m excited to find out what happens next. I should also point out, it took me about 8 hours to write this one page press release. We can’t rush it; it’s too important. A good press release can skyrocket our career if the right person reads it.

Over to you, TKZers! Have you had good luck with a press release? If so, please share any tips you’ve learned. If you’ve never written a press release, will you give it a go? You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I recommend sending a press release for all new releases, even if they’re only available as ebooks.

This is my table at the Hebron Fair over the weekend. The police bling worked amazingly well to draw the attention of my target audience.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for shipping to include SCATHED; it released in paperback last week. But I still sold out. Super fun day!

4+

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.

 

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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!!!

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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?

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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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