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

TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

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Crime Writer’s Version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,

Not a corpse was breathing, not even their spouse;

Nylon stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that the cops would not find them there;

The live victims were all nestled, snug in their restraints;

While visions of mayhem snuffed out their complaints;

My ol’ man in his bandana, and I in my cap

Had just settled in for a quick nightly nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew with a dash,

Tore open the curtains and hid the drug stash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to a figure below.

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a swirling lit cruiser pulling eight plastic reindeer,

With a rickety old driver so slow and not quick,

I knew in a moment he’d never catch Nick.

He slogged through the snow, toward our doorway he came,

And he whistled and shouted and called us strange names:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As leaves that blew before the storm hit,

When he met with an obstacle, our pit bull named Kit;

So up to the housetop the cop climbed the lattice,

With no warrant or recourse, as if he had gratis,

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing like he was dancing in hoofs.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney the cop came with a thundering bound.

He was dressed all in blue, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all singed with ashes and soot;

A bundle of pot brownies he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a junkie just opening his sack.

His eyes–how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a berry!

His droll little mouth snarled up with a grin,

And the squint to one eye like he’d drank all our gin;

The stump of a cigar he held tight in buck teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and not much of a belly

That barely moved when he laughed, like a jar with no jelly.

He was cheerful with glee, a right jolly old cop,

And I laughed when I saw him; he looked like Nick’s pop;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And stole all the nylons, then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, into the fire he dove.

I sprang forward to save him, then stopped, reconsidered,

How much would they pay for a cop’s body, delivered?

But I heard Nick exclaim, ere he drove out the lot,

“You’ll get us both busted and rightfully caught.”

“Quiet,” I told him, but one moment too late.

For he’d vanished; so much for that date.

Back in bed I climbed, the mattress now ample,

And sprinkled the pillows with the remaining drug sample.

When I drew my last breath before my eyelids did flutter,

I mumbled, “Merry Christmas to all. May your nights make you shudder.”

 

 

Searching for a special gift for the hard-to-please person on your list?

Send them on a thrilling adventure!

 

 

 

To order signed paperbacks, email me at sue@suecoletta.com or message me on Facebook.

Blowout 99c Kindle sale (all titles — ends tomorrow)

MARRED, Book 1, Grafton County Series
CLEAVED, Book 2
SCATHED, Book 3

WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1, Mayhem Series
BLESSED MAYHEM, Book 2
SILENT MAYHEM releases early 2019!

*All books can stand alone.

 

 

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season! May all your writing dreams come true in 2019.

 

4+

First Page Critique: The Arthani Prince

By SUE COLETTA

Calling all fantasy lovers! Please enjoy today’s offering from another brave writer. I’ll catch you on the flip-side with my comments.

The Arthani Prince

The Arthani palace was much smaller than the Razvian one, but what it lacked in size it made up for in flowers. Crowding in on the pathways, spilling out of boxes on every ledge, even hanging off tree branches. Any inch that wasn’t filled with flowers had decoratively carved pieces of coral, another Arthani specialty. Mulk-Arthan bordered the sea, and so had an unlimited access to coral and pearls.

Niketa walked across the palace grounds, dutifully studying the list of questions her father had given her. Her father, King of Razvia and recent conqueror of this country, wanted her to interrogate the Arthani prince for information. One of her duties as her country’s spy master was to interrogate prisoners of war. She still wasn’t sure how that would work, especially since his father was dead and the two most important people in his life were not in custody.

Razvian kings liked to keep their prisoners right in the palace, but the Arthanis had built their prison at the edge of the grounds. Niketa unlatched the door and walked inside–a dirt floor, with a table and stools set up in the center. Prison cells—little more than wooden cages for people—lined every wall. She left the door open as she approached Prince Ezhil’s cage.

“I have questions for you,” she said, trying to keep her voice light. “Would you like to talk in there or come out?”

“Either way is fine with me,” the Arthani prince said gravely. “Whatever is more comfortable for you.”

She grinned and unlatched his cell. “Sit at the table and don’t run.”

It took Ezhil a few minutes to comply. She took note of how carefully he moved and how he lurched past her to the table. He wouldn’t be able to run.

“No word from any of you,” she counseled the other prisoners. “Unless you would like to give the information I’m looking for.”

She sat on the stool closest to the open door and studied Ezhil as he settled his bound wrists on the tabletop. She couldn’t decipher anything from his expression, so she decided to hit hard.

“The king needs information,” she said.

“The king is dead,” Ezhil said. There was no grief in his expression, which either meant he never loved his father or that he had an extraordinary ability to lock away his emotions.

Her lips curled into a mocking smile. “The man in the throne room then. Are you willing to give the man in the throne room answers or will you need persuasion.”

***

Full disclosure: fantasy is not my preferred genre. I read very little fantasy, if any. This first page still opens a novel, though. The first page must hook the reader. Even after reading this piece for the umpteenth time, I stilI have no idea what “Mulk-Arthan” is, so I’m afraid you lost me in the first paragraph, Anon. Perhaps it’s me. Fantasy readers, do you understand Mulk-Arthan? Flowers also set a softer scene than what I think you’re going for here. If I’ve misread your intent, feel free to ignore the advice.

In the second paragraph we learn Niketa’s goal, which is great. Good job! This sentence stopped me, though: She still wasn’t sure how that would work, especially since his father was dead and the two most important people in his life were not in custody. Who’s father? I assume from the way this is written Anon meant the prince’s father. Problem is, the sentence begins with Niketa’s thoughts, and then switches to a different point-of-view. The first half is an easy fix. Rather than being vague — i.e. She still wasn’t sure how that would work— make it clear that she didn’t know how the interrogation of the prince would work.

The POV slip is problematic because, how does Niketa know the prince feels this way— “two most important people in his life”— if she hasn’t interrogated him yet? If they have history, perhaps you could show us a glimpse of their former relationship. Example: She hadn’t seen him since she crawled out of his bed, two months ago.

Great visuals in paragraph three: Niketa unlatched the door and walked inside—a dirt floor, with a table and stools set up in the center. Prison cells—little more than wooden cages for people—lined every wall. She left the door open as she approached Prince Ezhil’s cage. Why would she leave the door open if she’s giving the prince the option of leaving his cage? As it reads now, it looks like Niketa is either testing the prince or she’s not that bright. We later learn the former is true, but don’t let the reader assume incorrectly, as I did when I first read this opener. I also thought this was the first time she’s ever interrogated a prisoner. Later, I learned that wasn’t true, but by then you’d already confused me. Be direct and intentional in your writing, Anon. 

Then we have this line: “Either way is fine with me,” the Arthani prince said gravely. “Whatever is more comfortable for you.”

This doesn’t ring true for me. First of all, please lose the adverb on the dialogue tag. Instead, use a strong verb to convey the correct emotion. The words he speaks don’t match “gravely.” In fact, if taken out of context, the dialogue sounds like a polite conversation over tea, and not a conversation between a prisoner and his captor.

This also confused me: She grinned and unlatched his cell. “Sit at the table and don’t run.”
It took Ezhil a few minutes to comply. She took note of how carefully he moved and how he lurched past her to the table. He wouldn’t be able to run.

First, she says, “Don’t run.” Then she says, “He wouldn’t be able to run.” Which is it? Are his ankles shackled? If so, then “Don’t run” doesn’t make sense. If his ankles aren’t restrained, then her last comment — He wouldn’t be able to run.boggles the mind. See my confusion? 

Here’s where this reader first learned Niketa has interrogated other prisoners in the past: “No word from any of you,” she counseled the other prisoners. “Unless you would like to give the information I’m looking for.” In this graph, I’d love for you to use a body cue instead of a dialogue tag. You’ve got the perfect opportunity to show Niketa exerting her power over the other prisoners. For example: Niketa’s board-stiff finger raced across each pitiful face. Sooner or later, they’d reveal the killer’s name. Living in cages had a way of bending even the strongest will.

It’s difficult to discern where the story is headed from page one, but I use this example to show how we can sprinkle in attitude/personality as well as drop a few clues for the reader. Remember, our goal is to pique enough interest to force readers to flip the page.

She sat on the stool closest to the open door (<- it’s only here that we discover she is testing the prince, which is too late for this particular reader. I’ve already formed my opinion of Niketa. Perhaps fans of the genre will feel differently and weigh in) and studied Ezhil as he settled his bound wrists on the tabletop. Okay, here we learn he is handcuffed, but that still doesn’t explain why he can’t run. Easy fix. When she first lets him out of his cage, let us hear the clang of the shackles as he shuffles to the table. He wouldn’t be able to “lurch” with shackles on, btw. See how important our word choices are?

She couldn’t decipher anything from his expression, so she decided to hit hard. “The king needs information,” she said. By moving the dialogue up a line, you can remove the tag. Also, you’ve indicated that Niketa would deliver a crushing blow, then didn’t follow through. “The king needs information” is too soft. Either Niketa is a badass spy or she’s meek. Which is it? Show us through her actions and dialogue. I see hints of badass, but it’s not consistent throughout the first page.

“The king is dead,” Ezhil said. Now him, I like. With that one line of dialogue you’ve shown us his spunk. Nicely done! There was no grief in his expression, which either meant he never loved his father or that he had an extraordinary ability to lock away his emotions. Wherever possible, try to rewrite sentences to avoid passive voice. “There was” is passive. The rewrite could be as simple as “No grief crossed his face. Not even a hint of emotion. Didn’t he care that someone murdered his father?” 

Her lips curled into a mocking smile. <- Nice body cue! “The man in the throne room then.(<- I would change this for clarity. Try, “I meant, the new king.”) Are you willing to give the man in the throne room answers, or will you need persuasion.?

I think you’ve got a lot to work with here, Anon. I like the idea of this premise; the landscape promises plenty of conflict. If Niketa and the prince have history, then you’d also have built-in sexual tension, which is always fun to read, IMO. Please note: if I didn’t see something special in your writing, there’d be a lot less red ink. 🙂 Journey forth, dear writer. We’re all rooting for you!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Does this opener compel you to flip the page? How might you improve this first page?

 

 

4+

Reader Friday: Holiday Treats

Every family has a holiday tradition, whether it’s a special treat or favorite dish.

In the Coletta household, I bake dozens of almond biscotti. They’re everyone’s favorite snack. My father-in-law devours a plateful in one sitting, my grandchildren grab one after another — sometimes a biscotti in both tiny fists! — and before the family arrives I’m constantly slapping my husband’s hand away from the Tupperware container. They take me hours to make, yet they disappear in minutes.

What’s the one treat or dish that you make (or look forward to eating) every year? How long have you had this tradition? 

7+

Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

10+

Reader Friday: What’s Your Favorite Emotion to Portray?

By SUE COLETTA

On TKZ, we’ve been known to beat the show-don’t-tell drum, because it makes the scene come alive. When a writer nails an emotion so perfectly, it’s easy to visualize the moment.

What’s your favorite emotion to portray?

What’s your crutch body cue that you edit out?

Care to share a favorite line or two from your WIP, published book, or from a story you’ve read that shows a vivid emotion?

Please also share the circumstances surrounding the character, so we can appreciate the emotion in the right setting.

6+

Questioning an Eyewitness: To Lead or Not to Lead?

By SUE COLETTA

 

As promised, let’s continue with false or misleading eyewitness testimony, and how writers can use interview techniques to our advantage. Today, we’ll change it up a bit by focusing on how to question an eyewitness. More importantly, how not to.

 

Questioning a Witness

The context in which a question is asked becomes an important factor. A witness, however innocent, may try to answer the investigator’s questions by telling him/her what s/he wants to hear, not to confuse the investigation but because it’s human nature to want to help. Add a leading or suggestive question on top of that mindset, and most of what the investigator receives will be unreliable information. Incidentally, children and mentally challenged individuals, including folks with borderline IQ’s, are the most easily influenced, because they tend to want to please adults. 

Leading or Suggestive Questions

Leading questions suggest the response is expected and/or implies information the witness has no prior knowledge of. Let’s say the investigator asks, “How hard did the robber punch the victim?” Most witnesses will try to fill in the blanks, even if they never actually witnessed physical contact between the victim and suspect. This results in guesswork on the part of the eyewitness. Therefore, it’s imperative that the investigator doesn’t inadvertently suggest an answer.

Suggestibility is defined as: “The act or process of impressing something — an idea, attitude, or desired result — on the mind of another.”

With that in mind, the detective should keep the testimony as uncontaminated as possible. Part of the problem is, it’s difficult for eyewitnesses to distinguish between information they saw during the event from information they heard from other witnesses, after the event—also called “post-event information.”

In one study, Loftus and Palmer investigated the ability of post-event information to influence the eyewitness testimony. Participants were shown a video of a motor vehicle accident. Afterward, researchers asked several questions with a variety of phrasings. In the spirit of brevity, I’ll only mention two.

“How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”

“How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?”

The participants who were asked the first question, reported high rates of speed and broken headlights, even though broken glass wasn’t shown in the video. The second group reported lesser speeds with very little damage to either vehicle. It’s easy to see why. Verbs matter, but we knew that already, didn’t we? 🙂

Open Questions

Open questions seek an open-ended response from eyewitnesses. They also don’t limit the scope or direct the witness to answer in a certain way. “What happened?” Or, “What did you see?” are both examples of open questions.

With open questions the detective is more likely to get a true recounting of events. A study showed responses to open questions were three-to-four times longer and three times richer in relevant details.

Facilitators

Facilitators are non-suggestive verbal or non-verbal responses that encourage the eyewitness to continue recalling the events. For example, “Okay.” Or, “Uh-ha.” Or, “Hmm.” Because these responses are non-leading and non-specific, they’re effective at maintaining the eyewitness’ narrative without decreasing the accuracy of their statement.

Focused Questions

Focused questions are exactly as they sound. Usually they’re open-ended so as not to taint the testimony. “Tell me what the man looked like.” As long as the eyewitness mentioned “the man” in his or her initial statement, the detective won’t risk muddying the response. A focused question is used to further support the testimony that’s already been given, which aids in garnering more useful details. However, if they’re overused by the detective, they can actually have the opposite effect, thereby limiting the accuracy of the eyewitness testimony. Especially if the witness feels obligated to provide details.

Option-Posing Questions

Generally, for details the eyewitness hasn’t described, an option-posing question involves recognition. Such as, “Was the man running or walking?” As you might have guessed, option-posing questions also limit the scope of the answer. Because of this, they may be seen as leading or suggestive. You’ll notice option-posing questions at court when attorneys are trying to coax certain answers from witnesses on the stand.

Would questioning differ with a suspect vs. witness?

It shouldn’t, unless the detective wants to skew the facts by forcing an involuntary confession. We’ll dig into the difference between voluntary and involuntary confessions next time. Why innocent people confess is a fascinating subject. In the meantime, the perfect example of real detectives asking leading and suggestive questions occurred in the interview of Brendan Dassey, featured in Part II of Making a Murderer on Netflix. If you haven’t watched the second season, take a peek. Whether or not you believe the confession was coerced is irrelevant for our purpose. Watch the interview through a writer’s eye.

In thrillers and mysteries, if we play with interview techniques, we buy time. Need to send your law enforcement character down a dead-end? Have a newly-minted detective ask leading or suggestive questions outside the lead investigator’s presence. Once the new scenario is planted in the eyewitness’ mind, they’re testimony will be of little value.

So, my beloved TKZers, what are other ways to play with interview techniques? Fire up those writer brains and lay out some scenarios. Bonus points if you can name a thriller where false or misleading eyewitness statements led to the investigation of an innocent (wo)man.

 

 

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How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers

By SUE COLETTA

Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.

Schemas

In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?

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What’s Your Inspiration to Write Book After Book?

By SUE COLETTA

After my book signing on Saturday, October 6th, I was mulling over what to write for my TKZ post today, and this little treasure popped into my inbox. The video is so inspirational, I had to share it with you. It’s about four minutes long. If you’re short on time, not to worry. I’ve explained the video below.

Ray Edward’s thought experiment goes like this. Imagine you’ve been given a treasure. This treasure, like all magical treasures, comes with conditions. Here’s the catch. While this treasure is unlimited, each day you can only take one coin. Just one. And every day you suffer from amnesia. You forget you have this treasure and you lose a day of unlimited value.

What would you do to remind yourself? Would you leave notes for yourself? Would you phone a friend and ask them to remind that you have this treasure? How would you remember not to waste a single day?

Here’s a new flash. You already have this treasure. Consider this your reminder. The treasure you’ve been given is your life. Everyday offers endless possibilities, in life as well as writing. Yet we squander so many days with “Someday, I’ll travel. Someday, I’ll finish the manuscript.” Unfortunately, “someday” is often code for “never.”

Life is a mystery. We didn’t know when we’d enter the world and we don’t know exactly when we’ll depart, but we do know someday our life will end. Each day between now and then is a treasure-trove of limitless value.

What will you do with your treasure? Will you spend your time wisely? Will you use the day to hone your craft to achieve your goals? Will you strive to make your dreams a reality? Or will you use excuses for putting off writing till tomorrow?

Hey, we’re all guilty of procrastination from time to time. The trick is, making our writing a priority. Even though writers spend hours alone with a blinking cursor, the stories we write have the ability to entertain, to bring a smile to the lonely widow or widower’s face, to let the exhausted parent escape for a while, to inspire the aspiring writer to dream without limits, to brighten someone’s day, or even, just keep someone company for a while.

Writers hold great power. So, the next time you don’t feel like writing, remember this. Every day you don’t sit in front of that computer with your hands on the keyboard is a day you’ve let down your readers.

Bold statement, I know, but this truth hit home at my book signing.

A woman stood in front of my table, rambling on and on about the characters in my Grafton County Series. She told me she was never what you’d call an avid reader. A friend recommended my books, and she bought MARRED for the heck of it. Three books later, she’s embarrassed to admit that she considers Sage and Niko Quintano her closest friends. So much so, she desperately misses them in between books. The tears in her eyes as she spoke about how much my characters meant to her touched me on such a deep emotional level, it caught me off-guard.

How could I ever let this woman down?

By the time I got my game face on again, I glanced up to see another woman rushing toward my table. Unbeknownst to me, she’s a long-time fan who brought her three-year-old grandson to meet “her favorite author.” I have no idea what his grandmother told him, but this young boy gawked at me as if I were a superhero. The look in his eyes about shattered my cool façade. All I could think was, I’ll never live up to his view of me. << There’s the ol’ familiar self-doubt again. If only there were a way to silence that voice forever. Sadly, as Laura so eloquently wrote recently, self-doubt and writers go hand-in-hand. Sigh.

When this sweet woman asked for a group photo, I couldn’t form the words to tell her how much it meant to me. It’s a day I’ll never forget. It’s also the driving force (writer crack 🙂 ) that’ll keep me tied to my desk, hour after hour, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene, till I type The End one more time.

 

So, my beloved TKZ family, let’s share inspiration today. Tell me about an encounter with a reader that renewed your love of writing.

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