Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!

Handling Age and Time in Series Fiction

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Age.

Like the weather, we talk about it a lot but can’t do anything about it.

Remember the original Nancy Drew books? I devoured 37 of them before outgrowing the series. From the first book The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) until #37, The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (1960), Nancy was 16 to 18.

Thirty-seven adventures in two years? Busy young lady, that Nancy.

But she started me thinking about writing series characters.

Can they stay the same age through numerous books?

Should they age?

That raises more questions when writing a contemporary series with continuing characters.

What kind of character arc can an author create if the hero doesn’t age?

Is an evolving character arc important to today’s readers?

How does an author keep characters fresh and interesting if they remain approximately the same age over a number of books?

Classics like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple remain basically static; the plots change but the characters don’t.

Then there is the quintessential hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe.

Even Philip Marlowe was young once – photo credit Maika, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Although I don’t believe his specific age is ever mentioned (please correct me if I’m wrong), the reader has the strong impression that, at birth, Marlowe was already old and cynical.

Over two decades, starting with The Big Sleep (1939)  and ending with Playback (1959), Marlowe was repeatedly beaten up, double-crossed, and betrayed. His life remained solitary with occasional sexual encounters that didn’t end well. The tarnished knight won a few victories but ultimately lost the war against evil. As vivid and memorable a character as he was, he didn’t change much, except for more scars. (Note: I’m not counting Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished novel completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989 where Marlowe married, at least for a little while.)

How would readers react to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler if their books were released today?

Contemporary readers seem to lean more toward series characters who go through ups and downs similar to those we face in real life.  

In James Lee Burke’s series, the beleaguered Dave Robicheaux moves from New Orleans to New Iberia, switches jobs, falls off the wagon and climbs back on, gains and loses spouses and friends, and adopts a child who grows up through the books.

Readers meet Kinsey Milhone at age 32, with a police career and two marriages already behind her. In the course of Sue Grafton’s 25-book Alphabet Series, Kinsey has her home blown up and rebuilt, loses her beloved VW convertible, discovers the roots of her absent family, falls in and out of love several times but remains determinedly single. In the final book, Y is for Yesterday, she is 39.

Judging by their popularity, readers relate deeply to characters like Dave and Kinsey. We’ve been in the trenches beside them as they live through the same life trials that we ourselves do. They become close friends we’ve known for years.

What do series authors need to consider when time passes and their characters age?

When I wrote Instrument of the Devil in 2015-6, I didn’t envision a series. The book was set in 2011 as smartphones were transitioning from exotic toys for geeks into phones adopted by ordinary people. Because of a new smartphone, my character Tawny Lindholm stumbles over her milestone 50th birthday and into a nightmarish world of technology. Unbeknownst to her, it has been rigged by a terrorist to launch a cyberattack she’ll be blamed for.

The book was published in 2017, six years after the story takes place.

Near the end of Instrument, a brilliant, arrogant attorney, Tillman Rosenbaum, came on scene to defend Tawny. He was intended as a minor walk-on character. However, the match and gasoline chemistry between him and Tawny propelled them into more books where she goes to work as his investigator despite her dislike for him.

[Spoiler alert: they ultimately fall in love. But you’d already guessed that, right?]

What I originally conceived as a one-off had longer legs than anticipated.

Although there are no time stamps, roughly two years pass during the second and third books in the series, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.

Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Florida and knocked out power to 16 million residents.

The event tweaked my writer’s imagination. Reports of people who mysteriously went missing during that storm, along with scary personal experiences related to me by family and friends, turned into Dead Man’s Bluff.

After drifting along a vague fictional timeline starting in 2011, all of a sudden there’s a real date that’s set in stone. Uh-oh.

Okay, I figured from now on, I’d just make oblique references to Tawny’s age. Her children are in their thirties. Let readers infer she’s somewhere in her fifties.

As often happens with writing, life had other plans.

2020 hit.

Can an author ignore monumental events that tilt the world on its axis?

Not unless you write alternate history.

For much of 2020, writers debated how to handle the pandemic in current fiction. If it was incorporated into the plot, readers who were sick of it might be alienated. If we tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, we risked being perceived as unrealistic and insensitive. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

Some authors attacked it head-on with thrillers about biological weapons or adventures in a post-pandemic, futuristic, dystopian world.

Some retreated in time to historical genres where major outcomes—like who won the war—had already been determined.

Others dove into fantasy genres where the author, not real life, decided the outcome.

Now in the last quarter of 2021, the world changes faster every day. What you wrote this morning may well be obsolete and out of date by this afternoon.

The sixth book in my series, Flight to Forever, is set in spring of 2020. When a Vietnam veteran can’t visit his beloved wife in a memory care facility because of pandemic restrictions, in desperation, he busts her out, seriously injuring two employees during the getaway. They flee to a remote fire lookout in treacherous Montana mountains. Tawny races to find them to prevent a deadly showdown between the cops and the vet who has nothing to lose.

Do the math. If Tawny was 50 in 2011, that made her 59 in 2020. 

Uh-oh, I really should have hired a stunt double for her in this book.

Even though 60 is the new 40, will readers find some of the action implausible for a woman her age?

Many people in their 70s and 80s are in fantastic shape. Recently I wrote an article for Montana Senior News about the Senior Olympic games where nonagenarians are setting athletic records.

Yet ageism lurks in the world of publishing and literature.

Especially about sex.

Many younger readers are creeped out by the notion that characters who are their parents’ or grandparents’ age enjoy sex.

Newsflash, kid—that’s how you got here. And, since you grew up and moved out, it’s even better.

How about physical wear and tear on characters?

Gunsmoke cast – public domain

Remember classic TV westerns like Gunsmoke? Whenever Matt Dillion got shot (reportedly more than 50 times), in the final scene, he’d be back in the saddle with one arm in a sling. By the following episode, he resumed life as usual—galloping horses and engaging in fisticuffs.

How realistic should series fiction be? How far will contemporary readers go to suspend disbelief?

If we put our lead characters through hell, in the next book, should they suffer from PTSD or physical disability?

 

What if you write middle grade or young adult books? Every year, there’s a new crop of readers to replace older ones who’ve outgrown a series. Perhaps MG and YA characters don’t need to age. Nancy Drew did all right. What do you think?

For now, I’ll keep writing Tawny and Tillman in their fifties and hope no one checks my math too carefully.

CC by 2.0

Or maybe I’ll let them drink out of Nancy’s fountain of youth.

~~~

For discussion:

Question for series authors: how do you handle age and the passage of time with continuing characters?

Have you found workarounds, tips, or tricks?

Question for series readers: Do you care about the main character’s age? Do you want to see evolution and change in them over time?

~~~

To follow series characters who age more slowly than the calendar, please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion.

Amazon link

Other online booksellers:

Instrument of the Devil    Stalking Midas    Eyes in the Sky

Dead Man’s Bluff        Crowded Hearts     Flight to Forever

Three Things I Learned from Movie Adaptations

Please help me welcome back a dear friend and talented storyteller, Steven Ramirez. The last time he guest posted on TKZ he discussed Pantsing Through the Pandemic. Today, he’s sharing his experience with— Well, I’ll let him tell you…

Recently, I took a break from writing fiction to focus on screenwriting. Currently, I’m adapting my latest novella, Brandon’s Last Words, as a feature screenplay.

If you’re wondering why anyone in their right mind would take on something like this, it’s simple—I live in LA. Trust me, you can’t swing a dead cat at Starbucks without hitting a screenwriter huddled at a corner table, determined to crank out the next Black Widow.

Okay, that’s partly it. The other reason is, I wanted to see if I could do it.

The novella is a prequel to a new thriller series. It takes place in the same universe as another of my series—only this time, with new characters. For those who have written a screenplay, you already know you need a log line. Here’s what I originally wrote for the novella:

Brandon Wheegar has just joined a secretive government-funded lab as a security guard. Why did no one warn him about the murderous test subjects?

That’s not bad. The question is, does it work for a movie? We’ll see. Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about. For this post, I’ll focus on three lessons learned.

The Beats, They Are Different

As fiction writers, we are keenly aware of story beats. They’re hammered into us starting in the womb. I’m tempted to joke that our friend James Scott Bell has beat that concept to death, but it would be low-hanging fruit, so.

The point is, screenplays need beats, too. But these are different and immutable. And without them, you effectively have something that is not a screenplay.

There are lots of resources out there that can teach you about screenplay structure. For simplicity’s sake, here are the high-level story beats, courtesy of Syd Field:

INCITING INCIDENT

This scene brings the main character into focus. Without this beat, there’s no story.

FIRST TURNING POINT

What happens here sends the MC off on a new path, similar to the Hero’s Journey.

MIDPOINT

This is where things get interesting. Maybe the MC makes an important decision that changes the course of the story. Or they realize that what they thought was the truth isn’t.

SECOND TURNING POINT

This scene moves the character from conflict to resolution. The MC has a plan and intends to execute on it.

RESOLUTION

Often, these events bring physical and emotional closure. In Hero’s Journey terms, the MC returns home and shares what they’ve learned.

Now, there are many other elements you should layer in to make a killer screenplay. If you want to see a more fully realized story beat list for some well-known movies, check out Save The Cat.

Limiting the Character Count

When writing a novel, I include lots of characters. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a little Russian blood in me. In my case, the names don’t all sound the same, though. Anyway, I take this approach because my main characters tend to travel far and wide.

Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury when it comes to screenplays—unless you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Why?

Because a script is a blueprint that tells the producer how much money they must spend. And the more characters, the more the above-the-line costs skyrocket—things like actors’ salaries, hair, makeup, and snacks.

My novella has a fair number of supporting characters. And they serve the story well. But for the screenplay, I had to find a way to either cut or combine characters. Which brings to mind that most famous of advice, which admonishes the writer to kill your darlings. Most people attribute the quote to Faulkner. But, in fact, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Murder your darlings.”

Now, he was talking about prose. In screenwriting, you pretty much have to take out the entire family. Here’s an example. In the novella, I have a chief security officer, a head of security, and two ruthless security specialists. Each has a part to play, and in Brandon’s Last Words, it’s all good. But for the script, I realized I had to combine the two security chiefs into one character and do the same with the two specialists. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you adapt. Chances are, you’ll slice and dice like a boss.

Getting the Genre Right

My novella can best be described as a horror/sci-fi thriller, with some comedy thrown in. I know, I know—welcome to my world. But, like any successful novel, you should tailor your screenplay to a target market.

When I sent off my first draft to a professional reader, I got back lots of notes. Some centered on the fact that my script didn’t read like horror. I had missed essential tropes, and many of the beats weren’t right.

Rereading the work, I realized I was clinging to my original mashup. Fine for novellas, not so much for screenplays that sell. I’m rewriting now, and let me tell you something. Scripts aren’t written—they’re rewritten. You thought it was a big deal writing three drafts of your novel? Try ten—or fifteen. Yeah. Also, in the real world, once the project is greenlit, they bring in other writers to “punch up the script.” Call it insurance.

Using the reader’s notes, I took a crack at turning my story into classic horror. But I ended up losing much of the humor. Now, if I were as cold-blooded as the chemically modified test subjects who terrorize my main character, I’d continue down this path. Most of you would because it’s the smart thing to do. And after all, you’d like to make some money, right? Me, I’m a rebel. I decided I prefer the story as a comedy thriller. Who knows, I might still have a shot (he said, nursing his tepid tea at Denny’s).

Look, there are quirky films out there that defy genre. I mean, did you ever see a little movie called Naked Lunch? It was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the William S. Burroughs novel. Yeah, so you know what I’m saying. Anyway, my advice is this: If you’re serious about selling your screenplay, then, by all means, write to market. Who knows? You might end up as a big-time Hollywood screenwriter. Me, I just want to create something surprising.

Final Thoughts

We writers are well acquainted with copyrighting our work. Technically, your novel is protected the moment you put pen to paper. Unfortunately, when it comes to screenplays, there’s more to it than that. In this town, a good movie idea gets stolen faster than you can say Coming to America. The point is, register your script with the Writers Guild of America. It’s no guarantee some no-account won’t try to take your precious, but at least you have legal recourse. For more information, visit the WGA West website.

The other thing to consider is screenwriting software. There’s plenty out there, including traditional writing apps like Scrivener, which support the screenplay format. If you’re planning to make this a career, though, I suggest you purchase Final Draft. It’s arguably the industry standard. Also, when collaborating with other screenwriters, there’s an excellent chance that’s the software they use. For more information, visit the Final Draft website.

Well, that’s me done. Happy screenwriting. Oh, and wish me luck with the next Naked Lunch.

Steven Ramirez is the award-winning author of thriller, supernatural, and horror fiction. A former screenwriter, he’s written about zombie plagues and places infested with ghosts and demons. His latest novel is Faithless, a thriller. Steven lives in Los Angeles.

Join Steven’s newsletter here or connect with him on Twitter.

For discussion: Have you ever considered turning your novel/novella into a screenplay? What actor would you want to play your hero or antagonist?

Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/490552091/Death-Grip

What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

While researching an unrelated topic last year, I found a cool tidbit and tucked it away (as I often do) to use in a story someday. Since I doubt I ever will, perhaps one of you can put this research to good use.

First, a question.

What do you think is a forensic investigator’s worst nightmare?

Did anyone guess a cute ’n cuddly koala? No? I didn’t think so. In all fairness, I would never have guessed it either, but the koala could keep investigators on their toes. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Apes & Chimpanzees

As children, we’re taught apes and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. The similarities are obvious. No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity. Both animals also have astonishing intelligence.

Remember Koko?

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, stunned researchers with her emotional depth and ability to communicate in sign language. She garnered international celebrity status with her vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover twice. First in October 1978, with a selfie Koko snapped in a mirror. Then in January 1985, when National Geographic ran a story about Koko and her pet kitten.

“Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached,” Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary

In addition to language, Koko’s behavior revealed human emotions. She also seemed to have a sense of humor, and even a bit of playful mischievousness, as portrayed in this video of Koko and Robin Williams.

There’s no denying the human qualities of apes and chimps. But did you know a koala’s fingerprints are so similar to humans the Australian police once feared they’d cause confusion at crime scenes? It’s true.

Similar confusion occurred in the UK during a time when unsolved crime was at an all-time high. In fact, in 1975, British police raided the ape houses at London and Twycross Zoos. According to The Independent, the police targeted “Half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.”

The objective was to fingerprint these animals, partly because the UK police referred to smudged or unclear fingerprints as “monkey prints.”

“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime, they would not know it was not human.” Steve Haylock, City of London Police fingerprint bureau

The chimpanzees and orangutans didn’t mind being fingerprinted. If you’re curious, none of the prints led to solving the string of unsolved crimes. All the furry suspects appeared to be upstanding members of society. 😉

Meanwhile, in Australia

Police feared koalas may have contaminated a criminal investigation. Why? Because like apes and chimpanzees, koalas possess freakishly human fingerprints. The deltas, loops, and whirl patterns of a koala’s fingerprint are as individual as our own. Yet most tree-dwelling mammals don’t possess humanlike prints.

“It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” said Macie Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “Although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility.”

Some researchers believe that even after closely inspecting the fingerprints under a microscope, investigators would not be able to distinguish a human print from fingerprints left by a koala. Even their closest relatives—kangaroos and wombats—don’t possess fingerprints. The weird part is Koala prints seemed to have evolved independently, and much more recent than primates.

Can you guess which print is human?

Photo credit: Macie Hennenberg, et al. and naturalSCIENCE

Click the image to enlarge.

Top row: Standard ink fingerprints of an adult male koala (left) and adult male human (right).

Bottom row: Scanning electron microscope images of epidermis covering fingertips of the same koala (left) and the same human (right).

 

 

What do humans, apes, chimps, and koalas have in common?

The need to grasp. Yes, it could be that simple.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered koala prints in 1996 and wrote a paper on their findings:

“Koalas … feed by climbing vertically onto the smaller branches of eucalyptus trees, reaching out, grasping handfuls of leaves and bringing them to the mouth… These forces must be precisely felt for fine control of movement and static pressures and hence require orderly organization of the skin surface.”

Makes sense, right?

But wait—there’s more!

I discovered one other fascinating tidbit about fingerprints that I never knew.

Genetics form the base of a fingerprint, but they are personalized when the baby touches the inside of their mother’s womb, resulting in unique whirls, deltas, and loops. Hence why identical twins don’t share identical fingerprints. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

I hope my discoveries kickstart your creativity in new and unsuspecting ways. Happy Labor Day to our U.S. readers! May your burgers be sizzlin’, the buns toasted to perfection, and your beverages be cold. 😀 

Hunting The Horny Back Toad

Elton John’s God-given vocals and Bernie Taupin’s songwriting genius shine in the classic hit Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Recorded in 1973, the namesake album sold over 30 million copies and the individual song remains one of the most recognizable tunes ever. However, the lyrics might not be well known including the significance of the line, “hunting the horny back toad”.

A few nights ago my daughter, Emily, sent me an email  “Dad, you gotta listen to this. It’s Sara Bareilles covering Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. She’s one of the only few people I’ve ever heard that can do Elton John properly.”

Note: Before you read any more of this post, click on this link and listen to this beautiful voice:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ozd2ja7mAgM&list=RDOzd2ja7mAgM&start_radio=1

Do it. Click now.

My wife, Rita, and I listened to Sara Bareilles sing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road twice and once more. Then we YouTubed a live concert version from Elton John himself. I had to agree with Emily. Sara Bareilles was just that good in her cover.

Her version earwormed me, and the words, “back to the howling old owl in the woods hunting the horny back toad” kept repeating. So I Googled the lyrics to see if I was hearing that right.

Sure enough, the chorus goes:

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

I asked Rita, “What do you think the significance of hunting the horny back toad is?”

She said, “Well, it’s figurative language. Most songwriters, probably all, use figurative language to express their idea or deliver the song’s meaning.”

“Figurative language,” I replied. “The more I do this writing thing, the more I realize how much I don’t know about figurative language. Or basic English for that matter. I just want to know what a horny back toad is and why Elton John wants to go back to whatever the howling old owl in the woods is and why the owl wants to hunt the horny back toad and what’s in it for him, the owl. Like, it all has to mean something.”

Rita smiled. She said, “You were an investigator. Figure it out.”

I said, “Yeah, though I wasn’t a very good investigator.” But I took the challenge and dug in. First thing I did was Google Horny Back Toad. I quickly found out there was no such animal. Reptile, that is. The closest creature I could find was a horn back lizard and it wasn’t technically a toad. My suspicion deepened that the horny back toad must be some kind of metaphor or simile or symbol described through figurative language.

So being the detective that I was, I went toad hunting through rabbit hole research. I learned stuff. Figurative language stuff. Stuff writers should know.

I found this quote: “Figurative language is the color we use to amplify our writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, guiding them through your writing with a more creative tone. Any time your writing goes beyond the actual meaning of your words, you’re using figurative language. That allows your reader to gain new insights into your work.”

I read more figurative language stuff. I’m well familiar with the basics such as metaphors, similes, and symbolism. But I wasn’t that familiar with was figurative language sub-categories, and it kept me hunting for the toad in the rabbit hole. I leaned there’s a big world out there in semantic stuff that supports figurative language, such as:

Personification — comparing animals or inanimate objects with people.

Zoomorphism — comparing people with animals, sorry, reptiles like horny back toads.

Synecdoche — exemplifying parts of an object (a subset of metaphors).

Metonymy — substituting a name to shift focus.

Clichés — overused sayings (also called dead metaphors).

Connotations — a feeling a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

Phonology — the sounds produced by language.

Syntax — the structure of words, sentences, paragraphs, and so forth.

Idioms — descriptive word groups like raining cats and dogs.

Ambiguity — words with two or more outward ways of meaning.

Polysemy — several meanings in the same word.

Homonymy — different words with same sound (to, too, two).

Hyperbole — exaggerated words and phrases.

Understatement — presenting something as being smaller, worse, or less important.

Synonyms — alike descriptors.

Antonyms — opposite descriptors.

Proverbs — short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.

Onomatopoeia — formation of a word from a sound associated with what is (cuckoo).

Alliteration — same letter/sound beginning or adjacent to or closely connected words.

Oxymoron — figure of speech which contradicts terms (military intelligence).

Paradox — seemingly absurd statement that turns out to be true.

Allusion — expression calling something to mind without explicitly mentioning it .

Pun — the pigs were a squeal (if you’ll forgive the pun).

I found more figurative examples of semantics, and I learned some things about this peculiar language called English. I’m sure this clarity will help improve my writing craft skills which is a good thing. But I came no closer to understanding how the horny back toad fell into any of these figurative speech categories.

I popped outa the rabbit hole, toadless, and thought this out. There has to be something simple here. Probably hiding in plain sight. I’ll take the song apart, bit by bit.

Okay, “yellow brick road” I get. It’s the fast life and Bernie wants Elton to leave it for a simpler life like going back to his “plough” at his “old man’s farm” whose earlier advice he should’ve taken. That’s pretty clear. So is “not signed up with you” and “I’m not a present for your friends to open” which are very powerful statements when you dwell on them.

“This boy’s too young to be singing the blues”? I think I understand that figurative reference. Same with “the dogs of society howl.” And “can’t plant me in your penthouse” really adds to the story – greatly helps to paint the big picture.

“Shoot down the plane”, “couple of vodka and tonics”, and “set you on your feet again” make things clearer yet as to what Bernie Taupin was saying through Elton John’s voice. ‘Get a replacement”, “plenty like me to be found”, “mongrels who ain’t got a penny sniffing for tidbits on the ground” — I get it all.

But what I still didn’t get was, “back to the howling old owl in the woods hunting the horny back toad.” What am I missing? Let me dissect this some more.

To start with, owls hoot. They don’t howl. And Bernie broke a main writing rule where he used the same two strong descriptors close together on two different subjects—dogs of society howling and the old owl in the woods howling. If I tried that, I’d get 1-Starred on Amazon. But he’s Bernie F’n Taupin so he can do whatever he wants with figurative speech. Sorta like what Stephen King gets away with.

Okay, we got this old owl howling and hunting in the woods. I’ll take that at face value, but it circles to the horny back toad issue. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, like there’s a punctuation error. A missing comma, maybe. It might be a horny, back toad—not a toad with protective protuberances permeating on its back at all. Maybe it’s a back toad that’s just plain horny—as in sexually excited. If the horny, back toad is a male, like most males in any species that get into the rut or swept away in breeding season or liquored-up on a road trip in an out-of-town bar, then it has only one thing on its mind which would cause it to drop its guard. The wise old owl would know this and that the horny, back toad was—in that state—an easy target to glean as a food source thereby assuring the ongoing survival of this owl’s sub-species vis-à-vis the toad’s sexually-indulgent and self-destructing demise.

I ran this by Rita. She said, “No. That’s silly. It makes no sense whatsoever within the context and elements of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road story. What’s that thing you always preach from your detective days? Occam’s razor? Where the simplest answer is usually the correct answer? Go back to basics and think it through.”

I did.

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

Then it hit me. What if there was absolutely no meaning to a howling old owl out there in the woods bent on murdering some poor, defenseless, and aroused toad schmuck? What if Bernie Taupin simply had writer’s block and struggled with something to rhyme with “road” and the word “toad” suddenly popped into his mind? Then Bernie grabbed a random owl to go along with it, added some adjective and adverb figurative descriptors that had to work with the phonology of his lyrics and made Elton John’s voice flow?

Kill Zoners? Can things sometimes be simply this simple? What’s your figurative language interpretation of “hunting the horny back toad”?

How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Difference Engine, CC by SA 4.0

From the 1931 through 2018, Clifton’s Cafeteria was a venerable Los Angeles landmark. Starting a new restaurant in the depth of the Great Depression sounded like folly. Even crazier was the policy of Pay What You Wish at a time when many people were jobless, broke, and hungry. Yet founder Clifford Clinton’s Golden Rule guided the business through many successful decades, his vision shaped in part by his childhood in China as the son of missionaries who ministered to the poor.

Reportedly, at one point, Ray Bradbury was a starving writer who enjoyed a helping of Clinton’s generosity.

Clifton’s Cafeteria took up multiple floors of a downtown LA building and was a decorating mash-up of art deco neon, tiki bar, mountain resort, and cascading waterfalls.

Buffet lines were laden with acres of salads, soups, entrees, fruits, vegetables, colorful Jello creations, pies, cakes, and ice cream. Diners could pick and choose from more than 10,000 food items and no one ever left hungry.

Photo credit: kevinEats.com

What, you ask, does this have to do with writing mysteries?

Recently, I received a gift of the book How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. With nearly 70 contributors, the book feels like the literary equivalent to Clifton’s Cafeteria. It offers a hugely varied smorgasbord of craft tips, along with insights into different genres, trends, and analyses on the state of the mystery.

Some authors write detailed essays that take as much digestion as multi-course banquets. Others deliver bite-size epigraphs that you can pop in your mouth like cocktail meatballs.

Moving along the buffet line of advice, if one chapter doesn’t resonate, you can skip to another by a different author. Each contribution is self-contained, allowing you to read sections in any order without worrying about continuity.

Feel like dessert before your entree? Head to that part of the buffet line.

Craving a particular menu item? Flip to the table of contents to find that topic.

Even famous authors don’t always agree with each other. Jeffrey Deaver writes a chapter entitled Always Outline,” followed by Lee Child’s chapter, Never Outline!”

This book offers nourishing food for thought that’s useful to every reader, no matter your genre, writing experience, or where you come down on the plotting vs. pantsing spectrum.

Subjects range from bleak noir as dark as bitter chocolate to cozies as sweet and fluffy as lemon meringue pie.

The following are some passages that struck me. They made me look at a subject in a fresh way while others reinforced well-worn but forgotten wisdom.

Neil Nyren neatly boils down an important distinction:

Mysteries are about a puzzle. Thrillers are about adrenaline.

Carolyn Hart asks:

Aren’t all mysteries about murder, guns and knives and poison, anger, jealousy and despair? Where is the good?

The good is in the never-quit protagonist who wants to live in a just world. Readers read mysteries and writers write mysteries because we live in an unjust world where evil often triumphs. In the traditional mystery, goodness will be admired and justice will prevail.

Meg Gardiner’s simple definition of plot: “Obstruct desire.”

She also discusses the difference between suspense and tension. “Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension spikes like a Geiger counter at a meltdown.”

And one more gem: “The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.”

My favorite item on Lindsey Davis’s list of advice to aspiring writers: “A synopsis—write it, then ignore it.”

Alex Segura defines noir as:

When we can have some feelings of remorse for a character’s terrible, murderous actions, because deep down, we fear that in the same situation, we’d probably make similar choices.

Hank Phillippi Ryan’s editing suggestions:

Try this random walk method of editing. Pick a page of your manuscript. Any page at all. Remember, even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. Page by page…Is something happening?…[Consider] intent and motivation. Why is this scene here? What work does it do? Does it advance the plot or reveal a secret or develop the character’s conflict?

I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.

Jacqueline Winspear talks about historical mystery: “Your job is to render the reader a curious, attentive, excited, and emotionally involved time-traveler.”

Suzanne Chazin says: “When I sit down to write, my fun comes not from looking into a mirror, but from peeking into someone else’s window.”

Medical thriller author and physician Tess Gerritsen makes a penetrating observation from a sales standpoint:

Thrillers about cancer or HIV or Alzheimer’s seem to have a tough time on the genre market. Perhaps because these subjects are just too close and too painful for us to contemplate, and readers shy away from confronting them in fiction.

Gayle Lynds believes research is more to benefit the writer than the reader:

In the end, we novelists use perhaps a tenth of a percent of the research we’ve done for any one book…only a tiny fraction of the details will make it into your book.

C.M. Surrisi sums up writing mysteries for kids: “Remember your protagonist can’t drive and has a curfew, and no one will believe them or let them be involved.”

Also on children’s mysteries, Chris Grabenstein says:

Here is one of the many beauties about writing for this audience: there is a new group of fifth graders every year. Your mystery has a chance to live a very long shelf life if kids, teachers, and librarians fall in love with it.

Avoid the broccoli books. The ones that are ‘good for children.’

For many adults, the books we read when we were eight to twelve are the ones we remember all our lives.

Art Taylor discusses the mystery short story:

In general, it’s a solid rule to try to do more with less—and to trust your reader to fill in the rest. Suggest instead of describe; imply instead of explain.

Charles Salzberg offers a response to the tired old saw of “write what you know.”

I’ve never been arrested; I have no cops in my family; I’ve only been in a police station once; I’ve never handled a pistol; I’ve never robbed a bank, knocked over a 7-Eleven, or mugged an old lady. I’ve only been in one fight and that was when I was eleven. I’ve never murdered anyone, much less my family, and I’ve never chased halfway around the world to bring a killer to justice. I’ve never searched for a missing person and I’ve never forged a rare book. Yet somehow I find myself as a crime writer who’s written about all those things.

How, if I am supposed to write only what I know, is this possible? Easy. It’s because I have an imagination, possess a fair amount of empathy, have easy access to Google, and like asking questions. If I were limited to writing what I know, I’d be in big trouble because the truth is, I don’t know all that much.

Lyndsay Faye observes: “The school of human culture is much cheaper than a graduate degree. Make use of it.”

She also talks about humor in the writer’s voice:

You needn’t be Janet Evanovich to incorporate jokes into your manuscript, and they needn’t even be jokes. Wry observations, sarcasm, creative insult—humor can be as heavy or as light as you choose. But writers who take their voice too seriously, without that crucial hint of self-deprecation or clever viciousness, will rarely wind up with a memorable result.

Steve Hockensmith covered the “Dos and Don’ts for Wannabe Writers.”

DO write.

DON’T spend more than three months ‘researching’ or ‘brainstorming’ or ‘outlining’ or ‘creating character bios.’ All this might—might—count as work on your book, but it’s not writing.

DON’T spend too much time reading about how to write.

DO keep reading this book. I didn’t mean for you to stop reading our writing advice.

Laurie R. King shares her method of rewriting:

Personally I prefer to make all my notes, corrections, and queries on a physical printout. In part, that’s because I’m old school, but it also forces me to consider any changes twice—once when I mark the page, then again when I return to put it into the manuscript. This guarantees that if I added something on page 34, then realized a better way to do it when I hit page 119, I’ve had the delay for reflection, gaining perspective as to which is better for the overall story.

Leslie Budewitz (a familiar guest on TKZ) talks about problem solving:

The same brain that created the problem can create the solution—but not if you keep thinking the same way.

So do something different. Write the next scene from the antagonist’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use it. Write longhand with a pen…instead of at your keyboard.

If you write in first person, try third. If you write in third, let your character rip in a diary only she—and you—will ever see.

Your brain, your beautiful creative brain, will find another way, if you give it a chance.

Frankie Y. Bailey explores diversity in crime fiction from the starting point every writer faces: “We have characters, setting, and a plot. We need to weave aspects of diversity through all these elements of our stories.”

TKZ’s own Elaine Viets offers this no-nonsense message: “When I spoke at a high school, a student asked, ‘What do you do about writer’s block?’ ‘Writer’s block doesn’t exist,’ I said. ‘It’s an indulgence.’”

Talking about protagonists, Allison Brennan shares “two particular qualities that leave a lasting impression on readers: forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

T. Jefferson Parker sees “two types of villain: the private and the public.”

The private ones seek no acknowledgement for their deeds…they shun the spotlight and avoid detection. The public ones proclaim themselves, trumpet their wickedness, and revel in the calamity.

He also touches on the crime author’s moral dilemma:

My literary amigos and I go back and forth on this. We know we traffic in violence and heartless behavior. We ride and write on the backs of victims. We suspect that our fictional appropriations of the world’s pain do little to assuage it. Worse, we wonder if we might just be feeding the worst in human nature by putting it center stage. Do we inspire heartless violence by portraying it?

Stephen Ross demonstrates the use of subtext (unspoken meaning) in his example of a shopping list:

Milk

Bread

Eggs

Hammer

Shovel

Quicklime

Champagne

 

I highlighted many more passages but I’ll stop now because this post is running almost as long as the book itself.

How to Write a Mystery is a book that you can read whether you need a substantial dinner or a quick snack.

It might not offer the 10,000 items that Clifton’s Cafeteria did but it comes close.

 

 

~~~

TKZers: Did any of the above quotes especially hit you? Do you have a favorite craft handbook you refer to over and over?

First Page Critique: Kangaroo Court

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a British ‘book club thriller’ – initially set in Wales (note: Yr Wydffa is the Welsh name for Snowden – just to give some context – and spelling is English spelling). Enjoy – my comments follow:
Kangaroo Court
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile.
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest, trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence.
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion.
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure?
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was going back.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment, slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England.
Overall Comments
When our brave submitter sent this in the note read ‘I don’t think the opening works but I don’t know what to do about it’…and this is where I think we all can help:)
For me, at least, the critical issue in this opener is understanding and caring about the main protagonist. The beginning is confusing as it already introduces us to 3 characters in addition to the protagonist – I was immediately asking myself who is Boscombe? who is Penny? Who is Paddy?..when ultimately what I really wanted to know is ‘who is Dave?’
My main advice to our submitter is to focus on introducing the reader to Dave and giving us enough insight into him as a character so we are motivated to care about him before introducing anyone else.
To be successful, this first page needs to draw the reader in close. We need to get a sense of the stakes and a hint at least of the kind of dilemma Dave might face. At the moment I don’t have a strong sense of his identity or character (or indeed what the book is going to be about). Everything about Dave is told to us/described in terms of a relationship to other characters which we also don’t know yet. This makes it very confusing.
Dave is also alone throughout the first page…and if you remember from my blog post a few months ago, agents and editors really don’t like this! Interaction with another character helps show us why we should care about the protagonist. Without dialogue or action, a character alone can feel very detached and inward looking. This first page illustrates this problem well – We’re so wrapped up in Dave’s thoughts that we don’t really understand who Dave is, or why we should care about his ongoing guilt/anger over Boscombe’s death. To overcome this, we need to see Dave in a situation where he’s interacting with other characters and where we get hints of backstory and more dramatic tension that leaves us wanting to read more.
Many of these overall comments can be best explained in a closer, more detailed, reading of the first page. To this end, I’ve copied the text and inserted my specific comments to (hopefully) better illustrate what I mean. I’ve also highlighted some recommendations in italics for our brave submitter – these are just some initial thoughts but they might help guide future revisions.
Specific Comments
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. So it sounds like summer, but why is he enjoying the pain? Where is he? Why has he stopped the car? Recommendation: Start off grounding us in the scene – maybe he looks at Snowdon right now – maybe we get a glimpse of backstory. Ideally he should have another character with him who can engage in dialogue/ conflict. What if it’s Paddy or Penny? What if they tell him to throw away the photo of Boscombe. Might even be more dramatic that Dave’s pulled over because of an argument – we can get all the backstory we need then as he and another character argue over Boscombe or Penny’s reunion – anything to get a reader invested in the story 
He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile. (Why are we being introduced to another person/name when we don’t even know who Dave is?…) 
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead. I like this stream of consciousness but it’s too early – we aren’t grounded yet in Dave as a character. Also confusing as previous sentence made us think Boscombe was actually there. Difficult for a reader to start off already confused.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest (The word ‘behest’ stopped me as it made it sound like Dave had asked Boscombe), trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence. (Again, we don’t know Dave, let alone his sudden motivation to get rid of a photo of a dead person we also don’t know…)
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion. (Who’s Penny? The reader doesn’t yet know enough about Dave to care about this – also what kind of reunion? What relationship is Penny to Dave – too vague for us to care)
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure? Recommendation: Slow down. Let us know more about Dave first and why he’s on this road – what kind of ‘cure’ or redemption  is he seeking? We need hints at least about backstory re: Boscombe so we can care. Still recommend having interaction or dialogue with another character to reveal this. Reference to Penny makes it only more confusing as we don’t have content for her (or Boscomber) at all.
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. Like this but we need to be grounded – readers may not know these places at all and why are we getting so specific when we don’t really know the journey Dave is making? His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was no(?) going back. So we’ve switched from Boscombe to a surprise announcement and the introduction of another character we don’t know (Paddy)….also now a reference to a surprise announcement. Too may unknowns by this point in the first page. Recommendation: Slow down – don’t include this in first paragraph unless critical as it’s too confusing.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment (this is very specific and also sounds a bit odd. I don’t normally expect people to have dried dates in their car – more likely a mint or a sweet in England so this begs the question why dates and does this raise anything re: Dave’s background (?). Need more detail to feel authentic. Also we have far more detail about this sensation than why he’s stopped the car or where he’s headed etc.), slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England. Still a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with geography or how Welsh people view England – need perhaps to make clearer. Also this is the first we know (as readers) that Dave’s driving to England.
Recommendation: Make it clear from the start that Dave is driving to England from Wales for Penny’s reunion. Then have an argument/conflict to reveal Boscombe backstory. Then add something about Dave’s conflicted feelings/guilt.
Hopefully both these overall and specific comments help provide a guide for revising this first page moving forward. I think the key thing to focus on is anchoring the reader in the scene (where is Dave? where is he heading?) and introducing us to the protagonist through action or dialogue that helps us feel invested in the conflict (and the Boscombe backstory) moving forward.
TKZers what advice or feedback would you offer our brave submitter?

True Crime Thursday – Are You Dead or Alive Scam

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Annie Spratt – Unsplash

 

Attorney Steve Weisman runs a great website called Scamicide.com where he posts daily updates about scams making the rounds. I subscribe to it and highly recommend it to keep current with the latest iterations concocted by criminals.

Added bonus: scams make good story fodder in the devious minds of crime writers.

Recently Steve wrote about a particularly funny email from Nigeria (quoted with Steve’s permission):

 

“From: Mr. Chris jack <hanskaffa@kabelfoon.net>
To:
Sent: Thu, May 6, 2021 10:26 am
Subject: Good Day

I am writing to confirm if you are DEAD or ALIVE and failure to reply back within 48hrs, simply means what Rev Patrick Larry said today was right that you are dead. As he was trying to claim your compensation funds worth $ 850,000.00 from United Nations for USA scams victims. Rev Patrick Larry has offered to pay the needed fee for the Bond Stamp Duty fee of your funds, but we have not gotten the money from him yet, as we want to find out if you are dead or not, Below is the information needed from you Name: ______ Phone: _________ Address: ________Email:
_______ Occupation: __________ So if you are still alive you are advice in your own best interest to reply back immediately with your full details as stated for your funds.Best Regards,
Mr Chris jack,
chairman payment transfer department IMF.”

That rascal Rev Patrick Larry is spreading false rumors about your demise, while greedily attempting to cash in on compensation that’s rightfully due to you.

How dare he?

Of course, there is no United Nations fund that compensates scam victims.

A Bond Stamp Duty fee is typical scammer BS. To an unsuspecting victim, the term sounds official but is totally bogus.

If an innocent soul fell for this, the next email might request payment of the Bond Stamp Duty fee by a gift card or wire transfer (both of which are untraceable and cannot be recovered). Mr. Chris jack also needs bank account details so he can deposit the $850K. And for good measure, better include the beneficiary’s Social Security number in case taxes have to be withheld.

For the beneficiary’s further convenience, Mr. Chris jack also graciously sent a link to click…that downloads malware.  

Side note: I learned about the above criminal tactics from Steve and Scamicide.

If you receive such an email, you could respond by quoting Mark Twain: 

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

On second thought, better to just hit the trash button.

~~~

TKZers:

Are you dead or alive? 

In the comment section, please share the latest scam email you or someone you know has received. 

~~~

 

 

In Stalking Midas, a glamorous con artist creates an elaborate scam to bilk senior citizens who are concerned about their pets. Please check out Debbie Burke’s thriller at Amazon or other online retailers.

 

Attitude

Attitude. It’s the one thing you have total control over. Your own mental attitude.

That’s your attitude toward your writing. Your attitude toward your writing community. Your attitude toward society at large. And your attitude toward life overall.

This post is short. Recently, I was told I write encyclopedic posts (not mentioning names, Steve) but that was meant in a positive way, just like I try to keep my attitude – positive.

I’m a life-long Napoleon Hill student. If you don’t know of Napoleon Hill and his classic self-development treasure Think and Grow Rich, go read it. The core of Napoleon Hill’s Science of Personal Achievement is “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve with positive mental attitude.” PMA, for short. Here’s a clip from T&GR:

Your own mental attitude is your real boss. While your time and your labor may be subject to the demands of your employer and others, your mind is the one thing that cannot be controlled by anyone but you. The thoughts you think, your attitude toward your job, and what you are willing to give in exchange for the compensation you are paid are entirely up to you. It is up to you to determine whether you will be a slave to a negative attitude or the master of a positive one. Your attitude, your only master in life, is entirely within your control. When you control your attitude toward events, you control the eventual implication of those events.”

Attitude. You can have a negative mental attitude. Or, you can decide to have a positive mental attitude. I won’t go into all the pros and cons of good vs bad mental attitudes because I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post. So, I’ll keep this short at 382 words.

Attitude. The word is eight letters long. Our English alphabet has 26 letters, and each has a numeric value as they progress along the alphabetic table.

Attitude

A =    1
T =  20
T =  20
I =     9
T =  20
U =  21
D =    4
E =    5
      100

Kill Zoners? On a scale of 1 to 100, from negative to positive, how’s your attitude today? Mine usually runs in the 90s, and I have a safety net built into the system if it drops below 80. That’s my positive wife of 38 years, Rita, who keeps me in check and makes my life wonderful.