Interview with Blackstone Publishing’s Rick Bleiweiss

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, please welcome Rick Bleiweiss, Head of New Business Development for Blackstone Publishing. Rick is a former record company senior executive, Grammy-nominated producer, podcaster, and journalist. He is also the author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, a mystery set in 1910 in a sleepy English village, to be released in February 2022.

Rick Bleiweiss

 

 

…what I’m doing at 77 years of age [is] an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

 

 

 

Debbie Burke: Blackstone Publishing is unusual in that they started with audiobooks then later added print and ebooks. Could you tell us about that shift and the reasons behind it?

Rick Bleiweiss: The decision to begin publishing books and ebooks in addition to audiobooks was made about seven years ago. We published our first books in 2015. It was primarily driven by three things.

First, the more popular audiobooks became the more other publishers held onto those rights, made their own audiobooks, and stopped licensing them to other companies, such as Blackstone.

Second, we felt that we could succeed well as a publisher of books and audiobooks and have those as another income stream. And we felt we could ramp up quickly as we already were evaluating manuscripts, involved with authors and storytellers, and selling and distributing audiobooks to many of the same buyers at accounts whom we’d be selling books and eBooks to. So that would make it an easy transition.

An added benefit of licensing all rights to a book – print, ebook, audiobook – is that we would be getting the audios, which would start making up for the ones we were no longer getting from some other publishers.

Third, the vision of Blackstone’s CEO (and owners) was to make Blackstone into more than just a traditional publishing company, but rather to turn it into a media company that has publishing and storytelling as its foundation, but also is involved in securing film & tv deals and being a media producer, creating intellectual properties, doing video games, comic books and magazines, and creating and selling merchandising. And we are doing all of that today and more, including owning our own printing plant so that we can make everything in house and never be out of print.

Regarding how we started our print program, early on we obtained the rights to the Max Brand and Loius L’Amour catalogs and signed a number of authors who had some past success but were not yet major sellers. Then it really kicked up a notch when I signed PC & Kristin Cast and we published the last of their books in their 12-million selling House of Night series. Then our CEO Josh Stanton and I got the James Clavell catalog, and I signed Natasha Boyd, who has had one of our biggest on-going books, the USAToday best-seller, The Indigo Girl. That was closely followed by signing Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his Hell Divers series.

DB: In 2019, Blackstone, a family-owned, independent press, made news by luring heavy hitters Meg Gardiner, Steve Hamilton, and Reed Farrel Coleman away from Penguin Random House. Without spilling any secrets, do you anticipate Blackstone’s further expansion of authors who may be disgruntled with the Big Five?

RB: Actually, they were not the first nor have they been the last, although they were major signings. I wouldn’t characterize it as disgruntled with the Big Five as much as wanting to go with a different publisher paradigm. Josh Stanton and I were able to license the aforementioned entire James Clavell catalog (including his classic Asian Series featuring Sho-Gun) and Gregory McDonald’s catalog (Fletch and Flynn series) both of which I believe had been with Dell for many years but whose estates were looking for something different. Other authors who we have signed to do print and eBooks who have also been with major publishers are Sherilyn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Catherine Coulter, Rex Pickett, James Carroll, Peter Clines, Andrews & Wilson, PC & Kristin Cast, Josh Hood, a good part of the Leon Uris catalog, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Al Roker, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Adrian McKinty, Orson Scott Card, M.C. Beaton, Matthew Mather, Don Winslow, Shelley Shepherd Gray, Catherine Ryan Howard, The Black Berets series and quite a few others.

I think that many people are starting to realize that we are expanding well beyond the role of a traditional publisher and that we are looking at what tomorrow’s successful media/publishing companies will be like and look like, rather than the traditional way of doing things. Hopefully, we have taken the best time-honored industry practices and augmented them with newer ways of looking at what a publisher can and should do. As an example, we have a head of film/tv who got deals for eight of our books within the last three months.

DB: Please describe a day in the life of Head of New Business Development.

RB: Fortunately, because it keeps my business life interesting, there have been many different things I’ve done in that role. I’ve bought other companies for Blackstone (such as the direct-to-consumer company, Audio Editions), licensed our technology to other audiobook companies, arranged distribution deals with other publishers, made introductions between Blackstone and high-profile tech and content companies, I am on Blackstone’s Board of Directors, I put together the relationship between Blackstone and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which resulted in Grammy-winning audio versions of their Shakespeare plays, I co-created a series of books by Native American elders to preserve their wisdom, humor and teachings.

In short, I have had my fingers in a lot of different pies and strive to be one of the people at the company who keeps Blackstone moving forward as well as in new directions.

DB: What specifically captures your attention when you review submissions?

RB: Since the majority of the acquisitions work that I’ve been doing lately has been more focused on celebrities, best-selling authors and hit catalogs, rather than on debut authors, I look for different things now than I did when I was evaluating day-to-day acquisitions. When I did that, I would look to see if the synopsis intrigued me, if I thought the story was something that the public would be interested in, what the author’s background, social media involvement and overall commitment to being a writer were, and what our sales and marketing people thought they could do with the book. And, of course, finally, was the writing any good?

For an author who wants to submit a query to an agent or a publisher (and submitting to an agent is probably a way lot easier than submitting directly to a publisher) they should make sure to know something about each person they are submitting to so they can personalize each letter/email. The author has to make sure the genre they are submitting is a genre the agent or publisher works in. The query letter should also contain a short, but effective, synopsis of the story, the author’s bio, comps to other books, anyone they could get to endorse the book who would be meaningful, and, if possible, something that perks the reader’s interest and sets the query letter apart from the hundreds of others that the agent/publisher has received.

DB: Tell us about your own writing.

RB: When I was twelve, I hammered out the first two-page sports newspaper that I wrote on my old Royal manual typewriter and sold the two carbon copies I made of it to neighbors. Over the decades since that time, I have written multiple newspaper columns, magazine columns and articles (including cover stories), blogs, copy for a local political committee and candidates, contributed chapters to two anthologies of short stories, and have written six, as yet unpublished and unproduced books and plays, and a rock opera.

My “breakthrough” came when I wrote Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, an historical fiction mystery novel set in the countryside town of Haxford, England in 1910. It will be published in hardcover by Blackstone on February 8, 2022. An eccentric, but gifted police inspector named Pignon Scorbion, who possesses the skills of Poirot and Holmes, comes to Haxford to head its law enforcement. Through a prior friendship with the town’s barber, Scorbion begins solving his cases in the barbershop assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuth assistants – the barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant, female bookshop owner who is more than a match for Scorbion in observation, deduction and brains.

Scorbion’s ‘universe’ includes Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Dr. John Watson, with whom Scorbion has become friends, and I’ve written the book in the style of the authors of that time and genre.

DB: What’s in the future for author Rick Bleiweiss?

RB: I’ve completed writing over 95% of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Book 2 which I believe will be published in early 2023. Without spoiling anything, it contains a case about a man who is shot and killed by an arrow while riding alone in a hot air balloon, another about the shoeshine man’s visiting cousin who is attacked and brutally beaten, a third involving a blacksmith who is murdered while walking home in the early morning, and lastly, a moneylender who is poisoned and dies in one of the barber’s chairs.

I also have a piece in an anthology of mystery short stories called Hotel California that is publishing in May, 2022. I join some real heavyweights in the book including Heather Graham, Andrew Child (who has contributed a new Jack Reacher story to the anthology), Amanda Flower, Reed Farrel Coleman, John Gilstrap, Jennifer Dornbush, and Don Bruns, all of whom have written new stories for the volume.

My story is about a premier NYC hitman named Walker who escapes a hit on his life and hides out in Maui while another hitman is sent to finish him off. It’s a cat and mouse game of who gets who.

I also will have another Walker story in the follow-up anthology, Thriller, due in mid-2023.

Lastly, at least for now, in January I have stories being published in Strand Magazine detailing a lot of the research I did for the Scorbion book, and another in Crime Reads Magazine in which I talk in depth about my favorite all-time mystery authors.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: We are launching Scorbion in a somewhat unconventional manner. There is a Pignon Scorbion ‘Find the Hidden Objects” video game that will be available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. It will have six levels based on scenes in the book, but you will have to input an unlock code to play the last two – and that code is in the book and the audiobook. Shane Salerno of the Story Factory made a wonderful video trailer for the book, there will be retail display contests, we are making and will be selling Scorbion t-shirts, the book has already been voted the Buzz Book of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn’s fall conference, has been featured multiple times in Publishers Weekly (including an excellent review), will be featured by BookBub on publication date, I am hosting a YouTube show interviewing authors and literary agents as they talk about their careers and give advice to aspiring authors, and we are going to make a strong media push hoping to get what I’m doing at 77 years of age as an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

~~~

Thank you, Rick, for joining us at The Kill Zone. Best of luck with the February 2022 launch of Pignon Scorbion & The Barbershop Detectives!

Christopher Columbus and the Discovery Method

 

Discover: verb. to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown).

Before I begin, let me note that I’m not addressing the issues of the treatment of indigenous peoples by the early explorers. I’m simply looking at the accidental discovery of the Americas.

One might argue that Columbus didn’t “discover” the New World since people already lived there. Others may point out that Norsemen landed in Newfoundland hundreds of years before Columbus. But the discovery in 1492 was the singular event that led to a worldwide understanding of the geography of our planet and resulted in an exciting new age of exploration.

In the fifteenth century, many European leaders longed for quick access to the riches of the Far East, but land travel to Asia was perilous. The only known sea route was by sailing south along the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and on to Asia. But that was a long, slow journey.

Into this moment in history stepped the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, and as we all know, he proposed a different solution to the problem: sailing directly west from Europe to Asia. Columbus wasn’t the only person who believed the Earth was round – most educated people of that era agreed – but he was the one who was willing to risk his life on it.

Columbus was an excellent seaman and one of the most experienced navigators of his time. However, the data he used to calculate the length of the voyage was faulty. The circumference of the Earth was considered to be much smaller than it actually is, and the Asian land mass was thought to extend much farther to the east than it does. Using these data, he calculated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 2,400 miles. Actually, it’s more than 10,000 miles. One can only wonder if he would have attempted the voyage if he had known the true distance.

By 1484, Columbus had drawn up plans for a westward expedition into the Atlantic Ocean to fulfill the dream of finding a faster route to Asia and its riches, but his request for support was turned down by every government he approached as being too risky.  Undeterred, he kept trying, and eventually he secured funding from several sources including the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The rest, as they say, is history.

***

Perhaps we can define Christopher Columbus as the first hybrid plotter/pantser. (Okay, now you see where I’m going with this.) There are a lot of similarities. Columbus had an end goal in mind, but he didn’t simply hop in a boat and head out. His persistence and hard work got his voyage funded. He used the knowledge that was available to him at the time to plan his voyage (albeit his calculation of the length of the trip was woefully mistaken). He was a skilled navigator who had made many successful voyages around the coasts of Europe, and he wisely decided on the starting point from the Canary Islands to take advantage of the favorable trade winds. Still, to set sail into the unknown was an act of courage and faith that I suspect few had then or have today.

Of course, he could not have foreseen the magnificent surprise that awaited him some weeks after he set sail.

***

The Discovery Method in writing is often defined as pantsing or “writing by the seat of your pants.” But maybe it’s closer to the Christopher Columbus hybrid method. Is using this approach a way to happen onto an idea or a phrase that we wouldn’t have come upon otherwise? Will the discovery method offer us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves by launching into the unknown with a partially-developed plan? Is it possible to produce a work that is new and revolutionary through the discovery method?

So, TKZers: Are you a plotter? A pantser? Or a hybrid plantser? Have you happened onto any unexpected discoveries in your writing? Maybe you’ve experimented with a new idea to extend yourself beyond the safe haven of what has always worked for you.

Is the possibility of discovering something new worth the risk of failure by launching out into the unknown?

 

 

 

The Hat and Telling Details

The Hat and Telling Details

by Steve Hooley

Today is National Hat Day. The topic is the hat, more specifically the type of hat and the telling detail.

So, let’s put on our writer’s hat, take off our hat to the “telling detail,” and hang our hat on the proposition that the hat may be the best telling detail.

I had no idea that hats were so popular. When I looked on Pixaby for an image of a hat, I found 101 pages with 10,012 images. Who knew? People love their hats (their specific hat). Consider a number of idioms that use the word “hat.”

  • Put on your (occupation) hat
  • Take off your hat to (someone you want to give praise)
  • Hang one’s hat on (something you can rely on)
  • Hat’s off to (someone you want to praise)
  • Where do you hang your hat? (live or reside)
  • Tip one’s hat (congratulate)

And then there’s a list of superstitions about hats. which we won’t go into.

The following is some information listed on the National Day Calendar:

NATIONAL HAT DAY HISTORY

Since at least 1983, National Hat Day has been observed in libraries, schools, and museums. They have invited students and patrons to wear their favorite hat or hats of their occupation. People of all ages show up in pirate hats and football helmets. Patrol officers, postal workers, restaurant servicers also wear their hats to various events. That date also commemorates the day in 1797 when the first top hat made its appearance in court. Created by haberdasher John Hetherington, the judge claimed the tall, rather prominent hat disturbed the public.

Hats FAQ

  1. When did hats become less fashionable?
    A. Before the 1950s, men and women wore hats as much for a fashion statement as for protection and warmth. However, several possible reasons that faded the hat fad include:
  • Improved technology – Heating buildings became more efficient and effectively reduced the need for a hat indoors.
  • Freedom – During World War II, hats were part of many uniforms including the military. When service members returned home, they ditched the hat with the uniform.
  • Transportation – Before affordable transportation and smooth roads crossed the country, most people rode public transportation or walked. With the increased popularity of the automobile came decreased headroom for hats.
  • Hairstyles – Especially for women, hats covered big, fancy hairstyles.
  • Hatless public figures – One notable figure who may have started a lasting trend was President John F. Kennedy.

So, why do people wear hats?

Again, according to the National Day Calendar:

We wear hats for numerous reasons. Many hats protect us from elements or harm. Others were worn for ceremonial or religious reasons. Some hats just make us look good or cover up what we think doesn’t. Through the centuries, we’ve given our hats a lot of meaning.

  • In the Middle Ages, hats indicated social status.
  • In the military, hats may denote one’s nationality, branch of service, rank, and/or regiment.
  • A Thebes tomb painting depicts one of the first pictorials of a hat.  The painting shows a man wearing a conical straw hat.
  • Structured hats for women began to be worn in the late 16th century.
  • Millinery is the designing and manufacture of hats.
  • The term “milliner” is derived from the city of Milan, Italy. The best quality hats were made in Milan in the 18th century.
  • Millinery traditionally began as a woman’s occupation, as the milliner created hats and bonnets and chose lace, trim, and accessories to complete any outfit.
  • In the mid-1920s, to replace the bonnets and wide-brimmed hats, women began to wear smaller hats that hugged their heads.

Okay, now to the telling detail. Besides social status and occupation, hats often tell us about attitude or what people think of themselves. I noticed on Pixabay that some people (I’m not mentioning gender) seemed to think “their” hat said it all, or at least “they” didn’t need to wear anything else. (Don’t everyone rush over there at the same time to look.)

This all made me finally realize—okay, I’m a slow learner—that instead of flowery descriptions of characters’ height, weight, eye color, hair color, fit and expense of clothing, etc., etc., what we really need to know is what kind of hat do they wear.

Yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point. A majority of people don’t wear hats. But what better telling detail can you find than the character’s hat? I’m certain that you will find some. That’s the point of today’s exercise.

And, if you don’t wear a hat, and want to know all the different styles, and what would be right for you and your personality, here are links to hat styles for men and women:

Men’s Hats

Women’s Hats

Now that we’ve reviewed hats, it’s your turn:

  • What kind of hat do you wear (or would be appropriate for you)? Any interesting history behind that choice? And what does it say about you?
  • Have you created an interesting character whose hat (or item of clothing they always wear, or something they always carry) tells the reader what they really need to know about that character?
  • Any interesting hat stories about you, your family, or your characters?

Whose Story Are You Telling?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard writing instructors over the years tout the three elements of storytelling: plot, character and setting. We all know what the words mean, and we know how they apply to creating entertaining fiction, but all too often, I think that new writers think of the elements as craft silos instead of the strands of a craft cable–intertwined elements that must work together if a story is going to resonate with the reader.

I prefer to think of the elements this way: interesting characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places. (If you’d prefer, you can replace “interesting” with “compelling”.)

Character is king. A plot by itself is merely an outline. It doesn’t come to life until the reader experiences the plot through the eyes and feelings of a character they care about. Setting is merely a descriptive essay until a character interacts with it.

Let’s say, for example, a section of your story is set in a desert on a hot afternoon. An English 101 professor would likely be happy to reward an essay that presents a mental snapshot of the bright sun, colorful rocks and sparse flora. That reporting of facts might please a newspaper editor as well.

But look what happens when we inject characters into the equation:

Bob pushed the door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze. The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with intense reds and blues and yellows.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

The description, as presented to the reader, also lets us learn about Bob’s worldview. We don’t have to say that he thinks the place is beautiful, because that’s all in the narrative voice.

Here’s another description of the exact same scene, but filtered through the worldview of a very different character:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Superheated air hit Danny with what felt like a physical blow.  The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood.  As he took in scrub growth and the rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain.  Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.

A desert is a desert, right? From a plot perspective, each description takes the story to the exact same place, but by filtering the observations through the characters’ souls, the reader gets to know them better, and they don’t have to endure a disembodied descriptive paragraph.

That voice of the character can infect every paragraph of every scene. I like to say that I make a point as the writer for MY voice to be invisible throughout every story. Every scene is presented to the reader through the voice and view of the scene’s POV character. This is less complicated (note I didn’t say easier) in a first person POV, I think, because the narrator tells the entire story. When writing in third person, one of the critical decisions the writer needs to make for every scene is to determine to whom the scene belongs.

Consider this: Your story requires a scene where a thirteen year old boy steps out the back door of a bar at midnight and lights a cigarette. Let’s say that the kid is signaling someone with the match.

If we present the scene from the kid’s point of view, if he chokes on the smoke, we have a character detail that is different than if he were to inhale deeply and find peace. Is his heart pounding, or is he calm?

If we present the scene from the point of view of the guy being signaled to, his voice will tell us whether he likes the kid or hates him. Is the signal a happy event or a troubling event?

Perhaps we present the scene from the point of view of a passing cop. That would put the story on a different path–unless, perhaps, the cop was the one being signaled.

Assuming that any of the points of view would advance the plot to the same point, we need to decide whose POV is most compelling for the reader. Let’s say now that the scene ends with the kid getting shot. Perhaps we start the scene from the kid’s point of view, and then switch after a space break to the shooter’s POV. Or, vice versa.

These decisions make all the difference between a compelling story and a ho-hum one.

So, TKZ brain trust, what are your thoughts? Do your characters drive every beat of your story?

Would I Lie To You? A Case Against The Unreliable Narrator

By PJ Parrish

I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott’s movies. Yeah, even that smaltzy one A Good Year, with Russell Crowe as a heartless London banker who chucks it all to live in a moldy French villa with Marion Cotillard. So I was a happy clam when I unwrapped a Christmas gift from the husband — the director’s cut of Blade Runner. 

The husband had never seen the seminal 1982 cyber-noir masterpiece so I was thrilled to introduce him to it. But then…

Toward the end of the movie, there are two scenes that Scott had reinserted. In one Harrison Ford’s character Deckard has a dream about a unicorn. Later, when he’s escaping with his lady-love replicant Rachael, he finds an origami of a unicorn, left by his ex police partner Gaff.  This signals that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream because it’s not really Deckard’s. The dream is fake, implanted to give a “back story” needed to stabilize the replicant’s artificial personality.

So Deckard is really an android? I had always seen him as human. But with this latest viewing, now I have to question everything he says and does.

This debate, I’ve discovered, has been raging for more than three decades. I haven’t read the Philip Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but it’s said Dick wrote Deckard as a human in order to explore the increasing similarity of humans and replicants. Harrison Ford has long maintained that Deckard is human. (One reason is that replicants are super-strong and Deckard gets the snot kicked out of him throughout the movie). But Ridley Scott is on that record saying Deckard’s a droid.

Does it matter? In terms of my enjoyment of the movie, no. But in terms of Deckard’s reliability as a narrator, it certainly does. The story takes on completely different tones depending on whether you see him as man or machine — and whether or not Deckard himself does.

Which is a long way to go to introduce what I wanted to talk about — unreliable narrators.

We’ve had many great posts here on the subject. But I’m sort of obsessed with this today, given that now I am dreaming of electric sheep. Plus I just cracked open Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I loved the movie so thought I should finally read the book with it’s uber-liar Briony Tallis.

Reading a well-conceived unreliable narrator is a treat. Writing one can be a nightmare. It’s a hard technique to pull off, and frankly, it’s become a bit stale in crime fiction and thrillers since Gone Girl.  So if you’re thinking of trying this at home, give me a chance to try and talk you out of it.

What exactly is an unreliable narrator? It’s not a matter of just fibbing. Simply put, this is a character whose account of the story is supposed to be authoritative for whatever reason, is suspect.

There are as many reasons for this as there are demons in the human heart and head. Unreliable narrators can be just pathological liars like Verbel Kent in The Usual Suspects and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Or they might be biased in some way that affects their thinking and ability to give the reader a clear picture. Some unreliable archetypes:

Mentally ill: Chuck Palahnick’s narrator in Fight Club has debilitating insomnia that makes him sound irrational. Amnesia is a trope on verge of cliche. I used it myself in my thriller She’s Not There and you find in the cult movie Memento. Vonnegut warns us about Bill Pilgrim’s unreliability in Slaughterhouse Five’s great opening line: “All of this happened, more or less.” And in A Beautiful Mind, we don’t find out until the movie is well along that John Nash is schizophrenic and that his version of reality cannot be trusted.

Children: By virtue of their limited experience and gullibility, kids can’t be trusted narrators. I loved the 9-year-old boy in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close who is searching for his dad post 9/11. But I didn’t buy the narration of the boy trapped with his mother in Emma Donoghue’s celebrated Room. In the latter, the boy tells us, “When I was a kid I thought like a kid, but now I’m five and I know everything.” Right…

The Naif. The narrator here has a limited world view, naive in nature, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or in Winston’s Groom’s innocent in Forrest Gump. I’d even put Huck Finn in this category.

Dead People or Ghosts: Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones is the best example here, although I wasn’t crazy about the book. A little sentimental for my taste. Amy Tan has a great ghost character in Saving Fish From Drowning. This trope is popular in movies — Kevin Spacey’s first person narrative in American Beauty, for example. And of course, poor Bruce Willis is in deep denial over his protoplasmic presence in The Sixth Sense. This is not a device for beginners, I’d say. Unless you’re solidly in paranormal land.

Okay, so you still are determined to try to do this in your book? I haven’t scared you off or convinced you to go with an easier method? Sigh. All righty then. Let’s ask some tough questions:

Can you write well in the first person? In a way, all first-person POVs are unreliable in the sense that all the info the reader gets is filtered only through one consciousness. Most unreliable narrator novels are in the first person. So unless you can sustain a normal first person POV, taking the next leap to a true unreliable narrator will be above your pay grade.

Are you going for a gimmick? Be honest. If you’re writing from a kid’s POV or using amnesia or a mental illness, you have to ask yourself if you’re merely looking for a crutch to prop up a weak plot. Or are you looking for easy way to get noticed?

How much stamina do you have? I’ve written one first-person POV book and it was exhausting because I had to find so many other methods of providing depth. It will be even harder with an unreliable narrative because you, the writer, have to constantly assess how much — or how  little — information you are dribbling out to the reader. Also and this is very important: You must be in total control of a character who is not in control of himself. If you’re a pantser who believes that characters just lead the writer around by the nose, you’ll be lost with an unreliable guide. Consider, too, that it is not easy for a rational person (you, the writer) to “become” an irrational person. This is why so many serial killers feel wooden.

Can you act someone else’s age? If your narrator is too young or immature, it’s hard to entrust them with the full weight of an entire story. Teens are easier to pull off, but children can be wearying. Why? Because everything you write — words, syntax, description — must be filtered through a child’s mind and eye. This is why I couldn’t finish Room. I just got tired of listening to a 6 year old.

And the last and most important thing to ask yourself:

Confess or conceal? You must decide whether to reveal that the character is unreliable up front or make it a twist deep in your story. In one of my fave books, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, we are told that everything Odd Thomas says should taken with a grain of salt:

Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.

Don’t worry about it. You’ll know the truth soon enough.

The unreliable narrator is one of the trickiest literary devices to get right. Get it wrong, and your plot falls apart and the reader gets bored or frustrated. It can feel manipulative, confusing, and often pretentious. When it’s done right, though, it can be powerful.

Believe me, I know. Would I lie to you?

p.s. No matter what Ridley Scott says, I still think Deckard was human.

Try It My Way

The thick, familiar odor frying bacon, onions, and the sounds of clanking utensils against cheap plates filled the small country café. I’d been lamenting a temporary stall in my writing career while we had our weekly appointment with eggs over easy.

Across the booth, my former boss and friend of over forty years, the Cap’n, raised an eyebrow and sipped from a steaming cup of coffee. “You hear yourself, right? You remember what you said back in the old days when we were taking those education courses?”

The Cap’n doesn’t have an eidetic memory, but he comes pretty close and I had to flip through several cases of dusty mental files to dredge up a nearly forgotten conversation between two young men in the teacher’s lounge. I finally found the memory and blew it off. “I said I wanted to get just one book published.”

“Right. It was back in ’81. You wanted to get just one book published and then you said you’d be finished. Let me see, ‘I just want one book on shelf and I’ll be through.’ That about what you said?”

I thought I had one book in me, and had never considered writing another. As a teacher working in the classroom during the day, taking Masters level courses in the evenings two days a week, and sitting behind an old IBM Selectric in a bedroom/office, I wanted to leave something behind that would outlast me.

“Well, that was a long time ago, but I never expected to get a series.”

“Yeah, and now you have a dozen books on that shelf and you’re bitching about how you’re not on the best seller list.”

“You realize you’ve already achieved what others dream about? You’re published.” He raised an eyebrow and held the nearly empty cup like a smoker with a cigarette. “Ever thought you’d be here, with two series going at the same time?”

“No.”

“My manuscript is still in the drawer and I piddle with it only every now and then. You did it your way, now shut up and keep writing and you’ll make it one of these days. Breakfast is on you by the way, big shot writer.”

That conversation somewhere around 1980 came after I’d already been struggling for years, trying to get at least something published. With a stack of rejection notices that reached from the floor to the top of the table I used as a desk, I needed to find a way to break in. Eight years later, I achieved that dream that most budding writers only talk about, but it didn’t come easy.

I was reading a book by the author who inspired my style, Robert C. Ruark, when an idea clicked. Ruark launched his writing career by getting published in a newspaper.

Hey, I can write a newspaper column.

And like Ruark, I used newspapers to establish a foundation by writing outdoor humor, a niche that, in my mind, needed to be filled.

Of course we all want to explode on the writing scene with a massive bestseller, and that occasionally happens, but the cold hard truth is that we need to build that solid foundation by finding our voice, and most often that comes from practice and a lot of work.

But you have to get that voice out there, and one way is my suggestion for beginning writers who come to me for advice. Here it is, but you might not like it.

Write for free.

Shrieks.

Recoiling dreamers!

Shuddering writers!

So let’s examine this suspicious piece of advice. How do you write for free?

Try small publications. My first column was published in The Paris News back in 1988, and they paid me. My work caught the attention of another paper about an hour away, and a year later I was writing for them, too. Then another, and before long, I was in 50+ papers in Texas and Oklahoma. They paid me, too, but that was then.

When the Internet became a Thing, papers dropped me like falling snowflakes as their income dwindled and readers turned to finding their news online. The first thing to go were the columnists. But that was an excellent place to cut my teeth.

There are still small town papers and independent publications that need content. They may not be able to pay, or pay much, say $5 a column, or they may only offer space for your work, but that space results in tear sheets that can be used to establish your writing reputation.

Online magazines and organizations need writers, and through I have no experience in that world, I’m sure there are online entities that are looking for good writing. Contact them and offer to write for free. It’s the perfect place to polish your craft, and is an excellent way to gain exposure.

“But I can do the same on my blog.”

Yes, mysterious, figment of my imagination. You can, and keep doing it that way, but one outlet these days isn’t enough. You need to expand that foundation and create a name for yourself. Write online, in local magazines and papers, in those small community publications that appear in your mailbox, and anywhere else you can find. Build name recognition, assemble a collection of tear sheets both physical and electronically, and use them to get noticed.

Get it? Reach into a new box of spaghetti and pull out one strand. Yep, there it is, one piece of dried noodle that you can boil and consume. Small. Unimpressive.

Now, shake the whole box into onto the table and watch them scatter like pick-up sticks. Look at all of them. That single stick might be difficult to see, but the contents of the entire box is right there, impossible to miss.

Get your name out there, and eventually, someone will offer a few bucks for your work.

Then build on that momentum. One…step…at…a…time.

Try it my way and someday maybe you’ll have that one book on a shelf, then you can start complaining about not being further along.

In the meantime, Happy New Year and good luck with your writing!

 

 

 

 

Characterization

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

I don’t know where I found this quote. But it had enough impact for me to print and pin it within my mess of motivational messages. It’s some of the best writing advice I’ve got, and it arrived right when I was characterizing a new fiction series.

Ah, yes, the old plot-driven vs. character-driven debate. I’m not going there with this post, as it’s probably been done to death on The Kill Zone and by far more qualified fiction writers than me. But I will share with you a list of 234 Interesting Character Quirks I found while rabbit-holing tips on fleshing-out characters. First, let me tell you about Harry—one of the most interesting and quirky characters I ever met.

Harry was my detective partner. Harry and I paired for five years, and I loved every day of working with Harry. Harry’s real name wasn’t Harry. It was Sheryl. Sheryl Henderson. Sheryl was a large lady with large hair and an even larger personality. We nicknamed Sheryl “Harry” after the Sasquatch/Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons,

Where do I start describing Harry and her character quirks? First of all, Harry was 100 percent Nordic. Her hair—all of it, I assume—was totally blonde with none of those dark roots you see on wanna-be blondes. Harry’s eyes were blue—a shade of blue that had to be seen rather than chronicled. And Harry’s skin was flawless. I’m sure Harry never suffered one zit in her life.

Harry was the most intuitive, innovative, and invigorating cop I ever knew. I don’t know Harry’s IQ, but it had to be high. Once, we gave Harry a Myers-Briggs personality test and she scored an ENFP. Here’s the M-B character synopsis for an ENFP like Harry:

You have a rare ability to be charming and completely rebellious at the same time. You have almost zero respect for traditions or doing things the way they’ve always been done. You think everything can be made newer and better, which sometimes leads to grand innovations and other times leads to “reinventing the wheel”. But even if your ideas don’t always come to fruition, you do everything with such contagious enthusiasm and curiosity that we can’t help but get swept away in the excitement of it all.

Harry was born into policing royalty. Her great-grandfather was a constable in the Northwest Mounted Police that morphed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which Harry’s grandfather joined. Harry’s dad, Hendrik (Hank) Henderson followed suit, and Hank was a high-ranking RCMP commissioned officer when Harry became a recruit.

I’ll never forget meeting Harry. She was assigned to the uniformed patrol division in the same department where I was a plainclothes detective. It was an evening shift when I walked into the bullpen. Harry was there with a circle around her, and she just delivered the punch line of some sexually-explicit joke.

She reared her head and let out a whinny followed by a winded snort and some sort of snot that shot from her nose. She wiped it with her hand, brushed past me, and headed for the locker room.

“Who the &@#* is that?” I asked the harness bulls.

“Our new addition,” a young bull said. “She swears worse than the Sergeant Major who once made a grammatically-correct sentence using nothing but a run of &@#*s with one noun and a single conjunction, but she has a better sense of humor.”

“Smarter, too,” said an older bull. “You’ll wanna keep your eye on this one.”

It wasn’t long before Harry made a name for herself—good, bad, or otherwise. I did keep my eye on Harry as investigative potential and, when a rotational position came open in our Serious Crimes Section, I asked for Harry. It was the best request I ever made.

Harry came on board for three months as part of an experience-building program the department ran. It was a good program, but when Harry’s three months expired she was too good to lose. She stayed my partner until I retired.

Harry’s character quirks? Too many to list.

Harry was left-handed but ate with her right. On dayshift, we always went to lunch at the same diner and Harry always ordered breakfast. Always the same—she hated substitutes. Pork sausages, eggs lightly steamed, shredded hash browns, dry white toast, and black coffee that she loaded with curdles of cream and sacks of sugar. Once served, Harry held her fork in her right, her knife in her left, and chopped everything into one large mangled mess which she mawed down while constantly talking.

Harry was a Starbucks gal. She constantly had a Verdi in her dented, stainless steel travel mug which she slurped and followed with a muffled belch and a “ ’Scuse me.” sort of non-apology.

Harry wasn’t married. Nor did she have, nor want to have, kids. Rumor was Harry played for the other team, but I had it from an unimpeachable source that wasn’t the case. We had an unmentioned agreement, Harry and I. I didn’t probe Harry’s personal life, and she didn’t mine mine.

Harry had money. Detectives make decent salaries, but Harry was better off than most. I believe it was an inheritance and that was okay. She wasn’t a flashy spender, but her house was paid for and she drove a Range Rover.

She was a classy dresser, Harry was. Black on black with a hint of red and a slight white surrender was her style, like her supercharged Range Rover, and I remember one day when Harry and I made a trip to a native reservation on a culturally-sensitive murder investigation. Harry slipped and slid on res-dog crap in her north-of-$300 leather boots which she took off, plastic-bagged, and threw in the back of our police-issued Explorer, driving back in her sock feet. I think she threw the boots away rather than having them cleaned.

Harry was a nervous passenger. She always drove while I rode shotgun. That was okay because Harry was an excellent driver, although she talked non-stop and habitually made eye contact as she spoke.

Harry exuded confidence… but not that in-your-face attitude that turned people off. The longer I worked with Harry the more I noticed how she leaned into people during conversations. One day, when Harry was too close in my zone, it hit me…

Harry was hard of hearing.

She completely and hostilely rejected my concern so, confidentially, I had the boss request a hearing test at her annual physical. After that, Harry reluctantly had hearing aids hidden by her large hair. (We, the other detectives, used to mess with Harry by raising and lowering our voices.)

Some of Harry’s quirks were sucking her teeth when deep in thought, blurting out while writing reports, subconsciously bouncing her left knee, and her stomach chronically growling after her lunch breakfast. She was a bit OCD—a neatish freak—and she’d organize other people’s desks. (We’d also intentionally mess our desks to mess with Harry.)

Harry wore no jewelry, she didn’t apply makeup, she played the same lotto numbers religiously, she listened to George Strait like a George Strait junkie, she line danced Brooks & Dunn’s Boot Scootin’ Bogie like a cow-girl-pro, and she always read the morning paper to which Harry would blast comments at leftish and alt-right columnists that’d make a biker blush.

I could go on and on about Harry, but I’ll leave it with the time she smashed a prized porcelain Confucius statue then cussed-out the Taoist monk who owned the thing. You can read about that in Beyond The Limits.

Now, for the list of 234 Interesting Character Quirks I told you about. I stumbled upon this site while rabbit-holing at yourdictionary.com. Here’s the link:

https://examples.yourdictionary.com/reference/examples/list-234-interesting-character-quirks

If you don’t feel like visiting the site, I’ve copied & pasted most of the content which, I’m sure, you’ll find enlightening for fleshing out your fictional characters. (I make no apologies for the C&P—I’m a big believer that good writers borrow and great writers steal.)

Personality Quirks

  • adrenaline junkie
  • brags about one’s own accomplishments
  • high levels of enthusiasm
  • likes to be the center of attention
  • makes assumptions about others’ motives
  • makes snap judgments about other people
  • needs the approval of others
  • obsessive about personal hygiene
  • overly trusting of other people
  • plans things to the most minute detail
  • quick to recognize others accomplishments
  • seeks adventure or new experiences
  • seeks stability
  • suspicious or distrustful of others
  • takes credit for other’s work
  • tendency to one-up other people’s accomplishments
  • tendency to pull for the underdog
  • tendency to react emotionally
  • tendency to respond objectively
  • tendency to take things personally
  • tenderhearted nature
  • tends to be argumentative just for the sake of arguing
  • tends to see how things unfold without planning ahead
  • very outgoing in demeanor
  • won’t touch people, even to shake hands

Behavioral Quirks

  • always wants to sit facing the door
  • bites lip when thinking or trying to remember something
  • chain-smokes
  • chews gum all the time
  • clears throat frequently
  • eating all of one type of food before moving on to the next item on the plate
  • flipping hair back over one’s shoulders
  • grasping a fork or spoon with one’s full fist to eat
  • jingles keys
  • laughs very loud
  • licks lips frequently
  • makes humming noises
  • makes very intense eye contact with people
  • moves around a lot when talking to a group
  • paces when thinking
  • points at people when talking to them
  • prefers to sit at the end of a row rather than between people
  • sniffs frequently
  • snorts when laughing
  • taps chin or nose when thinking
  • taps fingernails on surfaces
  • tends to giggle
  • uses air quotes when talking
  • very distinctive laugh noises
  • whistles the tune to songs

Quirks Related to Eating and Drinking

  • always orders the same food in a restaurant
  • barely chews food before swallowing
  • brings snacks everywhere
  • burps or belches loudly at the end of meals
  • constantly talks about dieting
  • counts the number of chews before swallowing
  • drinks coffee or tea very frequently
  • eats while driving the car
  • extremely delicate eater
  • grazes throughout the day
  • makes nasty remarks about other people’s food
  • makes sure everyone knows they’re vegan
  • messy eater
  • only eats organic food
  • picks food off other people’s plates
  • prefers junk food to home-cooked meals
  • pretends to be a dainty eater but pigs out in private
  • refuses to eat leftovers
  • snacks excessively
  • takes huge bites of food
  • takes other people’s food without asking
  • tries to win over everyone to their way of eating
  • tucks a napkin into one’s shirt when eating
  • won’t eat in front of other people
  • won’t eat food that other people cook

Quirky Movement and Walking Habits

  • adjusting sleeves frequently
  • bouncing one’s leg when sitting
  • bouncy walk
  • cracking knuckles frequently
  • determined, purposeful walk
  • enters rooms hesitantly
  • extent to which a person’s arms swing when they walk
  • loose-limbed way of walking
  • meandering walk
  • often breaks into a jog when walking
  • picking at nail polish
  • pulling down on one’s jacket or skirt
  • pulling sleeves down over one’s hands
  • scratches one’s head frequently
  • scratching one’s face
  • shakes foot when sitting with legs crossed
  • sidles up to people
  • takes large steps
  • takes tiny, mincing steps
  • tends to push past other people abruptly
  • tugging a sweater or jacket from left to right
  • twisting to crack one’s back or next
  • walks at a very rapid pace
  • walks with a limp
  • walks with an even stride

Posture Quirks

  • crossing legs at the ankle when seated
  • favors one side vs. the other when standing
  • frequently shifts from side to side
  • lays head down on desk or table
  • leaning back in one’s chair
  • leans in toward people who are speaking
  • leans on things when standing up
  • leans to one side when standing
  • looks straight ahead
  • propping one’s feet up on furniture
  • rests head in hands when seated
  • shifting from one foot to another when standing
  • shifts or squirms when sitting
  • sitting with one’s legs crossed
  • stands or sits extremely still
  • stands up extremely straight
  • stands with hands behind back
  • stands with hands on hips
  • stands with hyperextended knees
  • tends to lean away from people
  • tends to slouch
  • tends to stretch a lot
  • tilts head down most of the time

Physical Traits and Quirks

  • a lot of freckles
  • a lot of tattoos or unusual tattoos
  • always too cold
  • always too warm
  • asymmetrical features
  • athletic build
  • different color eyes
  • distinctive moles
  • extremely tall or short
  • lanky build
  • messy, free-flowing hair
  • missing or extra appendages
  • perfectly coiffed hair
  • red nose
  • twitchy eye
  • unique birthmark
  • unusual color eyes
  • unusual facial features
  • unusual hair color
  • unusual hairstyle
  • very long fingernails
  • weight range

Communication Style Quirks

  • chats nervously when there is a lull in conversation
  • chooses words very carefully; speaks in an exacting way
  • describes things very precisely
  • doesn’t speak up unless directly asked a question
  • embellishes or exaggerates stories or information
  • enunciates words very precisely
  • gestures a lot when talking
  • habitually avoids eye contact
  • hinting at one wants rather than stating it directly
  • insists on face-to-face conversations (rather than phone or text)
  • insists on having the last word
  • makes up a nickname for everyone
  • pauses a long time before speaking
  • restating what other people have already said
  • speaks in a way such that statements come across like questions
  • speaks with an accent
  • talking to oneself
  • talks very fast
  • talks with a sing-songy cadence
  • unreadable facial expressions
  • uses a particular dialect
  • very expressive facial expressions
  • very reserved in demeanor
  • winks at people when talking to them

Quirky Clothing Style

  • always looks perfectly pressed
  • always wears boots
  • always wears tennis shoes
  • appears to have been professionally styled
  • becomes disheveled with very little activity
  • doesn’t worry about whether clothing items coordinate with each other
  • dresses in a flashy style
  • dresses in exercise apparel even when not exercising
  • dresses in very revealing apparel
  • overdresses or underdresses for occasions
  • squeezes into clothing that is too small
  • wears cheap knock-offs of designer fashions
  • wears clothes made for much younger people
  • wears loose-fitting clothes
  • wears only designer labels
  • wears shorts even when it’s freezing outside
  • wears socks with sandals
  • wears stiletto heels all the time
  • wears the latest styles
  • wears the same color clothing all the time
  • wears the same style of clothes all the time
  • wears very outdated styles
  • wears wrinkled clothes

Quirky Signature Accessories

  • always carries an umbrella
  • always wears a scarf
  • carries a briefcase everywhere
  • carries a huge purse
  • constantly wears a hat
  • has earbuds in (or headphones on) all the time
  • is never seen without a certain piece of jewelry
  • keeps a pocket square in a suit jacket
  • keeps sunglasses on all the time
  • never seen without a backpack
  • totes a pet in one’s purse or other bag
  • uses a pocket watch
  • wears a flower in one’s hair
  • wears a headband
  • wears a large fitness tracking device
  • wears a lot of jewelry
  • wears a nametag
  • wears an overcoat or other distinctive outerwear
  • wears bangle bracelets that jingle
  • wears enormous earrings
  • wears huge glasses
  • wears socks with weird patterns or in strange colors

Other Characterization Quirks

  • answers for other people instead of letting them speak
  • complains about everything
  • constantly complains about aches and pains
  • constantly correcting other people’s grammar
  • constantly misplaces certain items, like keys or glasses
  • expects unquestioning loyalty from people
  • frequently gets hiccups
  • gets heavily involved in campaigning for political candidates
  • has hypochondriac tendencies
  • holds other people to higher standards than themselves
  • is easily influenced or swayed
  • makes snap judgments about other people
  • makes unusual snoring noises
  • participates in marches and protests
  • quick to find fault in others
  • seeks out flattery
  • seems to turn all conversations political
  • takes in stray animals frequently
  • tends to look for the bright side in every situation
  • tends to make biased remarks about others

I see a lot more Harry-quirks in this list, but I’ll leave the rest of Harry to your imagination. By the way, Harry is now also retired and serving as an elected city counselor in my community. I think I’ll call Harry up and take her to lunch breakfast.

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

That phrase is well worth remembering. Over to you, Kill Zoners. What unique quirks have you embraced in your characters? And if you want to open the character-driven vs. plot-driven debate, go for it, but I’m stayin’ out.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second investigative stint as a coroner. Now, Garry is a writer with based-on-true crime books as well as building a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.

Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast is home to Garry Rodgers where he boats around the Pacific saltwater. You can track down Garry’s blog at DyingWords.net or try him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1. His email is garry.rodgers@shaw.ca.

A Dog’s Tale

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Happy New Year! Welcome back after TKZ’s annual hiatus. 

Heroes Kerrie Garges and Gauge

How about kicking off 2022 with a dog story?

Back in 2020, I interviewed Kerrie Garges, a search and rescue volunteer from Pennsylvania, about a bombing that killed three people. 

Kerrie has spent years training her three Labrador Retrievers, Ace, Luna, and Gauge, in various search disciplines (air scent, article scent, human remains, etc.).

A few weeks ago, Kerrie and I reconnected and she brought me up to date on her dogs and their recent activities.

Sadly, Ace passed away last year from bone cancer. Luna is retired because her hips bothered her on long searches but she quite happily watches TV.

Kerrie’s big news was about Gauge. When we last chatted, he was still a rambunctious puppy. He’s now 2 ½ and has recently been certified in Live Find and Article Search.

And he’s now officially a hero. 

Article search involves items that have been worn by or touched by a person that their scent clings to (examples: fabric, leather, metal, plastic). To test dogs, an area 75’ by 75’ is marked off with flags. Within that area, five scent articles are randomly hidden. Dogs and handlers then wait two hours while scent dissipates, simulating conditions that may occur in real-life searches for a lost person.

One at a time, dogs are turned loose in the area with the command “Search” and given 15 minutes to find scent articles. The quest is confusing because other dogs and handlers leave their own scent as well.

Gauge located four articles in the allotted 15-minute time, earning “Article Search” certification. Four hours later, when scent had dissipated even more, he found the fifth article.

Gauge is also training for Human Remains Detection (HRD). According to Kerrie, patients at the University of Ohio hospital can opt to donate their bodies for search work. The Center for Forensics Training Education (CFTE) procures the remains and uses them for training seminars, one of which Kerrie and Gauge participated in last summer.

Not surprisingly, a recently deceased body gives off a much stronger scent than a body that has decomposed for a long period of time.

Cadaver dogs have located bodies of crime victims concealed for 15+ years. But canine noses are even more powerful than previously realized.

In 2018, archaeologists in Croatia tested HRD dogs to see if they could locate burial vaults that radiocarbon dating determined were from more than 2700 years ago. Dogs alerted to limestone slabs where tiny fragments of human bone were uncovered, along with amber beads and other artifacts. Even when no visible skeletal remains were present, dogs still alerted, leading scientists to posit that fluids from decomposition leaked into the porous limestone where odor remained more than 2000 years later.

Back to Gauge’s training with fresher remains…

Kerrie says dogs are allowed to familiarize themselves by sniffing and exploring the recently deceased bodies, sometimes licking and walking on remains. A handler must take care not to give cues that might confuse the dog, such as expressing distaste.

That must be a challenge.

Gauge’s alert signal when he finds his target is to run back to Kerrie and jump on her.

One particularly hot training day, fluids had leaked onto the tarp the cadaver was laid on. Gauge sniffed while walking around in the fluids, then proceeded to alert Kerrie by exuberantly jumping up on her, sharing the odor of decomposition (decomp) clinging to his furry paws. Fortunately, she was wearing a rubberized coat that protected her…somewhat.

He was, after all, doing his job. 

Being certified does not guarantee the dog and handler will be called out nor that they will have a successful outcome. After 12 long years of dog training, Kerrie had never had a live find until…

On October 8, 2021, she answered a call at 5:30 p.m. at the height of rush hour traffic. She was an hour away from the Gordon Natural Area for Environmental Studies, a 126-acre park on the property of the University of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, the park had been a training area for search dogs.

In fact, the man who had given permission to use the area for training was the very one who went missing that evening.

He and his wife were trail keepers. They had ridden a UTV to the end of a service road to work. The wife walked down to their base, expecting the husband to return on the UTV. She waited but he never showed up. His phone pinged to the left of the service road but he was not there.

He was diabetic so there was concern a medical issue had befallen him.

But where?

Two air scent dogs and one trailing dog, their handlers, a nurse, a paramedic, and other volunteers were deployed to search. Kerrie and Gauge did a “quick hastie”, a preliminary reconnaissance check, hiking to the top of the hill where the UTV was found. From there, a grid search began as the three dog teams split up to cover their assigned areas.

The searchers coordinated the different styles of their dogs with the terrain—Gauge is a “long ranger” while the other two stuck close to their handlers.

Soon the sun was down, leaving the area in darkness. Gauge wore a lighted vest and a bell to allow Kerrie to keep track of him. “Darkness brings out the dog’s nose,” she says, “because he can’t see distractions, like deer, during night searches.”

She adds, “You’re running on adrenaline because you’re trying to save a life.”

The terrain was difficult–steep and littered with fallen trees. There were no trails to follow. She recalls that she and her two flankers “did a lot of butt climbing over logs.”

Gauge indicated the scent seemed to be flowing down from the top of the hill and pooling in a lower area.

Then he alerted.

Kerrie couldn’t see any sign of the missing man until she clambered around a four-foot-diameter log.

Tucked beside the log lay the lost man, unresponsive and ashy-gray. Gauge was standing over him. Unlike training sessions where the dog normally was exuberant at finding the target, this time he seemed subdued, perhaps recognizing the seriousness of the man’s condition.

“In the shape he was in, I don’t know how he could have gotten there,” Kerrie says.

The nurse with Kerrie had glucose in her pack. While she and the paramedic tended to the man, Kerrie took Gauge aside, rewarding him with a game of tug of war.

The man was transported for care and recovered.

Gauge scored a live find with only two years of training.

And he became a TV star:

Thank you, Kerrie, Gauge, and other search and rescue volunteers for your lifesaving work!

~~~

 

 

Meet a search dog who turns up unexpected gruesome discoveries in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff.

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The Adventure Begins Anew

I’m honored to be the first to welcome TKZers to 2022! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, filled with family, food and fun, and ending with a resolution to begin a new writing adventure in the new year. Consider this quote by Winston Churchill:

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

While I can’t relate to every one of the phases Mr. Churchill describes, I love the metaphors, and he made me wonder how I would describe.my own adventures in my limited experience of novel-writing. Here goes:

When I begin a new book, I spend some time searching for ideas. Is there some message I want to convey? Or a character who’s anxious to make his/her debut? Is there a particular mystery I want to challenge readers with or a basic theme I’m interested in? I spend time reading good novels and craft-of-writing books. I go for a run and play what-if games. I try not to force the issue, but let my brain relax, hoping for inspiration.

 

Then it happens. Something bubbles up and captures my imagination. Oh, happy day! Now it’s time to get to work.

 

 

I pull on my virtual hiking boots, strap my laptop in place, and head out to First Draft Land. Although I have a good idea where I’m going, I’m not entirely sure how to get there, so I wander around for a while. (A long while.)

Even though I made it to the end of the story, it’s just a mess, so I go into revision mode. Applying lessons learned about plot, structure, dialogue, tension, and other TKZ topics, I straighten out some of those detours and rabbit holes. I weed the prose, kill my darlin’s, and heartily eradicate the dreaded adverbs. (Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.) Now we’re getting somewhere:

 

Having reached what I believe is the end of my writing adventure, I gleefully ship the manuscript off to my developmental editor, convinced she will be delighted with the almost-perfect story. My editor has a very direct approach to feedback as you can see by her response to the manuscript.

Maybe she was just having a bad day, but I trust her judgment, and I take her critique to heart and work some more. The adventure resumes, and we loop through each leg of the journey to clear away the debris so the reader won’t stumble.

Finally, the editor gives it a green light, and I begin the last mile to the finish line. Beta readers come alongside to offer their wisdom, then it’s off to the line editor and proofreader for the final changes. (Who knew it took so many people to write a novel?)

What started as a joyful romp through the garden ends with a quiet sigh of relief and gratitude. There’s only one thing left to do: launch it out into the world.

Success! Adventure complete. Dragons slayed and townspeople rescued. After a short nap, it’s time to start another adventure.

Now where did I put that book on marketing?

* * *

How about you, TKZers. What writing adventure are you planning for 2022? What phases will you go through? How will you manage the long trek to publication?