Why Are So Many
Historicals So Bad?

By PJ Parrish

My post today is going to sound a bit crabby, and for that I apologize. Okay, here goes: . I am not a big fan of historical fiction. I know there are many many truly great historicals out there, and a few remain among my favorites — Shogan, Beloved, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Underground Railroad, Perfume.

I’ve got my favorites from the historical mystery shelf as well — The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, Child 44, The Eye of the Needle, among others. I’m not a total philistine.

But most historicals I’ve tried leave me cold. And for the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why. I think it is because too many just try too hard to impress with…details.

Research is, as all writers know, very seductive. And sometimes, it shows.

To my mind, the best historical novels, first and foremost, explore the great themes of what we like to call popular fiction―crime, family, passion, betrayal― set against well rendered backdrops. The not-so-best of these, on the other hand, let the historical details overwhelm the story, choking the characters in layers of crinoline, stiff collar stays and stilted dialogue.

I’m crabby about this, I think, because the contest I am judging right now for a writers conference is coughing up a lot of historicals this week. I’m drowning in miladies, malingering lords, and gagging on the “sulphuric aroma” of gunpowder and the “foul hint” of stale tobacco. These manuscripts are far from bad; they are well crafted. But they are also boring because nothing is happening. And it’s not happening in numbing historically accurate detail.

I am also reading two historicals right now, and both are somewhat disappointing. I got Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for Christmas because the gifter knew how much I loved the TV series A French Village, a superb soaper set in a Nazi-occupied village. Hannah’s book is mildly diverting so far, but the 1939 France setting comes off a little post-cardy and I feel like I’ve met these characters somewhere before.

The second book I’m reading is Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. I love anything this man writes, truly. Two poor brothers struggle to survive in 1909 Spokane. Exquisitely detailed in its research and setting with a carnival parade of quirky characters. The writing is dazzling. Yet the book is very put-downable. I’m almost half-through and the story itself just isn’t gelling as a whole. It’s more picaresque than well-plotted.

So all this has me wondering why some historicals captivate while others capsize. I don’t have the answer, folks. I actually have written two historicals — fat family sagas with love and sex, one set in post-earthquake San Francisco, and another set in Belle Epoque Paris. You can find them both on Amazon for about a buck a piece. Heck, let me know and I will give you a copy. I have lots left.

My late friend Jerry Healy once quipped that I still write historicals because my Louis Kincaid mystery series is set in the Eighties. And yes, I had to be careful with my research as to when cell phones and DNA arrived, little stuff like that. But research never got in my way.

Maybe that’s all it comes down to — not letting the grinding machinery of research gunk up your plot or drown out what your characters are saying.

In 2003, Dennis Lehane was red hot. His Kenzie-Gennaro series had established his mystery cred. His blockbuster stand alone Mystic River was coming out as a movie. He had just published Shutter Island.  Where does a guy go from there?

He took a couple years off and in 2008 came out with The Given Day. It was a magnum opus historical set in post-war Boston. It clocked in at 720 pages. The New York Times called it “intensely researched” and I don’t know if that was a compliment. I found The Given Day hard going. It’s ambitious, sprawling and almost promiscuously sensual in its style, as in this sentence:

Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout between them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed.

I didn’t finish the book. After The Given Day, Lehane decided to go back to his Kenzie-Gennaro series with Mooonlight Mile. He told a British interviewer, about returning to genre fiction: “It’s ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? [The genre books] had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I’ve flirted with self-importance.”

Two years later, Lehane came out Live By Night. It’s a slimmed-down sequel to The Given Day, with the spotlight lazer-trained on one character Joe Coughlin. It has the same beautiful Lehane writing, but the ease is back. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watch the water turn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had happened in his life — good and bad — had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

The history is there in this gritty gangster yarn. The research is there, but now it’s background music for Joe Coughlin’s solo. Lehane finally won the Edgar that he should have gotten for Mystic River. I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. It broke my heart in the end.

Okay, thanks for letting me vent today. I feel less crabby now, and am going to give Jess and Kristin more time to win me over. History doesn’t have to be drag.

Would love to hear some of you weigh in who are more learned in historical fiction than I am. What did you read that worked? What fell short and why?

To Speak Or Not To Speak

The title of my most popular talk is “My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters.” It’s as long or as short as I need it to be, depending on how much time they allow me to speak, but the framework is the same throughout.

I do a lot of public speaking, and travel across the Lone Star State to discuss books and writing. Listeners hear about my disastrous starter agent, issues with my first novel, and the loss of a movie deal.

The presentation begins when I’m ten years old, touches on adventures and misfortune in elementary school, high school, and jumps to the first time I was published in a newspaper and finally my first novel.

Sounds dull and lifeless here, but, and I hope this doesn’t come across as conceited, it’s fun, entertaining, and informative all the way through.

When I first started this writing thing, no one ever told me I’d have to stand in front of crowds ranging from twenty people to several hundred and entertain them. I thought we were supposed to just write a novel, get it out there on the shelves, maybe do a couple of signings, and lean back to rest until it was time to write another one.

But signings, panels, and book clubs, are required for high visibility. It’s part of the job.

It comes natural to me. Maybe because I taught school for ten years and then became the spokesperson for the (then) tenth largest school district in Texas. Every time I turned around I was on the television, radio, or being interviewed by usually suspicious newspaper reporters.

Talking to folks is a barrel of fun, and almost every time I finish a presentation, at least one person comes up to tell me they enjoyed what I had to say, and that I’m “one of the best speakers they’ve ever had.”

Yeah, it sounds pompous, I don’t mean it like that.

Maybe that comes from that abovementioned 35-year career in public education, where I endured hundreds of dry, boring speakers who left me wanting to stick a log in my eye for relief. Staff once hired guy to speak for three hours in the morning and another three in the afternoon.

By ten o’clock, my boss was cleaning out her purse on the front row. She fired him by eleven that morning and we improvised for the rest of the day.

The worst presenter is the individual who stands in front of a crowd and reads to the assemblage in a long, droning voice. But, here’s that oddity in nature, it worked for one of my college professors who walked into the classroom, opened a three-ring notebook full of pages in plastic sleeves, and read some of the most fascinating American history anecdotes, facts, and information I’ve ever heard. His mix of styles kept us fascinated all the way through, and it was one of the few classes I truly enjoyed.

That may be where I learned public speaking, because it sure wasn’t in another college course where I drew a D in Speech and was glad to get it. I’ve been told I’m a natural storyteller, and it might have come in part from the old men I listened to up at our country store, but also from a high school history teacher (history again, hummmm), who again blended fact and stories.

So when it’s time to step in front of a crowd, I want to entertain first, and then bring the information they’ve requested. Audiences hear personal experiences that relate to them and I usually manage to do that with humorous stories from my childhood that tie into their memories or experiences. That mix of old recollections usually makes them smile, and I have ‘em.

More than once I’ve heard, “Your story reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid. I’d forgotten until you said something. Thanks for reminding me of those/that wonderful time(s).”

Here are a few things I’ve learned through the years, and they might be useful to those of you who are just starting out, or who don’t really like to speak in public in the first place.

  • People want to laugh, but don’t try to be funny by telling jokes. Only do that if you’re really, really good at it. Wait, never mind. Don’t tell jokes, period.
  • Don’t talk at your audience. Don’t preach. A conversational approach to storytelling and teaching is the best. Again, draw on your own experiences to make it more personal to the audience.
  • Make eye contact. Don’t forget to look front, left and right. Find that person who’s engaged and talk to him or her, then find someone who out there with a blank look on their face and speak to them, no matter how uncomfortable you feel. (Lordy, I remember a guy on one Bouchercon panel who leaned back in his chair to expound one some subject, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and talked for a good five minutes to the ceiling. Gilstrap and I wanted to flee the scene and find a bar, and would have if I hadn’t been on that panel and sitting right beside the guy. Gilstrap got the giggles while I had to maintain at least a little composure.)
  • Which brings me to speaking on panels. Years ago I was on another five-person panel seated on chairs above a crowd of about two hundred. Our discussion went well until the moderator asked the gentlemen on my left to talk himself and thrillers. He rose and stepped to the edge of the stage leaving an empty seat between myself and Texas author David Wilkinson, cleared his throat, opened the book he was hawking, and read to excess. I mean it. He read for days. And as usual, the mischievous kid in me awoke after a while and I leaned across the empty seat and introduced myself to David. We shook as if we were sitting at a livestock auction, and talked among ourselves and to the other panelists while the author droned on to what felt like the end of his novel.
  • Be energetic. For the love of God, be energetic!
  • But don’t talk too fast. I was watching one of my favorite movies the other day, A River Runs Through It, and listened carefully to Robert Redford’s cadence. It was slow, but not plodding, and his inflections kept my attention, making it feel like he was talking to me.
  • Don’t dump volumes of information on your audience. They’ll retain little of it unless they’re born note takers. I usually get them to laughing, throw in a bit of important writing info, and then slide into another story or something they can relate to, and then back to technique before another story that usually occurs to me on the spot.
  • If you’re inexperienced, start out talking to book clubs. They’ll be forgiving, then polish your “act” in front of local civic organizations and clubs who are always looking for speakers. But remember, small groups are sometimes hard to engage. I’ve found that the larger the group, the more fun we all have.
  • I avoid power points. I don’t use technology. It defeats me. Simply visiting with the audience as if we’re sitting in a living room makes it easier and I don’t have to lug around a heavy thumb drive, hoping someone has the equipment to project the image from a laptop.

There are thousands of pages of information out there on public speaking. You can join Toastmasters or some such club or organization that teaches the steps and techniques to stand before a crowd, but it might not be for you.

If not, outline your program, then practice in front of a mirror until it comes smooth and effortless.

Sounds simple, don’t it?

Practice, practice, then practice some more. It’ll pay off in the long run.

For example, last month in front of large group of Dallas writers, I realized I’d spoken to them before. Something different was necessary to avoid picks and torches as they stormed the lectern, so I tried something different. I began my presentation near the end, but realized the whole structure was built on earlier parts that were linear in construction, so the next thing I knew, I found myself doing the entire presentation backwards, and it worked!

They all remembered I’d been there eight years earlier, but more than one attendee said they loved the presentation because it was chock full of writing advice…and I was best speaker they’ve had in years.

But it was the same talk, and I wondered as I left, if I’d just competed with myself.

Who knows, but at least they were entertained, and learned something about writing, and that’s why I was there.

Gads, how pretentious this all sounds, but it’s the only way I know to get this point across. I apologize for my perceived arrogance and hope this helps you in front of a room full of strangers who want to learn and be entertained at the same time.

Reader Friday: St. Patrick’s Day Books and Traditions


Also called other names, including Feast of Saint Patrick, Saint Patrick’s Day has been celebrated since 1631. Known for its parades, green shamrocks, wearing of green, feasting, and drinking Irish beer or whiskey, St. Patrick’s Day was originally established to honor Saint Patrick who had lived 12 centuries earlier. It was intended as a day for Christians to have a break from Lent and its abstinence. The church did admit in the 1720s that it “got kind of out of control.”

So today, let’s talk about books, traditions, and experiences of St. Patrick’s Day.

Google listed about 30 books that included St. Patrick’s Day.

  1. What books have you written or read that included St. Patrick’s Day?
  2. What traditions do you, your family, or friends observe on St. Patrick’s Day?
  3. What interesting events have you experienced on St. Patrick’s Day?

 May the luck of the Irish enfold you!




If the forces that seek to divide us were to put you in the Green Group, what would your ethnicity be?

United We Stand, Dude! is currently available on Amazon for $0.99.


Using the Big Five Personality Traits for Character Development

Many contemporary psychologists believe there are five primary dimensions to our personalities. In their business, psychological experts refer to the categories as the “Big Five” personality traits. They are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). You could also list them as conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion (CANOE).

The Big Five has surpassed the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and the Enneagram as currently used, open-source psychological assessment tools. I’ve taken both the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram and found them quite descriptive as I see myself to be. But then, I’m a Libra and Libras tend to agree with pretty much everything.

What got me going on the Big Five, and why it might be useful as a characterization tool for fiction writers, was Jordan Peterson. For those who don’t know of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the New York Times described him as “The most influential public intellectual in the western world right now”. Dr. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and the author of a wildly successful book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Our daughter bought tickets for my wife and me to see Jordan Peterson live a few weeks ago. I certainly knew who Jordan Peterson is. Although I’ve never read his book, I’ve watched/heard several of his podcasts, and the guy always makes sense to me. I know he’s vilified by the woke progressives, and that pissing them off is precisely what he attempts to accomplish.

Dr. Peterson didn’t invent the Big Five Personality Traits, but he wholeheartedly endorses them. So much so that he offers a short assessment called Understand Myself which produces an individual psychological assessment report on how you fit within the Big Five. It takes about twenty minutes and costs ten bucks. I found it an interesting exercise. So much so that I signed up for his five-hour, seven-module online course for eighty bucks.

It was money well spent. Not to find out that I don’t have a neurotic bone in my body and that I’m quite low on compassion, but to learn that this Big Five psychological breakdown/assessment has great potential as a tool for character building. So much so that I’m already applying it to developing characters in my WIP titled City Of Danger.

What are the OCEAN / CANOE traits and how do they involve secondary supportive psychological categories? Let’s have a quick look.

1. Agreeableness is kindness. It includes attributes like trust, altruism, affection, and other prosocial behaviors. Agreeableness has two subcategories—compassion and politeness.

2. Conscientiousness is thoughtfulness. It’s defined by factors like impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Conscientiousness has two subcategories—industriousness and orderliness.

3. Extraversion (Extroversion) is sociability. Traits are characterized by measuring excitability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and emotional expressiveness. Extraversion has two subcategories—enthusiasm and assertiveness.

4. Neuroticism involves sadness and emotional instability. It includes things like mood swings, anxiety, and irritability. Neuroticism has two subcategories—withdrawal and volatility.

5. Openness is creativity and intrigue. Being open is being imaginative and having insight. Openness has two subcategories—experience and intellect.

Okay. That’s the CliffsNotes of the Big Five Personality Traits. Now, how did I score from 0 to 100 (low to high) on Jordan Peterson’s Understand Myself test?   Here goes:

Agreeableness—61  Compassion—31  Politeness—85

Conscientiousness—91  Industriousness—97  Orderliness—66

Extraversion—89  Enthusiasm—59  Assertiveness—96

Neuroticism—0  Withdrawal—1  Volatility—1

Openness—95  Experience—95  Intellect—96

Moving on to applying the Big Five to characterization, I took my arch-villain, Klaus Rothel in my City Of Danger project, and ran him through Dr. Peterson’s Understand Myself questionnaire. To my surprise, or maybe not to my surprise, Klaus Rothel has almost the same personality as me. Except for compassion. Klaus scores even worse than me there.

I like the Big Five Personally Trait test for characterization. So much so (yes, I know I’ve overused “so much so” but I like “so much so” and it’s my TKZ blog post turn today so the so-much-sos stay) that I plan to run all my characters in the City Of Danger series through the Big Five test. It really makes you think about who they are, what they think, and how they’ll act.

Kill Zoners—Has anyone out there heard of, or used, the Big Five psychological evaluation for character development or even for getting to know yourself better? Also, how do you go about building fictional characters?

Survival Tips for Conferences

Survival Tips for Conferences
Terry Odell

Header of the Left Coast Crime 2023 Conference showing a setting sun, cactus and man wearing a black hat and coatI’m in Tucson for the Left Coast Crime Conference, so forgive me if I don’t respond to comments right away.

Left Coast Crime is a reader-based conference, which means the focus is on connecting writers with readers. The panels will be aimed more at “tell us about your book” and they’re a great way to meet readers and let them know what you have to offer. In a writer’s conference, a workshop on setting would tell you how important it is, and would give you a “lesson” in how to develop setting in your book. At a reader’s conference, the panel will be a discussion of where each author sets his or her books, and why they chose that setting. Same goes for characters, or genre, or anything else.

This year, I’m on a “Romance in Mystery” panel and who knows where that one will go! Ultimately, the goal is to entice readers to pick up the books, and also to let them know you’re a real, live, person. It takes a different mind-set when you attend a conference like this as an author. You’re wearing a marketing hat, not a writing hat.

However, no matter what kind of a conference you attend, there are some “survival” techniques I’ve picked up over the years, listed in no order of importance.

  1. Have copies of your receipts. Nothing like finding out they’ve lost your registration or meal choices or room reservation to start things off on a stressful note. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
  2. Bring your own tote if you have one. Although most conferences hand out tote bags, they all look alike. If you bring one from a different conference, you’re less likely to have it picked up by mistake. (I also bring my own badge holder—the kind with compartments from another conference, just in case they give you a simple plastic one. This way, I’ve got a secure place for my badge, meal tickets, a little cash and other vitals—like business cards or bookmarks.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to meet people. It’s not required that you travel with a glued-to-the-hip companion. Take an empty seat, smile, hand over your business card, bookmark, or simple swag, and introduce yourself. This is one place where there’s an immediate conversation starter: “What do you write?” Or, in the case of a readers’ conference ‘read’? On the flip side, be polite and invite people to join you, include them in conversations. There’s a popular author who ignored me at a conference lunch table, and I haven’t bought any more of his books. Another good way to “mingle” is to volunteer. Most conferences are always looking for help.
  4. Bring comfortable clothes, especially shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of sitting, and a lot of walking, depending on how far apart the meeting rooms are. Also, bring layers. Regardless of the outside temperatures, meeting rooms can be meat-locker cold or steamy hot.
  5. Pace yourself. You’re not obligated to participate in every single event. Take breaks. Hide in your room for an hour if you need to. I long ago stopped feeling guilty about crawling into bed with a book at a decent hour. A lot of action takes place in the bar, so think about leaving some time for a visit there. Prioritize. Returning home with “conference crud”, or these days, the nasty virus, isn’t the souvenir you want.
  6. Speaking of books…bring either a bigger suitcase than you need, or some other method of transporting books. Most conferences are heavy on giveaways—and then there’s the inevitable bookstore and/or book signing. Another good reason to bring your own tote. Use the one they give you for books.
  7. Budget. Long ago, when I traveled with the Hubster on his per-diem, I learned how to save a few bucks. Think college dorm room. Almost all hotel rooms have coffee makers. They make hot water as well as coffee. There are all sorts of “just add boiling water” meal options out there. I’ll have instant oatmeal in my room for breakfast. This saves getting dressed early and going downstairs to a crowded hotel restaurant and blowing way too much money on a simple meal. And avoids the possibility of the staff not being able to handle several hundred people arriving at the same time. I’ll carry snacks as well. I’m not one for huge lunches at home, so for conferences that serve a banquet meal at lunch—well, that’s usually my dinner as well. A drink at the bar, maybe an appetizer or salad, and that’s enough for me. No need for another huge and expensive, calorie-laden meal. I can buy books with what I’ve saved.
  8. Scope out the facilities. Find out-of-the-way restrooms. Given short breaks between sessions and everyone on the same schedule, lines can get long.
  9. Giveaways. Odds are there are giveaway tables. Having swag is a great way to get your name in front of people. I’ve given away post-it notes, pens, lip balm, business cards, and bookmarks. I posted about pros and cons of some swag I collected in a previous TKZ post. Paper items such as bookmarks and business cards seem to be least effective based on what’s leftover at the end of the conference, but this year, I’ve had postcards printed with links to one of my books which will be a free download at BookFunnel. We’ll see how that goes.
  10. Have fun.

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”



By Debbie Burke


This is an elegy to a dear old friend who’s been with me through more than a decade of writing trials, tribulations, and triumphs.

Assisted by this helpmate, I wrote guest posts that led to becoming a regular at TKZ (the best gig I’ve ever had) along with countless nonfiction articles.

This same friend worked quietly, patiently, and tirelessly with me as I wrote a thriller series that started with Instrument of the Devil. That book fulfilled a 30+-year dream of having a novel traditionally published.

The same friend stayed beside me through the seven novels in the series, but finally, tragically, faltered near the end of the eighth book.

I’m talking about my beloved, dependable, familiar Windows 7 laptop.

Okay, stop laughing about my anachronism. I never claimed to be on the leading edge of technology.

I don’t usually get attached to inanimate objects, but, from the beginning, this computer was different, special.

Back in 2012, the computer I was using quit, and I needed a new one. I was happy with the Windows 7 system.  But, at that time, Microsoft was launching Windows 8 with lots of fanfare.

8 received many jeering reviews and complaints. I decided it wasn’t for me. Turned out 8 wasn’t for anyone else either.

Dang it, I wanted another Windows 7 laptop.

My terrific husband knows how important writing is to me and he was going to make sure I had what I wanted. He went on a quest to buy one.

But…after combing numerous stores in northwest Montana, he learned all current laptop stock had been ordered back to Microsoft to be retrofitted with 8. Despite customer dissatisfaction, they were determined to ram their new system down consumers’ throats…or maybe up where the sun doesn’t shine.

Because my husband believes the impossible only takes a little longer, he refused to concede defeat and continued his search. At one store, he persuaded an employee to climb up a ladder to the rafters (where they stored extra stock) on the off chance that a 7 laptop had been overlooked. Amazingly, he found the last 7 in northwest Montana, probably the entire state, maybe even the continent. 

He brought it home and presented it to me. I couldn’t have been happier or more touched if he’d given me a diamond ring.

Because of his extra effort, right out of the box, that Windows 7 laptop was precious.

For the next decade, it worked its little hard drive out with nary a blip or crash. From time to time, a virus wormed past security software but, after a few sick days in the shop, it was back on the job. Even when Microsoft ended support for Windows 7 in 2020, it continued to function as dependably and trouble-free as ever.

Then, early one morning this past December, disaster struck.

I was about three-quarters of the way through Deep Fake, the eighth book in my series, working hard to finish it for January release.

Without warning, the screen on the 7 went black. Rebooted. It started, worked for a short time, then went black. The hard drive felt unusually warm. After it cooled down, my husband rebooted and managed to run tests before it went black again.

Diagnosis: The hard drive was failing.

As mentioned before, I’m not one who gets attached to inanimate objects. But, that morning, I felt physical grief—a hollow, helpless desperation in the pit of my stomach. As if a beloved friend had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

More than a decade’s worth of my writing life was in that machine. Fortunately, most files were backed up on thumb drives and an external hard drive. You didn’t really expect this dinosaur, stuck in the prehistoric 7 world, to use “the cloud,” did you?

We rushed my 7 to the Staples hospital where a valiant young tech named Will harvested data from the gasping hard drive before it expired for good.

Will performed transplant surgery, trying to save its life with a new drive. We brought it home but, like human terminal illnesses, it went from crisis to crisis, sliding downhill. Back to the hospital for CPR, home again, back for an experimental procedure, home again. For several weeks, Will tried one extraordinary, heroic measure after another.

Finally, I brought 7 home for the last time. My faithful old friend couldn’t be saved.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but, these days, I cling tighter to loved ones. Losing friends used to mean we’d chosen different life paths or moved away or simply grown apart. Now, more often, losing friends means the final goodbye, never to see them again.

I bid farewell to my beloved 7.

I’ve transitioned to a MacBook Air that had previously been a secondary computer used for Zoom, power points, and social media. Good thing the Mac is not a sentient being. Otherwise, it would feel my seething resentment as I learn to type on its unfamiliar keyboard with unfamiliar commands. File organization is much different on a Mac than the PC operating system I’m used to. My work has slowed to a crawl.

People keep asking when my next book is coming out. Soon, I say.

Yeah, I’ll get used to the Mac…eventually…reluctantly.

Dear old 7, I wish you could have finished one last book with me. But you worked long and hard and deserve to rest in peace.



How important is familiarity to your workflow?

  1. Very
  2. Moderately
  3. Not at all

How much do changes in systems or software disrupt your routine?

  1. Not much
  2. Somewhat affected
  3. I’m jumping off a bridge.



My new thriller, DEEP FAKE, is coming “soon.” Please sign up at my website to be notified when it’s out.

The Achilles Option

Achilles was, of course, the greatest of all the warriors of Greek mythology and the magnificent champion of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. Here’s a brief (and, I hope, mostly accurate) retelling of part of his story.

Achilles’ father was Peleus, a mortal human, but his mother was the immortal sea nymph Thetis.

Thetis, being a good mother, wanted to protect her darling offspring, so she held the infant Achilles by one of his heels and dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable. (What mothers won’t do for their children!) That one spot left him defenseless on his heel, but it also lent his name to the strong, fibrous cord that connects the muscles on the back of the calf to the heel bone, an area that’s susceptible to overuse injury. Ask any runner.

Back to the story: Although Achilles’ physical body was well protected, his ego was easily bruised. At the start of The Iliad, the epic poem about the Trojan War, we find Achilles pouting in his tent because the leader of the Greek forces has commandeered Achilles’ war prize for himself. Achilles can afford to be a spoiled brat. The Greeks need him to win the war, and he knows it.

Without Achilles on the battlefield, the tide of war turns against the Greeks, and a team of Greek leaders visit Achilles to try to convince him to return to battle. But Achilles isn’t ready to abandon his version of victimhood, and he tells them he’s considering giving it all up and going home. So there. He explains that his goddess mother told him he would have two options in life: a) he would fight in the Trojan War and die gloriously, or b) he would return home to live a long, but uneventful, life. 

It’s a great metaphor for the options we have and the choices we make in our own battles.

* * *

As writers, we’ve made a choice to bequeath something of ourselves to posterity.

So, TKZers: in the manner of the Achilles options, I present two hypothetical possibilities for your writing life and livelihood. Please pick one of the following:

Option A) You are a wildly successful author. Your books live on the New York Times best seller list for months. You make millions, and you’re sought after for interviews and guest appearances on the most popular talk shows. But fifty years after your death, your books are considered prosaic. They’re almost never read, and your name has disappeared from all things literary, never to be seen again.

Option B) You’re a midlist author. You may eke out a living with your writing, or you may have to work another job to stay alive. But you have a story to tell, and you work hard at the craft. Fifty years after your death, your books are “discovered.” You’re hailed as one of the hundred best authors of the twenty-first century, and your books are cited as classics for hundreds of years.

Which option would you choose?

Reader Friday: Weapon of Choice

There have been many excellent articles presented here at TKZ on the topic of self-defense, and particularly the use of guns. Here are links to two of John’s articles:



Today, however, we are talking about offensive weapons, weapons of battle.

Imagine that you are part of a large colony of writers who have been held captive in a medieval castle. Your group has escaped the castle in the middle of the night and is on the run. You know where the enemy army is encamped, and you have decided to attack preemptively. Better to take them by surprise than to be attacked while you are on the run, and they are gaining on you. Your group is large, and with the element of surprise, you can win. You hope.

So, it is time to choose your weapon. Since this scenario is mixed genre fiction, your choice of weapons is large – pick any weapon, or even invent one. You must, however, be able to carry it by yourself, along with ammunition (if needed) and a power source (if you’re playing with sci-fi).

Now, please tell us which weapon you have chosen, and why. How do you intend to use it? A paragraph or two of you doing battle with the enemy’s Goliath would be good. We’ll watch from a safe distance and cheer you on to victory.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~



Beware he who would hijack your life code to achieve immortality.

Perfect Strand, #6 in the Mad River Magic series, is currently available at Amazon for $0.99.

Writers Beware: Here’s what readers really hate

By Elaine Viets

Does the novel you’re writing have a long dream sequence? And it’s in italics, to enhance the ethereal effect? How about sizzling sex scenes? And, for comic relief, a talking cat who solves crimes and a wisecracking kid who’s five going on forty?
Uh, you may want to rethink that work in progress.
Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic, “asked readers of our Book Club newsletter to describe the things that most annoy them in books. The responses were a tsunami of bile.”
Here are some things that Ron salvaged from the tsunami.

(1) Readers hate dream sequences.
Yes, I know dream sequences are a staple of literature. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov has guilty dreams, including one about a whipped mare. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Boy Who Lived is deceived by thoughts implanted by a bad guy. Winston in 1984 worries his dreams will get him in trouble with the Thought Police. A Christmas Carol is a long life-changing dream. And then there’s Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So why should we be wary of dream sequences?
Raging readers told Ron Charles this:
“‘I absolutely hate dream sequences,’ writes Michael Ream. ‘They are always SO LITERAL,’ Jennifer Gaffney adds, ‘usually an example of lazy writing.’”
Aha! So readers hate lazy writing and literal dream sequences. Writing coaches caution writers to avoid cheap tricks, especially the old “and then I woke up” dodge. They say you can use dream sequences if the dreams are premonitions, illustrate an important inner conflict, or help a protagonist realize something major. In short, the dreams must advance the plot. So craft your dream sequences carefully.

(2) Readers hate historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies.
The Washington Post says, “Karen Viglione Lauterwasser despairs over errors ‘like calling the divisions in a hockey game “quarters” or having a pentagon-shaped table with six chairs.’ Deborah Gravel warns authors that taking a cruise to Alaska is not enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier. Kristi Hart explains that when your characters are boiling maple sap to make syrup, they should not be stirring it. ‘You just boil it until the sugar content is correct, and then you’re done.’”
My pet peeve includes the treatment of black people in historical novels in the first half of the Twentieth Century. With some exceptions, until the late 1950s or 1960s, black people were not allowed to eat in most white restaurants or sit at lunch counters with whites. Nor could they stay at white hotels, go to white schools, use white toilets, or even drink out of white people’s water fountains.
In 1968, I encountered my first segregated water fountain, on a trip through Mississippi. In the local courthouse, the white people drank chilled water from a modern metal fountain. Black people had to drink warm water from a dinky white porcelain fountain. At a Catholic church in the same state, my family arrived late for the service, so we sat in the back. An usher told us that section was for black people (actually, he said “Negroes”) and we had to move.
Encountering this segregation was shocking, but it existed, and to deny it in novels is to deny the shame, hurt and humiliation black people suffered – and still do.
(3) Readers hate typos and grammatical errors.
This is also bugaboo for TKZ readers and writers, and we’ve written often about how to catch typos, while understanding those slippery little devils slip into the best books. But typos seem to be getting worse, especially since traditional publishers are cutting back on copy editors and some indie authors don’t hire them.
The Washington Post noted: “Patricia Tannian, a retired copy editor, writes, ‘It seems that few authors can spell “minuscule” or know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt.’ Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, laments that so many ‘authors don’t know the difference between “lie” and “lay.’” TKZ’s Terry Odell wrote a helpful blog on that subject. Read it and sin no more. https://killzoneblog.com/2023/03/are-you-lying-or-laying-around.html

Personally, I wish writers would know the difference between grizzly and grisly murders. While it’s true the Cocaine Bear and some bears in the wild do kill humans, in most mysteries humans performing those grisly murders.
And please realize that the South American country is spelled Colombia, not Columbia. There’s more, but it’s not a good idea to get me started.
“While we’re at it,” the Washington Post wrote, “let’s avoid ‘bemused.’ Bemused ‘doesn’t mean what you think it means,’ says Paula Willey.”
And please, please learn how to use “chute,” as in where you toss your dirty clothes. I’ve seen major writers call it a “laundry shoot,” which can put holes in clothes.

(4) Readers hate bloated books.
According to the Washington Post, “Jean Murray says, ‘First books by best-selling authors are reasonable in length; then they start believing that every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut.’ She notes that Elizabeth George’s first novel, A Great Deliverance, was 432 pages. Her most recent, Something to Hide, is more than 700.
“But it’s not just the books that are too long,” the WashPo says. “Everything in them is too long, too. Readers complained about interminable prologues, introductions, expositions, chapters, explanations, descriptions, paragraphs, sentences, conversations, sex scenes, fistfights and italicized passages.”
(5) Readers hate long italicized passages.
“‘Long passages in italics drive me nuts,’ Susan Spénard told the Washington Post.
“‘Cormac McCarthy does entire chapters in italics,’ adds Nathan Pate. ‘Only the rest of his writing redeems that.’”
(6) Readers hate when writers don’t use quote marks.
“‘Sometimes you have to reread a passage to determine who is speaking,’ one reader said.
Quick now, a few more complaints:
(7) Readers hate “gratuitously confusing timelines.”
“‘Everything doesn’t have to be a linear timeline,’ concedes Kate Stevens, ‘but often authors seem to employ a structure that makes the book unreadable (or at least very difficult to follow). There seems to be no reason why this is done other than to show off how clever they are.’”
(8) Readers hate two kinds of show-offs.

“Unrealistically clever children or talking animals . . . are deeply irksome in novels — along with disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.”
Some cozy readers adore talking animals who solve crimes, so this objection doesn’t apply to everyone.
(9) A few more things readers hate, according the Washington Post:
– “Susan C. Falbo is tired of ‘protagonists who have had a hard day, finally stagger home and take a scalding hot shower.’” My protagonists sometimes do that, so I guess the key here is to not overdo it.

– “Connie Ogle and Susan Dee have had it with ‘lip biting.’ Ogle explains, ‘If real people bit their lips with the frightening regularity of fictional characters, our mouths would be a bloody mess.’
– “Gianna LaMorte is tired of seeing ‘someone escape a small town and rent a large house, get a job at a local paper or make a living gardening.’” The person who flees to a small town and makes a living writing for a newspaper gets my goat. Especially if they have their own office and come and go as they please. Small town newspapers barely pay enough to keep reporters in cat food. And editors want to know where they can reach you at all times.

And I’m with Tobin Anderson, who wrote, “Vomiting is the new crying. I think it’s part of the whole hyper-valuation of trauma — and somehow tears seem too weak, too mundane. But imagine a funeral filled with upchuckers.” I’m seeing a lot of barfing on TV these days, and watching folks toss their cookies while I’m eating in front of the tube makes me want to . . . well, you get the point.
So, TKZ readers, what are your pet peeves?

Pre-order my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, The Dead of Night, to be published April 4. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1448310350/ref=ox_sc_saved_image_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1



Such a Deal!
Bundling Your Ebooks

By PJ Parrish

My husband does the grocery shopping in our house. He’s a sucker for buy-one-get-one free. He can’t resist, bless his little hunting-and-gathering heart. I just did a tour of our closets and pantry. We have four bottles of Gardini’s Caesar Dressing, three six-packs of Swiss Miss cocoa mix, five cans of Edge shaving cream, six bags of Greenie dog treats and 52 rolls of toilet paper.

The other day, after hitting the garden section at Home Depot, I popped the trunk to load in my mulch only to find the trunk stuffed with four 8-roll packs of Bounty paper towels. He knows we have no room for this in our small house, and this is a bit of a marital turf war, but he can’t help himself. Why buy just one if you can get three at a great price?

Okay, he did come home the other day with four bottles of my favorite pinot. It was buy-one-get-one day at Publix. Wine can go a long ways to soothing the savage wife.

Who can resist a real bargain? Buy-one-get-one-free packaging is a time-honored ploy to hook customers. Musicians have been onto this since the Great Vinyl Age. TV specials and movies are routinely packaged as one box-set either as physical discs or streaming options. (Being a Luddite, I treasure my CD box-set of the complete original Star Trek).

I realize this post isn’t for everyone. But if you already have some books out there, you might considering bundling. Bundled books can stoke new interest in old titles, especially if you a series, because readers love to move easily from one book to the next. Or perhaps, you’ve written books on one subject — like our own James here does with his series on fiction craft. Even if you’re still slaving away on that first book, file this away for the future marketing option.

I’m writing about this today only because my sister Kelly and I have finally gotten around to doing this. Today marks the debut of our first bundle in our Louis Kincaid series. I don’t usually go in for blatant self-promotion, but even if you don’t buy it, go check it out just to see if it might work for you.

We’re able to do this because we finally have the rights back to almost every book in our series. We’ve redesigned and self-published all the titles as ebooks and trade paperbacks, but we’re banking on the idea that a bargain bundle might stoke sales and reap new readers. Our plan is the bundle three titles at a time over the next couple months.

Okay, so what do you have to do to get this off the ground? My sister Kelly is going to answer here because she has handled all the technical aspects of this, including the formatting and cover designs. Also, my friend Neil Plakcy will weigh in. Neil has four series in bundle now: Golden Retriever Mysteries, Have Body, Will Guard, Mahu Investigations, and Angus Green FBI Thrillers. He has also bundled up a group of young adult romances, and collected together three unrelated contemporary gay romance novels. After retiring from teaching college, he now writes full-time, kept company by his husband and their two rambunctious golden retrievers. Check out his bundles at http://www.mahubooks.com

1. Why bother, if the individual books are already available?

Neil: The advantage is that readers can get a 600-page book for one credit. Bundling also helps read-through — the reader doesn’t have to go back to the store to get the next book. It’s already there. I also use the bundles to generate read-through. If you got 1-3 for free, or through Kindle Unlimited, I hope that you’ll be motivated to keep reading.

Kris: Neil’s point about read-through is a good one. A new release deserves its own launch and breathing space. But if the books have been out for some time, it can generate new interest. Binge consumption is the norm these days, and a box-set of your work at a good price entices readers.  As indie superstar Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, “The best way to get noticed is by publishing enough that readers can binge for a weekend.” Binge readers who buy box-sets are often a different audience than those who buy individual books. Why not go after them?

2. How do you decide which books to bundle together?

Neil: By theme? (I’ve done a set with stand alone gay romances) Or by series? That’s the traditional way I have done them. I usually do a three-book bundle but I’ve also experimented with a larger set. I’ve seen other authors who will put together a complete series. In my case, I’m usually still writing in that series.

Kris: Neil is very prolific. For us, we have just our Louis Kincaid series, so the decision is easy. It seems to me bundling would work best for series writers. Or perhaps you have a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy; that seems a natural. Also, romance novels in any given sub-genre, given the rapacious nature of its readers, would be a good fit.

Kelly: It’s important to keep the tone consistent in your bundle. Don’t bundle fantasy with romantic suspense, for instance. It takes time to create bundles. Use your time wisely. Three is a nice bundle, but I’ve seen authors do two-book bundles (say, a story and its sequel.) Authors also bundle 10 or more. Neil bundled nine in his golden retriever series — quite a haul for readers!


3. How do you set pricing?

Neil: Amazon lowers the royalty percentage for books over $9.99. I usually use $6.99 — that’s a bargain for three books that are usually $3.99 or $4.99 each. But most of my revenue from bundles comes from Kindle Unlimited, not from sales.

Kelly: If you’re a big gorilla, you can price your bundle high. But for the average Joe, you have to make the reader feel they are getting a deal.

4. How do convey that it’s a box set instead of a regular book?

Kelly: The most important thing you do is make sure the image you upload to Amazon or others looks like a 3D box-set (as opposed to a flat cover). Remember, the first thing a potential reader sees is this image. I designed all our individual covers. But when  I went to design the box-set image, I knew it had to look like a realistic box-set that you’d have on a bookshelf. I tried it first in photoshop but it looked amateurish, so I invested in a template specifically for this.

Neil: I use a 3-D cover that shows the front cover of the first book in the series, with an extra ribbon that indicates it’s “Books 4-6 of the Have Body, Will Guard series.” Also you can see the titles of all three books on the spine.

5. Can I do this myself?

Kelly: Yes, of course. But even if you are proficient in cover design already, it’s still a bit of a learning curve. Or hire someone to do this for you. I have designed all Neil’s covers and his box-sets. Formatting the books in the bundle is not hard if you’re used to formatting already. But it is time-consuming. You must combine three manuscripts into one file, and that can be troublesome. You’re now dealing with a 900-page file vs a 300-page file. Chapter headings can move, double breaks go crazy, and the tables of content can be a headache. If you have trouble getting professional looking interior ebooks, consider buying a template for that as well. Don’t wing it. Once you get the hang of a good template, you’ll be happy.

Kris: Back to those covers: Ugly covers signal amateur hour. If your covers are ugly, consider rebranding all your covers first before bundling.

6. Do I leave my individual books up if I upload a bundle?

Kelly: Absolutely. It’s one more product on your shelf. At the supermarket, you can buy one roll of toilet paper or 12. So it should be with your ebooks.

7. Is this really for me?

Kelly: If you’re like us, and your books have been out there for while, it spices up your bookshelf. If you are very prolific, like Neil, and have a several series and multiple stand alones, bundling them up can really expand your publishing real estate. Don’t let the possible problems intimidate you. Think creatively. You can bundle anything — and rebrand old material — if you pay attention to imagery, tone and genre.

5. What about bundling with other authors?

Neil: I have thought about it but haven’t found the right partners. Also the royalty accounting can be complicated, especially if your income is going to come from KU, since there’s no way to tell “which” pages the reader read.

Kris: This can get really messy in terms of dividing income and promotion duties. Whose publishing account will the box-set be loaded onto? Who gets the income and makes sure it is divided fairly? (Amazon allows you only to have one person on an account.). How will you handle this come tax time? Really do your homework if you are considering this. Get a legal partnership agreement. Kelly and I have one, and we like and trust each other. What happens if you and your box-set partner have a falling out? Marriage is beautiful. Divorce is ugly.

Our Louis Kincaid bundle goes live this morning. $6.99. Such a deal. Click here to check us out.