Crime Dogs


By Debbie Burke


Gruesome WarningThis post contains graphic details of a horrific bombing that killed three people, including a two-year-old child.

Luna, Gauge, Ace – photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges

Dogs are helpmates that do most anything their people ask of them…including jobs that no one, human or animal, should have to do…like finding body parts after an explosion. 

Kerrie Garges has spent nine years as a volunteer dog handler for Alpha K-9 Search and Rescue (SAR) in Chalfont, PA, population 4,000. Until the COVID 19 crisis, her day job was teaching environmental education at Peace Valley Park Nature Center in Bucks County.

She fell into SAR “by accident” as a dog-loving empty-nester looking for a way to help her community. At a training exercise with her then-new Labrador, Ace, the instructor observed that Ace showed an aptitude for “air scent” (tracking smells through the air rather than on the ground) and invited her to join SAR.

Luna hot on the trail with Kerrie – Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges

Ace, age 10, is now retired but Kerrie continues to train and work with two more Labs: Luna, age 5, is Trailing Certified and is training for Human Remains Detection (HRD). She practically yanks Kerrie’s arm out of the socket when she’s on the hunt.

Gauge is Kerrie’s rambunctious one-year-old about which she jokes, “Just shoot me in the head!” He’s gradually growing out of puppyhood as he trains for certification in Live Find and HRD. She says, “When Gauge has his vest on, he knows he’s working.”

Most searches Kerrie has worked involve people with dementia who’ve walked away from home and gotten lost.

A completely different—and hideous—search would test the mettle of Kerrie and other dog handlers who were called in by the Lehigh County assistant coroner to work a murder-suicide crime scene in 2018. 

On September 29, at 9:30 p.m., an explosion shook the Center City neighborhood in Allentown, PA. The cause was initially believed to be a car fire. First responders instead found that a powerful homemade bomb had detonated inside a car, killing three people and damaging surrounding buildings and homes for blocks.

Investigation determined the bomb had been built by Jacob G. Schmoyer, 26, with the express intention of killing himself, his two-year-old son Jonathan (“JJ”), and a casual friend David Hallman, 66, to whom Schmoyer owed $150. Before the explosion, Schmoyer had sent letters to family members and the Allentown Police Department in which he expressed anger as well as concern that JJ might have autism.

That night, Schmoyer lured Hallman into his Nissan Altima, where he and JJ were already sitting, with the promise to pay back the money.

Instead, he detonated the bomb which killed the three occupants, shredded the car, and cast debris and body parts over a five-block area.

Following the initial investigation, Lehigh County’s assistant coroner requested help from Alpha K-9 SAR to locate human remains amid the rubble. Kerrie said, “We’re a small group without a lot of resources, so we were honored to be called for this important mission.”

For this job, Kerrie did not bring her own dogs, which are still in training. Dogs must be tested and certified by National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) to perform real-world work. Kerrie acted as a support person to handlers and three dogs that are certified in HRD.

On the morning of October 2, the Alpha K-9 SAR volunteers arrived in Allentown, an hour’s drive from Chalfont. An eight-block area had been cordoned off. They were escorted past crime scene tape into destruction that Kerrie described as “a war zone.”

Following the blast, residents of surrounding blocks had been evacuated. Broken glass, tree limbs, chunks of buildings, and hazardous debris were everywhere, causing Kerrie concern because the dogs didn’t have protective footwear. Coroner’s office personnel offered to adapt the knee-high protective coverings that humans wore to fit the K-9s. After discussion, the handlers decided that, since the dogs weren’t accustomed to working with booties, wearing them might be too distracting. They closely monitored the dogs’ paws but fortunately there were no injuries.

Kerrie expressed “new respect for disaster dogs” working under similar dangerous conditions.

The day was hot and coroner’s office personnel made sure the volunteers and dogs had extra water and could cool off in air-conditioned vehicles when necessary.

The densely-populated, inner-city area of Allentown contrasted sharply with the suburban schools, parks, and rural locations where the Chalmont team normally worked. Older houses were crowded together, many converted to multi-family apartments. Narrow passageways called “bakers alleys” separated the buildings.

Adjacent to the cordoned-off crime scene area, Kerrie smelled meth cooking. Although law enforcement was nearby, she was startled to see bystanders carrying on drug deals and smoking marijuana. Those scents, mingled with dust and smoke caused by the explosion and fire, created a confusing mix for the dogs to sort out. She said, “It took about twenty minutes for them to get acclimated to the scene” in order to focus on finding human remains.

The coroner’s office created a map of the areas to be searched. Each dog team was assigned a different sector. Coroner’s assistants accompanied the teams, taking photos of pieces of burned flesh as they were found. The evidence was then “bagged and tagged” and taken to the crime lab.

One dog kept wanting to climb over a stone wall to get into a particular house. Inside, the searchers found shattered windows and furniture overturned by the explosion. A TV was still on, forgotten when residents quickly evacuated. The team also found a frightened puppy that had been left behind, tied up with no food or water. “That bothered me a lot,” Kerry said. Officers carried the pup to safety.

As they proceeded through the area, the dogs kept raising their heads, looking up, which mystified the handlers who couldn’t see anything. At last, they discovered “a giant flap of flesh” stuck high in the gutter of a four-story building, a horrifying indication of the power of the blast.

“We [searchers] felt disgust,” Kerrie said. “Not stomach-churning kind of disgust but rather mental and emotional disgust that the man had killed his little boy and his friend and caused all these poor people to be ousted from their homes and businesses.”  

The search lasted four hours and located human remains as far away as five blocks from where the bomb had exploded. Each dog found at least three pieces, the largest being the flap of flesh in the gutter. The smallest was a charcoal-colored, wafer-thin piece of burned flesh the size of a quarter. Kerrie recalled, “I’d watched a documentary about [the atomic bomb at] Hiroshima and that’s the first thing I thought of when I saw this piece.”

Even veteran law enforcement officers were shaken by the devastation and the senseless death of a toddler. Counselors were offered to those struggling with what they’d seen.

When I asked Kerrie how the dogs reacted to such horrors, she said, “Dogs consider it a job.” They were just happy to please their humans.

Letter of appreciation from Lehigh County Coroner to SAR – photo courtesy Kerrie Garges

The handlers had a hard time expressing their emotions about the gruesome mission but they all felt pride in the dogs and the teamwork of SAR. “The memory always stays with you. You never forget,” Kerrie said. “But this is what we train for every week. We want to utilize the skills we’ve learned. We almost felt rejuvenated, as well as proud and humbled to be called to do this important work.”  

Investigations continued for more than a year by local police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which determined Schmoyer acted alone and the explosion was not related to terrorist activity.

No amount of investigation will ever explain why Schmoyer intentionally killed his own child and a friend who’d been decent enough to lend him money.

Gauge after a successful training session – photo courtesy Kerrie Garges

SAR volunteers perform difficult jobs few people could endure. They can be summoned in the middle of the night or during miserable weather. They finance training out of their own pockets. They work without pay. They’re proud of the job they do and the strong bond they develop with their dogs.

Crime dogs perform other functions, too. One recent evening, Kerrie felt particularly blue because of current events in the world. Her youngest dog, the often-exuberant Gauge, came from two rooms away and climbed on the couch beside her. He laid one paw on her shoulder and snuggled his face in her neck. “He made me feel better,” Kerry said. “He made me smile.”

That may be a dog’s most important job.




TKZers: Have you been involved in SAR work? Have you been in a situation where search dogs were deployed?




A big shout-out of appreciation and gratitude to TKZ regular reader Brian Hoffman who designed this beautiful new cover for Dead Man’s Bluff.

Brian, you’re the best! 

Today is launch day for Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, on sale for only $.99 for a limited time at this link.


Pantsing Through the Pandemic

Courtesy of eltpics

Please welcome Steven Ramirez to TKZ!

If, as Stephen King likes to say, the road to hell is paved with adverbs, then finishing a novel is paved with mouse traps; and here you are trying to get across that minefield in your bare feet.

As writers, we tend to get distracted—a lot. Thanks, Netflix. And then, there’s life. How many of you have said, “If only I could focus exclusively on my writing, I’d finish this damn book, by cracky.” I know I have. Repeatedly over the years, much to the irritation of my long-suffering wife.

Then, a little thing called COVID-19 happened. We were told we had to shelter in place. Sure, there was still Netflix and Amazon Prime to distract us, but we couldn’t go anywhere. What’s a writer to do? Well, like the wily poker player whose bluff was called, I decided to shut up and write. And guess what, I finished the damn book.

Pantsers Are People, Too

I’m a pantser by trade. That means I don’t have a clue where I’m heading when I begin a new book. That’s not entirely true. I do know where I would like to end up, but I haven’t worked out the details. I have a main character in mind, of course. And I’m pretty clear on the conflict arising between the MC’s goal and the thing standing in the way. Other than that, I’m free as a bird when it comes to the plot. I suspect that some plotters look at pantsers as undisciplined children with uncombed hair and sticky fingers. My image of a plotter is a person who dresses impeccably and has an English accent. Borrowing from the wonderfully insane film Galaxy Quest, plotters are Alexander Dane, while pantsers are Jason Nesmith.

The book in question is the third in my supernatural suspense series, Sarah Greene Mysteries. My main character sees ghosts, which tends to get her into serious trouble. Over the course of the three novels, Sarah goes from discovering a mirror that holds the spirit of a dead girl to the entire town pretty much erupting into flames.

Now, as a card-carrying pantser, I had no idea how I was going to go from a murder mystery to Armageddon. I had to trust that the characters would get me to my destination. Spoiler alert—going about crafting a novel this way requires you to rewrite. Often. That’s the downside. The upside is, there are lots of opportunities for discovery. And then, there is what I like to call the happy accident, which in my opinion, is a gift from heaven and makes for a better story.

Brain Teasers

I’m no psychologist, but I suspect that somewhere deep in the nooks and crannies of my brain is THE STORY. By the way, can you even have a nook without a cranny? Just wondering. Anyway, like a sculptor working a block of marble, my job is to remove everything that isn’t the story. I’m pretty sure this is easier for plotters. I’m guessing they sit down and chisel out the plot until it operates like a Swiss watch. That’s just not for me.

“So, what about writer’s block, Mr. Too-Busy-To-Be-A-Real-Writer?” you say. Well, I don’t believe in it. Sure, there are times when we get stuck. But guess what. Even when the words are not flowing onto the page, your brain is working on the story. Maybe not consciously. But, trust me, you’re still writing. My belief is, once we can accept that not all writing translates into words on paper, the more relaxed we become. I was going to say happy, but whoever heard of a happy writer, am I right?

When I get stuck, I set aside the manuscript for a few days and either work on something else (and you should always have something else to work on) or watch television. While my conscious mind is laughing its butt off at The Good Place, my unconscious is free to work. In fact, my psyche—whose name is Stan, by the way—was probably praying I would stop looking over his shoulder and vacate the room so he could get back to creating. Stan does tend to get irritable. But I don’t blame him. I mean, I’m no picnic. Ask my wife.

Survey Says

So, where does all this leave us in terms of writing while sheltering in place? Well, when things happen that are beyond our control, we are presented with choices. I suspect that many of you out there took a look at the situation and, like me, wrote like the wind these past few months. Maybe you didn’t finish your book, but I’ll bet you made significant progress.

But what do we do when life returns, more or less, to normal? With luck, we’ve developed the discipline to carve out time each day to write. And that, my friends, is a happy accident.

TKZers: As writers, what are some of the ways you have taken advantage of these pandemic times?

Steven Ramirez is a 2019 Best Indie Book Award (BIBA) winner and a 32nd Annual Benjamin Franklin Award Silver Winner for The Girl in the Mirror, the first novel in the supernatural suspense series Sarah Greene Mysteries. A former screenwriter, he also wrote the acclaimed horror thriller series Tell Me When I’m Dead and Come As You Are, a horror collection. Steven lives in Los Angeles.



The Girl in the Mirror: A Sarah Greene Supernatural Mystery

While renovating an old house, Sarah Greene finds a mirror holding a dead girl’s spirit. As she explores the house’s secrets, Sarah awakens dangerous dark forces that could harm her.

Available now at Amazon.


George Saunders

By Mark Alpert

Ever since the publication of my first Young Adult novel five years ago, I’ve been invited to middle schools and high schools across the country to talk to aspiring teenage writers. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, those talks became Zoom calls — I plan to offer a free Zoom writing class to New York City students this summer — but my primary message to the kids remains the same: if you want to be a good writer, first you have to be an avid reader.

This advice is useful for writers at all stages in their careers, and I follow it myself. I believe you should read novels you know you’ll love, focusing in particular on books in the genre you’re writing in. But I also believe you should make your reading list as varied and colorful as possible, because you never know where your next good idea might come from. And I think it’s wise to sometimes challenge yourself by reading a book that’s way outside your comfort zone, because it might expose you to a whole new vista of writing styles and possibilities.

In that spirit, I highly recommend George Saunders. I encountered this writer for the first time when I read his short story “Victory Lap,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 2009. Go ahead and read the story right now; it’s not that long. I think “Victory Lap” is an especially useful read for thriller writers, who must learn how to quickly introduce characters so interesting and likable that readers will care deeply about what happens to them.

Okay, have you read the story yet? In just a few pages, “Victory Lap” introduces us to Alison and Kyle, two fourteen-year-olds who live next door to each other but have experienced radically different upbringings. Alison is dreamy, imaginative, privileged, and a bit spoiled. Her most interesting characteristic, to me at least, is her distaste for the boys in her neighborhood:

The local boys possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, which, tell the truth, she was not très crazy about, such as: actually named their own nuts. She had overheard that! And aspired to work for County Power because the work shirts were awesome and you got them free.

Kyle is more likable because he labors under a set of absurdly draconian rules that his parents have imposed, allegedly for his benefit. Worse, Kyle has internalized his parents’ stern voices, and even when he’s alone he constantly hears them scolding him for minor infractions such as walking barefoot in their house.

What makes this a thriller story is the appearance of a character of pure Evil, a knife-wielding man disguised as a meter reader (but never named in the story), who without any qualms whatsoever plans to kidnap, rape, and murder Alison. Kyle, who observes the kidnapping in progress, must decide whether to try to stop the crime, even though it would put himself in danger and violate all his parents’ protective rules. And then Alison must decide, in turn, whether to save Kyle from a disastrous moral choice that would ruin his life.

The story’s philosophical implications are fascinating: Is morality a matter of following rules or empathy? Kyle abandons his parents’ rules to save Alison, but his rejection of all restrictions (“I’m the boss of me,” he thinks) almost leads him to do something unspeakably wrong. I think the story comes down on the side of empathy — we make the correct moral choices when we decide to help others in need — but it’s certainly open to different interpretations.

The story’s greatest strength, though, is the quality of the writing. It’s funny, crazily inventive, and easy to read. And when the plot turns serious, you get amazing passages like this one:

Then he saw that the kid was going to bring the rock down. He closed his eyes and waited and was not at peace at all but instead felt the beginnings of a terrible dread welling up inside him, and if that dread kept growing at the current rate, he realized in a flash of insight, there was a name for the place he would be then, and it was Hell.

I read “Victory Lap” again this week after finishing Saunders’s 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo. That book is also madly inventive, deeply philosophical, and a pleasure to read, but it’s too wild and woolly to describe in a brief blog post. You should give it a try, though, especially if you enjoy historical novels.


Eyes Front

By John Gilstrap

Self-doubt is a crippling condition for any artist. (Spoiler: It never goes away. You just learn to manage it.) For young or inexperienced artists–hereinafter called writers because this is a blog about writing–self-doubt can be paralyzing. You write something you think is pretty good, but when you show it to your “beta readers” they have suggestions, so forward progress stops on your story.

The writer’s internal monologue goes something like this: I thought that description of the lightning strike was pretty strong. But if Beta George didn’t like it, there must be something wrong. He said he didn’t like the word “struck” because he thought it was a cliche. And he said Main Character Harriett wasn’t scared enough. I don’t get why she’d be more scared than she is, but if Beta George thinks. . .

I call this navel gazing. No further work gets done on the story because the writer is wrapped around his own axle trying to make Beta George happy–even if it’s against the writer’s own better judgment.

Does this scenario sound familiar to anyone: Mary has been working on her story for eighteen months but hasn’t gotten past Chapter Three. Every time she tries to move forward, she looks back and realizes that what she’s written is terrible. She wonders why she ever thought she could write a book, maybe has a little cry or maybe a big cocktail, and then she goes back to the beginning.

NOTE: Up to and excluding the part where she starts over, this is a process I go through with every book. Twenty-one of them. It’s part of the process. Literally, writing crappy prose is a necessary element of the journey to get to the end of a project. And not just at the beginning of a career. Every. Friggin’. Book.

Having done this a few times grants the advantage of having confidence in the crappy parts. I know that once the creative boiler comes up to pressure and I’m steaming through the story, I’ll be able to take care of damage control. But I have to get up to pressure. I have to move the story forward.

I’m going to share my strategy for managing doubt and crappy prose, and then I’m going to share how I think you should handle it until you feel confident that your boiler is sound.

I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote in the previous two sessions. Then, when I finish today’s session of moving forward, I intentionally do not go back and edit. That’s tomorrow’s job, after things are less fresh in my head. Rewriting takes about an hour most days, and then I forge ahead. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, I’m really on my third or fourth draft, and all I need is a quick pass for a polish.

My system works for me because a) I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and b) I force myself to add at least a thousand words to yesterday’s count. Two thousand is better, and I think my record is 8,900. I don’t want to do that again.

Here’s my suggestion for others: Eyes Front. Don’t look back. Period. Hard stop.

Pick a targeted word count or a date on the calendar (think 10,000 words or three weeks–a real stretch). Until that milestone is reached, you are forbidden to look back at what you’ve written. Keep the story moving forward. Only forward. Get that boiler churning. Fall in love with your story again. And no cheating! If you forget what you named that guy in Chapter Two, mark the spot with asterisks and keep going.

When you reach your milestone, you MUST congratulate yourself for having met it. If you’re sailing your book at full speed through calm waters, set another goal and keep pressing on. If you need to go back to fix stuff (all those asterisks, for example), go for it. Make all the changes you feel are necessary, but remember that you still owe yourself a thousand words of forward progress.

Don’t let your book run aground while you’re cleaning the bilges.

What do you think, TKZers? Worth a try?


Pulp Diction. What We Can
Learn From The Noir Czars

(Disclaimer: The quiz part of this post I lifted from one my own old posts. Don’t sue me.)

By PJ Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I had my usual hot date this past Sunday. He’s a dream-boat of a guy and he never disappoints me. We met in a bar in Toronto back in my salad days, and had a Same Time Next Year sort of thing going on. But then we drifted off into other things and lost touch.  But a couple years ago, I ran into him again and it was like…magic.

Okay, before I get in trouble here, I will tell you that my hot date is Eddie Muller. I first met Eddie oh, maybe seventeen years ago at a Bouchercon conference. Back then, he was still writing crime fiction and had won the Shamus Award for his debut novel The Distance. My sister Kelly and I were nominated for our third book Paint It Black. We lost, but I remember Eddie was very sweet to us. Bought me a drink, as I recall.

Fast forward to 2017 and I ran into Eddie again while I was channel surfing. He had a great new gig as the host of Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley series. He would introduce each film, drawing on his lifelong love of the genre. We now hook up every Sunday morning on TCM. (This Sunday it’s Underworld U.S.A., starring Cliff Robertson who’s out to avenge the murder of his father even as he falls in love with a femme fatale named Cuddles, whom he just might have to kill.)

It was Eddie who introduced me to what would become my favorite noir film A Kiss Before Dying. It was Eddie who showed me that my teenage crush Dr. Ben Casey was really a creep in Murder By Contract. It was Eddie who led me to the novels of James M. Cain via Double Indemnity.  Here’s Eddie talking about that seminal classic:

I am still trying to catch up on my noir reading. (I didn’t get to The Maltese Falcon until about ten years ago, I confess). Digesting noir, with its emphasis on oppressive mood and shadowed morality, with its lean mean style, has helped me find my own voice as a writer. I am not a true neo-noir practitioner, but I feel a deep connection to its dark heart. One of the best compliments I ever got was when Ed Gorman wrote of our book Thicker Than Water: “The quiet sadness that underpins it all really got to me, the way Ross Macdonald always does.”

A couple Christmases ago, my husband gave me The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. It’s a compilation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the ’20s through the ’40s. It’s about the size of an old Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.

Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-beat terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? No way…


And while we’re at it, let’s not get sucked into the notion that noir was only a guy thing. Valerie Taylor had a career churning out books like The Girls In 3B, a classic ’50s pulp tale showcasing predatory beatnik men, drug hallucinations, and secret lesbian trysts. (Her books, among others, have been reissued by Feminist Press.) And would we have Megan Abbott or Sarah Gran without Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote the twisty indictment of misogyny In A Lonely Place (the source of the Bogart movie)? Doubtful…

To be sure, not all the old stories — like many of the movies — have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. I think we can read these stories now mainly to appreciate the streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. When you read them, you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Here’s a passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three:”

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.

Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.

We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk. Just: We went.

How can you read that and not smile? I heartily recommend the Big Book of Pulps. And if you haven’t connected with Eddie on Noir Alley, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff television has to offer.

And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp diction slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?

1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener

11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.

12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.

13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.

14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.
14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…


The Long Rain…


The Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area where I reside averages forty inches of precipitation per year. Seattle, which has the reputation of being rainy all of the time, averages thirty-eight inches annually. I am given to understand that Seattle receives a steady, gentle rain (and a bit of snow in the winter) throughout the year, with precipitation occurring a bit more frequently than every other day. It rains every few days in Columbus over a period of about six months — April through October —  and then we of course get some snow during the rest of the year. 

We sometimes get some spells of heavy, flood-warning rain. We had several days of those a couple of weeks ago.  I didn’t have any damage, outside or inside. It was still a bit emotionally wearing, in a seasonal affective disorder way. It is easy to wonder by the second or third straight day of rain whether the sun will ever be seen again.

It is on such days that I think of Ray Bradbury, or, to be more precise, two of his stories. The first of these was originally titled “Death by Rain” and appeared in the pulp magazine Planet Stories in an issue published on September 23, 1950, almost one year to the day before I was born.

Forgive me for exhibiting a moment of looseness of association. I actually had the opportunity to buy that magazine for a dollar in 1962 at a used bookstore. I instead used the dollar to buy several brand new comic books, including one titled The Amazing Spider-Man #1, which I still own. My logic at the time was that I already had “Death by Rain,” retitled as “The Long Rain,” in the Bradbury short story collection The Illustrated Man. The original cover price of Planet Stories was twenty cents, and the merchant was selling it for a whole dollar. It seemed like a bad deal to me. I was right. I can buy that issue of Planet Stories for under thirty dollars on e-bay while that Spider-Man comic is worth considerably more than that. 

To digress from the digression,  I have read “The Long Rain” dozens of times. It presents a future in which a rocket ship crashlands on Venus in the early days of Venusian colonization by Earth. The astronauts on board who survive are beset by constant rainstorms which, in the 1940s, were thought to occur to occur on Venus. The astronauts attempt to reach one of the sun domes — shelters constructed during earlier visits to Venus — in a last-ditch survival effort. Hilarity does not ensue. Tragedy does. The ending is enigmatic, even more so upon each rereading. Folks still argue about it. I think of that story whenever the rain never seems to stop and the sun becomes a memory stay thankful for having my own sun dome, as well as the (almost) certain knowledge that the rain will eventually pass. 

The second Bradbury story that comes to mind during the central Ohio version of monsoon season is titled “All Summer in a Day.” It isn’t as well known as “The Long Rain” but is a bit more poignant and ultimately maybe the better tale of the two. “All Summer in a Day” published in the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which, unlike Planet Stories, is still around. Bradbury is mentioned on the cover but does not get top billing, interestingly enough. His contribution to that issue is a classic nonetheless. “All Summer in a Day” is also set on  Venus. The Venus of this story is somewhat similarly inhospitable to the Venus of “The Long Rain” but has been sufficiently colonized to have children residing there who were born planetside and elementary schools built for them to attend. One of the school children is a girl named Margot who moved from Earth to Venus five years prior to the story’s present. Margot is the only one in her class who has seen the sun. The reason for this is that (in the story) the sun is only visible on Venus for one hour every seven years, The event is coming up, and it’s a big deal, particularly for Margot, who misses seeing that which she had previously taken for granted. The problem is that some of Margot’s classmates are unhappy with her, and as a result they…well, you will have to read the story to find out, but I will tell you that it is for me one of the saddest stories I have ever read (I’m getting a little misty-eyed just writing about it, but don’t tell anybo… Oops).  “All Summer in a Day” has been collected in a number of Bradbury’s anthologies, including the U.S. Edition of A Medicine for Melancholy. Bradbury, as the result of stories such as “All Summer in a Day”  and the chilling “The Small Assassin,” acquired the reputation of hating children. Maybe he did. I don’t share that opinion, but after reading “All Summer in a Day” you will understand why he was painted with that brush, and why I think of it after several days of central Ohio gloom.

I doubt Bradbury thought at the time he wrote the stories I’ve been discussing that either of them would be remembered decades later. He lived long enough to see that happen, and to see them taught, studied, and even adapted to other media. That’s pretty good for a couple of stories that were purchased by editors at the rate of a couple of pennies per word and published in what were referred to as “pulp” magazines. The lesson here is that you might have a story or five that accumulated some rejection slips. Check your hard drive or your file drawer and read a few of them, pick up a couple, shine them up, and send them out again. It is possible that the churl who rejected them initially now sleeps with the fishes and that a pair of fresh editorial eyes will look more favorably upon them. Sixty years from now someone may be discussing your story as a result. I assure you that stranger and more unlikely things have happened. You might even be still alive to see it.

Back to the rain… I am not alone in feeling this way, at least about “The Long Rain.” Our own blogger emeritus Joe Moore reported having a similar reaction to that story in this space way back in 2012. What about you? Do you have a favorite story that deals with weather that has been written either by you or someone else? And sure. It can take place on any world, including this one. 

Enjoy your weekend. May it be sunny. 



Making Characters Count

By Elaine Viets

I’m starting my sixth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery by returning to my comfort read, Agatha Christie. After all, she’s sold a billion books in English and another billion in foreign languages.
Why read an author who’s been dead for nearly 45 years?

Because her writing is timeless. I still learn from her. Here are three ways:
(1) Agatha Christie’s character descriptions are superb.
Even the most unimportant characters are carefully described.
In Death on the Nile “smooth-footed, deft-handed waiters ministered” to Hercule Poirot’s table, serving him an excellent meal.

And while the butler didn’t commit this murder, his brief appearance is memorable:
“A few minutes later she was being ushered into the long stately drawing room, and an ecclesiastical butler was saying with the proper mournful intonation, ‘Miss de Bellefort.’”
I love those phrases –”an ecclesiastical butler” “with the proper mournful intonation.” I can almost hear him intone her name.

(2) Agatha Christie finds fresh ways to describe series characters.

It’s tempting for series writers like myself to repeat the same descriptions of our main characters, book after book. But we have to be careful. Readers are smart enough to recognize boilerplate.
Here’s Agatha’s description of Hercule in After the Funeral. This is the 29th mystery in the Poirot series, but she still comes up with a new description:
“There were no curves in the room. Everything was square. Almost the only exception was Hercule Poirot himself, who was full of curves. His stomach was pleasantly rounded, his head resembled an egg in shape, and his moustaches curved upwards in a flamboyant flourish.”
Hercule is talking to Mr. Goby, an expensive operative who acquires outre information. Here’s Agatha’s clever description of a nondescript operative:
“Mr. Goby was small and spare and shrunken. He had always been refreshingly nondescript in appearance and he was now so nondescript as practically not to be there at all.”
Mr. Goby has to deliver a long list information that could have been quite dry. But Agatha livens it up with a funny bit. Here’s how Mr. Goby gives his report to Poirot:
“He was not looking at Poirot because Mr. Gobi never looked at anybody. Such remarks as he was now making seemed to be addressed to the left-hand corner of the chromium-plated fireplace curb.” He delivers his first round of information that way.
For the second batch, Mr. Goby “shifted his gaze to an electric plug socket.”
The third burst of info is given while he “winks at a lampshade.”
And finally, Mr. Goby finishes his information “by nodding his head at a cushion on the sofa.”
Mr. Goby never appears in this book again, but Agatha has found a good way to make what could have been a boring recitation of facts entertaining.
(3) Agatha Christie knows how to skip esoteric discussions that can bog down a scene.
Hercule is back at that fine dinner, and the host says, “‘You will enjoy your dinner, Monsieur Poirot. I promise you that. Now as to wine–’
“A technical conversation ensued, with Jules, the maitre d’hotel, assisting.”
Agatha also uses this technique to avoid repetitious dialogue from scene to scene.
That’s how I prep for my newest novel. I don’t call it procrastination, though Agatha has some 80 books and short stories.
What do you do before you start your novels?

A Star Is Dead – “witty dialogue and well-defined characters” says Publishers Weekly – sold out of its first printing. Buy it  here:



by Terry Odell

On last Friday’s question, one person commented on transitions being hardest for her to write, so I thought I’d address my approach to the subject here.

TransitionsWhen we moved to Colorado, we did a lot of remodeling. We have a small tile area in front of the fireplace. We installed ¾ inch hardwood for the rest of the floor. One of the challenges the contractors faced was making sure the transition between tile and wood was smooth, because the new hardwood was thicker than the pre-existing laminate flooring.

In your manuscript, you have to decide how you’re going to get from one time or place to the next. You don’t want people tripping when they move from tile to wood. That’s why paying attention to transitions is important.

There are ‘big’ transitions: Switching POV characters, chapter breaks, and scene breaks. There are the ‘little ones: Making sure every sentence, every paragraph follows logically from the one preceding it. As you can see, it’s a broad topic, but I’ll try to hit some of the high points.

When I started writing, I felt obligated to be with my characters 24/7. It was a major writing breakthrough to be able to write, “By Friday” when the previous scene was on a Wednesday. Skip two days? Gasp! Things had to be happening. And they were, but they weren’t anything that moved the story. There are other ways to show passage of time. Some authors like to date/time stamp scenes and chapters. There are scene breaks. Or, just some extra white space.

Formatting note: if you’re indie publishing, some of the conversion software (for ebooks) assumes extra returns are mistakes, and removes them. Print is another matter. For ebooks, I take the cautious approach and use a marker. If it’s a break within a scene, and my normal scene breaks are ~~~, then I’ll use a single ~ to show I’m with the same POV character, same scene, but time or place has changed.

For new chapters and scenes, I want to make sure I’m grounding the reader in the who, where, and when. For my romantic suspense books, each chapter usually has 2 main scenes, one from each character’s POV. That requires a bit of leapfrog mentality from the reader.

The last sentence of a scene often won’t lead into the first of the next. There has to be a way to remind the reader of: first, whose scene this will be, and second, where the previous scene ended. And, if time has passed, there has to be a way to indicate that as well. When you shift scenes or chapters, look at your opening paragraph. Is it description? Yes, you want to show the reader they’re somewhere else, but it can be more important to show the reader who they’re with first. Keep them involved with the character; don’t slow the read to describe the sunrise.

An example: Protag Graham has a POV scene in Chapter One. We’ve learned he’s a patrol cop with a goal of a transfer into a detective position. He’s in competition with another cop, Clarke. That scene ends with the following, which was clearly in Graham’s POV. He’s been thinking of the woman he just met in his investigation.

Laughter erupted from the room. The sound of his name, coupled with Clarke’s guffaws, eradicated Colleen’s image like wind-blown storm clouds. Dammit. It had been five years. He was a damn good cop, and he was going to beat Clarke into CID no matter how many times the arrogant bastard tried to dredge up his past.

He appears again in Chapter Two, but not as a POV character. His next turn center stage is in Chapter Four. Here’s the opening:

Graham finished filing his reports, surprised to see it was four-thirty. Instead of going home, he drove to Central Ops. Roger Schaeffer in CID might let him poke around a little. The lieutenant seemed to be one of the few who thought Graham had a shot at the CID spot. His recommendation could make the difference.

For this scene, I opened by using Graham’s name (who), and also a time reference (when). The where, Central Ops is mentioned. Also, by showing something only Graham can be aware of (his surprise at the time), we’ve established it’s his POV scene. If there was any doubt, the rest of the paragraph is internal monologue, thoughts only Graham would know.

Another good reason for clear transitions between chapters and scenes is because those tend to be the logical stopping places for readers. If they’re not picking up the book until the next night—or later, but we hate to think they could possibly wait that long to continue reading—it helps if they don’t feel that they have to back up to get a running start.

You also have to consider the ‘mini-transitions.’

Whether you’re writing narrative or dialogue, there has to be a clear and steady flow from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next. Just as you need transitions between scenes, you need transitions between individual paragraphs. And sentences. Consider dialogue. Normally, in conversation, if someone asks a question, we’ll answer it. Whatever the person who asked the question happens to be doing or thinking is going on simultaneously with our hearing the question and giving our response.

But in writing, if you stick all those internal thoughts and gestures in, it’s likely your reader will have forgotten the question. Look out for tacking on sentences after a character has asked a question. That’s not the best place to include it.

How do you handle transitions? Tips or problems you’re looking for help with? I’m sure there are a lot of folks here willing to chime in.

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


Interview with Kathleen Reardon, mystery author

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Reardon

Today, I’m visiting with mystery author Kathleen Reardon, Ph.D. She is professor emerita in management at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and now lives in Ireland. Her website is aptly named because she is an expert in comebacks!

We “met” through the Authors Guild discussion group while discussing new strategies for book launches during the pandemic. The more we “talked,” the more I thought her story of persistence in the face of daunting setbacks would interest TKZ readers.

While Kathleen’s accomplishments are extraordinary, the challenges she had to overcome are even more extraordinary.

Welcome to The Kill Zone, Kathleen!

Debbie: Your background is academia and you have written numerous award-winning, bestselling business books. What prompted you to write fiction?

Kathleen: As a teenager, I loved writing fiction and poetry. My junior year English teacher, Judith Kase, was particularly encouraging. Back then, I expected to be a writer and English teacher for life, but my career took me on to an MA and Ph.D. in communication sciences, college teaching and research. There was little time for creative writing, especially prior to tenure. At thirty-two, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Recovery took a while as did salvaging my career.

The fiction writing bug finally bit and wouldn’t let go in my early forties. My father had encouraged me to write fiction. He thought I’d pushed it aside long enough, but there was still the challenge of becoming a full professor. I also had three young children. So, I wrote most of Shadow Campus, my debut novel, during summer breaks until 2012 when I focused and got it done.

DB: What was the spark for this book and/or your series?  Please share how you came to write it.

KR: The spark for Shadow Campus was being the first woman to go up for tenure at a top business school. Breaking the glass ceiling is never easy. Change is hard. Sometimes resistance leads to incivility. One day I woke up early and began writing. Over the next week, I got the bones of the story on paper. I just couldn’t stop. Shadow Campus was born that week and I was en route to becoming a mystery author.

 Damned If She Does (2020) is a stand-alone sequel. Here again, the spark was experience as a female professor. I wrote most of the novel before MeToo began. It’s first and foremost a New York City crime mystery. But fiction often conveys messages about reality. A major subplot deals with abuse and the potential consequences of secrecy. Is there a best way forward? Is it better personally and for society to identify a perpetrator? Or are women damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

DB: A reviewer of your debut novel draws an interesting comparison between academia and organized crime! Is there an element of truth? Does it apply to Damned If She Does too?

KR: In my nonfiction, especially The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics, I write about levels of politics in organizations from church choirs to multinationals – the worst of these is pathological politics. In my first trade book, They Don’t Get It, Do They?,as well as my Harvard Business Review classic, “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk,” my focus was on the challenging road many women travel when they endeavor to be recognized and promoted for exceptional work. Weaved throughout both of my novels are insights from that work.

In Shadow Campus, Meg has all the credentials for promotion. Yet, in the opening scene – the night before her tenure decision – she is found hanging in her office, nearly dead. We learn that this crime was facilitated by several characters. I think that’s what the reviewer saw as “organized crime.”

DB: Readers are interested in your particular process for writing. Do you have special or unique techniques you use?

KR: People ask me how I keep readers from knowing who did it. The answer: I hide it from myself. Any of the primary characters could be the killer and I keep several as candidates until near the end. It’s a lot like spinning a number of plates, but that’s what I enjoy about mysteries. If I know precisely “who done it” while writing, there’s a good chance that I’ll accidentally telegraph that to my readers. So, keeping me in the dark keeps them in the dark too. I truly enjoy that aspect.

DB: You “interviewed” one of your main characters for a post on your website. What a great idea (which I’m going to steal)! Tell us about that.

KR: Shamus Doherty, Meg’s older brother, is a diamond in the rough. Many women who’ve read my two novels consider him very appealing. He’s complex and caring but a bit rough around the edges – gruff when he means to be tender. These characteristics wreak havoc with his love life. He can be overbearing as an older brother. To his credit, however, he does learn.

My interview with him was a chance to get inside his head a bit. He didn’t want to be interviewed, but he felt obliged because I’d created him. His wit and charm came through. I merely wanted to give him a chance to speak for himself. I can hear him now denying that altruistic claim. Be that as it may, I think he kind of likes me.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with TKZ?

KR: I was fortunate to attend an Authors Guild webinar with Margaret Atwood and Judy Blume. It was great. Margaret said you need to grab the reader by page 5. By then he or she knows whether this is a door worth walking through. I think that’s great advice. Judy said she misses the freshness of being a new author. That’s food for thought. How do we get that back each time we sit down to write? I tend to take walks, enjoy nature, step away from the story and then allow myself to become enthused with where the characters are likely to take me next.

Book three of the trilogy is calling me. It will be based in West Cork, Ireland.

Thank you, Kathleen, for visiting TKZ! Congratulations on your new release, Damned If She Does, which Kirkus Reviews named among “Great Indie Books Worth Discovering.” 


TKZers: Do you have special tricks that propel you over the hurdles of writing? Have you come back from misfortune? 





Debbie Burke’s thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is available for pre-order at this link for only $.99. Publication date: June 23.


First Page Critique: Falling Free

Today we have a first page critique for a project entitled Falling Free. My comments follow so see you on the flip side (and enjoy because I think this is a great first page!).
Title: Falling Free

I fell hard to the closet floor.

My head hit the carpet. My arms just kind of flopped where they wanted.

I lay there, wondering what’d happened.

The carpet in this Seattle hotel smelled like it’d been shampooed recently. I used to be a hotel maid, so I know about carpet smells.

I stared at the ceiling for a bit. There was a black spider in the corner, moving its legs slowly, like it was doing yoga or something. I tried to mimic its movement, but couldn’t get my arms to respond.

My head hurt a little. I closed my eyes, I swear, just for a moment.

The next thing I knew, a cop bent over me. He stared for a minute, then put his gloved hand on my shoulder and rolled me up slightly.

I guessed he was looking at the back of my head.

He settled me back down on the floor, then leaned over and brushed my long hair away from my face. He smelled like stale cigarettes and had kind brown eyes.

My wallet appeared in his hand. “Junie. That your name, honey?”

I heard movement beyond him. The room outside the closet suddenly seemed filled with people, snapping pictures, going through drawers, talking on their cell phones. Saying things like “next-of-kin” and “keep the media out”.

Didn’t make much sense to me. Who’d care, anyway?

The cop yelled out the closet door. “Hey, Jimmy! Get the boss on the phone.”

“Okay, Frank.”

Then another cop, Jimmy presumably, entered the closet and handed a cell phone to Frank.

“Why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank?”

“Why should I when you’ve always got yours?”

Jimmy left the closet in a huff.

“Yeah, hey boss.”

His eyes strayed to where it’d landed when I fell. “Nah. Nothing to do here. Get the crew over.”

Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut and stuck it in his shirt pocket.

He stood, looked down at me, shaking his head. “What’s your story, Junie?” He lingered over me a moment longer, then turned and walked out of the closet.

I heard him give orders to those in the room, to get this wrapped up. The scurrying intensified, doors and drawers slamming. Then it was quiet again.

Just Frank, studying me from the closet doorway.

My story? You don’t really wanna know, Frank.

I could’ve changed things. Put that in your report.

I thought this first page was a great example of ‘less is more’ with short, snappy paragraphs that nonetheless evoked the scene, well-paced and believable dialogue, and a POV/voice that was already compelling. Bravo to our contributor!
For once I have very little to say in terms of input or advice…but if I was to make some recommendations (and honestly this piece is fine to stay as is!) they would be:
  • Perhaps consider one more sentence to give a sense of the injury that’s occurred (as it sounds like something far worse than just falling on carpet).
  • Perhaps consider a brief sentence in the closet describing the iron/ironing board or clothes/robe hanging – just something that might reveal whether this is a seedy hotel, a motel 6 or a more up-market hotel…
  • Possibly clarify time period as it sounds like it’s the 90’s (e.g. Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut) but I wasn’t totally sure.
  • This could also be important as I didn’t quite believe Frank wouldn’t have a phone these days (definitely would believe it if it was the 90s) – otherwise I was going to recommend changing “why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank” to “why don’t you ever have your phone with you, Frank”,  if it was contemporary.
  •  I wasn’t quite sure how Junie could see the room outside the closet from the floor (she’d settled back down after the officer had originally rolled her up slightly). Maybe just have some movement (turned her head, or her eyes saw over the officer’s shoulder…something like that…)
  • Finally, I didn’t love the title ‘Falling Free’ – although without knowing more about the book I can’t really give good input, except to say that my initial reaction to this title was ‘meh’:)
All in all I think this is a really strong first page – TKZers, what do you think? What advice or recommendations would you make?