First Page Critique: The Secret of Thieves

By Elaine Viets

It was a pleasure to critique this first page. Our Brave Author had an intriguing premise and a fresh way of starting this story. As you can tell, I liked it. In fact, I really liked it. I found a few things that might be changed, but here’s how it was submitted:

The Secret of Thieves
I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, or lucky charms. There aren’t fairy godmothers or elves. If you lose your wallet or the concert tickets you distinctly remember placing in your purse, it wasn’t because of a goblin. I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them. And I am as red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl. As brokenhearted and scared. As daring and tough. And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories—not that they aren’t doozies.
Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me.
That’s why I’ve come back to the lake, to the spot where Lance and I’d spent so much time when we were young. I’m not trying to contact the dead. There’s a difference between trying to contact the dead and retracing your steps to figure out where you went wrong.
I close the door of my car and walk slowly around the hood. Ever since I first set young eyes on this cliff and watched a grinning Lance leap into the air, I’ve been afraid. Was it a fear of heights, I wonder, or fear that he was leaving me behind?
I stash the keys by the front tire and hesitate. When I’d started the list of my failures last night, I’d known the lake would be first. This cliff. This time of year. Lance’s favorite adrenaline rush. My own pulse trips wildly. I clench my teeth. It no longer matters that I’ve always thought it impossible to jump. I pull off my t-shirt dress, slinging it across the side mirror, then take one step and another toward the cliff, hugging my bare middle.
My progress is buffeted by inarticulate gasps, but I don’t stop until I’m at the edge. An unhinged laugh escapes and I clap my hand over my mouth. It’s as bad as I thought it would be. His cajoling never got me this close. Neither did his dares. But there it is, the lake ripples twenty feet below. A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water. I jerk my gaze up, wiping sweaty palms on my bikini bottoms.

Elaine’s Critique
Like I said, I enjoyed this first page, starting with the reader-grabbing title. There are some nice turns of phrase, including the ones in this sentence: “A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water.”

However, there are some things I’d change. I had a problem with this sentence, and would rework it: “I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them.” That “them” might be clearer and in agreement with the subject if it was changed to “your things” or “your valuables.”

Also, this sentence is awkward: “And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – not that they aren’t doozies.” I’d smooth that out to: “And, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – and they’re doozies.”

The next sentence would be more effective if the phrase about the best friend was in past tense – then we’re sure Lance is dead. So I’d change: “Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me” to: “Like the one where my best friend died right in front of me.”
Two paragraphs later, I’d make it: “Ever since I set my young eyes on this cliff . . .”
And one last nit to pick – I’d explain what a “water shoe” is. Water shoes are generally used for walking along pebbly surfaces or surf walking, to protect your feet.
Now there are some questions that our Brave Author has to answer, and soon: Where are we?
What time of year is it? It’s obviously a warm day, because our character is wearing a bikini, so it could be spring, summer, fall, or a warm winter day.
What is our thief’s name and what does she look like?
And most important, what is her age? She talks about “since I first set young eyes on this cliff” but she also refers to herself as being “red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl.” So if she’s still a “girl” how old is she?
Answer these questions, and your novel is off to a terrific start, Brave Author. I look forward to reading the rest of it. Good luck!


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Dear Hollywood Producer

By John Gilstrap

Dear Hollywood Producer,

How do I put this and not be offensive?  It’s really not about you.  It’s about the money—the cash that you pay me.  Today.

I think it’s wonderful that you hang out with Spielberg and Hanks every weekend.  You have every reason to be pleased with your success over the years, and I appreciate your commitment to making the movie based on my book a smash success.  Even bigger than Titanic, you say.  Holy cow!

But I’ll still take the money, thank you.  A big honkin’ check.  The bigger and honkiner the better.  On signing.  As I put ink on the contract.

The back-end money?  That extra hunk of cash you’ll give me on the first day of principal photography?  Oh, hell yeah, I’ll take that, too.  That’ll be a great payday—two times, maybe three times the signing money.  Absolutely, I’ll take it.  And I’ll be very grateful.  But I think of that as “tomorrow money.”

“Today money” is much more important to me.

Let’s be honest with each other.  We both know that a thousand things have to go right with nothing going wrong for the movie ever to be made.  It’ll take years.  And in that time, studios will merge, executives will come and go, and laws will change.  Hollywood is built on “tomorrow money” snatched from the hands of writers.

Oh, no, ma’am.  I’m not suggesting that you would swindle me.  I stipulate that you’re one of the good ones, one of the honest ones.  Forgive me that I still count my fingers after we shake hands.  Force of habit.

So, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll take the money today.  Up front.

Yes, of course I would like to see my stories up on the big screen, and no, I would never try to get in the way of that happening, but again, may I be honest?  We both know that the story projected onto the screen—if it is ever projected at all—will bear only a slight resemblance to the story I wrote.  The screenwriter you hire to adapt my book will be paid way more than what you paid me, and during the course of penning the adaptation, said screenwriter won’t be the least bit interested in my thoughts about the script.

No, no, I’m not upset.  I recognize that that’s the way things are done, and I’m fine with it.  You just have to pay me for the right to turn the film adaptation of my book into some weird parody of the story.  I give you my blessing.

If the check is big enough, I won’t even care.

From where I sit, the value of that first check shows me your commitment to follow through on making the movie.  You offer me $5,000 and I think, “You pay more than that for your first-class ticket to Sundance.  Sure, it’s a lot of money to me, but for you, it’s chump change.”  Offer me $1 million, and now I know you’re serious.  That’s real skin in the game.  For me, a  tempting offer would fall somewhere in the middle, but understand where I’m coming from: The more squirmy you are about the up-front payment, the more likely I am to receive that back-end payment on the first day of principal photography.  Madame Producer, I want you to be motivated to make a movie that will get me paid again.

You say you can only afford to pay me $5,000?  Okay, there’s a way around that.  Give me ownership points, a percentage of every dollar the movie makes.  No, no, not the points on profit that you typically offer to schmuck writers like me.  I mean the first dollar points that you’ll give to the screenwriter who adapts my story, or to the actor who will recite my words.  That’d be the perfect setup for both of us.  You’ll have little risk up front, and I only make big money if the movie makes big money.

Yes, of course I know that is never done.  Writers have never been truly respected by Hollywood.  The studios want the world to believe that movies are created by directors and producers and actors.  Writers need to stay quiet on the sidelines.

And I’m good with that, really, I am.  Just, you know, pay me.

Yours sincerely,



First Page Critique:
Shadows And Suggestion

By PJ Parrish

We’re heading into dark territory with today’ s First Page Critique. Literally. This submission gives us an object lesson on spare writing technique — when to leave things out to rev up suspense but also when to ask yourself if you’ve left the reader too much in the dark. Thanks, writer, for submitting your baby for scrutiny. We all learn when you do.


Absence Of Light

Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. Not this place per se, but rather the circumstance I now find myself in.

I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.”

After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it.

Then, clanging of metal upon metal. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously.

“No worries,” I reply.

“You’re not gonna cry, are you?”

His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.”

“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands.

“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”

“No. Just. Tell me your name?”

“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”



There is much to like about this submission.  We are thrust right into what appears to be a dangerous situation for the protagonist. (I assume Dr, Davids is such).  Which is always a good thing. The writer has the basics down (how to structure dialogue, establish point of view). There is some deft “showing” rather than “telling,” but maybe a couple lapses in the other direction.  There is a voice at work here in that this writer has a definite narrative style.

First, let’s talk about the entry moment. In yesterday’s First Page Critique by Sue, I wondered if the writer could have found a more compelling point for starting the story. We don’t have that issue here.  This writer has chosen a dramatic moment — a bound man is being marched into a cell (or worse!). He is apprehensive but stoic. There is a suggestion he himself is dangerous, crazy, or at least canny enough to escape. I was intrigued. I want to know more. So kudos, writer, on finding a good door into your story.

Now let’s consider the tone and voice. The protagonist’s thoughts and dialogue have a cool, almost academic tone. We are firmly in the protag’s point of view, but it has a vaguely old-school feel to it, like something out of a Graham Greene opening  –detached, erudite, self-aware. It reminded me a little of Eric Ambler or maybe Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books. I don’t dislike this. I think it’s a nice change from much of today’s choppy neo-noir with their monosyllabic heroes.  I wonder if this “reads” a tad old-fashioned for today’s market.  I think goes more to the issue of taste.

I also like the way the writer imparts important information about the prisoner and the surroundings. He/she does not TELL us the prisoner is a doctor or even his name; it is dropped in the dialogue: “You’ve been processed, Dr. Davids.”

We also get this intriguing detail about the doctor’s character: “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.” The writer could have given us a narrative graph like:  I knew what the guard was thinking, that he had heard the talk about me being homicidal, maybe even possessed. But what he didn’t know was that I myself didn’t know what was wrong with me.  No, the writer relates this in DIALOGUE not thoughts — which is a type of action.

Other details that are tossed in deftly:  The guard identified himself as MP Jones. Which I think means we’re dealing with military police? Not sure. The place is described in spare but vivid detail — the heavy clanging door, the fact that light here is a luxury. I often take writers to task for not giving enough sense of place. Although I think we could use a little more description here — it would enhance the horror of the place — I get that the writer is going for a spare style. Is this too spare? You all can weigh in.

Another thing to note: I applaud the fact the writer did not feel compelled to tack some lazy place/time tag atop the chapter, like:  Abu Ghraib, April 2015. The locale and time period will emerge soon in the narrative, I trust.

A few miscellaneous observations: The guard’s dialogue — the ums…dropped G’s, gonna, kinda, sounds country-hickish.  He sounds like a cliche of a small-town jailer. The protag is getting locked in solitary, a place that seems to have experience with terrorists, so I think it would enhance the suspense if the guard was more military in demeanor, as crisp in his speech as his uniform. He can still tell the prisoner what he thinks, but perhaps in a less cliched way. Remember the Nazi guard who kept locking up Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? He never said a word, but he had a memorably stern, don’t-mess-with-me, slightly bemused countenance. Creating something idiosyncratic about this guard would really add a nice side character if the guard comes and goes through the story. Even if he doesn’t, don’t make even your minor spear-carriers cliches.

I’m going to go to blue-line edits for the rest of my comments:

Absence Of Light  decent title. It’s a riff on the myriad quotes about absence of light being the definition of evil but it works on a second level for the literal situation the protag finds himself in. All good titles work on multiple levels.

Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. I think we are missing a comma here? Writer: Be careful to proof your work. Not this place per se, this might annoy some but I think it helps establishes the narrator’s tone but rather the circumstance I now find myself in. I like the restraint of this opening graph.

I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.” Not sure I like the passive “I am told…” Why not just have the guard say it? And maybe Dr. Davids has a thought about that chilling phrase “processed” in reaction, some details about what that was like? You could do more with that to amp up the tension.

After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, Here’s a spot where we need more detail. Bound by what? Rope suggests something different than handcuffs. Why is he shuffling? Is he shackled? I assumed he was. You might be missing small chances to increase the drama. the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it. This line feels portentous at first but it’s really just obtuse. He is obviously going into a cell of some kind. Every prison has a heavy metal door so what it is about this that signifies “something dangerous” behind it? And why the verb “secured?” Not sure that makes sense. Because I like this submission, I am asking that the writer work harder at being precise. I think you can do better. 

Then, clanging of metal upon metal. Good use of deep POV here. The writer could have said, “I heard the clanging of the door opening”  but did not. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, Again, this stilted construction goes to the cerebral tone of the narrator/prisoner. I don’t dislike it. “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Nice way of dropping some intriguing detail in dialogue. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously. Now, the writer is being purposely vague about what KIND of facility we are in here, maybe to be point of being coy. But why withhold clarity? Why would the guard be nervous? Can’t the reader be given a little more detail? Are we in an Alabama jailhouse or a military prison? We need a little more grounding, I think.

“No worries,” I reply.

“You’re not gonna cry, are you?” I like this line but I think it could be more precise. It suggests that the guard has seen others before him break down. But I wonder if “cry” is the right word. If Dr. Davids is about to enter a really bad place and he knows it, would he cry? I doubt it. What kind of reaction would this place elicit from a “stoic” man?

His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. At first, I thought this was at odds with the “apprehension” remark of the first graph but it’s correct usage. Stoic means the ability to withstand or hide pain. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. Why would he be sad? Terrified maybe, but sad? I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.” Another good tidbit!

“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands. of what?

“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Proof your work! Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person Again, less is more. The use of pass tense here is a choice by the writer. It implies this man has a bad past without spilling the beans too early about what happened. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”

“No. Just. Just…tell me your name?”

“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I liked this line on first reading because it is, on its face, intriguing. But when you think about it, does it make sense? Does any prisoner in such a dire place want the lights out? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”

“On.” There is something anemic, almost puny, about this response. Given the title, we’re entering a world of light/dark, goodness/evil. Light, I think, stands for something in this story. So some kind of thought, however brief, from Dr. Davids about the importance of light might really add some meat here. Especially since the writer has given us very little emotional meat from the character himself. UNLESS…Dr. David is the bad guy and we won’t meet our true hero until chapter 2 or later.  Hard to tell in 400 words. If Dr. Davids is a black hat, a thought about the absence of light is almost essential. We need to start knowing who — or what — we are dealing with here. A villain would have a different thought about an absence of light than a hero might. Think about that…exploit it.

Okay, so in conclusion, I think we are off to a good start here. I want to know more about Dr. Davids and why he has been brought here. (although I do hope we aren’t getting a Hannibal Lecter clone here — cultured homicidal maniac). And because the writing is solid, I am trusting the writer will soon begin fleshing this out so we know where we are, what time period we are in, and what is happening.  This is, as the title suggests, all shadows and suggestion right now.  Good stuff. But the ultra-spare style of the opening can test the reader’s patience and it can’t sustain an entire story. We need some illumination soon.  Good work, writer.


A Different Path

Photo courtesy of Alex Holyoake from

I had an interesting experience a few nights ago. I consider it to be a writer’s dream. Literally. I dreamt an entire novel in one night. Better yet, I woke up and remembered every bit of it, from beginning to (happy though bittersweet) ending. I reached for the notepad and pen that I keep at the bedside for such occasions and scribbled the notation “when Ed dropped in” so that I would remember to work on it the next morning. The dream was so vivid and compelling, however, that I got up, grabbed my Chromebook,  and typed a synopsis, outline, and what passed for my early purposes as a first, last and middle chapter. I’ve been working on it since. Every once in a while, however, a little voice in my head will pipe up (I call it my “pipsqueak”) and say, “No. You don’t know how to do this.” It’s right. I don’t know how to do “this.” I refuse, however, to let “this” stop me.

The “this” with respect to my work in progress is that it is probably a romance novel. That’s a section of the bookstore that I don’t normally walk through. I read The Bridges of Madison County when it was first published, but that was a long time ago.  For right now, however, I am going to worry about writing the story I am going to tell the best way I possibly can, and not worry about the genre thing. That’s an issue for down the road.

The title of the work, at least as of this moment, is The Lake Effect. It has elements of science fiction (with the sharp edges filed off) that form the bedrock of the plot. Almost all of the book takes place in a tiny village in northern Ohio, with a dip into a small town in southern Louisiana and, for about half of a crucial moment, in rural France. There’s a tough and tender female protagonist who functions as the fulcrum of the novel, and while there is a love triangle of sorts she isn’t Princess Leia and the story will never be mistaken for  Part Ten of Star Wars. There are some quietly suspenseful moments, and there is also a “ticking clock” of sorts, but you won’t find any explosions, karate, or gunfire. Yes, this work in progress is quite different for me. It is uncharted territory, but that’s okay. I’m walking forward with eyes open and hands steady, and fingers typing away.

So why go outside my comfort zone? One reason is that I don’t leave a gift on the table. The gift, in this case, is an entire novel dreamed out and remembered. It may not be the type of story I usually try to tell, but it’s the one I have, and the one that I will give to you one way or the other. The genre is irrelevant. Authors, as we know, actually do jump genres without breaking kneecaps.  Blake Crouch started by writing serial killer novels, jumped to a contemporary western, and then wrote science fiction novels. He had two — TWO! — television series adapting his works in the same year (!) and another one is coming. TKZ’s own indescribably wonderful Laura Benedict recently blurred her own fiction lines, moving seamlessly from the supernatural suspense genre to the domestic thriller shelves, and with superlative results (read The Stranger Inside if you haven’t as yet). Going back a bit, an author named John Jakes wrote a ton of science fiction and western novels which anyone who read them loved. Very few read them. He then turned to writing historical fiction and not only had lines of folks waiting to buy and read the new ones but also had them adapted to television. Think Paul Sheldon in Misery by Stephen King without the alcohol and the crazy fan. Richard Matheson, a much-beloved horror author who King has credited as his major influence, wrote Somewhere in Time, a romantic novel with science fiction overtones which is treasured to this day. There are many other examples. I’m not going to compare myself to all of those wonderful, successful authors (and the others I haven’t named) who have done this. I will, however, use them as models.

Oh, another thing. I am miserable at outlining. A lot of writers are. I have a friend and client, an author who writes novels in huge chunks but never outlines. He emailed me the other morning to tell me that he had written 22,000 words in the last four days and still had no idea where his latest novel was going. I understand. But. I have an entire outline. It has a beginning and an ending and a wonderful middle — usually the hardest part — so I am writing most of the middle first, going, like John Coltrane, in both directions at once while listening to the Top 40 songs of 1944 for inspiration. I’ve changed a few things in the original outline along the way, not because the original idea did not work, but because I thought of something else that worked better. There is a mentality at work — and it’s not just with me — that says if one has an outline you have to rigidly stick to it. No. It’s your outline. You can change it if you want when you want and for whatever reason you want. Think of it as a house that you love but are going to remodel. To go back to Misery, the ending of that book is far, far different from what King originally envisioned. While his original ending appeals to me in a sort of sick, twisted way, I think he ultimately wrote a better book. All he did was change his outline just a bit.

My advice du jour, after saying all of that, is 1) don’t give up the story you have for the story you want. They might both be the same thing; 2) outline. You can change it. It’s yours. You will, however,  have a clear idea initially of where you are starting, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. Just leave yourself free to make rest stops, take detours, and see the sights along the way; 3) if you get an idea in the middle of the night, get upright and commit as much as you can to paper, screen, or whatever. You can change it later, run with it, or put it aside, but once you forget it, it’s gone; and 4) don’t listen to your pipsqueak under any circumstance.

Now please enjoy your weekend, and thank you for dropping by.




12-Archetypes: A Framework for Creating a Cast of Memorable Characters

Jordan Dane

Wikimedia Commons-Falkue

How do characters come to you? For me, each book can be different. I don’t have a set method, nor do I want to nail my process down. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night with a character speaking to me about his or her story. I leap from bed and rush to the bathroom with pen and paper in hand to jot down notes.

Sometimes from my preliminary research, I can meld 2-3 ideas together and a character might spring from that work. For example, I might realize I need an adventurer hero, a love interest and one of them might need a scientific background or have other special cognitive skills to pull off the plot that’s developing. Those characters come at me slowly and build, where I sometimes throw in fun hobbies or weirdness to keep the plot interesting.

Have you ever gone back into a novel you’ve already written and examined character archetypes?

You can also do this deep dive for themes you generally write about, even if it’s not a conscious awareness you have when you first start your project. I write from a gut level. Too much structure might inhibit my process, but I do find it interesting to take a closer look after I finish writing a book, especially if it sells well and the feedback is good from industry professionals. It’s helpful to dig into a plot I created organically to find threads of themes I love to explore.

Let’s take a closer look at character archetypes. In researching this post, I found a more comprehensive list of 99 Archetypes & Stock Characters that Screen Writers Can Mold that screenwriters might utilize in their craft. Archetypes are broader as a foundation to build on. Experienced editors and industry professionals can hear your book pitch and see the archetypes in their mind’s eye. From years of experience, it helps them see how your project might fit in their line or on a book shelf.

But to simplify this post and give it focus, I’ll narrow these character types down to Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung‘s 12-Archetypes. Listed below, Jung developed his 12-archetypes, as well as their potential goals and what they might fear. Goals and fears can be expanded, but think of this as a springboard to trigger ideas.


1.) Innocent

GOAL – Happiness

FEAR – Punishment

2.) Orphan

GOAL – Belonging

FEAR – Exclusion

3.) Hero

GOAL – Change World

FEAR – Weakness

4.) Caregiver

GOAL – Help Others

FEAR – Selfishness

5.) Explorer

GOAL – Freedom

FEAR – Entrapment

6.) Rebel 

GOAL – Revolution

FEAR – No Power

7.) Lover

GOAL – Connection

FEAR – Isolation

8.) Creator

GOAL – Realize Vision

FEAR – Mediocrity

9.) Jester

GOAL – Levity & Fun

FEAR – Boredom

10.) Sage

GOAL – Knowledge

FEAR – Deception

11.) Magician

GOAL – Alter Reality

FEAR – Unintended Results

12.) Ruler

GOAL – Prosperity

FEAR – Overthrown

I recently sold a series to The Wild Rose Press. Book 1 is called THE CURSE SHE WORE – A Trinity LeDoux novel.

TRINITY – When I looked back at my heroine, Trinity appeared to be a combination of two archetypes, until I gave her a closer look. On the surface, she’s an innocent AND an orphan, but when I examined her from the GOAL and FEAR angles, I saw her clearly as an ORPHAN. No family. She’s homeless and living on the streets of New Orleans. She hasn’t known much happiness and punishment would only make her more stubborn. Her soft underbelly lies in her own thoughts on where she belongs and what she deserves. She keeps her life at a distance from others–her self-imposed exclusion. She thinks she doesn’t need anyone until she meets Hayden, but what she has planned for him, there won’t be anything left to build on. Loyalty can be a double-edged sword.

HAYDEN – My hero Hayden Quinn doesn’t fall neatly into the HERO category. Because of his psychic ability, he’s become a CAREGIVER to a small needy Santeria community in New Orleans. But his gift didn’t help him when he needed it most. He’s drawn to help others, but his ability only reminds him of the worst day of his life.

CROSSED PATHS – As a child of the streets, Trinity exploits Hayden’s guilt and grief to get what she wants. He’s unable to say no because of his guilt. For an author, it’s not easy to walk a line of conflict that I wanted to sustain throughout the first novel in this series. Surprises and unexpected outcomes twist through the plot until the very last page of book 1. The roots of their conflict grow deeper and extend into book 2.

SUMMARY: Whether you use these 12-archetypes to analyze a completed manuscript or consider them when you begin framing a new story, these building blocks can sustain an effective character study and get you thinking. It helped me dive deeper into my characters and this will help me develop the series. Any series needs the stakes to escalate and it all springs from a foundation of knowing your characters well. You have to keep punishing them. Show the reader why your characters deserve star status.

Can you see how you might utilize a list if archetypes to infuse your creative process?

When you consider these basic types, imagine pitting them against one another for sustained conflict. In the case of Trinity and Hayden, she risks putting his life at risk out of her loyalty to a dead friend. Any hope she had for a future is snuffed out by her own decisions.

For him, the very gift that had been a blessing failed him at the worst time of his life. Now his gift might kill him, but he can’t resist protecting Trinity. It’s in his nature.

All Hayden and Trinity have in common is death.


1.) As an exercise, forge conflict between two archetypes of your choosing to create a one-liner plot pitch.

2.) Share your main character archetype from your current or latest WIP. Does the Carl Jung matrix above help you define your character?


The Curse She Wore – A Trinity LeDoux Novel

 They had Death in Common                                                 

Trinity LeDoux, a homeless young woman in New Orleans, has nothing to lose when she hands a cursed vintage necklace to unsuspecting Hayden Quinn at one of his rare public appearances—a wealthy yet reclusive clairvoyant she hopes to recruit for a perilous journey. She prays that the jewelry she’d stolen off a body at a funeral will telepathically transport the powerful psychic to the murder scenes of two women at the exact moment of their deaths—even though the killings take place 125 years apart and span two continents.

When the ill-fated necklace connects the brutal crimes in a macabre vision, Hayden becomes a sympathetic believer. After enduring the tragic loss of his beloved wife and child, Hayden is touched by Trinity’s vulnerability and her need for justice in the cruel slaughter of her best friend, the rightful owner of the necklace.

Hayden and Trinity are two broken people who have nothing but death in common when they take on a dangerous quest. They must stop a killer from resurrecting the grisly work of Jack the Ripper by targeting the ancestors of the Ripper’s victims. Trinity will learn the hard way that trespassing on Fate’s turf always has its reckoning.


In Which We Talk Swag

Panorama pic of Left Coast Crime 2019 Swag Table

In recent years, the bags of free goodies celebrities receive for going to awards shows or film festivals has become the stuff of–well, if not of legend, then over-hyped fodder for gossip sites and their related television shows. These “swag bags” often contain things like  vacations, certificates for plastic surgery (booty lift, anyone?), jewelry, designer duds, catering, gaming systems, computers, booze, beauty products, therapy consultation, car leasing, protein bars, and much, much more.

If you’ve been to a book festival or conference, you know that attendees sadly must settle for less.

Back in the 00’s, a fan might pick up the occasional button, keychain, or bookmark. (Much to author Bill Cameron’s puzzlement, I still have a button with his LOST DOG (2008?) cover, and put it on my Christmas tree every year.) Now, it seems that the majority of authors attending conferences are giving at least a little something away with their name, website, and book cover to potential fans. When the number of authors at a conference can run well into the hundreds, you’re talking about a lot of stuff.

Over the years I’ve given away bookmarks, laminated magnets, flower seed packets, plain magnets, chip clips, lots of candy (not branded), postcards, and did I mention bookmarks? Those were all paid for directly out of my pocket. For THE STRANGER INSIDE, Mulholland Books created some kick ass keychains to give away at a Little Brown event at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. I snapped up the five or six left on abandoned tables after the event. (Never leave your swag behind!) I never could’ve afforded to sponsor such a high-value bit of swag myself, so I was very, very grateful.

As I’ve just returned from Left Coast Crime 2019, Whale of a Crime, in Vancouver, BC, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the immense amount of swag I saw there. No, I didn’t ask any of these authors if I could post photos, as the items are–I assume–meant to advertise their books. But I did take the photos, and they itched to be shared. If you’re promoting your own work already, or someday will be, I hope they’ll be useful to you. Pics are in no particular order.

KEYCHAIN: This was one of my favorite bits of swag. Janice Peacock/To Bead or Not to Bead. The cover is charming and colorful, and a keychain is one of those items that’s going to hang around a long time. Unfortunately, no website address.  $$$

CARD LIST: I wasn’t sure what to call this, so “card list” it is. I had to read the list and the headline a couple of times before I understood that it was just for fun. Used online, this would make a cute Facebook or Pinterest image. As clever as it is, I would’ve liked to have seen at least one of the book covers as well. I went to Becky Clark’s “Books” page to see that Mystery Writer’s Mysteries is a collection of books featuring mystery authors. When I first saw the card I thought it was maybe a group of authors who wrote them. Bonus points for eye-catching colors, website addy, and stand-out size. $

RECIPE CARD: How lovely is this?! Coincidentally I have been wanting to make scones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any identifying information–as though it’s at the wrong conference. I assume there’s book and author information, and perhaps a book cover on the reverse side. As you can see in the photo, the stack is similarly placed. NOTE: The swag table is a crowded place–you can’t expect a browser to turn every thing over to see what’s on the back. Be sure you have book and author information on BOTH SIDES.

Four-color printed, large card: $$


WINE STOPPER: Unique at the conference. Good author name presence, especially with the added bookmark. Alec Peche/Damian Green Series. Visited her website to see if the books were wine related. They don’t appear to be, but lots of people drink wine like they use keychains, bookmarks, etc. $$$

DRINKS COASTER: On theme, useful, and good information. Could use a website address. These went quickly. Leslie Karst/Sally Solari Mysteries $$$

SURGICAL MASK: Another unique item–meaning no one else brought them. I found this both charming and a little alarming. At first I thought maybe the books were Michael Crichton-type horror books, but they’re hospital mysteries. I breathed a sigh of relief! Card attached to the mask with good information. Again, these went fast. (There was no shortage of folks wearing surgical masks on the streets of Vancouver!) Very on-theme. Liz Osborne/Robyn Kelly Mysteries $$$

PRINTED SHORT STORY: Content! Smart offering. Eye-catching and large. (Large might be a drawback, as attendees take home many books and might not have much room for more.) Good to mention it’s a story in a series universe. No website address? D.R. Ransdell/MARIACHI MEDDLER $$

PAPERBACK BOOK: Not sure if this paperback was meant to be a giveaway, or if it’s related to the black pens in front of it. I didn’t see any other copies. Very cool cover. Henebury/SLEEP $$$$

Publishers often give away paperback ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) at conferences. It’s a pricey option, but there’s nothing better than getting an actual book, IMO.

PEN/CARDS: I liked this combo a lot. The pens were adorable, and had the book series name and website (as I recall). The cards offered every other bit of info you could want. Plus an author pic. If there hadn’t been colorful pens, I think I’d have wanted to see a book cover. Also, a rabbi writing about a rabbi is a fascinating combo. Rabbi Ilene Schneider/RABBI AVIVA COHEN Mysteries $$$$

When you have multiple items, there’s a chance they’ll get separated. (Note Alec Peche’s useful box above) And you’ll notice that the pens went way faster than the cards. So the pens need maximum info.


CONFERENCE CARD (large): It’s not just authors who promote. There were quite a few offerings from workshops and retreats. IDK if there’s info on the back, but there’s no website on the front. Again…Everything should be obvious and immediate. Colorful and eye-catching. $$

STICKY NOTES: Colorful, useful, informative. These sticky notes are a great giveaway. The author’s name and website is right there, along with the name of the series. Sticky notes can hang around a desk a long time. Pricey. $$$$

STANDING POSTER: See what I mean about things getting covered up? I had to rearrange things to get the full poster shot. It’s smart that she made it so large that it could tower over the stuff people put in front of it. Real estate is precious. I don’t know if there were copies of a short story to go along with the poster, but wouldn’t you think so? The cat kills me! Bonus points for excellent design. Website addy? Denise Dietz/Annie and The Grateful Dead.  $$ for just the poster, $$$ if story copies were included.

TWOFER, though it doesn’t look like it

MAGNETS: Magnets used to be super expensive. They involved sealing an image and putting a magnetic back on it. Now they can print on long strips of magnet.

This is my moment of shame: Great cover for THE STRANGER INSIDE, yes? Magnets hang around a long time on refrigerators or on metal filing cabinets, etc. Note the bits of white on the edges of my magnet. When the magnets were cut from sheets, they didn’t cut cleanly, and some of the black edge was exposed as white. Ugh. Also, this last magnet shows fingerprints. No website addy. $$

Note: You can’t tell the difference between the magnet and the four-color cards surrounding it. That’s a problem. Unless someone picks it up, they’ll never know what it is. Magnets are great to hand out directly, say at book festivals and signings. But they’re useless flat on a table. I did do bookmarks as well, though. They have all the info.

CARDS: The number of beautifully produced cards was astonishing. Michael W. Sherer’s were particularly high quality and had great variety. Useful if information is on the back. Book covers are striking. If they’re striking enough, people may be moved to pick them up to investigate. They also have a collectible quality about them, and make good bookmarks.

BOOK COVERS: Colorful, all the information about the author, and the book. Author Libby Klein had several versions of these. They seem to be bigger than postcard size. Maybe they are actual book covers? Interesting souvenir. $$$

FREE PROMO CARD: Deborah Coonts/AFTER ME. Striking size and design. Lots of good information, including cover, synopsis, blurb, and download code. No website addy? (I didn’t look at the back).  $$ or maybe $$$ including the download.

I did a free download of a short story on a bookmark for my sixth book. I didn’t have all that many downloads, but it is a clever gimmick and a great freebie. The idea that you have to type in the address and can’t just click on the picture is still funny to me.


BOOKMARKS: Bookmarks are the go-to swag for the thrifty author. They’re useful, colorful, have the book’s cover, and room front and back for lots of critical information. I also include blurbs, the pitch line, and website address. $

MATCHES: This was a first for me. I believe they are simply the cover, and matches. Talk about on-theme! Very cool. $$$

BUMPER STICKER: I didn’t know SNOPES was at the conference…Interesting concept, though I’ve never seen a book bumper sticker. Ever. Not even on that weird car that’s so covered with bumper stickers that you can’t see the color of the car anymore. $$$

PENS: Pens are stupidly expensive. I love them, but am very wary of poor quality. They also have limited room for your info. Book or series title and website seem to be the most common/useful. $$$$

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Authors are very creative when it comes to promo.

Final thoughts. Look at that table! IMO the conference could have used a second swag table. This one was like a tiny, violent sea, with flotsam and jetsam constantly bobbing and bumping on its surface. It became a kind of game to see how my own magnets would appear and disappear, or pop up in different places when I dropped by. I was stunned when the big box of matches appeared, sitting on a dozen other offerings.

Keep in mind:

Swag costs money. Spend wisely.

Your stuff is going to get covered up by other stuff. Keep an eye on it.

Don’t be a jerk and cover up other writers’ stuff.

Don’t put out magnets unless you don’t mind spending the money to have people not pick them up because they don’t know what they are.

Don’t be hurt if you have swag left over. Take it home for the next event or to your library.


Include your website.

Buy the highest quality swag you can afford. But don’t go into debt for it. Who knows what the return is?

If you stick a couple dozen in your badge pocket, you can give your bookmark/magnet/card to everyone you meet.

Have fun with it!

Okay, TKZers. Have at it. What’s your swag experience? Are you fer it, or agin it? What’s your favorite swag? Has swag ever led you to buy a book?


How To Build Conflict Using Myers-Briggs Personality Types

by Debbie Burke


In recent TKZ posts, Myers-Briggs has been mentioned by John Gilstrap and TKZ regular Eric Beversluis. Kathryn Lilley also talked about Myers-Briggs in this post from 2015.

Which brings me to today’s discussion about how authors can use this personality test to build characters and foment conflict.

Image purchased from Shutterstock by Debbie Burke

Have you ever met someone and instantly disliked them for no apparent reason?

Conversely, have you ever “clicked” with a stranger and didn’t know why?

Have you ever been fired from a job or had to leave because of “personality conflicts”?

Have you ended a relationship or been dumped because of different values?

Do you have a hard time figuring out the needs, desires, and priorities (or lack thereof) of some people?

Do people sometimes act in ways you can’t understand or justify?

How about your characters? Do they struggle with the above issues?

If so, that’s great because conflict is the mainstay of fiction.

Myers-Briggs (MB) is a tool that can help writers answer these questions.

What is Myers-Briggs?

Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers-Briggs
Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, the mother/daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs (1875-1968) and Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980) became interested in the study of personality types based on research by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). The two women developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test that classifies the different ways people function in life.

Their purpose was to help people make career and personal choices that best suited their individual personalities. The test has been widely used by psychologists and industry to put people in the right jobs based on their particular traits, as well as to improve communication between vastly different personalities.

In other words, to solve problems.

However, in fiction, writers want to create problems for their characters.

If you understand why certain MB personality types clash with other types, you can use that knowledge to increase tension among your characters.

With the MB test, let’s dig a little deeper into reasons why you instantly dislike a person or can’t understand why they act the way they do. Then we’ll extrapolate those reasons into opportunities to create conflict among characters.

What are the MB components?

Introvert/Extravert (I or E)

Are you shy among strangers? Do you prefer to be alone in an interior world of thoughts and ideas? If so, you may be an introvert (I).

Are you outgoing and like large groups of people? Are you interested in what’s happening in the big, wide world around you? If so, you’re likely an extravert (E).

What happens if you take “I,” a shy character who avoids conflict at all costs, and force him/her to interact with “E,” a bold, boisterous character who loves to scrap?

Intuitive/Sensing (N or S)

Do you draw conclusions based on hunches? Do you look below the surface to determine what is going on? If so, you’re probably intuitive (N).

Do you use your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to observe the world around you? Do you like facts and figures? You might be sensing (S).

Take “S,” a detective with the attitude if-I-can’t-see-it-it-doesn’t-exist. Add “N,” an intuitive who plays hunches and follows his/her gut instinct. Partner those two up and watch the fireworks.

Thinking/Feeling (T or F)

Are you logical and fact-oriented? You’re probably thinking (T).

Are you in touch with emotions and driven by them? You’re probably feeling (F).

Arrange a date between “T,” a logical, analytical woman, and “F,” a warm-fuzzy metrosexual. Lots of problems for that romance.

Judging/Perceiving (J or P)

Are you decisive and want things settled, organized, and clearly defined? Probably judging (J).

Do you prefer to take things as they come, remaining open to new opportunities? Probably perceiving (P).

The Odd Couple is the classic example of conflict between “J” and “P”. Felix demands neatness and precision while Oscar thrives on disorder and chaos. Remember this scene: “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguine.”

Sixteen Variations:

The combinations of the above characteristics yield sixteen variations of personality types. If you’re not already familiar with MB types, here is a link that describes each one:

Pitting Opposites Against Each Other:

If you instantly dislike someone when you first meet them, their four dominant traits may be the opposite of your four dominant traits. This doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong; they’re simply different ways in which you perceive the world around you.

Here are a few examples to build personality differences into fictional conflict.

An extravert “E” can’t understand why the introvert “I” wants to stay home rather than go out partying. “I” is sick and tired of being pressured to mingle with other people when s/he would much rather read a book.

A sensing “S” doesn’t see why an intuitive “N” doesn’t act on facts that are as plain as the nose on your face. “N” trusts flashes of insight from the subconscious and thinks “S” is hopelessly unimaginative and dull.

A thinking “T” has no patience for a feeling “F” who always gets upset over the stupidest things. “F” is constantly frustrated by “T” who never understands his/her feelings.

A judging “J” is fed up with that loosey-goosey perceiver “P” who never plans ahead and flops haphazardly from one activity to another. “P” is annoyed that “J” is so rigid, inflexible, and set in his/her habits.

Characters who are too much alike can also mean trouble:

If characters share the same traits, they may lack balance and believe that is the only way to be.

For instance, judgmental J extremists convince their followers to condemn anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. This manifestation brought Hitler to power.

Feeling F characters can go overboard emotionally. Because of intense feelings, poor Romeo and Juliet both end up dead.

Wikimedia Commons

Characters can also be defined by their lack of a trait. A classic example is Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, an extreme “T” for whom logic is the supreme law. Whenever he was confronted by another character’s emotional “F” reaction, his response was: “That’s illogical.” 

Personality traits run along a continuum. Some traits are well-developed and dominant; others are more subtle. Our job as writers is to combine dominant and subtle variations into unique characters who are not stereotypes.

The opposite qualities may be fairly equally developed in the same personality. For instance, when I took the MB as a teenager, the result was INTP but T and F scores were almost equal, meaning I possessed an analytical, logical mindset (my husband would dispute that!) but was also highly emotional (that, he agrees with!).

My Intuition N was well developed while my Sensing S scored low. That explains why I rarely notice someone’s eye color, clothes, or shoes, yet I know the depths of their fears and secrets.

Underdeveloped S makes me a lousy eyewitness. What was the bank robber wearing? Huh? What did the getaway car look like? I dunno.


Dominant traits can change with time and experience, giving your characters an opportunity to transform themselves.

As a child, I was extremely introverted and shy. Due to career requirements, my extraverted side developed because I had to deal with people. Now, I’m no longer paralyzed with dread at a party. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people at writers’ gatherings and book festivals.

Not surprisingly, many writers fall into INFJ or INFP, a pattern Tom Kuegler explores in this article on


Try guessing the traits of your mate and your children; that obnoxious neighbor you don’t get along with; your annoying boss.

You might gain insight into why they act the way they do.

Then put your characters through the MB personality type test and use their traits to increase conflict among them. 


Now it’s your turn, TKZers.

Using MB traits, which category does your favorite fictional character fall into?

Who is the most memorable (not necessarily likable) character you can think of? Can you guess their category?

How do their traits cause conflict with other characters?



In Debbie Burke’s thriller, Instrument of the Devil, find out how the attraction between two INFP characters means trouble, while an ENTJ causes further complications.

Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $.99 during April. Here’s the link.





Ride Along

As you all know, I’ve been doing the citizen’s academy program with my local police department and – although you might be sick of my blog posts on this – last Friday was my first opportunity to ride along with one of the officers. I chose the graveyard shift and got to experience first hand what its like to be on patrol in the middle of the night in the sleet and snow (since this is Colorado it went from 70 degrees to 30 degrees and it started snowing soon after I started the ride along). Although I’d requested to be assigned to a female police officer, it turned out that she was too junior to conduct a ride along, so I ended up with one of the male officers – a former marine and one of the K9 handlers (unfortunately his dog is currently recovering from surgery so I didn’t have the fun of having the dog with us that night – a good excuse to do another ride along!).

Within ten minutes of starting the ride along I realized that 1) I had no idea how local law enforcement worked; 2) all the questions I had planned to ask were dumb; and 3) I really had no idea how local law enforcement worked…

We started out patrolling the business and hotel district in our community which, late at night, is apparently is the place to be if you’re a criminal. Most of the crime that gets ‘imported’ into our community starts or ends up here. It’s amazing how different a place can look late at night from the vantage point of a police car, especially when you get an officer’s perspective on what looks suspicious (far more than I realized or even noticed, that’s for sure). Although we responded to a number of specific calls, the majority of the night was actually spent following up on these suspicions. License plates were run numerous times and it was impressive how many of the officer’s queries turned out to identify people with outstanding warrants, gang affiliations, or revoked licenses. I guess after years on patrol you know to trust your gut. After riding alongside him for just a few hours, I was impressed not only by his dedication (this guy loved his job) but also his proactive approach. I don’t know why I was expecting law enforcement to be simply reactive to calls…but this ride along certainly disabused me of that.

Starting out, I soon ditched most of the questions I’d intended to ask (I was like, what was I thinking?!) Luckily, the officer was willing to chat openly about his experiences both in combat and law enforcement. When we got a call to assist a veteran experiencing a mental health crisis, I witnessed first hand how, because of his experiences in Iraq, he was able to establish a personal connection with the veteran to help deescalate the situation and get her to agree to go to hospital. For him, these calls are personal. The incident also brought home to me how law enforcement increasingly have to juggle mental health calls with their other patrol duties. Sadly, the recent number of suicides, attempted suicides, and drug overdoses in our community was a sobering reminder of this.

I also learned just how random and capricious circumstances can be for law enforcement. They often have no idea what they’re going to encounter when they conduct a traffic stop or get out of the car and approach someone. They are well aware how many police shootings occur on routine traffic stops, and so, with this sobering thought in mind, the officer I was with always had (or provided) back up for every encounter, no matter the situation. Most of the incidents we attended during the ride along had at least 2-3 squad cars involved. Before every encounter, the officers ensured they had as much information as possible on the car/suspect/person they were dealing with. Technology available in their cars meant they could get access to photographs as well as background details almost immediately. Even with all this technology though, luck still come into play – sometimes an officer just had to be in the right place at the right time. My officer’s assessment of his job was basically “70% luck; 30% initiative.”

By the end of the evening, although I’d not witnessed any actual arrests, I had a renewed respect and appreciation for local law enforcement and a greater regard for the value of hands-on research (as I said, I quickly realized just how ignorant I was!). Even though I have no idea whether I’ll actually ever write a contemporary police novel, I’m sure I’ll incorporate what I’ve learned in some shape or form in my writing to come.

So amongst you TKZers who have done research on local law enforcement, what was the most surprising thing you learned or took away from the experience? If you’ve ever done a ride along, what was one or your key take aways?



Five Tips For Legal Thrillers

By Mark Alpert

This week I was on a jury that sent a young man to federal prison. In my opinion, he definitely deserved the guilty verdict. But that doesn’t mean I feel good about it.

This was the first time I’d ever served on a jury, even though I’ve been summoned for jury duty on several occasions since the 1980s. New York tightened its jury-duty rules a few decades ago, making it harder for people to slip out of their civic responsibility, so the state and federal courts now have a large pool of potential jurors to choose from. On my previous visits to the various courthouses in Lower Manhattan, there were so many people thronging the juror assembly rooms that I never even got chosen for voir dire, when jurors are asked questions about their backgrounds and possible prejudices. But this time I was selected for a criminal trial in the federal courthouse on Foley Square, a monumental building designed by Cass Gilbert and constructed in the 1930s (see photo above). Massive Corinthian columns loom over the courthouse’s entrance, and carved into the granite portico are portraits of four ancient lawgivers: Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Moses.

Although my novels feature plenty of police officers and FBI agents, I’ve never written a legal thriller, and now I’m glad I didn’t attempt it, because I surely would’ve gotten it wrong. During my brief exposure to the court system I learned a few surprising things that I never saw on Law & Order or any other TV show. If you want to write a courtroom scene, please pay close attention.

Our trial took place in federal court because the defendant had been arrested by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The young man was charged with selling fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has recently become the deadliest of all illegal drugs, killing more than 28,000 Americans each year. On four occasions during September and October of 2017, the defendant sold hundreds of fentanyl pills to his barber, who’d told the young man that he would resell the drugs to customers he’d found in North Carolina. In reality, though, the barber was a confidential source for the DEA. He was assigned to inform the agency about drug dealing in Manhattan in exchange for payments from the federal government and (in this informant’s case) deferral from deportation.

There was no doubt at all that the defendant had sold the drugs to his treacherous barber. The informant had worn a hidden camera and microphone to record the transactions, and afterwards he’d immediately handed over the fentanyl pills to the DEA agents. (The pills, which we saw in the evidence bags, were bluish, and each was stamped with the label M30.) But the defendant’s lawyers presented an entrapment defense. They claimed that the barber had persuaded and pressured their client to sell the drugs. If not for the informant’s wheedling, they argued, the defendant would’ve never committed such a crime.

Entrapment can be a legitimate defense. No one wants to live under a government that uses secret agents to lure innocent people into committing crimes. And in this particular case, there was some reasonable doubt as to who first suggested the fentanyl sales. The barber testified that the defendant offered to sell large quantities of the drug, and the defendant testified that the barber brought up the idea. There were no recordings of these preliminary discussions in the barbershop; the informant said he didn’t start taping their conversations until he got authorization from the DEA. What’s more, the informant wasn’t an especially believable witness. He’d been convicted of a drug crime twenty years ago, and after serving his sentence he’d been deported to the Dominican Republic. Then he slipped back into the U.S. illegally and faced deportation again. Working as a source for the DEA enabled him to stay in New York with his family, so the defense lawyers argued that he had a motivation to propose and facilitate drug crimes.

But even if the informant proposed the drug sales, that wouldn’t be enough to prove entrapment. According to federal law, the defendant couldn’t be entrapped if he already had a predisposition to commit the crime — that is, if he was ready, willing, and able to sell the fentanyl pills. The U.S. district judge in this case (the Honorable Katherine Polk Failla) outlined the three indications of predisposition in her charge to the jury: the defendant would be predisposed if he’d already committed a crime of this type, or if he’d made plans to commit such a crime, or if he’d promptly responded to the opportunity proposed by the informant.

Much of the evidence for predisposition came from the transcripts of the recordings made by the DEA’s informant. In those conversations, the defendant repeatedly claimed that he wasn’t new to the drug business. He talked about other customers he’d sold drugs to. He advised his barber on the tactics of drug selling — where to hide the pills, when to schedule their meetings, how to communicate using codes and multiple phones. Most damning of all, the defendant seemed to be leading the conversations, clearly in charge. He showed no reluctance to sell fentanyl. On the contrary, he kept urging his barber to buy more. During three transactions occurring over a two-week period, the defendant sold a total of 800 fentanyl pills to the informant, and DEA agents seized an additional 1,100 pills from the defendant’s car when he was arrested during the course of the fourth transaction.

When the defendant appeared on the witness stand, though, he claimed that his recorded statements were lies. He testified that he was simply boasting to his barber, trying to bullshit and impress him. In truth, he said, he had no prior experience in the drug business.

This claim didn’t seem credible to me. But the clincher, in my opinion, was the sheer size of the defendant’s drug sales to his barber. In their very first transaction, the defendant sold 200 fentanyl pills for $3,000 and also provided his barber with a free sample of heroin. The defendant testified that his supplier was a man identified only by a first name, Kelvin, whom he’d met at a disco several months after his barber broached the idea of doing a drug deal. So the defendant was asking the jury to believe that a wholesale fentanyl supplier would sell 200 pills, apparently on credit, to a first-time customer he’d met at a disco. And kick in a free heroin sample as well. For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yes, I could still doubt that the defendant had some prior experience in drug dealing, but it wouldn’t be a reasonable doubt. Any reasonable person would’ve concluded, based on the evidence, that the defendant had a predisposition to sell drugs. Therefore, he couldn’t have been entrapped by the DEA informant.

Eventually, all twelve jurors came to the same conclusion. Each of us signed the verdict form, guilty on all four counts (one for each drug sale). Then we filed into Courtroom 110, and our foreperson announced the verdicts. The defendant, sitting next to his lawyers at the defense table, buried his face in his hands. Later, he was remanded to federal custody.

So what lessons for legal thrillers can be drawn from this experience? Here are five:

1) Not all criminals are criminal masterminds. The transcripts of the informant’s recordings revealed that on at least one occasion the defendant caught the informant in a lie. (The informant said in a phone call that he hadn’t driven to their rendezvous point yet, but the defendant had arrived early and seen the informant’s car.) A truly savvy criminal would’ve scented danger and abandoned the whole enterprise, but the defendant chose to believe it was a misunderstanding and went ahead with the drug deal. Maybe he just couldn’t imagine that his barber would betray him? Perhaps the real lesson here is, “Don’t put too much trust in your barber.” He usually knows more about you than you know about him.

2) A jury must make its decision based on the available evidence. In every trial there are missing pieces. In our trial we wanted to know whether it was the defendant or the informant who’d initiated the drug deal, and when the first conversation about it had taken place. But because no recordings were made before the deal was in motion, the only evidence available to us was the testimony of the defendant and the informant, and neither man seemed reliable. The prosecution introduced the defendant’s phone records from the months before the first drug sale, and several lengthy calls to the informant were listed in the records, but that evidence was far from conclusive. We had no idea what they were talking about during those calls, so the records couldn’t answer our questions. It was frustrating, but we couldn’t waste our time lamenting that we didn’t know everything. We had to make a judgment based on what we DID know.

3) Drug weights can be misleading. To prove that the pills sold by the defendant contained a controlled substance, the government’s lab technicians crushed some of the pills and tested for the presence of fentanyl and other chemicals. (The trial testimony revealed that the defendant actually thought he was selling oxycodone, a different kind of opioid. That was also the DEA’s assumption until the lab results showed that the pills contained fentanyl. Legally, though, it made no difference; both oxycodone and fentanyl are controlled substances, and their use is regulated by the same federal laws.) The lab tests didn’t reveal the purity of the pills, but that’s a moot point for fentanyl, because the drug is so potent. Just a few milligrams can be fatal. The 1,900 pills that the DEA obtained from the defendant weighed nearly 200 grams in all, but the weight of the fentanyl in the pills was presumably much lower. Nevertheless, it’s the overall weight of the pills that the judge will consider when she determines the sentence for the crime.

4) The quality of federal judicial proceedings (at least in New York’s Southern District) is high. I was impressed by the competence and professionalism of everyone involved in the trial. The prosecutors did a good job of presenting their evidence, and the federal defenders (lawyers employed by the government and appointed to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire counsel) did the best job they could with the case they had. Both the defendant and the informant were Spanish speakers, so the defense and prosecution used teams of amazingly skilled interpreters to translate the testimony. Judge Failla was fair and courteous, but also tough when she needed to be; she kept things moving and brooked no nonsense. After we delivered our verdict, she visited the jury room to thank us and answer any questions we had. I can easily imagine her being promoted someday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is also based in the Foley Square courthouse and has served as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. (That was the path taken by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)

5) Justice is heavy. Legally, I believe we did the right thing. We reached a verdict based on the definition of entrapment. This definition is narrow and a bit ambiguous — what constitutes a “prompt response” to an informant’s proposal? — but if entrapment were defined more broadly, how could the government combat the sale of deadly drugs? Fentanyl and other opioids are devastating this country, and sometimes the only way to nab the dealers is to use informants to deceive them. Just think of all the overdoses, all the opioid addicts collapsing on the street and being rushed to emergency rooms. But as I sat in the jury box of Courtroom 110 and watched the defendant shake with sobs, I thought of another trial that had taken place in that very same courtroom 68 years ago. On March 29th, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage in that room. The jurors found the Rosenbergs guilty of conspiring to deliver atom-bomb secrets to Russian agents, hastening the Soviet Union’s development of its own nuclear bomb. (Historians still debate whether this was true, particularly the usefulness of whatever information the Rosenbergs may have handed over to the Russians.) Judge Irving Kaufman commended the verdict: “The thought that citizens of our country would lend themselves to the destruction of their own country by the most destructive weapon known to man is so shocking that I can’t find words to describe this loathsome offense.” A week later he sentenced the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair.

In that case, the judge and jury also believed they’d done the right thing.


In other legal news, Attorney General William Barr just announced that he will release the Mueller report — probably with lots of redactions — by mid-April. But if you want to get a sneak peek at the shenanigans of a loose-cannon president, check out my latest novel, THE COMING STORM, now available on Amazon for the low, low price of nine bucks!


True Crime Thursday – Property Seizure

Shutterstock image purchased by Debbie Burke

Can police take your property even if you haven’t been arrested or convicted of a crime? The disturbing answer is yes, according to this story from South Carolina: