First Page Critique:
What Color Is Your Story?


By PJ Parrish

I’ve been bingeing on all things British lately, so I was predisposed to like this tale. Plus, it appears to be about evil spirits to boot. I think…but I’m not sure. But that’s not the only issue. I also can’t tell what mood and tone the writer is going for here. And that, dear friends, is our dilemma, and lesson for the day.

Fox Blood and Family Anchors

Chapter 1

By the time she got home, Marte’s hands and feet ached with the cold, and her empty stomach was nauseated by the stink of the wharf. Her backpack clinked as she climbed the front steps. She’d found a few useful bits. Abalone shells, sea urchin spines, driftwood—the sort of trinkets the Life and Death folk could make use of but couldn’t get close enough to the water to gather for themselves.

In the early evening light, the ghostly chalk tracings of hexafoils—that surrounded the door frame and continued in paint across the threshold—seemed almost to glow. A comforting sign of protection. Turning her key in the lock, Marte leaned forward, set her shoulder to the swollen door and gave it a sharp bump. It squeaked inward slightly, showing only a crack of the familiar floorboards beyond. The damp Autumn nights were taking a toll on all the old houses.

She stepped up to have another crack, when gravity lurched away, the solidity of the door giving way beneath her as it was jerked open. From the hallway, came the hacksaw tone of her mother’s voice; “About bloody time!”

Off balance, Marte stumbled to the floorboards, swearing at the unexpected bolt of pain that ran up through her left knee and into her hip. Reaching up, she grasped the door handle to pull herself to her feet, trying her best to get a grip on the situation.

Her baby sister, Eve, was a squalling bundle in their mother’s arms, face red and rigid, as if about to implode, while their mum, Irena, was just as flushed, her usually pale skin mottled an ugly vermillion and white. Dressed to go out in the cold, she wore her pea-coloured coat, but both her temperature and mood were clearly on the rise. Irena’s fingers were gripped into tense claws behind Eve’s shoulders and she jiggled the baby painfully up and down, as though that might quieten the infant bleat somehow.

Treating herself to a deep breath and squaring off, Marte readied herself for the onslaught. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m going to be late. Again!” Irena practically stamped her foot as she spoke.

Marte recoiled from the cool fleck of spit on her face. Months of pent-up frustration were bound up inside that one word and waiting to be let loose. Again. She fought the urge to look heavenward. “Okaaay…” they both heard the squeak of enamel as she gritted her teeth, barely containing it, her knuckles blanching as she throttled the door instead of something else. “And why is that my fault?”


As we’ve often noted with our First Pagers, it’s hard to get your bearings as a reader in a mere 400 words. We lack the clues of cover art and back copy to ground us, so we critiquers often have to guess where we are, what year it is, and what genre we’re reading. All this said, you can still wrangle in readers with a well-written tease, even lacking context.

So what do we have here? Where are we? What era is it? I’m not sure. I’m guessing it’s England (“You’re bloody late!”), somewhere near the sea (Marte has gathered shells). What year is it? We get an enticing clue — hexafoils on the door. If you don’t know the term hexafoil, you’re not alone. I suspected it was an old marking of some kind but I had to look it up. Hexafoils are designs that appear in religious art and architecture (ie stained glass windows) but they are also medieval graffiti found in barns, churches, rural buildings, scratched in wood or stone to ward off evil spirits.

Way cool! I’m in. Love reading about darkly lit corners of British folklore. I’m an Anglophile, especially if it’s the old stuff. (Just got done watching Elizabeth and Lion in Winter again and am currently reading Minette Walter’s doorstop of a novel about the black plague, The Last Hours. 

Problem is, with this submission are we in medieval England or present time? I can’t tell. The house is old, the door warped, but there is nothing else to tell us if this is 1769 or 2019. The proper names are vaguely old-fashioned sounding. Hexafoils (also called daisy wheels) are ancient but can still be seen everywhere in the England countryside. Marte is carrying a “backpack,” which is a modern word of American derivation. (as opposed to rucksack or knapsack). And when confronted by angry mother, she says, “Okaaaay,” which sounds like a petulant modern teen. So…we have confusion here, right off the bat.

old door with hexafoil carving

Which is a shame, because, like I said, I want to like this based on the small clues dropped about the daisy wheels and the mysterious Life and Death folk. I wanted to know more about them and why Marte was collecting trinkets for them.

But where does Marte go? Home — which needs a bit more description so we can tell where we are in time and space — and straight in the arms of a rather boring domestic scene. Yes, there is tension created when Mom begins to rag on Marte, but given the fact that Marte’s character is still a mere sketch so far, I didn’t care. My only emotion was to want to go back out that door as fast as possible.

I’m a bit at sea with this submission, because I am not sure what would make it stronger. And because there is some confusion about era and geography, I’m finding it hard to advise about a better way to begin this story. I can’t figure out what kind of person Marte is (even her age range) and why we, as readers, are being asked to enter her life at this particular point.  Especially since the clues about evil spirits and Life and Death folk are far more interesting than a crabby mom and squalling baby.

Maybe the writer is trying to show us Marte’s “before” life so when something does happen to her — the “after” — we will be intrigued and care about her journey.  But that, as James often points out, is a fatal mistake of many opening pages. Don’t show us the normal life and then up-end it. Get to the conflict and then you can go back and explain what happened.

Maybe you all can help me out here and be more articulate about this submission. It’s not bad, but there is something just off about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Let’s go to some specific points now:

Fox Blood and Family Anchors Not crazy about this title. If you’re writing about medieval ancient spirits in old or new England, you can do better.

By the time she got home, Marte’s hands and feet ached with the cold, and her empty stomach was nauseated by the stink of the wharf. So, does she live right by the wharf? Be more specific about where we are. Her backpack clinked as she climbed the front steps of her house. She’d found a few useful bits. Abalone shells, sea urchin spines, driftwood—the sort of trinkets the Life and Death folk could make use of but couldn’t get close enough to the water to gather for themselves.This, to my ear, is the most intriguing phrase in your opening. So somewhere there is a coven of weird folks who do magic with talismans from the sea but they can’t get near the water! 

In the early evening light, the ghostly chalk tracings of hexafoils—that surrounded the door frame and continued in paint across the threshold—seemed almost to glow. Another nice image, but a tad confusing. If they are chalk, that means they were put there recently since they would be erased in rain. So these are NEW daisy wheels? Who put them there? Did she do it? Why not tell us? A comforting sign of protection. Turning her key in the lock, Marte leaned forward, set her shoulder to the swollen door and gave it a sharp bump. It squeaked inward slightly, showing only a crack of the familiar floorboards beyond. The damp Autumn nights were taking a toll on all the old houses in where? Here is where you can slip it in.

She stepped up to have another crack, when gravity lurched away, the solidity of the door giving way beneath her as it was jerked open. Too much with the door, just get her inside. From the hallway, came the hacksaw tone of her mother’s voice; Not bad aural image there but could clean it up a bit. From the hallway came her mother’s hacksaw voice. And no semi-colon needed. “About bloody time!”

Off balance, Marte stumbled to the floorboards, swearing at the unexpected bolt of pain that ran up through her left knee and into her hip. Reaching up, she grasped the door handle to pull herself to her feet, trying her best to get a grip on the situation. Again, too much with the door. And what does “trying her best to get a grip on the situation” mean? She doesn’t even know what the situation is yet. Unless you had hinted before now that she KNEW she was late, that she had purposely lingered on the beach, not wanting to go home to this hell. As I said, you gave us so little about Marte before this, that it’s hard to care. 

Her baby sister, Eve, was a squalling bundle in their mother’s arms, face red and rigid, as if about to implode, while their mum, Irena, was just as flushed, her usually pale skin mottled an ugly vermillion and white. Mottled means marked with color, so you’ve double-stated the flushed/white/pale thing. Her pale face mottled with red spots. Dressed to go out in the cold, she wore her pea-coloured coat, but both her temperature and mood were clearly on the rise. Irena’s fingers were gripped into tense claws behind Eve’s shoulders not sure what you mean here. Isn’t she holding the baby? and she jiggled the baby painfully only the baby can feel the pain and you’re not in her POV. up and down, as though that might quieten the infant bleat somehow. The way you phrased this sentence sounds very old-fashioned, which is fine — if we are deep in the past.

Treating herself to a deep breath Treating herself? She just pulls in a deep breath. and squaring off, Marte readied herself for the onslaught.  Don’t overstate. If she pulled in a deep breath, that implies she is readying herself for something. Say it once and trust the reader to get it. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m going to be late. Again!” Irena practically stamped her foot she either does or does not. as she spoke.

Marte recoiled from the cool fleck of spit on her face. Months of pent-up frustration were bound up inside that one word and waiting to be let loose. Again. Move this up before months and italicize it. She fought the urge to look heavenward. “Okaaay…” they both heard the squeak of enamel as she gritted her teeth, You’re letting your POV waver again. Stay with Marte. But rolling eyes heavenward, spittle, white knuckles and teeth gnashing is going overboard. We get it. We know she’s upset. Move on. barely containing it, her knuckles blanching as she throttled the doorwhy are we back with the door? instead of something else. “And why is that my fault?”

Again, I really liked the opening image of this person coming back from the beach bearing these things for the mysterious Life and Death folks. I’m almost thinking you came into your scene too late and I might even want to meet Marte on that lonely cold beach searching for her odd treasures. We might think she is a normal shell seeker but then you can start dropping hints as she thinks — is this bit of abalone the thing that will save me? Will this sea urchin spine set me free?

I think you might need to slow down and do a bit of world building here before you take her into mom-hell.

Consider, for a second, how much more compelling the beach scene could be — green roiling waves, cold wind, the sickly white sun sinking in the sea. Marte is hurrying to finish her chore of finding things for the weird people before dark.  Because evil things happen in the dark.  What is her mood? Is she scared of something? Is she depressed about going home? Yes, she can be thinking, but may be she sees someone strange watching her on a cliff? Or you can stage a scene on the beach with a stranger, so you get some dialogue. It might give you a chance to tell us something about the Life and Death people. You can imply danger, begin foreboding, and mirror Marte’s thoughts by using your unique location.  Instead of opening in a claustrophobic house amid a petty domestic scene (small canvas) maybe you need the outdoor backdrop (big canvas) to humanize your character and make us worry about what is going to happen to her. Does she have to take these weird trinkets to the Life and Death people? What is she thinking about THAT?  You need to inject an element of mystery.

A beach opening would also help you set your scene geographically better AND establish a mood, tone, and atmosphere. As it is, you have none of this yet. Remember, all good openings do several things:

  1. Introduce your main character.
  2. Set us in time and place.
  3. Establish a mood
  4. Begin to establish the central conflict (or at least hint at it)

You’ve done 1. but need to work on the other three. Here’s a test exercise: What color is your book? If you were designing the cover, what colors would you use? I have a hunch this book isn’t pink or periwinkle blue. Which is why I chose the stock photo I did at the top of this post. I feel a neo-gothic vibe here. 🙂

Chapter 2, you take her home…maybe. Because I don’t think your main story conflict is about mother-and-daughter. I hope it is something larger and more compelling.

Ask yourself: What does Marte want? Peace with mom? No, that’s too small, so why open with it?  What does Marte want in the deepest part of her soul? That is your story. That is what you have to hint about (the conflict) in the opening.

I know this is counter to what we often preach here about beginnings having to get out of the gate fast. But not every tale is a thriller. Your mood might be darker, your pace more measured. So go for it! Depending on your story and location, sometimes slower might be better.  IF…and this is a big if…you can find a way to make us care about Marte and wonder “what in the heck is that girl up to down there on that beach?”

Thanks writer, for letting me visit England again. Just make it — and Marte — come alive more!



Fighting Off the Fog

Photo courtesy Roman Mager from

My local news this morning reported that a gentleman with dementia — several years my junior — is missing.  I wondered: why him? Why not me? I have watched loved ones — relatives and friends — succumb to the foggy twilight of forgetfulness, bizarre and inappropriate behavior, and poor judgment in increasing numbers in the past several years. My greatest fear at this point in time is that I will join the ranks. As I approach the age status of “codger,” I would prefer to be described as “still sharp as a tack” to “If found, please return to…” or worse, “If found, please don’t return.”

I may some time ago have mentioned that I have scheduled the following entry to appear monthly on my Google calendar: “Are people telling me that I am forgetting things? Am I getting into trouble? Do I get lost in familiar places? Have I forgotten that I have left this message for my future self? If so, I may have Alzheimer’s Disease and need to either get help or end it all.” The message recently popped up for the first time (that I can remember, heh heh) on my calendar. I could honestly answer “no” to all of the questions that my past self asked my present self (except possibly for the one about getting into trouble. It depends on your definition of trouble). It occurred to me a few months ago, however, that I need to do more than just schedule a monthly self-check on my mental status. I must up my game as I get older. I want to pass into that good night the way that Robert B. Parker did. He was busily writing at his desk when Azrael tapped him on the shoulder, clapped hands, and said: “Let’s go!”  Similarly, Bob Hope, as befits a comedian, had everyone laughing through their tears as they gathered around his deathbed. His wife reportedly asked him if he wanted to be buried or cremated. His response, filtered through a raspy gasp, was “Surprise me!” Indeed.

Photo courtesy Gina Lin from

I’ve been doing a number of things to increase the odds of walking the final plank in as superlative a condition as possible, writing all the way. One is exercise. I don’t like it. I find it boring. I did engage in jogging for a while, many years ago, but the rum kept spilling out of my glass. I only enjoy such activity if I can call it something else and multitask while doing so. I love walking when I am in other cities. I can take mental photographs, get writing ideas, and occasionally sharpen my survival skills if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t like walking in my own locale because for the most part the scenery is somewhat boring and I somehow always find myself wandering into a bakery, which is also dangerous. I accordingly bought a treadmill about a year ago and put it in front of the television. I have decided that I am not allowed to watch Netflix, Prime or Cinema HD (shhh!) unless I’m walking briskly on the treadmill. It works. I’m never bored, and I’m actually doing something constructive amidst the sex, explosions, and fisticuffs of what I’m watching. I walked for a couple of hours yesterday while watching American Gangster and loved every minute. The activity improves my mood which in turn helps me to think more clearly. It has increased my stamina as well.

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden from

Reading is another intellectually stimulating activity. Reading of any sort is good, but of late I’ve been shifting at least some of my reading time away from the mystery and thrillers I love and toward literature that requires a bit more concentration.  After perusing several articles about how to start and finish Ulysses by James Joyce I located my well-worn copy and started reading a page a day while successfully resisting the urge to burn my eyes out with hot coals. So far so good.

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden from


There is also of course writing, which I am doing right now. Maybe it’s true that a roomful of monkeys chained to typewriters will eventually randomly type the works of Shakespeare. Sometimes my contribution to this blog resembles what the chimps come up with before they produce The Tempest but my posts have to be done by a time and date certain That takes concentration, as does most writing. Another stick sharpened.

All of the above, however, isn’t enough. One thing I regret about my high school years is that I never really mastered mathematics beyond Algebra 1, primarily because I could never properly use a slide rule. Does anyone remember slide rules? It was a type of analog computer which went the way of the dinosaur once pocket calculators became so common. The last slide rule was made in 1976. I was simply born too soon. I have lived long enough to see YouTube, however, and there are all sorts of videos as well as self-instruction websites where a mathematics dolt like myself can work at their own pace and begin at their own level. I had a couple of false starts before deciding that I needed a refresher course in Algebra 1. I was surprised at how much I remembered, how much I had forgotten, and how much I still don’t understand. I am chipping away at it, however. I would like at some point to understand calculus but it’s as important for me to try as it is to succeed at this point.  I find that it helps to listen to music while I do it. I generally favor post-punk (Parquet Courts) or soul (anything that was released on the Stax/Volt labels) for pleasure but when confronting a math lesson there is something about a Louis Armstrong solo from his days with the Hot Five or a Miles Davis set from the 1950s to the early 1960s that brings a broom and dustpan to the frontal lobe.

Photo courtesy Chris Bair from

You don’t have to be old — by whatever definition — to start thinking about this. I know people who seemingly cannot function without a device in their hand, who haven’t read a book in years, and whose idea of exercise is adjusting the remote volume while they binge on a new Netflix serial. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Just add some things into the mix that up your thinking game a bit,  clear the cobwebs, sharpen the instruments, and generally tune up the cognition. If you are doing something, no matter what your age, please share. And if you aren’t doing anything because you don’t feel the need, bless you.


Can Hypnagogia Improve your Fiction Writing? Find Out

Jordan Dane

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

I really liked TKZ contributor Debbie Burke’s Feb 5th post “Eight Tricks to Tap into your Subconscious for Better Writing.” The mind is an interesting resource for writers. I’ve heard other authors say they dreamed a plot or how certain insights come to them while they sleep. I’ve personally had strange experiences in what I call “twilight sleep,” the realm between sleep and fully awake.

Many experts on dream studies say that dreams exist to help us solve problems we’re experiencing in our lives, or can help us tap into memories and process emotions. It’s possible that if you go to bed with a troubling thought – like a plot point that’s implausible or a character motivation that doesn’t feel right – sleep will allow your mind to come up with a resolution by the time you wake up.

Our own James Scott Bell has a term for this phenomenon. He calls the working brain at night – the boys in the basement. They don’t need to sleep. I’ve experienced this many times. That’s why I keep notepads near my nightstand or jot down ideas on my phone when they come to me after I wake up.


Have you ever sensed you were dreaming INSIDE of a dream? You might’ve experienced a “lucid dream.” Research has shown that lucid dreaming is accompanied by an increased activation of parts of the brain that are normally suppressed during sleep. Lucid dreaming represents a brain state that falls between REM (rapid eye movement) deep sleep and being awake.

Some people who are lucid dreamers are able to influence the direction of their dream, changing the story, in a manner of speaking. While this may be a good tactic to take, especially during a nightmare, many dream experts say don’t force it. It’s better to let your dreams occur naturally.


Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. It’s what I call “Twilight Sleep” and it has nothing to do with sparkling vampires. It’s a state of mind where you may experience lucid dreaming.

In this state, you can tap into all the good ideas you have stored up, uninhibited by rational thought and insecurities. You’re open to all things. It’s how authors can go to bed knowing our manuscript has a flaw, but not knowing how to fix it. Our mind (or the boys in the basement) come to our assistance during the night when we are open to ideas.

Hypnagogia can also manifest in other ways, like when we may hear strange noises in our house–at the moment we wake up–and we KNOW someone has broken in. This could explain the monsters in our closet when we were kids or how we see dangers hidden in the shadows of our room. We’ve tapped into the primitive primal fear that animals experience where they trust their instincts (in order to survive) and react on pure reflex.

I have an experience like this and never forgot it. It happened in the afternoon while I was napping after a long exhausting day at work. I had the sensation that I was dreaming inside a dream, but I was certain someone was in the empty room with me. I even felt the bed move when they sat next to me. I got the sense they were staring down at me. I was so terrified (my body reacted with the fear – my heart raced and my lungs heaved) that I refused to open my eyes. I was so sure my nightmare would be confirmed. I sensed being touched, but still, I didn’t open my eyes. I never did. But I never forgot the feeling of abject, paralyzing fear and have written it into my stories.

Hypnagogia might possibly be one of the mind’s most vital tools for creativity and for tapping into the words to describe the high tensions or emotions we need to write a scene we may never had experienced personally.

How do we tap into Hypnagogia when we need it?

I believe it takes time to train our minds to open like this, but it could be a good exercise. I know that when I first started writing, I had to tap into my brain to hear dialogue from my characters and visualize each scene. Over time I got better at it. Now it’s impossible for me to be in public. I have no filter between my brain and my mouth. Have any of you experienced this? Oy. It can be a curse, but no regrets. I love how it works when I write–so worth it.

Some authors use image boards to trigger their imagination for the world they are creating, but what if you could tap into twilight sleep and manipulate ideas in your mind – to imagine them more deeply? Find a dark room in the afternoon and relax. Shut your eyes and clear your mind. I sometimes visualize numbers floating in the darkness behind my closed eyelids and count down until I am completely relaxed.

You don’t want to fall asleep, so you might consider holding something that will wake you if it falls. Salvador Dali used to hold steel balls that would make a noise when they dropped. Thomas Edison used to hold a metal ball over plate tins that would cause a racket if he let them drop. Test what works best for you in this process.

Does it help to record your results immediately after? A nearby notepad could help solidify your ideas visually as you write them down. Try these sessions for a short period and make the most of them as you get better. I find that if nothing else, the quiet time is good for the soul.

Tips to Recall Your Dreams

If you are a sound sleeper and don’t wake up until the morning, you are less likely to remember your dreams compared to people who wake up several times in the night. Try these tips to improve your ability to remember your dreams:

1.) Wake up without an alarm. You are more likely to remember your dreams if you wake up naturally than if you use an alarm. An annoying alarm can shift your focus to turning the blasted thing off and away from your dream.

2.) Tell yourself to remember. If you want to recall your dreams and make a fully aware decision to do so, you are more likely to remember your dreams in the morning. Before you go to sleep, tell yourself that you want to remember your dream. It may take practice.

3.) Dream playback. If you think about the dream right after waking, it may be easier to remember it later. Which has worked best for you? Making note of it immediately after or is it better to have patience and recall it later?

SUMMARY – This may seem odd if you hadn’t considered it before, but if you’ve been writing for years, can you recall how much your imagination has grown since the beginning? How has your process changed over the years? Have you noticed the changes? As I write, I find it easier to tap into my imagination now than when I first started out. Like I said, my mouth has no filter, by design. This is a good thing as a writer. Not so much if you hang around normal people.


1.) Has anyone experienced Hypnagogic writing? What were the results?

2.) Do you know anyone who has experienced dreams that they used in their writing? Has it happened to you? Tell us about it.


Write Where You Know, or Not, and a New Release



I’m not comfortable setting stories in places I haven’t lived or visited. Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty good little story about a girl who’s held captive by a mad piano tuner. Okay, I know. Maybe a piano tuner isn’t the first bad ‘un to come to mind  when you’re thinking of thriller villains. But have you ever read the late William Gay’s story, “The Paperhanger?” You should. It’s brilliant. And I have a surreal story called “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” that’s been anthologized and is taught in some university writing courses. (You would like it unless you have a phobia of spiders that extends as far as the written page.)

Anywho…I wrote the piano tuner story to submit to an industry anthology years ago. One of the requirements was that it had to be set in Prague. I know people who have been to Prague. It’s known for Dvorák and Mozart, and impressive architecture. Only about one tenth of my story took place outside the apartment, if that. It was not chosen for the anthology. In fact, I’ve submitted four stories over the years to two different industry anthologies, and none of them have been accepted. The fact that those competitions are often themed makes the stories hard to sell elsewhere, but whatever. Writing is practice never wasted.

My takeaway from the Prague disaster is that I should stick closer to home. (And that submitting to industry anthologies is a crap shoot I’m not destined to win.)

I’m perfectly happy to set a story nowhere. An isolated mansion. A suburban condo. A backyard in summer. A mid-range hotel room. It’s part of the beauty of our U.S. of A. There’s anonymity out there if you want it. Though, now that I think of it, I also set a story in a Hall of the Gods that was definitely nowhere in particular.

All of my novels are set in places I’ve lived: Virginia-3, Ohio-1, Kentucky-3, Missouri-1. The one I’m working on now is also Kentucky. The Virginia and Kentucky landscapes are similar, in parts. Devil’s Oven is the only one set on a mountain. I’ve never actually lived on a mountain, but I’ve lived in valleys surrounded by them, and hung around on a few. Close enough, I figure.

The Cincinnati book is the one most colored by childhood memories of the town’s geography. (There are demons in that book, but I didn’t know any.) As I wrote, the image in my mind was of a big, old city, full of great hills hung with layers of narrow houses that were kept from falling into the river by a bit of dirt, hillside stairs, and a few trees.

Before I wrote my new novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, I’d only set a couple of short stories in St. Louis.

The Missouri side of the St. Louis Metro Area is made up of 79 neighborhoods within the city limits, and dozens of small municipalities in St. Louis County. No matter if you are in one of these smaller municipalities, residents are either from North County, South County, West County, or the Mid-County. When I lived in St. Louis throughout the 80s, I lived in Ballwin (far west), University City in the (in-) famous Loop near WashU. Kirkwood (also west but southwest, sort of) and Clayton. There’s not a lot of geographical variation. The differences tend to be starkly economic and racial–not so different from any major urban area.

In St. Louis, if someone asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. It’s midwestern in the sense that residents are generally friendly, no matter what part of town they’re from. If you’re from Ladue or Clayton or Glendale, people will assume that you’re wealthy, and if you’re from far South County you might as well be in the Ozarks, and if you’re from North County, well, let’s just say that if you live past or west of the airport, you might be looking at Iowa. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the different areas do have distinct personalities. And if you look at the census data of the past couple decades you’ll see that it doesn’t change all that much.

Most of my characters are from Mid-County–Ladue and Richmond Heights, with a bit of Webster Groves and Kirkwood to give it an old-time, leafy, suburban flair. My protagonist’s ex lives with his new husband in historic Lafayette Square in the house they once shared. She’s good with that. And one significant character lives in a high-rise apartment in the city, overlooking Forest Park. I confess I did make up a state park. And there may be a few  fictional details at which a native St. Louisan may wrinkle their nose. So, apologies for that. What can I say? I plead fiction.

Of course, all of these geographic details will matter little to the casual readers of THE STRANGER INSIDE. Unless they’re from or know St. Louis well, they won’t much see the distinctions. But the distinctions made a huge difference for me as I was writing. It’s not that I’m resorting to stereotypes, but just using a kind of character shorthand. That shorthand is very handy.

I’m super excited about THE STRANGER INSIDE. It’s a psychological suspense novel. Sometimes it’s called a thriller. And there’s a murder mystery. The biggest difference between this novel and my first six is that there are zero ghosts or supernatural incidents. (My seventh was a cozy mystery.) It was a lot of fun to write.

What about you? Do you write about faraway places? Or do you stick to places you know? Why or why not?

Also, surprise! I’m going to give away a signed copy of THE STRANGER INSIDE at 9:00 p.m. (CST) to one random commenter. But definitely check back to see if you’ve won, because I can’t tell you how many books I haven’t been able to give away because the winner disappeared forever. The winner should reach out to me at


Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke



The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

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The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay


That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.


Your writing will show the difference.


TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?


Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!


Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”


It’s available on Amazon here.


First Page Critique: Death in London

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a historical novel entitled Death in London. My comments follow. Enjoy!

Death in London

The messenger arrived mid-morning. Sam had been at the office since dawn, trying to update and reconcile the Tangier accounts. When the young urchin coughed Sam was startled.

“God save me boy, I didn’t hear you.What do you want?”

“Beg your pardon Sir, Message from the Duke, Sir.”

Ever since the debacle with the Dutch fleet, the Duke of York had become obsessed with wanting regular updates about the provisioning of the fleet. As if Sam didn’t have enough on his plate, now he had to go to Whitehall immediately.  He knew the tide was coming in, so Sam decided to go by water. The walk from his office in Seething Lane to the wharf only took a few minutes. With the incoming tide came the smell of salt on the air, and the promise of the fine autumn days to come.

Sam was short but stocky, and had large inquisitive brown eyes.  His mouth, when it wasn’t smiling, looked as if it was going to. His full lips looked like they were made for kissing, and he used them somewhat more than he should. With autumn underway, these mornings were getting cooler, so Sam had put on his favourite cloak, he especially loved the plush lining in deepest red. His boots were shining with the silk ribbons shining in the sunlight, so he felt dressed well enough for the visit to the Royal Court.

As he sat in the back of the ferryman’s boat Sam had that feeling of sadness that still came over him on a regular basis. Not as often as it used to, but regular enough. Elizabeth’s death had been so sudden, and such a shock. He realized with a start that it had been just over a year ago. Work kept him so preoccupied that it was only these times on the river that he had time to think and mourn.

Sam had plenty of female company when he wanted to. Too much according to his closest friends Will, and Jane. But when you lose the person you married when she was only 14, and had had the tempestuous life they had shared for fourteen years, “getting over it” was easier said than done.

At the Duke of York’s chambers in Whitehall, Sam was able to put the Prince’s mind at rest. The spars coming from the Baltic would arrive in good time and be of high enough quality for His Majesty’s fleet. When it came to the detail, Sam was grateful he was able to talk numbers that befuddled the Duke. Some years before Sam has made sure he was schooled in some arithmetic, so was able to give the Prince more information about quantities than the he was able to absorb.

My Comments

Overall, I found this first page engaging and interesting. I wanted to know more about Sam and his life and would definitely have kept reading. There was good use of selective background details and a great sense of place – in fact I would have liked a little bit more about the sensory impact of traveling the river and the London streets as Sam made his way to Whitehall.

Even after just one page, Sam is an interesting protagonist which is why I think I would prefer the third paragraph not be focus on his outward appearance. The physical description didn’t really sound like one Sam would give of himself – and it took me out of the story – while the other paragraphs provide a good balance of Sam’s thoughts and feelings as well as his background, while keeping the momentum of the story going. I preferred the close POV with Sam and his inner thoughts.

Specific Comments

Historical era/period:  I wasn’t entirely sure when this story was taking place. References to the Duke of York as ‘Prince’ made me think we must be around the Georgian era (I am assuming the Duke of York is Prince Frederick, George III’s son-??)  but I wasn’t exactly sure. The costume description sounded Georgian-ish (cloak and ribbons on boots) but there weren’t enough obvious cues (wigs etc.) and the fact that Sam married a girl of 14 threw me off a bit. I’m no expert on Georgian or Regency era marriages but this seems pretty young – so then I wondered if this was set earlier than I thought. The fact that I was second guessing the time period as a reader signals to me that the writer should give some more clues to ground the reader right from the start in era/historical time period. Given how well the writer created a sense of place with the river and the trip to Whitehall, I think the writer will easily be able to do this.

Tension/Suspense: For a first page, I think I would have liked a little more ‘oomph’ and dramatic tension – perhaps something that can foreshadow the mystery to come (I’m assuming there’s a mystery given the title ‘Death in London). This foreshadowing could come anywhere in this first page (not necessarily the first paragraph as I like how it moves us straight into dialogue and acton – it provides good momentum). At the moment all the reader knows is that Sam is good at finagling the accounts for the Prince/Duke of York – which doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of dramatic tension.

Minor quibbles:  

1) A general reader may not know that the Duke of York is also a Prince so switching between these terms could be confusing.

2) Non-nautical types (like me!) might not know what ‘spars’ are:) A little more context for the fleet would be helpful.

3) I was unsure why Sam wanted to befuddle the Prince with the numbers – is he trying to swindle or cover something up?? That didn’t seem in keeping with his character (at least what we know so far)

All in all, I thought this was an engaging first page and most of my comments are pretty easy fixes. Bravo to our brave submitter!

TKZers what advice or comments would you provide?



Venereal Soil

By Mark Alpert

I was in Florida last weekend, visiting my parents, and whenever I travel to the Sunshine State I think of the great poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). He was a successful insurance executive who spent most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, but he would often vacation in Key West, Florida, and that place inspired many of his best poems.

A good example is “O Florida, Venereal Soil,” which extracts the word “venereal” from its unpleasant associations and returns it to its original meaning: of Venus. For Stevens, Florida was Venus’s domain, the place of love.

He was a poet obsessed with words and their sounds. “Concupiscent curds” in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” From “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night”: “As the night conceives the sea-sounds in silence/and out of the droning sibilants makes/a serenade.”

All writers have favorite words. Back in the 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, my desk in the newsroom was directly across from my colleague Ray Locker, who went on to have a very distinguished career in journalism. One afternoon, while Ray was writing one of his excellent investigative pieces, he paused his typing and gave me a gleeful look. “Dude,” he said, “I just worked the word ‘labyrinthine’ into my copy.”

I don’t know why, but I’m particularly fond of the word “abate.” When I was in college I wrote a poem that began with the line, “These days my lust abates.” I also like “slew” and “murmur” and “porcelain.”

What about your favorites? Which words do you enjoy working into your copy?

CrimeReads just put an excerpt from my new novel, THE COMING STORM, on their website. You can read it here.


Where Inspiration Comes From

By John Gilstrap

Over the weekend, on the heels of the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, I participated in a small, 20-person writers’ retreat, and I was reminded at how inspirational it is simply to be in the presence of other writers.  No fans, no industry people, just other authors who are doing their best to carve a living out of a crazy business.

I’ve been doing this a long time, yet there’s always another tidbit or two to be learned from others, even if it’s a different squint on a common problem.

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Arizona

Fired up with creativity, Joy and I joined with another couple and headed off for a week in the Great Southwest.  Our final destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico, but our first stopping point was Monument Valley, Arizona.  We stayed at The View Hotel on the Navajo Reservation, and Mother Nature presented us with the very best she had to offer.

I don’t remember the last time I had an unobstructed view of a moonless, entirely dark night sky.  The sight of billions of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon brought tears to my eyes.  It centered me.

And when I awoke the next morning, I was greeted with a sight that turned out to be photo-friendly.  The sun rose slowly against the big sky, and every few minutes the light changed again.  After a couple of snapshots, I realized I was squandering my gift from God.  Moments like that are meant to be experienced. They are meant to be savored.  It sounds corny, but something changed in me.

I’m better because of the experience.

What fleeting moments in your life have had a profound impact on you?

Fair warning: I’ll be savoring Santa Fe when this is published, so I won’t be participating much in the responses.