Adventures in India

I’ve long been interested in India and its history and, as an early ‘big’ birthday present this year, my husband organized an amazing trip to India for the whole family. We knew that given the boys’ school commitments, the only real time we could all go was in the summer, which meant facing the scorching heat, outrunning the monsoon, but also (luckily) avoiding the tourist crowds. We also discovered that, although this time of year most Indians think you’re crazy to be visiting, it’s the best time to go if you want to glimpse tigers in the wild (which has long been a dream of mine).

We tried to expose our twin boys to as many of the cultural contrasts and contradictions of India as we could – from walking through the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, visiting the historical sites via public transport in Delhi, to seeing the Taj Mahal at daybreak, going on safari in Ranthambore national park in search of tigers, and walking through Amber Fort outside Jaipur in 116 degree heat. All in all, I think we managed to pack a lot in on our two weeks away!

I can’t wait to someday incorporate what we experienced in a book (or two)…though at the moment I feel I’m still in absorption mode. But rather than rant on about all of our amazing experiences, I thought I’d share just some of the photos of our time away.

Sunset over Mumbai:

A nearly deserted Taj Mahal at dawn:

Overtaking a camel on the road to Ranthambore:

Close encounter with tiger on safari (he was about ten feet from our jeep):

‘Basking’ in the scorching heat at Amber Fort:

They say travel broadens the mind but I think this trip, more than any other we’ve taken as a family, opened our eyes to another country and culture. So fellow TKZers, has any adventure done the same for you?




Funniest Book Ever?

By Mark Alpert

My son is home from college for the summer, and my daughter is finishing up her senior year of high school, so it’s a special time for the Alpert household. We were all watching the Raptors-Warriors game tonight, along with three of my daughter’s friends, and in between the amazing displays of basketball virtuosity, we started telling jokes. And that got me thinking about how difficult it is to write a funny novel.

You know what they say: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true for novels. Think how difficult it must be to keep a humorous voice or situation going for hundreds of pages. It’s like doing a standup routine that lasts for 16 hours. (If you read at a rate of twenty-five pages per hour, then a 400-page novel is equivalent to a 16-hour routine.)

Here’s a rough indicator of the difficulty: When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a novel? It’s happened to me only a few dozen times over a whole LIFETIME of reading. But those occasions were memorable. I’ll try to recall them as best as I can. (I can’t check the exact wording of the funny books right now because most of our novels are in the living room, and several teenagers are sleeping in there.)

The funniest novel ever written (in my opinion): A Confederacy of Dunces. The book’s hero, Ignatius Reilly, is so absurdly grotesque and brilliant. One moment he’s yelling at his mother to leave his bedroom so he can masturbate, the next moment he’s musing about the Mississippi River and railing at his nemesis, “that dreary fraud, Mark Twain.” He gets a job selling footlong hot dogs from a cart in the French Quarter (while dressed in a pirate’s costume) but he eats the hot dogs instead of selling them, and when his employer docks his pay he tries to negotiate a better price for the wieners he’s eaten (“I am, after all, your best customer.”) I know plenty of people who hate this book because Ignatius is so cheerfully repulsive. But I love it.

Second funniest novel: Portnoy’s Complaint. This book has plenty of masturbation jokes too (and why are they so amusing? Has anyone ever studied this?) but in my opinion the best bits are the descriptions of the narrator’s father, the hard-working beaten-down insurance salesman who suffers from chronic constipation. He’s jealous of his teenage son because he’s spending so much time in the bathroom (the father wrongly assumes that the boy is moving his bowels). “If only I could do my business like that!” the old man cries. “I’d do it in Macy’s windows!” To which his wife responds, “Macy’s doesn’t need your business.”

On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, I also have a great fondness for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. (“Ah, God, what an ugly city Ilium is! ‘Ah, God,’ says Bokonon, ‘what an ugly city every city is!'”)

What about you? Have you ever dared to write a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny?


If You Want Pace & Tension – Stick with the Action – First Page Critique of ESCALATION




A brave anonymous author has submitted their first 400 word beginning to their novel for feedback. My thoughts will follow the author’s submission. Please add your constructive criticism in your comments. Enjoy!



Chapter 1

Conversation was almost impossible over the sound of the siren and the roar of the ambulance’s diesel engine. Zach felt with his right hand for the siren tone switch without taking his eyes off the road. He flipped the switch to change the siren from the long monotonous wail to the rapid repetitive yelp that would alert the motorists in the busy intersection they were quickly approaching. Ana also intermittently hit the air horn to add another dimension to the sound.

Threading the needle of these busy intersections had become second nature to Zach. He had worked for the Sova County ambulance service for the past three years and had seen the increase in traffic with the county’s growth. His calm expression never changed as he muttered, “You stupid ass!” when a pale yellow late model Toyota Camry plowed through the light. The driver, bobbing his head in time with some unheard beat, was oblivious to the ambulance’s flashing lights and blaring siren. Zach came to a stop and made eye contact with the other drivers before proceeding through the intersection. A red Bronco came barreling around the curve and almost collided with a dark blue Honda pulled to the curb to allow the ambulance to pass. Zach steered through the maze of skewed vehicles with practiced precision. Once they were clear of the traffic, he gunned the engine. Fortunately, the day was bright and clear. It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.

“Are you familiar with the area we’re going to?” Ana asked while shading her eyes from the gleam of sunlight reflecting off the side mirror of the truck. Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.

Analyn Michaels, a pretty, petite girl with wavy light brown hair that fell just below her shoulders, had been partnered with Zach for the past eleven months. She tugged at the seatbelt cutting into the side of her neck and glanced over at him.



OVERVIEW – There is a sense of urgency as the ambulance races through the streets in the first paragraph. The heavy wordiness of that paragraph and the longer sentences contradict the urgency and I will rewrite that intro to show what I mean. (See the feedback below in – FIRST PARAGRAPH REWRITE.)

With the start of paragraph 2, the story action slows to a crawl with a backstory dump and the county history on traffic patterns. There is plenty of time to explain the guy’s resume and add to the setting of the story, but if the author dares to write a suspenseful opener, I always recommend – STICK WITH THE ACTION and explain later.

That long heavy paragraph shows Zach fighting traffic, but the sense of urgency is gone. He can be calm by nature of his character, but it’s the author’s job to convey the adrenaline rush to the reader. We can all imagine how tense Zach must be and how hard it must be to deal with bad drivers at busy intersections. Make the reader feel the tension and that a life is on the line.

By the time we get to Ana, the pace is gone as she shades her eyes from the sun and thinks about her sunburn. The description of her is another form of backstory that can wait, if the author’s intention is action and a medical urgency that has the ambulance weaving through traffic with sirens blaring. Ana also reflects on how long she’s been partnered with Zach as the seat belt cuts her neck because of their high speed race.

This introduction is conflicted between the stifled action and bad writing habits that slow the pace, but there is good news. We have ALL made these errors and sought improvement.

These are only my thoughts based on my assumptions on where this story might be going. Take any of my advice for what it is worth, dear author. FREE! I tend to imagine your intention and try to work with what is written. I offer advice based upon what I would edit in my own work. You may not like what I have to say and that’s okay.

TITLE – ESCALATION is not a bad title. I can visualize an action-packed cover and the sense of a thrilling medical drama, but I wanted this introduction to match the adrenaline surge of an EMT/Ambulance driver racing through traffic with the life of a patient on the line. Not all medical fiction books will have a title to match the intro, but this one makes sense since it appears to focus on the EMTs.

POV – I can’t see a particular point of view in this short intro. No telling if Zach is the lead/main character or Ana. Since we get Ana’s full name, it could be that SHE is the one to tell this story, but the focus is on Zach. I would recommend picking a main POV character per scene. Zach may not be the HERO of this story, but I would advise the author to clearly pick ONE POV and stick with it.

At present, this intro is not in Zach’s POV, not when Ana flips the air horn switch in the first paragraph, without being seen from Zach’s eyes. Also, Zach can’t know that the seat belt is cutting Ana’s neck at the end. This intro reads like “head hopping.” Even though we don’t know who the main character is, we still need ONE POV to see this action through.

I tend to pick the character with the most to lose or who has the best emotional vantage point. In this intro, that could be Ana, who has to watch as Zach barrels through traffic like a mad man. Or it could be Zach as he battles the traffic while watching Ana cringe, but pick a point of view and work the emotion.

NAMES – I’m not sure why Ana has a full name AND a nickname, but Zach has only a first name. I would suggest giving characters their full names as soon as you can, even if these characters aren’t the hero or heroine. By giving each character a name, it gives context to the reader and an author can write a fuller characterization with more voice if the character has a name.

On the second book I sold, I had a anonymous bad guy get killed in the intro. It wasn’t until I christened him with a full name, that I could tap into his inner voice and give him an arrogance where he deserved to die. It became more interesting.

FIRST PARAGRAPH REWRITE – I tried picturing a white knuckle ride through a busy intersection as I thought of how to rewrite this. With an action scene, the sentences should be shorter, punchy and filled with action imagery. Fragments are fine. You are conveying a sense of urgency to the reader and pulling adrenaline from them as they read, to get a visceral response. I also added DEEP POV, which are Ana’s thoughts in italics, that inner voice we all have. Mine are usually curses.


Analyn Michaels gripped an armrest and held her breath. Oh, God! Streetlights had changed. Cars ignored the blaring siren. In seconds their ambulance would hit the busy intersection. Watch it! She winced. Ana wanted to trust Zach behind the wheel, but it wasn’t easy.

“Hold on. This’ll be tight.” He glanced at her sideways with a smirk. Smart ass!

An SUV lurched in front of a butt ugly Camry to make a turn. Damn it! The driver of the SUV never saw their flashing emergency lights. Ana reached for the air horn and flipped the switch. At the sound, the SUV screeched in front of them. Ana braced her body as Zach swerved to miss the bastard.

The roar of the ambulance engine rumbled in her gut. Ana fought the adrenaline surging through her veins. When they cleared the worst intersection, Zach gunned the diesel engine. Precious seconds ticked by.

Ana hoped they’d make it on time.

This is a quick rewrite. I would normally play with this more and go back to add layers of emotion, but I hope this conveys urgency and action and puts the reader in the front seat. There are smells to add of burned rubber or diesel fumes or beverages spilling on a tight turn. I made the assumption they were heading TO an emergency and not hauling someone to the hospital, since both of them are in the front. But imagine that you have an emergency of someone having a heart attack. Every second could make a difference.

WHITE SPACE ON THE PAGE – In an action scene, it is especially important to have white space on the page. Readers tend to skim the heavily worded paragraphs. Make paragraphs shorter, sentences shorter, and don’t embed dialogue. In my rewrite, it changes from one heavier paragraph to 5 bursts of action.

Over the years, I have cut back on the length of my chapters and my scenes. I give the reader more white space on the page and use deep POV to break up the prose. Call it “shorter reader attention span,” but that’s what I’ve noticed and changed my style accordingly. My paragraphs tend to be shorter too, but it’s the same idea. Long heavy narratives can appear daunting to a reader these days. Don’t give them a reason to skin.

VOICE – I like the character voice where we get a sense of dark humor in Zach. EMTs have seen it all. They can be adrenaline junkies. I like Zach cursing as he drives, not giving an inch, yet staying calm.

PACE WRECKING LINES – There are a number of lines that cut the pace and stop the action in this short intro.

He flipped the switch to change the siren from the long monotonous wail to the rapid repetitive yelp that would alert the motorists in the busy intersection they were quickly approaching. Ana also intermittently hit the air horn to add another dimension to the sound.

The two lines above are too focused on the details of sound and they lose any momentum for the action. It’s not as important to get the nitty gritty detail of what is physically happening. It’s mainly important to write a smattering of action (see an example of ‘smattering’ in my rewrite of paragraph 1) to give the reader a sense of it. Keep it punchy and focus on the bare essence of the action.

Fortunately, the day was bright and clear. It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.

In an action scene, if you have to stop to write about the weather, you’ve lost the pace. In this case, the weather is “bright and clear,” not even a factor, so why bring it up? Since an author is in control of the weather, why NOT make the roads slick with rain and with lightning?

“Are you familiar with the area we’re going to?” Ana asked while shading her eyes from the gleam of sunlight reflecting off the side mirror of the truck.

I would imagine that ambulances have GPS to direct them into areas of the city they aren’t familiar with. Ana’s line doesn’t seem authentic. Also, this is an example of too much unnecessary detail that doesn’t add to the action. We authors are tempted to write details to put the reader in the scene with us, but the details should not be a distraction, as these sentences are.

To make this side mirror glint of light work, I can see Ana searching for cross streets as Zach barrels through an intersection.


As the ambulance lurched, the sun blinded Ana. She kept one eye on the GPS screen and raised a hand to block the glare. Can’t see, damn it.

Are we close?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I missed it.” Ana craned her neck to spot another sign. “Don’t stop. I’ll catch the next one.”

I’m sure you can do better, dear author, but I wanted you to see the difference in how to pick action that works and doesn’t detract from the action.

Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.

“Just short of sunburned” means NOT SUNBURNED. We’ve all been on long drives where our skin gets burned from the sun. Yes, but does Ana’s condition add to this scene? Not so much. Stick with the action to keep the pace and the attention of the reader. You can always bring in a sunburned trucker’s tan later.

ENCOURAGEMENT – We have all been here, dear author. You have a good sense of description. The details can come in handy, but be judicious about where you put them. With action, you should stick with the flow and keep the pace. Be patient with back story and descriptions. You WILL get a chance to strut your stuff.

I like your EMTs. Zach has a hint of personality & humor that I want to know more about. Ana can be fleshed out more, but I get a good sense of how you might write her. Being an EMT is heroic stuff. You have good instincts to start with action. Hang in there and keep writing. With every page, you will get better. Writing is the gift that keeps giving. I’m happy to read your work.


1.) What do you think, TKZers? Do you have feedback for this author?

2.) Anyone with experience as being an EMT? I had a technical adviser who had all sorts of great life experiences. He was an EMT and a volunteer firefighter. The stories he told about how these emergency calls had ice flowing through his veins, until one of the 911 calls turned out to be about his wife and he had to respond–the most harrowing ride of his life. Or the time he was doing CPR on a guy and took the time to notice the man had really bad dandruff. EMTs are a HOOT!


Let’s Argue!

By John Gilstrap

I thought I’d pull y’all in on a running argument I’ve been having with my writer-buddies.  Spoiler: I’m finding precious few to take my side.

Here’s the hypothetical: Let’s say successful thriller writer George Schwartz decides to write a historical romance novel through traditional publishing outlets.  To keep the marketing department happy, and to avoid confusing his existing audience, George decides to write under the pseudonym, Amanda Thomas.  (Apologies if there is a real Amanda Thomas in the romance space.  I couldn’t find her in my 30-second Amazon search.)

Just to get it out of the way, I believe that honesty is king.  Lying to anyone about anything is wrong.  Hard stop.

Here’s my argument:

Since George is writing FICTION under a PSEUDONYM, I don’t see anything wrong with him creating a fabulous, seductive, relevant bio for Amanda Thomas’.  She led a hardscrabble life in the Midwest, raising her three younger siblings because Mom and Dad disappeared in a twister.  As she worked her way toward a management position in some unnamed factory, she never took her eye off her real goal of becoming a writer.  This FIRST NOVEL is the culmination of her life’s dream.  She’s only thirty now, with nothing but future ahead of her.

Her cover photo would be gorgeous, that of a model who has signed a scary non-disclosure agreement.  Amanda flat-out does not do interviews.

Okay, you get where I am going with this.

One of my best friends in the writing world, a very successful author, was horrified at this possibility.  What if the readers found out?  They would feel betrayed, and no one would ever buy another Amanda Thomas novel.  And when they found out that George Schwartz was the purveyor of the betrayal, they’d never buy another of his books either.

But where’s the betrayal?  Where’s the lie?

Amanda Thomas is NOT REAL, and her book is FICTION.  There’s no analogy James Frey and A Million Little Pieces because his reprehensible action was to misrepresent a made-up story as nonfiction.  Amanda’s book is a novel–no one expects a word of it to be true.

If there’s a lie, it’s in the fact of the pseudonym.

To me, to object to a fictional bio for a pseudonym is to object to a pseudonym itself.  The only honest pseudonym in this case would be “Amanda Thomas, who is really George Schwartz.”  We don’t expect that, so why, if it’s okay to misrepresent the fact of authorship, is it not okay to give the fake author a fake background?

What say you, TKZ family?  Is it wrong to misrepresent a pseudonymous writer as a real person?  Should readers know that the name on the cover is not the writer’s real name?  Where are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed?


First Page Critique: When Is It
Time To Let A Story Idea Die?

Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing. — Sylvia Plath

By PJ Parrish

We have a special First Page Critique to talk about today. Because I think it is a splendid example of a question all writers have to ask themselves at one time or another: When it is time to let go of a bad story? I’ll be back in a second with my comments. First, here’s our submission:

Lucky Lady

Chapter 1

It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it.

Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa. The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.” But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them. So I walked.

Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of town where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.


I’m back. I have real mixed feelings about this submission. On one hand, I like the sassy voice. And the opening line isn’t bad. But I found myself longing for less thinking and musing and more live action. And the title? Well, it’s really meh.

Okay, I’m messing with you here. This is an opening for one of my own books, unpublished. Kelly and I wrote this (in fact, we wrote the entire 367-page manuscript) years ago, when we were well along into our Louis Kincaid series. We wanted to try our hand at a female protag and a style that was lighter and humorous. Also, Kelly had decades of experience in the Nevada casino business and we figured we couldn’t go wrong.

Wrongo, keno-breath.

We couldn’t sell this book to save our souls. Our own publisher passed on it (nicely) and then, when our agent shopped it around, we got at least ten rejections. And there was a common thread to all of them — that the book’s tone was off, that it was “neither fish nor fowl” as two editors actually said. What they were telling us was that we couldn’t sustain a consistent tone over the course of the story, that it seesawed between humor and seriousness (a theme was sexual abuse), light and dark.  (And to be honest, it was larded with backstory in the first chapter).

We put the manuscript away and took this lesson out of the disappointment: That our writers’s hearts are dark, and we can’t fake otherwise. I’ve come to think of it as our “Shelf Book.” This is a term coined by John Connelly for a story that you have to write and complete just to get it out of your system so you can move on.

I guess that’s the lesson I am trying to convey here today. That some ideas are toxic. And even if you slave away and finish the manuscript, sometimes you just have to admit defeat and let a story idea die.

I know how hard this is to do. Like me, many of you probably have variations of this:

1. A manila folder swollen with newspaper clippings, scribblings on cocktail napkins, pages torn from airline magazines, notebooks of dialogue overheard on the subway, stuff you’ve printed off obscure websites. At some point, you were convinced all these snippets had the makings of great books. (I call my own such folder BRAIN LINT.)

2. A folder icon in your computer called FUTURE PLOTS. These are sylphs that came to you in the wee small hours of the morning, whispering “tell my story and I will make you a star!” So you jumped out of bed, fired up the Dell and tried to capture these tiny teases. Or maybe you’re one of those bedeviled souls who keeps a notepad by the bed — just in case.

3. Manuscripts moldering in your hard-drive. Ah yes…the stunted stories, the pinched-out plots, the atrophied attempts, the truncated tries. (Hey, better I get rid of my bad alliteration here then in my book) These are the books you had so much hope for and they let you down. These are the books you went 30 chapters with but couldn’t wrestle to the mat for the final pin. These are the books you grimly finished even as they finished you. Maybe you even sent these out to either agent or editor and they were rejected. At last count, I have six of these half-birthed monsters still breathing in my hard-drive. And at least four others finally died when my former Acer did, lost to mankind forever. Thank god. Geez…one was called Tarantella and it was erotica. Can it get any worse?

So what do you do with all these ideas?

You expose them to sunlight and watch them burn to little cinders and then you move on. Because not every idea is a good one. Not every idea makes for a publishable book. And sometimes, you just gotta let go.

Or you just bite the bullet and let them exist as your Shelf Books. Mike Connelly had three completed manuscripts before he sent out The Black Echo. L. Frank Baum wrote four adult novels before The Wizard of Oz, and his son records in his memoir that his mother burned them all. Hunter Thompson’s first writing attempt was a rejected novel called Prince Jellyfish about a boy from Louisville trying to make it in the big city. Thomas Hardy’s first novel The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected by five publishers and the manuscript later destroyed. And before Stephen King hit it big with Carrie (rejected by 30 editors) he wrote a novella The Aftermath, and The House on Value Street, based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

Sometimes, bad ideas can birth new life. Michael Chabon abandoned his novel titled Fountain City after 1,500 pages, but then used it as inspiration for his fabulous Wonder Boys. John Cheever wrote 150 pages of a novel called The Swimmer, then decided it was better as a 12-page short story.

I have known some unpublished writers who’ve lock their jaws onto one idea like a rabid Jack Russell and chew it to death. These writers become paralyzed, unable to give up on their unworkable stories, unable to open their imaginations to anything else. I think it is because they fear this one bone of an idea is the only one they will ever have. Two things happen when writers reach this point:

  1. They self-publish. (Not a bad thing if your idea is good)
  2. Or they get smart, take to heart whatever lessons that first manuscript taught them, put that book on the shelf, and move on to a new idea.

You have to know when to let go. And you have to trust that yes, you will have another idea. Maybe a good one. Maybe even a great one.

So, what do Kelly and I do with our Lucky Lady? Yeah, we’ve thought about self-publishing it. We even designed a cover for it. We have a base readership and we might get some sales. But whenever I go back and re-read that book — which I’ve done a couple times now with something close to hope — I find it still has warts. And worse, it isn’t true to our writers’s hearts and our readers will sense that.


We could sent it to Canada. To the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, which is devoted to unpublished manuscripts. The library’s inspiration came from the 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance by Richard Brautigan, in which the protagonist works at a library of unpublished manuscripts. In the novel, no one is allowed to visit the library and read the unpublished works. But in the library it inspired, that’s the whole point. You can go there and read the 300 manuscripts. They are also open to submissions. But I think your toxic story would look better on your own shelf.




Artwork Courtesy

“It” happened again.  

“It” is the story I presented in this spot several weeks ago. To wit: I awoke quite early after dreaming the beginning, middle and ending of a novel, got up, typed everything I could remember, and started an outline. That work in progress is now titled The Lake Effect and other than for those occasions where I get in my own way it has actually been fun. I am not finished but I am seeing the highway distance signs assuring me that I am headed in the right direction at speed.

However, “it” has happened again. I woke up Friday morning with a dream vividly lodged in my head, a dream that laid out another novel, beginning, middle, and end. I for a number of reasons (none of them really acceptable) could not get up but I had a pen and a notepad at the ready and scribbled a bunch of notes to my daytime self, all of which actually made sense when I woke up for a second time Friday morning with paper all over the place. The novel? It is, as with The Lake Effect, way outside of my writing comfort zone. The Lake Effect is a love story with a bit of science fiction attached. The latest dream —so far unnamed — is a dystopian thriller. I hate dystopian novels, as a rule. I have been able to read, enjoy, and finish two in my lifetime: Dahlgren by Samuel  R. Delaney and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. My humble effort could be pitched as “Long John Silver and John Wick team up at the end of time and make one final effort to hit the restart button.”

I haven’t decided whether to set this newly inspired work aside until I finish The Lake Effect or work on both. What I really wonder, however — and this is a rhetorical question — is…why now,  as I do the slim, slow slide into age sixty-eight (September 11, if you’re wondering when to send the Amazon gift cards)? Am I the recipient of some sort of precursor to the “check engine” light flashing on, or is a blood clot going to jackknife in the middle of my cranial freeway at rush hour in a couple of months, and is this last-ditch creative spurt is a traffic alert?

I ask because something else is happening as well. I’ve had a major change in appetite (food, that is) over the past five weeks. I suddenly have no desire for what had been my four major food groups: pasta, donuts, french fries, and kettle chips. I no longer find appealing what I had to resist. A friend brought over a large bag of my favorite potato chips — Zapps Mardi Gras Kettle Chips — the other day as a gift. Up until a few weeks ago I would have opened them to share with her as a pretext to doing a deep dive in the bag. They’re still sealed. Glory be, ‘tis a miracle, Father Mahoney. Meat is going the same way. I’m down to eating meat as part of one meal per day, at most. It hasn’t been a conscious or deliberate choice. It’s just what I feel. I’ve eaten more oatmeal and soup in the last month or so than I have in my entire life. My cupboard and refrigerator look as if they have been taken over by Jack LaLanne (well, that is a gross exaggeration, but it’s changed quite a bit). This all occurred after I dreamt The Lake Effect.

I don’t know if this is even worthy of a question, but since we have a bunch of artistic minds out there, and many of them are seasoned, let me ask: have any of you experienced a sea change like this? Was it a precursor to something good, bad, or indifferent? What ultimately happened? Thank you, and enjoy your weekend.


True Crime Thursday – DNA Solves Cold Cases


Debbie Burke


Memo to Criminals: If the statute of limitations hasn’t expired, don’t send your DNA to 23andMe.

The combined tools of genealogy and DNA databases are solving old murder cases.

Until recent years, a DNA sample from a crime scene meant little unless it matched an already existing profile in a law enforcement database. But the popularity of DIY home DNA tests adds a new wrinkle.

People seeking their ethnic roots send cheek swabbings to genetic genealogy databases like There, DNA samples are used to build family trees reaching generations back in history.

While you may find it interesting that Mary Queen of Scots or Jesse James is a distant relative, what happens if your DNA also shows you’re related to a criminal?

Most famously, the Golden State Killer was linked to decades of murders and rapes based on DNA information from Parabon Labs.  Parabon claims to have helped solve 30 cold cases. According to their website:

“Genetic genealogy has traditionally been used to discover new relatives and build a full family tree. However, it can also be used to discover the identity of an unknown individual by using DNA to identify relatives and then using genealogy research to build family trees and deduce who the unknown individual could be. These techniques…apply equally as well to forensic applications. Genetic genealogy has been used to identify victims’ remains, as well as suspects, in a number of high-profile cases. Most recently, genetic genealogy was used to zero in on a suspect in the Golden State Killer case.”

Law enforcement can request information from consumer DNA databanks to trace suspects in unsolved crimes. But ethics concerns are on the rise after the founder of GEDmatch allowed access in an assault case in Utah without first informing its customers.

Surveys indicate most people believe consumer DNA databases should be used in cases of violent crimes. But what about offenses like credit card fraud or unpaid child support?

TKZers, have you sent your DNA to a database like 23andMe,, Family Tree, My Heritage, etc.?

Are you concerned about the privacy of your genetic profile?

Where would you draw the line for law enforcement uses? Violent crimes? Non-violent felonies? Misdemeanors?


Guest Post: Carolyn Haines, Southern Mystery Doyenne

Hey, y’all! I’m so excited to have writer Carolyn Haines visit with us. Decades ago, even before Carolyn started her mystery series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney, I saw several of her books shelved in a place of honor at a friend’s house. My friend told me that Carolyn was a wonderful writer, and as an unpublished newbie, I immediately got stars in my eyes knowing I was thatclose to a famous writer. Carolyn’s writing is truly wonderful, and these days, I’m proud to call her my own good friend.

(If you’re in the Houston area, dash over to the amazing MURDER BY THE BOOK for a signing event with Carolyn, plus Terry Shames, TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m.)

Carolyn is here to talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of having a successful, long-running series. Please give her a warm TKZ welcome!


I’ve been writing about my amateur detective Sarah Booth Delaney for over 20 years—and I have 20 books documenting her mystery-solving skills. The latest, GAME OF BONES, was just released. But I have to tell you, it’s my time to whine. In the world of Zinnia, Mississippi, Sarah Booth Delaney seldom ages. In the twenty years I’ve been writing about her and the rest of the gang, Sarah Booth has aged less than two years. I, on the other hand, have stacked two decades onto my total orbits around the sun. This is not fair.

While Sarah Booth remains eternally young, still able to consider pregnancy (though she is pushing that really hard as her personal “haint” Jitty would tell her) and still able to perform the physical feats that make her a good detective (and also a bit like Lucille Ball), I am feeling the passage of the years in my bones. Sarah Booth has never met trouble she didn’t want to get down and wallow in. I have not been arrested in a while, so I’m a slacker.

I’ve read a lot of blogs from authors who talk about “when it’s time to end a series.” To be perfectly honest, when I wrote THEM BONES, I didn’t realize I was writing a series. The book sold at auction and the publisher who bought it wanted a 3-book deal. I was terrified. I’ve always read mysteries, but I never considered myself a skilled plotter. But there I was—with two additional mysteries to write, and then two more, and then two more, and then three, etc., etc.

Now, the characters are so much a part of my daily life that it’s hard to imagine NOT writing about them. They are family, and I love the work of bringing their adventures to the page.

Over the course of two decades, I’ve outlined the series arc. I know what the last book in the series will be, but since I just signed another three-book contract, it won’t be until after 2022. (There will be two books in 2021. One in May, my regular publication time, and a special Christmas book.)

Through the years, folks have pressured me to marry Sarah Booth off and let her have young-uns. I’ve resisted this pressure for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Sarah Booth doesn’t listen to me or to Jitty, her ancestral ghost who tries to boss her around for her own good. I tried to edge Sarah Booth toward more romance with one character, but she balked completely. She knows her own mind. As I said, she is like family and the Haines clan is known to be hard-headed. My guidance is often rejected. But again, that makes the stories interesting to write.

Aside from Sarah Booth’s recalcitrant behavior, there are other reasons. I’ve read a lot of series books and watched a lot of series television where the two leading characters finally give in to lust, love, or domesticity. That’s the point I lose interest in the characters. I realize not all people are like me, but as the writer, I refuse to spend time in a world that bores me. As it stands now, Sarah Booth has a love interest, but romance is always a dicey business with my feisty anti-belle. Sarah Booth breaks the rules of polite society and she disdains the expectations to marry.

Each book in the series is a complete, standalone mystery, but the characters do change. I’m really proud of the way that my characters have grown. While Sarah Booth and her friend and partner Tinkie have madcap adventures, they are serious about the life decisions they make and the values they buy into. The cases they tackle highlight some tough issues, but always with humor. Most of all, the characters and I want to make you laugh and have fun. “A lot of life’s hardships are soothed by laughter.”—that’s a Sarah Booth quote.

I just finished the last season of GAME OF THRONES, where a lot of characters die. Some I watched with relish and others I mourned. I don’t have any plans to kill off any characters in the Zinnia universe. Just remember, I don’t have total control of this world. Sarah Booth goes her own way and she’s been heard to say, when asked why there are so many homicides in her small town of Zinnia, Mississippi, “A lotta men just need killing.” I concur. Some people beg for a swift end. Sarah Booth would be happy to deliver on that. Patience is a virtue she doesn’t have.

When I listen to other writers talk about ending their series at 8 or 9 books, I understand. Writing a book is an intense relationship with the characters. When a writer is tired of a character, it’s time. Give the series a dignified ending. What I really hate is an abrupt end to a series with so many questions unanswered—and no way to find an answer. The pulling of the publishing or television plug is an unfortunate part of the business that upsets both readers and writers. I do have an exit strategy, but I am a long way from executing it.

I write other series, and I think that keeps me fresh to “document” Sarah Booth’s escapades. I love writing humorous books, but I am also a fan of gothic/horror and mystery/fantasy, so I explore those worlds in other series. I’ve published over 80 books. I love riding my horse, caring for my pets, pranking my family and friends—and telling stories.

Sarah Booth will tell me when it’s time to let go, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

Where to find Carolyn:

Carolyn’s Facebook Page


Carolyn’s Newsletter Sign-up and Website

Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and a number of other books in mystery and crime, including the Pluto’s Snitch paranormal-historical mystery series, and Trouble, the black cat detective romantic suspense books. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the Mississippi Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a former journalist, bartender, photographer, farmhand, and college professor and lives on a farm where she works with rescue cats, dogs, and horses.