True Crime Thursday – Poor Choice for a Getaway Vehicle

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo from Wikipedia

 

Not enough evidence exists to declare a new crime trend but, from time to time, thefts of motorized shopping carts make the news.

Battery-powered carts are intended for customers with physical disabilities. Yet some thieves—often under the influence—use them as getaway vehicles.

Since the top speed of the typical cart is two miles per hour, none has been involved in high-speed pursuits. So far, the success rate of clean getaways is zero.

But hope springs eternal.

In May, 2009, thefts of motorized shopping carts occurred in two separate incidents. A Florida man was caught riding a stolen cart not far from the store. Two South Carolina men attempted a similar caper. Because the carts were valued at $2500, all were arrested for felonies. If they had stolen regular, non-motorized carts instead, the charges would have been misdemeanors.

In September 2014, a 46-year-old woman from Fruitport Township, Michigan, couldn’t get a ride and didn’t want to walk. So, she put six bags of allegedly stolen clothes, worth $600, in a Walmart motorized cart and took off. She was apprehended two miles away by police who ran her through the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN), along with the man accompanying her. Both had outstanding warrants.

In January 2015, a Eunice, Louisiana man, age 45, who claimed to have a broken foot loaded up a Walmart cart with a half-gallon of vodka, Mardi Gras cups, and other items and headed across the street to a truck stop parking lot. Surveillance video confirmed he had not paid for the items. When police arrested him, the party was cancelled.

In November 2019, a different Louisiana man, age 32, realized he was too drunk to drive his car and worried he might get a DWI. His solution: drive a Walmart motorized shopping cart instead. A Terrebonne Parish sheriff deputy spotted the scooter parked between two cars at a bar a half mile away. After further investigation, he arrested the suspect. The man was charged, not for DWI, but “unauthorized use of a moveable”, a felony.

The above cases might have had better success if they’d chosen a vehicle like Bonnie and Clyde’s V8 Ford for their getaways.

Bonnie Parker – public domain

Clyde Barrow – wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TKZers: What’s the most unusual getaway vehicle you’ve heard of? Was it successful?

8+

Happy Public Domain Day

Illustration from Tarzan and the Ant Men – public domain

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Back in January, I tucked this idea in a folder and promptly forgot about it. Just found it. Unlike my memory, however, this information hasn’t expired.

If you’re not familiar with Public Domain Day, January 1 of each year marks the expiration of 95-year-old copyrights of films, songs, and books. As of January 1, 2020, creative works copyrighted in 1924 became free to use by anyone, hence the term “public domain.”

What does that mean?

We the public can now watch Harold Lloyd’s classic silent films like Girl Shy and Hot Water for free.


A composer, musician, dancer, or songwriter can now freely use George Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue” and incorporate the tune into a new pop song, rap interpretation, music video, reggae routine, or any other variation they please.

Once the copyright expires on books, plays, or movies, anyone is legally allowed to adapt those stories into prequels, sequels, or offshoots; or take characters derived from the original work and feature them in completely new tales. Authors don’t need to pay a fee or obtain permission from a copyright holder to use them.

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem completed in 1320 by Dante Alighieri. The poem was not protected by copyright. Film maker William Fox adapted a portion of that work into Dante’s Inferno, a silent film that was copyrighted in 1924 and is now in the public domain.The story cards at the beginning explain why Fox made the film:

“In presenting in screen form the more striking scenes of “Dante’s Inferno” we are realizing a cherished ambition. After a long period of careful preparation and thought, we decided to interpret reverently this classic masterpiece in its undisguised truth—weaving into its vivid realism the thread of a simple modern story. Thus the warning of Dante is more definitely emphasized—that by our daily thoughts and acts we may be unconsciously building up for our own future—A VERITABLE HELL ON EARTH.

“In the human brain a thin wall divides a heaven and a hell. Are we hewing down that wall? Are we leaving love and sunshine for the crimson realms of agony and remorse?”

The theme of The Inferno clearly resonated with Fox, inspiring him to update the story to his then-contemporary world. In the same way that Fox took an old poem without a copyright and adapted it to a different era, today’s movie makers might use his 1924 film as the basis and inspiration for new creations.

What can writers do with works in the public domain?

We can re-imagine a timeless theme in a new form.

We can take a classic story and play it out in a different setting. Christopher Robin in space? Peter Pan in a post-apocalyptic world?

We can resurrect a beloved or fascinating character to live again in further adventures.

In the 1924 film, Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton aspires to be a great detective like Sherlock Holmes and embarks on a series of comic, crime-solving adventures. This silent classic showcases Keaton’s incredible versatility as a director, actor, comedian, and super stunt man. Click on this link for 45 minutes of fun.

Other works that came into the public domain last January include:

Tarzan and the Ant Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

The first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan.

Here’s a link to other works that are now in the public domain.

 

Project Gutenburg makes an extensive collection of public domain works (under Australian copyright laws) available to read for free. As a kid, I was a huge fan of Dr. Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting.  After finding the site, I spent an hour happily touring with Dr. Doolittle’s Circus and remembering illustrations I hadn’t seen in 60 years.

Today, if I wanted to write a book starring Dr. Doolittle’s sidekick, Matthew Muggs, AKA the Cat’s-Meat-Man, and Mrs. Theodosia Muggs, that is allowable.

Illustration from Dr. Doolittle’s Circus where Mrs. Muggs dispatches two villains

 

 

It’s not necessary to wait until a work goes into the public domain to use it but you must obtain permission from the copyright holder and/or pay a fee (often hefty). For instance, Desire Under the Elms, the 1924 play by Eugene O’Neill, was adapted into a 1958 movie. At least a portion of the film’s budget went to lawyers negotiating the rights under which O’Neill’s play could become a movie. If producers had waited until 2020, they could have had free, unfettered use of the play. But they’d no longer have the stellar cast from 1958:  Sophia Loren, Burl Ives, and Anthony Perkins.

Under earlier copyright law, the term of the copyright for a creative work was 75 years. In 1998, Congress extended the term to 95 years, due in large part to the lobbying of The Walt Disney Company. They wanted longer protection for the ginormous income stream generated by a certain mouse. Under current law, unless another extension is granted, Mickey will enter the public domain in 2024. After that, theoretically, anyone may be able to use Mickey’s image and earn money from it.

Want to bet on that happening?

Nah, me neither.

Works in the public domain can be a source of inspiration for writers to freshen a timeless theme, to create new stories that happen before or after the original work, or to breathe new life into memorable characters.

When Casablanca goes into the public domain in 2037, I’ll write the sequel I’ve had in mind for years…if I’m still around.

Not betting on that either!

~~~

TKZers: Do you ever hanker to write a new episode or sequel to a favorite book or series? Please give examples.

What books or movies do you look forward to being in the public domain?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, will enter the public domain in the year 2115. Or you can buy it now for only $.99.

5+

True Crime Thursday – Scams That Target Writers

Public domain, Winsor McCay, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, 1909

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Like mosquitos in summer, scammers keep buzzing in with new tricks to suck the blood from writers. Here are three that recently hit my radar:

Scam #1 – We Pay You to Write!

A couple of months ago, several members of the Authors Guild received emails from individuals claiming to need articles or workbooks written for an upcoming seminar. The bait is a substantial fee and a promise of wider recognition through their organization. They may claim to have a disability, with the inference that if you write for them, you also enjoy the satisfaction of helping. Or…if you don’t write for their worthy cause, you should feel guilty. Con artists are masters at manipulation.

Here’s a sample invitation from “Paula Smith”:

Hello, My name is Paula, an academic consultant. I have a speech distorting condition called Apraxia. I got your contact details online and I need your service. Can you write an article on a specific topic for an upcoming workshop? The article is to be given as a handbook to the attendees of the workshop. I have a title for the article and have drafted an outline to guide you. Please get back to me for more information

(442) 278-5255

Paula

Fortunately, the author who received the solicitation investigated a little deeper and discovered “Paula’s” phone number had numerous complaints against it for fraud. A helpful resource to check out questionable phone numbers is callername.com.

More writers added their suspicions to the Authors Guild discussion group but weren’t sure how the scam worked.

Then AG member and travel writer Lan Sluder offered the following enlightening explanation:

This is a scam that is well known in the hospitality (lodging) industry. The target is usually smaller inns, hotels and B&Bs. Someone makes what seems a legitimate reservation, often for several rooms, and pays by check or credit card. There are various versions, but typically the inn owner is overpaid or part of the reservation is cancelled or changed and the scammer wants a refund. Much later, the original credit or check payment is found to be invalid, and the inn owner is out hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some of these scammers are pretty clever, and it’s not always easy to tell an authentic reservation from a fake one. Occasionally, hotel owners or reservations offices are fooled into thinking it is an actual guest reservation.

I’ve written a number of travel guides and other travel books that review hotels so I get a lot of these scam emails due to mistakes by the less sophisticated scammers.

A similar scam exists targeting attorneys, CPAs and small businesses of all kinds. I guess now the scammers are starting to target writers.

——————————
Lan Sluder
——————————

Another AG poster who’s a member of the American Translators Association added that their members have also been targeted and shared the story of one victim. The scammer “overpaid” then asked the translator to wire money for the refund. Unfortunately, she did, shortly before the scam check bounced and she was out $2000.

Ouch!

Scam #2 – Fake Marketing Offers

These scammers keep reinventing themselves with different aliases and websites. Be wary of anyone who calls out of the blue or sends an email with wording similar to this:

Dear Author,

Our expert book scouts discovered your fabulous novel and we are excited to offer you an amazing opportunity. Because we believe so strongly in the bestseller potential of your book, we want to invest [fill in outrageous amount of money] in your marketing and publicity at absolutely no cost to you. We will reserve a place of honor for your book at the upcoming [fill in prestigious book fair or festival]. Your success will be our reward.

Sincerely,

A Company That Believes in Your Fantastic Talent (smirking)

After a few more flattering emails, they swoop in for the kill shot:

We reaffirm you do not have to pay one penny for our fabulous marketing package because our faith in you is so strong. To be fair, we know you’ll want to contribute your part by paying the bargain registration fee of only [fill in hundreds to thousands of dollars].

Here’s a post from YA author Khristina Chess who was contacted by Readers Magnet. Interestingly, they claim to be accredited by the Better Business Bureau as of 2019. However this BBB link shows multiple complaints against them.

Here’s a list of companies that engage in practices that may technically be within the law but slide into slimy.

 

 

 

Before you engage any writing-related services, check them out on Writer Beware  whose mission is:  “Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls.”

A big thank you to Writer Beware for watching out for writers!

Scam #3 – Impersonating Agents and Editors

Earlier this year, intrepid Victoria Strauss covered cases of scammers who assume the identity of legitimate agents or editors then contact unsuspecting authors. Of course, struggling writers are understandably thrilled to have a big-name agent contact them. Just be sure the person is who they claim to be. Here’s Victoria’s post.

On July 16, agent Victoria Marini @LitAgentMarini tweeted the following warning after learning someone had co-opted her name:

“It has come to my attention that someone is impersonating me online, likely in an attempt to scam writers. I am not associated with WritersDesk LLC, nor do I sell videos, materials, editorial work, or any other good or service. Many thanks to @victoriastrauss.”

 

Protect yourself from true crimes against writers. Always verify the source.

 ~~~

TKZers: Have you been solicited by questionable people or companies regarding your writing? Please share your experience and outcome.

 ~~~

 

 

Check out a devious scam with a unique twist in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Stalking Midas, available at this link.

10+

Why Readers Love Crime Thrillers — With Adam Croft

I’m thrilled to host Adam Croft as a guest on the Kill Zone. Adam is one of the leading indie authors in today’s crime thriller market. He’s sold over two million books in the past few years and several times he’s held the #1 Best Seller spot on all of Amazon—ahead of names like JK Rowling, James Patterson, and the King (Stephen King, that is.)

I’m also proud to say (brag) that Adam and I have been friends since 2014. That was before Adam Croft was famous and when I still had hair. We’ve cross-blogged, shared personal emails, had some laughs, and he’s been a highly-influential mentor on my writing and publishing journey through his leadership in The Indie Author Mindset.

But, enough of what’s in it for me. Here’s what Adam Croft has to say about why readers love crime thrillers.

——

Human beings are fascinated by death and reading crime thrillers. As morbid and unsavory as that sounds, it’s a good job they are as otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it.

If we did not have a fascination with death, one of the world’s most popular and enduring fiction genres would not exist and I’d be out of a job. So I’m pretty pleased that we do. But, what has caused us to be hardwired to think in this way? What makes death and murder in particular so fascinating to us?

Fascination goes hand in hand with intrigue, and it is to intrigue that we must turn first. Naturally, human beings are intrigued by why someone would want to kill another human being. To most of us, committing a murder is unthinkable.

Of course, we’ve all known people that we’d love to kill, but actually contemplating doing it is something entirely different. This intrigue surrounding those who do, then, is entirely natural. It’s one of society’s final taboos, and we are naturally intrigued by the ways in which people murder each other.

There’s also a sense of needing to understand, which is what compels our sense of intrigue. Naturally and evolutionarily, we feel the need to understand the situation of murder in order to protect our species and prevent or predict future occurrences. It would be fair to say that this is an in-built, animalistic sense, which puts our fascination at a level much deeper than sheer intrigue.

However, this would be a little too simplistic. Why, then, do real-life murders not fascinate us as much as they did in Victorian times, when newspaper circulation figures would regularly treble off the back of a good murder?

Nowadays, we’re far more satisfied to get our dose of death through fiction like crime thrillers. We know fiction isn’t real, so the purely evolutionary theories go out of the window at this point. In my opinion, it’s the complexity and make-up of the murder mystery or crime thriller novel which provides the fascination here.

The truth is that most real-life murder is actually incredibly pedestrian. There’s a fight and someone dies. A jealous husband murders his ex-wife. There’s a gangland killing. No particular element of mystery comes into play with any of these situations, which leads me to posit that our fascination with murder is no longer rooted in our desire to protect our species but instead with the logic of the puzzle and the mystery surrounding a well-constructed crime thriller novel.

The longevity of the mystery/crime novel is rooted in its complexity and infinitely changing forms. The number of ways in which a crime is committed, and the reasons for someone wanting to commit it, is what keeps crime thriller novelists like me in a job.

A clever and sophisticated plot is what readers crave, and it’s the reason why Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time. Her proficiency for developing the twists and turns and ingenious plots for which she was most famed is the reason why people keep going back to her time after time.

The most us modern-day mystery and crime thriller writers can hope for, following far behind in her wake, is that we might be able to side-step the reader somewhere along the way and leave them guessing to the last.

It would be far too simplistic, though, to say that we’re now purely interested in the type of brain-teasing mystery akin to a crossword puzzle. There’s certainly still a psychological element involved, which is why psychological thrillers are huge business.

As a species, we pay attention to these sorts of plots because we have an animalistic need to know we are safe. We need to understand the mind of the killer.

This understanding is the reason why psychology courses and degrees are so popular in the western world, and particularly in Britain, where the murder mystery is particularly venerated.

Human beings have an innate desire to understand ourselves and other human beings.

If you’ll forgive me adopting a purely political point of view for a moment, this is a very heart-warming realization from a progressive perspective, as our need to understand each other as human beings is something which we’ve been sadly lacking for most of our existence as a species.

We can be sure that crime fiction will last, and there are a number of reasons for this. Crime’s bedfellow in terms of sheer popularity is undoubtedly the romance genre; a type of book which offers resolution and has well-rooted and respected forms and conventions.

Naturally, it has had to adapt and recent years have seen the rise of rom-coms and even the sub-genre of erotica (although many, including myself, would either put erotica into a sub-genre of thrillers or a genre all of its own).

Mystery, too, has had to adapt. Writers such as P.D. James have prided themselves in breaching the (admittedly small) gap between crime and literary fiction, combining a well-written book with a tight and intricate plot.

It would be worth me noting here that the concept of ‘literary fiction’ does not exist to me. The only great literature is a book that you enjoy. Crime thriller novels, generally speaking, have the added benefit of being stripped of pretension and putting the reader first, not setting the writer on an undeserved pedestal. The enduring popularity of the genre is a testament to its superiority.

It would be fair to say, then, that the crime thriller and mystery genre can be expected to live on. As our fascination with death and our need for logical complexity continue to be fused together beautifully by fiction, we can be assured of even more great books to come. It’s because people love to read crime thrillers.

——

With over two million crime thriller books sold in over 120 countries, Adam Croft is one of the most successful independently published authors in the world. His crime thrillers Her Last Tomorrow and Tell Me I’m Wrong topped the Amazon and USA Today charts. His new release, What Lies Beneath, starts a new series for Adam that might exceed everything he’s already accomplished.

And, Adam Croft was an accomplished stage actor before turning indie-writer ten years ago. His first crime thrillers were the Knight & Culverhouse series. He also developed his Kempston Hardwick series before writing super-successful stand-alones. Now, Adam is off on a new venture with What Lies Beneath being Book 1in the Rutland series where he bases crime thriller fiction on a real location in the UK. It’s available for pre-order now and out on July 28th, 2020.

The University of Bedfordshire bestowed Adam an Honorary Doctor of Arts for his outstanding contribution to modern literature. As well, Adam has been a regular on the HuffPost, BBC Radio, The Guardian, and The Bookseller. He also hosts a regular podcast called Partners in Crime with fellow bestselling author Robert Daws.

But, for Kill Zone followers—especially crime thriller writers—Adam Croft has outstanding resources through his Indie Author Mindset books, courses, podcasts, and Facebook Group. Adam states his tipping point as a commercial writer was when he changed his mindset to believe in himself and treat his writing as a professional business.

Obviously, it paid off.

11+

The Writing Math: Craft… plus Art… equals Performance

By Larry Brooks

Allow me to share the story of a writer you may have heard of, and if you haven’t you either aren’t a mystery/thriller fan (you’re here on Kill Zone, I’ll assume you are) or you aren’t paying attention. His name is Robert Dugoni, the author of 18 novels across three series and one literary novel that just sold to Hollywood, as have several of those novels. He is a multiple New York Times bestseller, with enough other lists and awards and credits to fill up an entire Kill Zone post.

This month we celebrate that an author of mystery and thrillers (legal thrillers, murder mysteries and spy stories) is on the cover of Writers Digest Magazine. (Never mind that WD has labeled this their travel writing issue, the monthly interview here is all about writing novels.) He is one of us, and he has something to say to all of us who ply this craft.

There is an amazing bottom line to this author’s journey, which he describes with perfect focus and humility from a teaching perspective. We’re all on that path, seeking a summit, as he has over twenty years of searching for that intersection between craft and art.

He’ll tell you he’s still climbing and learning, too.

He started out with his skill (his “art”) as a writer—honed through a background in journalism and as a defense attorney—with the risky yet common belief that the story-craft side of things was a no brainer. He’d been a reader of quality novels since childhood, so of course he knew in his gut how a novel came together and what makes it tick.

He believed that’s how successful writers do it. Some of them actually claim it as their experience. They just take a chair and start typing, letting the story flow out of them. It would take him years to realize that such advice is toxic, if not an outright lie.

Those years commenced when he left the practice of law after 13 years to pursue his dream of writing fiction. Full time, cold turkey. What he didn’t know was that it would take six years to arrive at that magic moment when craft and art finally embrace, with a brief time-out to write a non-fiction book that become a 2004 Washington post Book of the year (The Cyanide Canary). After that he went back to his dream and his WIP, which was a legal thriller titled The Jury Master.

Here’s a little more math for you: over those six years, he submitted The Jury Master to 42 agents. A lot of us would have hung it up after such a string of rejections. Sometimes he would go back and tweak the story, but he received very little input that he could use to raise the bar. He was on his own, as most of us have felt at some point in our journey.

In the meantime life continued, and he found himself frequenting a neighborhood bookstore… where he happened upon a shelf he’d never paid much attention to before: the place where the writing craft books were displayed. Mind you, this was the early 2000s decade, and there wasn’t a James Scott Bell or a Donald Maass or a Larry Brooks writing craft books yet. No, in 2004-07 we’re talking Al Zuckerman, Christopher Vogler and Sol Stein, to name a few of that era.

That’s when an epiphany blew up his life. In a good way. He realized he really didn’t know what he was doing as a novelist. Even after all that reading, his “gut” wasn’t getting the job done.

So Dugoni took over a year off to absorb as many craft books as he could, searching out teachers of fiction craft, applying the principles he discovered to the now dog-eared manuscript of The Jury Master, assembling more than few binder full of notes. Finally this lead to what was, in sum, a total rewrite of the novel.

He thought he knew. But he realized—and was humble and hungry enough to admit it—that he didn’t. That he didn’t even know what he didn’t know.

The storybook outcome of this launch phase of Robert Dugoni’s career, the fruition of all that study, was that The Jury Master landed an agent forthwith, and the book became his first New York Times bestseller, and the first of a five-title series featuring hero David Sloan. Who was, of course, an ace attorney with a mysterious past.

Anyone who tells you writing cannot be taught is thus proven wrong.

Or at least, confused. Sure, Robert Dugoni was a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge isn’t accessible to anyone with the discipline to seek it out.

What is hard to teach is how to land on a worthy story idea/concept/premisethat requires a learning curve and a keen sense of dramatic and thematic potential, as well as commercial viability. I’m not saying the craft essential to actually writing an idea as a novel is easily or quickly taught—Brother Bell will second me on that one, I’m sure—just that the information and framing of what you need to understand is out there, relevant and more than ready to change your writing life.

Cut to 2020, and this July cover article/interview with Writers Digest Magazine.

By now Robert Dugoni has sold over six million copies of his 18 novels, including the bestsellers My Sister’s Grave (which launched the 7-title Tracy Crosswhite series), and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (his literary novel), as well as the new Charles Jenkins spy series, with the second title due out end of September.

The author of that July 2020 Writers Digest article/interview was, well, me.

I’ve known Bob for years after hanging out at writing conferences and discovering that, despite him being a pantser and me an outliner, we shared a strikingly similar outlook on the craft. Ultimately he would go on to blurb one of my novels (Deadly Faux) and my 2017 craft book (Story Fix). More recently, he wrote the Foreword to my new craft book (Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves), published last fall.

Having written for Writers Digest many times, I pitched the editors on the interview, and they didn’t hesitate. The transcript was over 7000 words, and if you’ve ever edited and assembled an interview toward a coherent through-line narrative, you know how long it takes to get it down to 2500 words. WD loved what he had to say, and asked for an additional 800 words. The interview not only covers the timeline of his career, it also delivers abundant take-aways and learning that will be well worth a hungry writer’s time.

In this interview Robert Dugoni has given us a master class on how to avoid the most common mistake and pitfall that explains the 96 percent failure rate of manuscripts submitted to agents for representation (this via The Huffington Post; rejection is almost always a combination of less-than-compelling or original story ideas—which is indeed hard to teach—alongside a flawed sense of structure, character, flow, or simply the writing itself… all of which reside at the very teachable heart and soul of craft).

Which brings me back to today’s title. It’s that word: performance.

Robert threw it in at the end of the interview, and it was something I’ve never heard a writer say before. It froze me with introspection. He says that when a writer has internalized and assimilated and worked with the core principles of storytelling craft—to the point that she or he can see it just below the surface in the books they read, and within their vision for the stories they want write—only then can they truly and effectively sit before the blank page and actually perform. And when that happens, when the writer truly knows how a story should work, it becomes a blissful experience.

This is true regardless of one’s writing process preference, pantser and planner alike. Craft empowers both, the lack of it compromises both.

We perform, in the same context that any professional puts themselves in front of an audience to present their art, relying instinctually on the compounded sum of their years of study and practice of their craft. Singers. Actors. Editors. Athletes. Doctors and nurses and their medical peers. Therapists. Shrinks. Mechanics. Pilots. Designers. They are all artists. But before their art can work at a professional level, a level where people pay money to experience their art, they needed to build a foundation of craft, of the knowledge of their chosen field of work.

Writers who struggle for many drafts over what is often many years are, in fact, searching for and struggling with their handling of those core craft principles. Some aren’t even aware of what they’re missing. All of us know that feeling, just as Dugoni did for those six early years and those 42 rejected drafts.

But he’s a testament as to what can happen when you truly submit to the truth that it is craft will set you free, and allow you to set sail in pursuit of your writing dream.

As a footnote, Robert Dugoni continues to teach at conferences and runs his own annual retreat. Not because he needs to—before the virus and with his prodigious output, he was traveling to book signings nearly every weekend—but because he truly wants to give back, so that we don’t burn six years or more of our life, as he did, chasing something that can outrun us if we aren’t sure what we’re chasing.

Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks is a former Kill Zone blogger who has maintained his own website, Storyfix.com, since 2010. He is the USA Today bestselling author of six thrillers and four books about writing fiction, including Story Engineering.

His latest, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves,” was published last November from Writers Digest books, a division of Penguin Random House.

 

15+

True Crime Thursday – Murderpedia

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Public Domain Review

Crime writers have—shall we say?—unusual research needs. We often joke that law enforcement could knock on our doors at any moment because of suspicious internet searches.

Recently, I ran across a site called Murderpedia. It claims to be the largest free database of serial killers and mass murderers around the world. It lists more than 5800 male murderers and more than 1000 female murderers going back hundreds of years in history.

It’s indexed alphabetically by both the killer’s name and by the country where the murder(s) occurred. Each entry chronicles the crime(s), method of death, and ultimate disposition of the case–hanging, firing squad, guillotine, life in prison without parole, etc. Additionally, there are photos, artists’ renderings, and illustrations to go with some stories.

At random, I chose a link to Bridget Durgan, an Irish housekeeper who was so horribly mistreated by her various employers that she vowed to kill them if she ever had the chance. In New Jersey in February, 1867, an opportunity arose. Durgan stabbed and clubbed her employer, Mrs. Mary Ellen Coriel, to death then set the Coriel house on fire, blaming the crime on robbers. Nobody believed her and she was found guilty at trial.

While in prison awaiting execution, Durgan revealed her sad life to the Reverend Mr. Brendan who published her story as a cautionary tale. The illustrated pamphlet was also likely sold to spectators at Durgan’s hanging.

Public Domain Review

Lurid pen and ink drawings show the mortally wounded Coriel still alive, lying on the floor near her baby, Mamey, and the wild-eyed Durgan standing over them. Durgan reportedly said she allowed Coriel to kiss her child goodbye before finishing her off.

Durgan was hanged in August, 1867.

After perusing the Murderpedia site for an hour (or three!), I was struck by the immense amount of work that had gone into researching and cataloging thousands of cases. Then I noticed the last update was in 2017.

What had happened to Murderpedia?

Down the rabbit hole I tumbled.

I found out that the curator/director was a Spanish criminologist and author named Juan Ignacio Blanco whose own story is nearly as strange as the cases he chronicled. In 1992, he investigated the triple murder of three teenage girls, known as the Alcasser case. He believed two men accused of the crimes were scapegoats who’d been set up by wealthy, politically-connected, Spanish power brokers to cover their own guilt and to divert attention from their other crimes, including pedophilia.

Blanco was branded a conspiracy theorist.

After he published a book about his findings, he was convicted of insulting and slandering officials in charge of investigating the case and served time in prison. His book was judicially seized in 1998 because it included autopsy photos of one victim without her family’s consent. Accusations swirled that Blanco and the father of another victim in the case had set up and operated a foundation that resulted in hefty profits to both of them.

Shortly before Blanco’s death from cancer at age 63, he appeared in a 2019 Netflix series that reexamined the Alcasser Murders.

Was Juan Ignacio Blanco a greedy opportunist who capitalized on a terrible tragedy or a courageous crusader against corruption seeking truth and justice?

Whatever he was, he left behind the vast library of Murderpedia, crammed with painstaking research that’s a fascinating resource for crime writers.

~~~

TKZers: What’s your favorite crime research rabbit hole?

~~~

 

 

If Hurricane Irma doesn’t kill Tawny Lindholm, a shady sports dealer will when she becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.   

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff is now on sale at the introductory price of $.99. Here’s the link.

8+

How To Get Away With Murder

Murder. It’s forever been the stuff of books, movies, poems and plays. Everyone from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie told foul-play murder stories. That’s because, for gruesome reasons, murder cases fascinate people.

I think murder is the great taboo. It’s also the great fear of most people except, maybe, for public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “At a funeral, the majority of people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Yes, murder is the ultimate crime. In mystery books and Netflix shows, murder cases are solved and neatly wrapped up in the end. This leaves the reader or audience with the satisfaction of knowing who done it and probably why.

That’s not always the truth in real life. Many murders go unsolved for a long time. Some go cold and are never resolved. Statistics vary according to region, but probably a quarter of murders never get cleared.

Thankfully, most murders are easy to solve. They’re “smoking guns” where the killer and victim knew each other, the killer left a plethora of evidence at the scene or took it with him, witnesses saw the murder take place, or the bad guy confessed to the crime. That’s really all there is to getting caught for committing a murder.

So, why do roughly twenty-five percent of people get away with murder? It’s because they don’t make one of these four fatal mistakes. Let’s look at each in detail and how you can get away with murder.

Leaving Evidence at the Scene

Did you ever hear of Locard’s Exchange Principle? It’s Murder Investigation 101. Dr. Edmond Locard was a pioneer in forensic science. Dr. Locard held that at every crime scene the bad guy would leave evidence behind that would connect them to the offense. Locard summed it up this way:

“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these, and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

Dr. Locard was absolutely right—most of the time. That quote was from the early 1900s. It was long before the sophistication of DNA profiling and amplifying light to find invisible fingerprints. Today, trace evidence shows up at the micro level, and there’re ingenious inventions used to find it. But… not always.

I’m familiar with a high-profile and unsolved murder case from 2008 where two killers enticed a female realtor to a house and savagely stabbed her to death. It’s a long story. A complicated story. And, so far, they’ve got away with the murder.

The victim was totally innocent. She was set-up as a sacrifice to protect someone else who was a police informant. The police know full well who the killers are—a Mexican man and woman from the Sinaloa drug cartel—but they’ve never been charged. It’s because they left no evidence of their identity at the scene. They’ve also never broken the other three murderer-catching rules.

There’s more to scene evidence than DNA and fingerprints. There are dozens of evidentiary possibilities including hairs, fibers, footwear impressions, chemical signatures, organic compounds, match heads, cigarette butts, expended shell casings, spit chewing gum, a bloody glove or a wallet with the killer’s ID in it. (Yes, that happened.)

Removing Evidence from the Scene

The flip side of Locard’s Exchange Principle is the perpetrator removing evidence from the scene that ties them back to it. This can be just as fatal to the get-away-with-it plan as left-behind evidence. And, it happens all the time.

Going back to the unsolved realtor murder, there’s no doubt the killers left with the victim’s blood on their hands, feet and clothing. This innocent lady was repeatedly shived. The coroner report states her cause of death was exsanguination which is the medical term for bleeding out.

For sure, her killers had blood on them. But, they made a clean escape and would have disposed of their blood-stained clothes. That goes for the knife, as well. Further, the killers did not rob the victim. They didn’t steal her purse, her identification, her bank cards or even the keys to her new BMW parked outside.

The killers also didn’t exchange digital evidence to be traced. They used a disposable or “burner” phone to contact the victim to set up the house showing. It was only activated under a fake name for this one purpose and was never used again. The phone likely went the same place as the bloody clothes and knife.

Being Seen by Witnesses

I once heard a judge say, “There’s nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness.” I’d say that judge was right, at least for human eyewitnesses.

Today’s technology makes it hard not to be seen entering or exiting a murder scene. There’s video surveillance galore. Pretty much everywhere you go in an urban setting, electronic eyes are on you. You’re on CCTV at the gas station, the supermarket, the bank, in libraries, government buildings, transit buses, subways and on the plane.

In bygone lore, the killer often wore a disguise. That might have fooled human surveillance, but it’s hard to trick cameras that record evidence like get-away vehicles with readable plates. It’s also hard to disguise a disguise that can be enlarged on film to reveal uniquely identifiable minute characteristics.

Back to the unsolved realtor slaying again. The killers were seen by two independent witnesses when they met their victim in the driveway outside the show home. One witness gave the police a detailed description of the female suspect and worked with an artist to develop a sketch. It’s an eerie likeness to the Mexican woman who is a prime person-of-interest along with her brother—a high-ranking member of the El Chapo organization.

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough evidence to charge the Mexicans. They left no identifiable trace evidence behind at the crime scene. Whatever evidence they might have taken from the scene hasn’t been found. There was no video captured and the eye-witnesses can’t be one hundred percent positive of visual identity.

There’s also the fourth missing piece to the puzzle.

Confessing to the Murder

Murderers are often convicted because they confessed to the crime. Sometimes, they confess to the police during a structured interrogation. Sometimes, they confess to a police undercover operator or paid agent during a sting operation. Sometimes, their loose lips sink their ship by telling an acquaintance about doing the murder. And sometimes, they’re caught bragging about the murder on electronic surveillance like in a wiretap or through a planted audio listening device—a bug.

Police also arrest and convict murderers after an accomplice turns on them and decides to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for a lesser sentence. Then, there are the revenge situations. The murderer has confessed to an intimate partner who they thought they could trust and couldn’t.

That has yet to happen in the unsolved female realtor murder. There is no doubt—no doubt—that a group of people know what happened in her murder. It’s known, with probable certainty, who the Mexican pair are. It’s also known, with probable certainty, who the real police informant was and who conspired to protect them by offering the innocent victim as a sacrificial slaughter to appease the Sinaloa cartel’s “No-Rat” policy.

This murder case can be solved once someone in the group decides to reveal evidence implicating the killers. That likely won’t be anything in the Locard arena or in the eye-witness region. It’ll be an exposed confession that will solve this case.

Someone will eventually talk. The current problem is that everyone in the conspiracy circle is connected by being blood relatives, being a member of the Hispanic community and being involved in organized crime. Their motive to talk is far outweighed by their motive to stay silent.

Takeaway for The Kill Zone Gang

If you’re a mystery/thriller/crime writer, always consider these four crime detection principles when working your plot. No matter how simple or complex your plot may be, the solution will come down to one or more of these points. If it doesn’t, then your antagonist is going to get away with murder.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now an investigative crime writer and successful indie author. Garry also hosts a popular blog at his website DyingWords.net and is a regular contributor to the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast. He’s a certified 60-Tonne Marine Captain and spends a lot of time around the saltwater. Follow Garry on Facebook, Twitter and BookBub. He has stuff on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, too.

 

13+

First Page Critique – The Lies of Murder

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

PublicDomainPicures-Pixabay

Today we welcome another brave anonymous author with a first page entitled:

The Lies of Murder

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board. Someone had left her a note on lined white paper dotted with drops of blood.

NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.

From behind, Merli heard a familiar voice. “Hands up and turn around slowly.”

She obeyed the command, turning to face two police officers pointing guns in her direction. “Hello, Ian. Been a long time.”

“Merli?” She was the last person he imagined seeing. “What are you doing here?”

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked.

“Cuff her.”

While Officer Urbane spouted the Miranda warning and cuffed her hands behind her back, Ian read the note under the bloody knife. Merli sat on a kitchen chair.

Ian pulled out a second chair and sat three feet away. “You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”

Because I always follow my premonition dreams is what she wanted to say. Only her father and Aunt Cordelia knew about her dreams. “I haven’t been able to reach my father in three days. I finally jumped on a plane to find out why.”

“What did Vivian tell you?”

“My feelings toward Vivian haven’t changed.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Officer Urbane took a step forward, hands placed on his hips.

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

“Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom. Why don’t you find out what’s happening at the other scene?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Once Officer Urbane left the house, Ian returned his focus to Merli. “When was the last time you spoke to Vivian?”

“I don’t know. Probably a couple weeks ago. She has an unpleasant habit of interjecting herself when I’m face-timing with my dad.”

“And you came home because you couldn’t reach your dad?”

“He always returns my calls within a couple hours. I even tried texts and emails and no response for three days. If you know something, tell me.”

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

~~~

This submission races out of the gate. Congratulations to the Brave Author for starting with action and a major crime. Merli Whitmore enters her childhood home for the first time in years and immediately finds a blood-spattered note fastened to a wood cutting board with a bloody knife. The message is a real punch in the gut—the note writer claims to have killed an unnamed woman for Merli. That’s some homecoming!

Then two cops pull guns on her and she knows one of them.

Merli has obvious, ongoing conflict with her step-mother and there’s a strong suggestion Vivian has been murdered, making Merli a suspect. Additionally, Merli’s premonition dream hints that her father is also at risk.

This page definitely grabs the reader’s attention early and piles lots of complications on the main character. Well done!

There is also potentially interesting backstory between Merli and Ian who know each other from school days. The author gives intriguing hints without an information dump. Her old classmate orders his partner to immediately handcuff her. Whoa! The reader wonders why–she’s cooperating and is not armed or combative. The author establishes things have already gone terribly wrong for Merli and only promise to get worse. Excellent!

Several plausibility problems jump out but are easily fixable.

  1. The cops appear only a few seconds after Merli enters the house and finds the note. If they were that close, wouldn’t she have seen their car before she goes into the house? Or hear sirens as they arrive?
  2. If a murder had already been reported, the house would be a cordoned-off crime scene and Merli couldn’t just walk in.
  3. As Jim Bell often reminds us, police do not immediately deliver Miranda rights. They gather background and hope the suspect will reveal information before requesting an attorney.
  4. Although putting Merli in handcuffs right away is an attention grabber, it seems excessive if the author wants to portray police procedure realistically. After all, they didn’t catch her standing over the body with a bloody knife in her hand.

However, if, as part of the plot, you want to establish these officers are overly aggressive or Ian is paying back an old grudge, then it does work to slap the cuffs on her as an intimidation tactic.

Merli’s character seems cool and confident, especially with guns pointed at her. She gives short, coherent answers but also shoots questions back at the cops. The reader roots for her because she doesn’t cave in to their heavy-handed tactics.

She has premonition dreams that predict the future—her dreams can be her curse but also her power. That makes for a complex, interesting character the reader wants to learn more about. Well done.

Some small suggestions:

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

Short, simple sentences might work better to convey the startling event.

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension for entering unannounced. She expected tension from her stepmother Vivian.

She didn’t expect the sight that made her heart pound: a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

 

She was the last person he imagined seeing. This is a point of view inconsistency because it briefly goes inside Ian’s head:

Maybe instead: His startled expression said she was the last person he imagined seeing.

 

Weak gerunds: there are three verbs that end in -ing in three lines—turning, pointing, seeing. For stronger verbs, here are a couple of suggestions:

turning to see two police officers who pointed guns at her.

the last person he expected to see.

 

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked. How does Merli know his name? Does she see a nametag? A few paragraphs later, she asks his name even though it has been used several times.

 

Attributions: Even though there aren’t many attributions, the dialog generally makes it clear who is talking. However, this passage was a little confusing:

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

Clarify who’s talking with a few action tags:

Merli faced the cop who’d cuffed her. “You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in, “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

Urbane’s face screwed into a frown. “She knows my brother?”

 

The author does a quick, efficient job of explaining the relationships without an info dump: “Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom.”

 

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

Obviously, a crime happened between six and nine this evening. But would a responding officer ask about her whereabouts/alibi? That sounds more like an interrogation by a detective.

Also, where did the crime occur? There’s a reference to the other scene,” perhaps where the bloody knife was used. However, if the murder weapon is found inside this house, it would also be cordoned off. Ian would not disturb a crime scene by sitting and having Merli sit. He would take her outside and call for officers to secure the scene.

If the crime happened elsewhere, what caused the police to respond to this location?

I’m raising these questions because they will occur to a reader and will need to be answered within a few pages.

There is virtually no description or scene setting in this first page. The Brave Author might consider slowing down to include a few words to establish what the kitchen looks like (aside from the chopping block and bloody knife, which are great!) as well as the physical appearance of the officers, especially Ian since he appears to be an important character.

The time is this evening sometime after nine p.m., meaning it’s dark outside. Maybe include that detail: She expected tension entering unannounced at ten-thirty at night.

Merli displays almost no reaction to startling events that would normally provoke strong emotional responses—a bloody knife, a note confessing to a murder, cops who pull guns on her, being cuffed. While I admire her cool confidence, maybe include more reaction from her—the shock of cold, hard metal biting her wrists, a brief worry that her premonition dream about her dad is coming true. Let the reader inside Merli’s head to bond with her as she faces these frightening circumstances.

This submission features action, conflict, strong writing, and effective dialog that keeps the story barreling forward. The main character has a gift/curse of dream premonitions that offers great potential for present and future complications. Excellent work, Brave Author.

~~~

TKZers: Would you turn the page? What suggestions or comments can you offer this Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is now available for pre-order at this link. If you order now, the special price is $.99. Dead Man’s Bluff will be delivered to your device on June 23.

6+

Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

5+

Word Porn

By SUE COLETTA

It’s fun to see how words change over time. Their meanings transform, expand, and even metamorphose into a whole new meaning. These changes occur gradually over time. I find it fascinating how one word used by our ancestors means something totally different today.

While researching my historical “ladies” (female serial killers) for Pretty Evil New England, I ran across numerous differences in spelling and definitions.

The process of words changing over time is called semantic narrowing, which is a type of semantic change by which the meaning of a word becomes less general or inclusive than its earlier meaning. In other words, any change in meaning(s) of a word over time — also called semantic shift, lexical change, and semantic progression.

Common types of semantic change include bleaching (where the semantics of a word reduces while the grammatical content increases), broadening (when the semantics of a word becomes broader or more inclusive than its earlier meaning), metaphor, and metonymy (a figure of speech or trope in which one word or phrase is substituted for its closely related cousin, such as “crown” for “royalty”).

Semantic change may also occur when foreign speakers adopt English expressions for use in their own social and cultural environment.

“We say that narrowing takes place when a word comes to refer to only part of the original meaning. The history of the word hound in English neatly illustrates this process. The word was originally pronounced hund in English, and it was the generic word for any kind of dog at all. This original meaning is retained, for example, in German, where the word Hund simply means ‘dog.’ Over the centuries, however, the meaning of hund in English has become restricted to just those dogs used to chase game in the hunt, such as beagles…”

“Words may come to be associated with particular contexts, which is another type of narrowing. One example of this is the word indigenous, which when applied to people means especially the inhabitants of a country which has been colonized, not ‘original inhabitants’ more generally.”

— Terry Crowley & Claire Bowen, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2010

Etymologically, a hound dog translates to dog dog. 🙂

Another prime example of semantic narrowing is mouse and bookmark. Rather than an animal and a device used in place of a dog-earing a page, these words also refer to a computer mouse and online bookmark.

Where’s the Beef? (A nod to JSB’s post, Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less 😉 )

If you were a vegetarian in Anglo-Saxon times, you still ate meat. In Old English the word mete referred to food in general. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the meaning of meat began to narrow to mean animal flesh. Even though meat still refers to the contents of a nut (i.e. almond meat) that’s not the first image that springs to mind.

The original sense of meat survived in sweetmeats, an old term for a type of candied treat.

Girl Power

The word girl (historically written as gurlegrile, and gerle) meant “a child” or “young person” of either sex. Today, of course, girl refers to a young female, though women of all ages use the word to refer to close friends. “Girl, you’re not gonna believe what he did this time.”

Along those same lines, woman comes from the Old English word wīfman, which literally means “wife-man.” I know, ladies. Just let the sexist definition roll off your shoulders. After all, I’m referencing a time when man meant any human.

Strangely enough, wife stems from the Old English word wīf, meaning any “woman, female” instead of today’s meaning: a married woman.

Doe a Deer, a Female Deer

When we think of the word deer, we imagine graceful animals, with or without antlers, who frolic in the woods. The word, however, stems from the Old English word dēor, meaning “beast,” especially a four-legged animal unlike a bird or fish. By the 1400s, deer morphed into its current Bambi-like designation.

Should we strive to be an awful writer? 

Don’t answer too quickly. In the 1200s, awful meant “full of awe.” It also meant “inspiring awe” or “reverential.” Later, awful referred to “causing fear and dread,” which contributed to the current meaning of “bad, unpleasant.”

Awesome evolved in the opposite direction, from “inspiring awe” to “great, excellent.” Though in some cases, its original meaning still holds true.

My, What an Egregious Gentleman

Sounds incorrect, doesn’t it? But back in the early 1500s, egregious meant “distinguished” or “eminent.” It comes from the Latin word egregius, meaning “preeminent” with a literal sense of “[standing] out from the flock.”

Naughty Villain

First recorded around 1340-1400, naughty meant “wicked, evil.” It also meant “poor, needy.” Naughty is formed from the Old English naught, meaning “nothing” or “wickedness.” It wasn’t until centuries later that the word transformed to refer to a misbehaving child or an adult engaged in risqué behavior.

Reserved Seating for Vulgar Only

Sometimes semantic narrowing can lead to a negative connotation, a process called pejoration. If I said the word vulgar, you’d immediately think I was referring to someone (or something, as in a painting, photo, song, or language) who acted in an inappropriate manner. But vulgar stems from the Latin word vulgaris or vulgas, meaning “common people” or “ordinary.”

Over to you, my beloveds. Write a sentence that includes two or more of these words with their original definitions. Bonus points if you include more than five! 

 

 

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