Could Alexa Solve Murders?

Debbie and I were surfing the same wavelength this week. If you didn’t get a chance to read her post, be sure to check it out.

As technology has become more integral to daily life, authorities have increasingly sought evidence from mobile phones, laptops, social media, and even a video game.

Last summer, I heard about a murder case in Arkansas. The high-profile defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner — best known as Steven Avery’s attorney in season two of Making a Murderer — petitioned the court for Amazon Echo recordings.

The Amazon Echo entered the November 2015 murder case after Victor Collins (47), a former Georgia police officer, died in the suspect’s hot tub. An observer told police he’d heard music streaming through the device that evening.

Zellner’s client, James Bates, invited two friends to his Bentonville home to watch college football, drink beer and shots of vodka. After the game, the three men slipped into Bates’ hot tub. Around 1 a.m., Bates said he went to bed. When he woke in the morning, Collins was floating face-down in the hot tub.

The defense contended the death was a tragic accident, stemming from high levels of alcohol. At the time of death, Collins’ blood-alcohol content was at .32, four times the legal limit to drive in Arkansas.

Investigators believed Collins’ body showed evidence of strangulation prior to drowning. Signs of a struggle they’d seen in the house, including a broken shot glass, dried blood on the floor, injuries to both Collins and Bates, and indications that someone hosed down the patio and hot tub before police arrived. They further contended Bates’ water heater, another smart device, recorded an exorbitant amount of water used in the early morning hours, in what investigators believed was an attempt to conceal the crime. The defense argued the same amount of water had been used 12 hours prior to the night in question.

After Amazon released the recordings, the prosecution dropped all charges against Bates. Why? The DA stated, “They cannot meet the legal requirements to proceed.” No further mention of the Echo recordings, but writers don’t need the outcome to envision the story Alexa might tell.

See where I’m going with this? We could spin the recordings anyway we want. Keep that in mind while you read this next case.

Fast-forward to January 27, 2018, when Amazon Echo recordings could solve a brutal double homicide.

In my home state of New Hampshire — a 30-40 minute drive from where I live — two slayings rocked the quaint Farmington community. In the early morning hours of January 29th, Dean Smoronk returned home after a trip to Florida. When he arrived, his live-in girlfriend, Christine Sullivan, and a friend, Jenna Pellegrini, who was staying with the couple at the time, were both missing. He called 911 around 3 a.m., and said he thought there’d been a murder.

When officers arrived at the scene, Smoronk pointed out a large blood stain on the mattress in the upstairs bedroom and dried blood in the kitchen, with a blood smear on the refrigerator. Hours later, New Hampshire State Police found the two women cocooned in tarps, stuffed under the porch. Eight stab wounds littered Sullivan’s body, her skull fractured by a blunt object. Pellegrini’s head, face, and chest showed 48 stab wounds.

During the search, investigators also found several knives wrapped in a flannel shirt — the same flannel shirt worn by Timothy Verrill, caught on the home’s surveillance footage that night. Verrill was a known drug dealer in the area. At the time of the killings, he was friends with Sullivan and Smoronk. Some speculate he was also Pellegrini’s boyfriend, but there’s some conflicting evidence on whether that’s true. Allegedly, Verrill feared the two women were working with authorities on an undercover sting, of which he was the intended target.

State Police seized an Amazon Echo from the crime scene. Had Alexa recorded the murders and subsequent cover-up?

On Oct. 30th, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward asked the judge to direct Amazon.com to produce any recordings made between Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, 2017, suggesting evidence of the murder and/or hindering prosecution could be found on the device.

In the motion, made in lieu of an application for a search warrant, Ward wrote, “As part of the normal functioning of an Echo electronic device, activated either intentionally or accidentally by ‘wake up words,’ audio recordings are made from the moment when the device is activated. Specifically, when the Echo detects a ‘wake up word(s),’ the device begins audio recording through its integrated microphones, including recording the fraction of a second of audio before the ‘wake up word(s).’”

Wake up words include Amazon and Alexa, but as Debbie pointed out, Alexa records even when those words aren’t mentioned.

Ward’s motion also asked for a wider scope in order to identify cellular devices that paired with the smart speaker within the same time period.

The judge ordered Amazon to hand over the recordings. No word yet on what Alexa overheard that night. The trial begins in May, 2019.

So, TKZers, if you were writing these stories, what would you reveal in the recordings? Get your creative juices pumping by including a jaw-dropping twist!

WINGS OF MAYHEM is on sale for 99c.

“The story spins ahead with escalating velocity and well-rendered literary layers, always leaving the reader pleading for more information while delivering just enough with exquisite timing, always nailing a clear and rationale dissection of what seemed in the moment like insanity or illogic. The craft of the writer is on display from page one, with intense pacing, deeply drawn characters and a matrix of plot elements that never lets you see the big picture as completely as you think you do, thus setting up an ending that demands you stick with it until the final, unexpected twist.” ~ USA Today Bestselling Author Larry Brooks

 

 

5+

TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

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How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers

By SUE COLETTA

Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.

Schemas

In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?

12+

Throw Away Your Shoehorn

My adopted mother adored pretty shoes. She used to say if she won the lottery, she’d spend the money on shoes. A great pleasure in her life was dressing up for church on Sunday morning in a beautiful outfit with a fancy hat and matching shoes.

However, her feet were size 10 ½, limiting her choice of stylish footwear, always geared for women who wear size 6AA.

For her birthday, I often took her shopping for new shoes. The salesperson would use a shoehorn to jam, pummel, and squash her poor feet into lovely pumps that were at least two sizes too small.

Her pain made me cringe. I wondered how she could even walk. The ordeal brought to mind Lisa See’s brilliant book, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, about Chinese foot-binding.

By now, you’re wondering what shoes have to do with writing. Glad you asked…

A critique partner is rewriting her first novel. Her subject—a teenager struggling with a compulsive disorder that badly affects her appearance—is fresh and compelling. Her voice is wry and funny. For a relatively new writer, she has a strong grasp of how to write good scenes, from heart-rending to laugh-out-loud hysterical.

But, as good as they are, many of them don’t move the story forward.

No matter how hard we critiquers try to shoehorn these wonderful (but unnecessary) scenes into her plot, they don’t fit.

How do you determine if a scene is needed?

Novelist and writing instructor Dennis Foley identifies four major functions of a scene:

  1. Reveal character;
  2. Move the story forward;
  3. Create or increase tension;
  4. Foreshadow.

To test if a scene is needed, figure out what functions it performs. Today’s fast-paced fiction generally requires scenes that multitask, accomplishing two, three, or all four functions.

Revelations about a character can occur on the fly, while the character is taking action that moves the plot forward.

A scene may foreshadow lurking disaster, which increases tension for the reader at the same time it drives the story closer to that disaster.

Dennis offers another tip to determine if a scene is needed: remove the scene. Does the story still make sense? Can the scene easily be plunked down somewhere else in the story?

If so, it’s not part of the causal linkage that moves the story forward.

Causal linkage means something happens in A that leads to B where something else happens that leads to C, and so on. Each scene builds on the ones that precede it.

This tip is easy when stories are told in chronological order with limited characters.

However, what if you’re writing a Ken Follett-style saga or an epic fantasy with multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters? Such stories may jump around to different locations and time periods. That makes it tougher to determine whether or not a scene is necessary.

Even in “big” books, causal linkage can still be determined. Separate each plotline and string its scenes together. You can do this with color-coded index cards, plotting on a spreadsheet, or using Scrivener. After you’ve put all scenes from one plotline together, read them.

Does each scene link causally with the scene before and after it?  If a scene could fit anywhere, it may not be needed.

“But,” the writer protests, “if I cut those scenes, my book will be too short.” 

That leads to the question: how long should a book be? Lee Masterson at Writing-World.com offers guidelines for various genres but his main point is: a book needs to be as long as it takes to tell the story.

Better to write a concise, effective story than one that’s bloated and boring because of unnecessary verbiage added to reach an arbitrary number of pages.

If the story is “too short” as a novel, consider recasting it as a novella, a short story, or a screenplay. In a screenplay, one page equals approximately one minute of screen time. One-hundred-twenty pages is a two-hour movie.

The problem of excess scenes is not limited to newer writers. I just went through it with my current work in progress. About two-thirds of the way into the first draft, I hit a wall. A critique buddy suggested an abrupt, unexpected turn in the plot that punched a hole right through that pesky wall. Her idea was brilliant!

However, that change meant going back to the beginning and rewriting 200+ pages.

I’d worked diligently to hone certain scenes to the height of emotional resonance. As proud as I was of my darlings, they were now dead ends, irrelevant to the new plot direction.

So I used a trick TKZ authors taught me: cut those parts and stick them in an “outtakes” file.

You’re not killing your beloved children but instead sending them to a time-out.

A funny thing happened. Those scenes waited patiently, out of sight and out of mind. When critiquers and beta readers went through the revised draft, they didn’t notice their absence.

Those deleted scenes almost never get put back into the story. As wonderful as I thought they were at the time, those size 10 ½ scenes just plain didn’t fit the size 6AA plot. To shove them back in would require serious shoehorning.

And that just makes my feet hurt!

TKZers, how do you decide if a scene is needed? Do you have hints to chop the excess?

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale in October for $1.99 or FREE on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link.

13+

Pop Quiz

Time for a pop quiz to test your knowledge of sneaky word traps writers can fall into.

Today let’s talk about homonyms, homographs, and homophones.

Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings.

Example: “write” and “right.”

Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

Examples: rein, reign; aisle, isle; suite, sweet.

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and different pronunciation.

Example: desert (a hot dry place, pronounced with an accent on the first syllable) or desert (to leave, accent on the second syllable).

Don’t worry—the above definitions won’t be on the test. Only hardcore grammar Nazis care.

Some words are just plain confusing. They may sound similar but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

But…professional writers should know how to choose the right word in a particular sentence.

We’ve all typed “there” when we mean “their” or “to” when we mean “too.” Those fall more into the category of typos.

I’m talking about out-and-out goofs because of incorrect word choices. When your book is published, some readers are quite happy to point out those errors that you missed. Embarrassing.

Standards of proofreading and copyediting are on a steep decline. The below examples are boo-boos I’ve collected lately from recently published books, news articles, and blog posts.

See if you can make the right choices.

  1. Juicy gossip (a) peeked (b) peaked (c) piqued her interest.
  2. The hangman held the rope (a) taut (b) taught.
  3. The professor (a) honed (b) homed in on the novel’s theme.
  4. The study (a) sited (b) sighted (c) cited research from the Mayo Clinic.
  5. A serial rapist is careful to (a) allude (b) elude capture.
  6. The eyewitness (a) poured (b) pored over the photo lineup of suspects.
  7. A new zoning ordinance was brought before the city (a) council (b) counsel.
  8. Floodwaters (a) reeked (b) wreaked (c) wrecked havoc in homes along the river.
  9. A depressed person can suffer from (a) deep-seeded (b) deep-seated anxiety.
  10. The state must reduce the budget by (a) paring (b) pairing expenses.
  11. Skateboarders are getting a bad (a) rap (b) wrap.
  12. The (a) effect (b) affect of the new court ruling will (c) effect (d) affect millions of people.

How many of you looked up the test answers on Google? Come on, tell the truth.

That’s OK. It’s not cheating–it’s research. The lesson here is it’s always better to double-check before you submit to an agent or editor who might turn you down because of improper use. Or before you hit the “publish” button on your indie book.

Self-published books carry a stigma because many are full of such errors. If you’re an indie author, don’t contribute to the bad reputation with sloppy word choices.

Now that I’ve reached a certain age, I may think I’m sure about proper usage but sometimes find I’m mistaken. When it’s so easy to check on sites like Grammar Girl or Writing Forward there really is no excuse not to.

Answers:

  1. (c) piqued.
  2. (a) taut.
  3. (b) homed. “Honed” means sharpening a blade.
  4. (c) cited.
  5. (b) elude. “Allude” means to refer to.
  6. (b) pored.
  7. (a) council. “Counsel” refers to advice or legal help, e.g. The judge said, “Let counsel approach the bench.”
  8. (b) wreaked.
  9. (b) deep-seated.
  10. (a) paring.
  11. (a) rap.
  12. (a) effect, (d) affectThese two words are constantly mixed up. Effect is a noun (The effect of the ruling). Affect is usually a verb (The ruling will affect millions)…unless it refers to a blank facial expression known as “flat affect.” Then it’s a noun.

Not only that, affect is a homograph (spelled the same but pronounced differently). When used as a verb, the accent is on the second syllable. When used as a noun, the accent is on the first syllable.

No wonder writers get confused. Glad I was born in the USA because I’d never master the vagaries of English if I had to learn it as a second language!

 

TKZers, how did you do on the quiz?

Which homonyms, homophones, and homographs do you find confusing?

What words do you tend to mix up?

Do you have favorite tricks or tips that remind you of correct usage?

 

During October, here are two ways to get a cheap thrill:

Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99; or if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read it for free. Click here.

 

10+

Writers and Dreaming

By SUE COLETTA

Most of us are able to recall one or two of our dreams, but what if there were ways to increase that number?

We’ve all heard the stories of hugely popular novels which stemmed from the author’s dreams. For example, Stephanie Meyer and Twilight. Dreams serve health benefits, too. Researchers believe dreams help with memory consolidation, mood regulation, and/or conflict resolution.

Nightmares aren’t fun. Night terrors are even worse. It’s important we pay attention, though, because they can signal a disruption in our lives and sometimes, provide the answer.

Sigmund Freud believed dreams were a window into our subconscious, that they paved the way to satisfy urges and secret desires that might be unacceptable to society. I agree with the first part of his theory, but I think the latter depends on the dreamer. When it comes to dream interpretation there’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all definition.

Case in point: crime writers dream about murder. If an average Joe plotted revenge in his dreams, it might be cause for alarm. When writers delve into the dark recesses of the subconscious mind, it’s research. 🙂

While some sleep experts believe dreams are an anomaly of sleep, others think they may help us save memories, problem-solve, and manage emotions.

Dreams and the Brain

During REM — rapid-eye movement, when brain activity piques — and non-REM sleep, we have the potential to dream.

Dreams are connected to the creativity part of the brain, called the Superior temporal gyrus.

We have three creativity sections of the temporal lobe…

  • Superior temporal gyrus — mainly auditory, this gyrus is responsible for processing sounds, sound level and frequency, as well as interpreting language and social cognition.
  • Middle temporal gyrus — connected to recognizing familiar faces, contemplating distance, and interpreting word meanings while reading.
  • Inferior temporal gyrus — visual stimuli processing and recognition, memory and memory recall, particularly with objects. This gyrus stores the color and shape of objects so they’re easily recognized when we see that object again.

This could explain why serial killers, who often have temporal lobe damage or malformations, experience different phases before, during, and after they kill. And why, during the Aura Phase colors become vibrant.

Did you notice in the 3D image the temporal gyri aren’t limited to the right-side?

Right Hemisphere vs. Left Hemisphere

Dreams and the brainBrain cells in the left hemisphere have short dendroids which pull in information.

The right hemisphere branches out wider to absorb distant unrelated ideas, connections between concepts, and is responsible for insight and Ah-ha! moments. It’s here where our creativity comes alive.

Part of the Brain Responsible for Dreaming

The cerebral cortex is responsible for our dreams. During REM sleep, signals are sent from an area of the brain called “the pons” and then relayed through the thalamus to the cerebral cortex, which attempts to make sense of these signals. The end result is dreaming.

The pons also send signals to neurons in the spinal cord, shutting them down, causing temporary paralysis of the limbs. This safety switch prevents the dreamer from physically acting out dreams and harming themselves. However, there are exceptions. A condition called REM sleep behavior disorder exists. Can you guess what this causes? If you said, the pons fail to paralyze the limbs during REM sleep, you’re correct.

Why Dreams Are Difficult to Recall

Some researchers believe we’re not designed to remember our dreams. If we had perfect recall, dreams might get confused with real-life memories. During REM, maybe our brain shuts off the Inferior temporal gyrus, responsible for memory recall. And why, we may only recall our last dream before waking, because that part of the brain is now switched back on.

Studies show people actually have more brain activity and more vivid dreams during REM. Others say our brains store dreams, which is why the tiniest detail later in the day can trigger the memory of what we’d dreamed the night before.

8 Tips to Recall Dreams

Sound sleepers are less likely to recall dreams. If you fall into this category, consider yourself lucky; the rest of us don’t sleep as well. Even so, maybe these tips will help:

  1. Don’t use an alarm clock. We’re better off waking naturally. When that annoying buzz startles us awake, we’re concentrating on slapping the snooze button rather than dream recall.
  2. Once you get in bed tell yourself to remember your dreams. This may sound silly, but sometimes making the conscious choice to do something works wonders.
  3. Upon waking, don’t move. Studies show if we remain in the same position as when we had the dream, we’re more likely to remember the details when we wake. Keep your eyes closed and concentrate on the emotions you felt while dreaming. Were you frightened? Exhilarated? Blissful? By first tapping into our emotions, we’re more likely to recall the circumstance. In this case, the dream.
  4. When you wake, concentrate on recalling your dream rather than reviewing your to-do list for the day. Easing into your day promotes healthy living and helps with dream recall.
  5. Regular routine. Going to bed and waking at the same time each day aids in dream recall.
  6. Keep a dream journal next to your bed. When that perfect plot idea jolts you awake, scribble the scene in a notebook before you forget, the more detailed the better. Or sketch pictures of what you envisioned. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense yet. Author Ruth Harris suggests several pads, pens, and notebooks that would make perfect dream journals.
  7. Tell your significant other, roommate, or writer friend your dreams. By bringing dreams into your reality, it helps to recall the next one. Maybe skip the intimate dreams if they do not include your partner. I can hear it now, “Don’t blame me. Sue told me to tell you my dreams.” An angry mob of jilted lovers storms my home, with pitchforks and murder on their mind! Seriously, though, the above link is fascinating and might also help explain why you’re having sexy dreams about Mr. or Mrs. X.
  8. Studies show pleasant aromas cause happy dreams. Whereas unpleasant odors cause bad dreams and/or nightmares.
  9. Don’t get discouraged. Mastering dream recall takes time. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, my beloved TKZ family, are you able to recall dreams? Have you ever used dreams in your writing?

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Thank You. Thank You Very Much.

 

Book photo by Svetlana Lukienko/Canva

The other day I conducted an informal Facebook poll asking if people read acknowledgement pages in books. Because folks who respond to online polls are self-selecting, I wouldn’t make bank on the results. Still, they rather surprised me.

After a brief intro, my direct question was, “Do you read acknowledgement pages?” (Pretty tricky, huh?) All forty-some commenters said that they do. Some said so quite emphatically. Confidentially, I need to hire a better pollster because it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I find writing out the acknowledgements for a book terrifying. There are writers who do it elegantly, and writers who don’t do it at all. Mine are never elegant, and I know I always forget someone important. (And anyone who helps even slightly with a book is important.) I was half-hoping I would learn that no one reads acknowledgements and they think they’re a waste paper. That way I could go on with other projects. It took me five days of dithering and starting and stopping before I finally got them finished. I write fiction for a reason. Acknowledgements are reality in a very pure form.

I like thanking people. I really do! I’m a regular thank-you note writer, and have been since the days when my mother stood over me to make sure I did them. For me, saying thank you for something is often easier than asking for help in the first place. But not in the case of writing acknowledgments. There’s something so absolutely final about writing acknowledgements. They’re there on paper forever–well, until it rots or the pixels die or we have a digital apocalypse, anyway. If I do it wrong, everyone will know!

I don’t have a system for writing acknowledgements. There’s a list in every novel’s notebook where I write down the names of people I mean to thank. But before I start writing what will go in the book, I always peruse my bookshelves to see what others have done. There are no existing rules that I know of.

Here are some random examples from my shelf:

Judy Blume, IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT: 3+ pages

Johnny Shaw, FLOODGATE: 1 page

Con LeHane, MURDER IN THE MANUSCRIPT ROOM: 1+ page

Elmore Leonard, BE COOL: A brief paragraph with song attributions and a line to Aerosmith and Steve Davis. Also a line in the dedication. All at the front of the book

Margaret Atwood, THE BLIND ASSASSIN: A paragraph with the names, only, of 50 + people, then copyright content notes

Rhys Bowen, CROWNED AND DANGEROUS: 8 lines thanking several people on the dedication page

IAN RANKIN, SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE: None

That’s a small spectrum of acknowledgements, but they’re all pretty much different. Is one better than another? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of style. Do I think that a writer who only thanks three people rather than fifty is an ungrateful person? Absolutely not. I doubt readers think so.

I confess that it’s gotten more difficult for me over time. If I had a quarter of as many books as Margaret Atwood, I would probably just starting listing folks as well. One can only extoll the amazing virtues of one’s agent so many ways. At this point I have to go back and make sure I’m not repeating myself.

The FB poll opened my eyes to how important acknowledgements can be to readers, as well as reviewers and bloggers. Acknowledgements give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the writer’s process and the publishing scene. They also give us a glimpse into the personality style of the writer. Or maybe not. I’m not quite decided on that. I never met Elmore Leonard, and I haven’t met Judy Blume or Margaret Atwood, but their acknowledgements styles reflect what I imagine them to be (or to have been) like. And while I don’t know the rest of the writers in my examples well, I know them enough to find their styles compatible with their personalities. And they’re all lovely people.

There are two instances where I’ll go straight to the acknowledgements page. The first is if I know it’s a heavily researched novel. I love to hear about sources. The other is if I know the writer fairly well. There are few things more embarrassing than learning a year after the fact that someone put you in their book.

Writers–How do you approach acknowledgements? I’m dying to know what your process is!

Readers–Do you read acknowledgements? Do you judge the writer by what you read? What do you look for? Please tell us!

 

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First Page Critique: Excellent Imagery, Intriguing Find

By Elaine Viets

 

This first page critique takes us back in time and back to the Old Country – Ireland. Let’s take a look at this offering. After the critique, I’ve made some comments. What do you think?
——–
No Title
Ireland 1240 AD

Eoin kicked the fallen oak’s trunk in disgust. He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists, forcing him to turn his eyes back to the massive tree that that’d crushed the stone wall and let his sheep escape into the next farm. His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.

Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul. He tossed a scoop of mud over his shoulder and stabbed the blade back into the ground. The shovel jerked wildly as it glanced off a flexible tendril of root, slipped from his hand, and fell into the hole beneath the tree. It landed with a hollow wooden thump.
“What is this?” Eoin muttered as he stared down.

He jumped into the hole, mud splashing as he landed. He picked up the shovel and poked the metal blade into the soil probing for whatever it had hit. On the third jab he got the same hollow knock. He scraped soil away to reveal a smooth black surface, then dug until he found the edges of what appeared to be a large wooden box. Eoin soon freed it from its earthly tomb and heaved the chest up to the surface, climbing out after it. As wide as the length of his forearm and about two thirds that in both height and depth, sealed completely in pitch.
|
Night was falling. He carried the box into his house.
“Get away,” he hissed at the cat, who’d immediately gotten under his feet, “or I’ll step on you.”

Too exhausted to light a lamp he, he shrugged off his wet clothes, exchanging them for dry, dropped a peat log onto the embers in the fireplace and passed out on his mat nearby.

=================================================================

Elaine Viets: The author has a mystery here: Eoin has found a mysterious box under an uprooted tree. But there may be too much mystery in this first page.

Who is Eoin? How old is he? What does he look like? Is he a big man? Bearded? Muscular? Scrawny and overworked?

Eoin’s soul is described as “weary,” and Eoin recently survived a “devastating” fever. Has the fever left him weakened? Give us some hints.

Eoin’s sheep escaped. How many? If he’s a farmer, he knows exactly how many sheep he lost: two, five, six. Part of his wealth is gone.

Do we really need Eoin’s father’s name in this sentence?

“His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. “We have several names thrown at us in one paragraph: Eoin, his father and Finn.

What if you tried something like this?

            Eoin’s father would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep.
The paragraph raises more questions:
Why doesn’t Eoin demand Finn return the sheep? Is he afraid of Finn? Is he too weak? Is Finn politically connected? We should know.

Instead we’re told, “But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died, Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.”

Finn’s hatred shouldn’t keep Eoin from claiming what is rightfully his. Give us a good reason.

There’s too much writing about the weather. First, the rain beats down on Eoin’s face:
“He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists . . .”

Then, “Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul.”

That’s a little overdone. Think about stopping the sentence after “demon fingers.”
There is excellent imagery here. I especially liked the discovery of the box. Well done! But how does Eoin feel about this discovery? Does he think it might have a treasure to make him rich? Will it bring more trouble? Has he heard rumors that something – or the bones of someone – were buried in this area? Show us his feelings.

When Eoin gets home, he bullies the cat. Is that deliberate? Do you want to make him less sympathetic? The page ends with a cliff hanger: Eoin is “too exhausted” to open the box. I’m not sure that works. Maybe you could have him faint from exhaustion.
Be careful of the typos.

You have an intriguing situation here, Author, and good imagery. Solve some of these mysteries and you’ll have a first-rate beginning.

Get the complete Angela Richman, Death Investigator series: Brain Storm and Fire and Ashes, on sale now. http://tinyurl.com/yczfeeak

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READER FRIDAY: What creature in the animal kingdom best describes your writing style?

Wikimedia Commons public domain

Are you the slow but steady turtle? Do you write as fast as a rabbit in heat? Get creative and describe your writing style. (This is a tee up for Basil Sands who never disappoints.)

For bonus points, share your favorite author and tell us what his/her ‘writing style’ animal would be?

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Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

This photo makes me want to go on vacation. Let’s take a ride with Crawford, our character in Palm Beach Nasty, a 1st Page Anonymous Submission. Read and enjoy. My feedback follows:

ONE

It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.

At age thirty-six, with a bad case of acid reflux, chronic cynicism, and acute burnout, Charlie Crawford had packed up his Upper West Side apartment and headed down to the Sunshine State. He decided on the Keys, the plan being to take up surfing, give the Jimmy Buffett thing a shot. But after three long months of listening to stoned-out beach bums in lame Hawaiian shirts oohing and aahing pretty average sunsets and duding each other to death, Crawford was ready to move on.

So he’d reached out to a handful of Florida law enforcement agencies, and when the Palm Beach Police Department made him an offer, he grabbed it. But almost a year into the job, no one had come close to getting knifed, shot, garroted, or even banged up a little. Christ, what he’d give for a nice facedown stiff, a little rigor setting in. Crawford was drawing a bunch of nowhere cases, which could best be summed up by the one he was writing up now.

It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end. The north end of Palm Beach was really two places, depending on the exact location. Obscenely rich or doing just fine, thanks. Spectacular houses on the ocean and Intracoastal that started at ten million dollars and went up from there. Or fixer-uppers, on postage-stamp lots at around a million. Recently a Russian fertilizer billionaire had plunked down a shade under a hundred mill for Trump’s monumentally ugly, but colossally huge, ocean spec house.

But despite that, the real estate market had been hit hard when Wall Street collapsed three years before and was still wobbly. Somewhere between anemic and soft, desperately trying to claw its way back to pre crash levels. One of the top brokers in town was whining about having a lousy year—4.8 million in commissions as opposed to over 7 million in ’07. And real estate lawyers quietly grumbled about fewer closings, but even more about a troubling new phenomenon: clients hondling them on their fees. And pity the poor builders, who had traded down from tricked-up ninety-five-thousand-dollar Escalades to basic Ford 150s.

FEEDBACK
Overview – There is an ease to this writer’s voice that I liked. This intro is written in a deep POV that is close to first person. I almost wish it was full blown 1st, to give the character more room to breathe. This character has opinions about everything, which would work for the intimacy of 1st person if the author can tighten the narrative (without too much meandering). Because of the mental meanderings, the pace is significantly slower with a lack of focus for the action or world building.

A good thing to note is that this author can hear the character and is willing to channel him. That’s not an easy thing to get and execute. Kudos.

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a key character by SHOWING rather than TELLING about him.

HOUSEKEEPING:

Where to Start? – The author started with a back story dump, sharing where Crawford had lived in NYC with a subsequent stay in the Keys, then on to police work in Palm Beach. These are all things that can come out later with patience. At the start, it’s too much misdirection without a point. That puts us down to paragraph 4 to search for a place to start–at the body or crime scene and any interesting lead up to that moment–but we get a lesson in real estate and the Wall Street crash. Bottom line, we need a better place to start that can showcase Crawford and his personality, through his actions and his cynical dialogue or banter with his colleagues.

Passive Voice – There were too many uses of ‘was’ and ‘had’ to indicate a past time period, or hint of backstory. ‘Was’ is used 8 times and ‘had’ is used 9 times in 400 words of this introduction. These are words I try to minimize and correct in an edit. It indicates this story should start with the present action and minimize the backstory.

Missing words typos – These are hard to catch. As authors, we are too familiar with our own work and miss words that should be there if we don’t read more carefully or read aloud. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph – “…oohing and aahing AT pretty average sunsets…” (‘At’ is left out.)

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a character.

Key Ways to SHOW your Character rather than TELL On Him:

Try introducing your character like some films do, with big character stars like Capt Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp doesn’t merely walk onto the scene and speak his first line, he makes a big intro to SHOW who he is. In mere seconds, we know him and who he’ll be. It takes practice to do this for an author of fiction. I call this “The Defining Scene.”

So imagine who Crawford is when he’s first introduced to this story. Since I like the author’s instincts on voice, I wanted to ask open ended questions for a rewrite of this intro. I didn’t want to influence the author by rewriting it myself. Think of it as a homework assignment, a short exercise.

1.) He’s a transplanted New Yorker with a side trip to the Keys. I can see his NY accent coming through. Are there remnants to his Keys stay? What does he wear in Palm Beach as a former New Yorker?

2.) Crawford is cynical and opinionated. How does this affect his co-workers, the other cops. Is he liked? Does he like them? Is he a loner?

3.) What hobbies does Crawford have? Are these apparent? Does he let other people know about them? What does he dream about? Is he saving for a beach house or a boat? Maybe he works more than one job to save up for something he doesn’t want to share with anyone else. Why did he choose the beach again? Does he miss NYC?

4.) He seems to thrive on crime scenes, being in his element. How does that manifest? Is he overly detailed in his approach or almost too relaxed? Does he communicate on the scene or keep to himself? Does he have a partner? If so, is his partner the same or opposite? Do they get along or not? How does that work for them?

To make Crawford memorable, the author gets a ‘first shot’ at a reader’s first impression. How would the author set the stage?

Below are some things to keep in mind.

  • Devise this crime scene for Crawford to shine or standout. Is it particularly morbid? Has he seen cases like this before? Does he bring NYC bagels and coffee? How does he react versus how others do? Set the stage for Crawford.
  • Give him something to do that will show the reader who he is. When others are turning away, he’s unusually attentive to details of the corpse. Does he have any idiosyncrasies at the scene, like how he treats the victim? Does he notice a stray cat in an alley with a possible clue when no one else does?
  • Make this scene about Crawford and focus on him. Let the reader know how he ticks, his values, his likes and dislikes. Carry these things through the book to take the reader on a journey.
  • Focus on Crawford’s character, more than plot, to give the reader a sense of him in this intro. If the author can devise a way to jump-start the plot (as in the murder scene), then you’ll get two birds with one stone.
  • Build on the energy from the Defining Scene. The reader will make an investment into Crawford going forward.

DISCUSSION:

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?

Mr. January Available NOW! $2.99 Ebook

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its master.

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