Try It My Way

The thick, familiar odor frying bacon, onions, and the sounds of clanking utensils against cheap plates filled the small country café. I’d been lamenting a temporary stall in my writing career while we had our weekly appointment with eggs over easy.

Across the booth, my former boss and friend of over forty years, the Cap’n, raised an eyebrow and sipped from a steaming cup of coffee. “You hear yourself, right? You remember what you said back in the old days when we were taking those education courses?”

The Cap’n doesn’t have an eidetic memory, but he comes pretty close and I had to flip through several cases of dusty mental files to dredge up a nearly forgotten conversation between two young men in the teacher’s lounge. I finally found the memory and blew it off. “I said I wanted to get just one book published.”

“Right. It was back in ’81. You wanted to get just one book published and then you said you’d be finished. Let me see, ‘I just want one book on shelf and I’ll be through.’ That about what you said?”

I thought I had one book in me, and had never considered writing another. As a teacher working in the classroom during the day, taking Masters level courses in the evenings two days a week, and sitting behind an old IBM Selectric in a bedroom/office, I wanted to leave something behind that would outlast me.

“Well, that was a long time ago, but I never expected to get a series.”

“Yeah, and now you have a dozen books on that shelf and you’re bitching about how you’re not on the best seller list.”

“You realize you’ve already achieved what others dream about? You’re published.” He raised an eyebrow and held the nearly empty cup like a smoker with a cigarette. “Ever thought you’d be here, with two series going at the same time?”

“No.”

“My manuscript is still in the drawer and I piddle with it only every now and then. You did it your way, now shut up and keep writing and you’ll make it one of these days. Breakfast is on you by the way, big shot writer.”

That conversation somewhere around 1980 came after I’d already been struggling for years, trying to get at least something published. With a stack of rejection notices that reached from the floor to the top of the table I used as a desk, I needed to find a way to break in. Eight years later, I achieved that dream that most budding writers only talk about, but it didn’t come easy.

I was reading a book by the author who inspired my style, Robert C. Ruark, when an idea clicked. Ruark launched his writing career by getting published in a newspaper.

Hey, I can write a newspaper column.

And like Ruark, I used newspapers to establish a foundation by writing outdoor humor, a niche that, in my mind, needed to be filled.

Of course we all want to explode on the writing scene with a massive bestseller, and that occasionally happens, but the cold hard truth is that we need to build that solid foundation by finding our voice, and most often that comes from practice and a lot of work.

But you have to get that voice out there, and one way is my suggestion for beginning writers who come to me for advice. Here it is, but you might not like it.

Write for free.

Shrieks.

Recoiling dreamers!

Shuddering writers!

So let’s examine this suspicious piece of advice. How do you write for free?

Try small publications. My first column was published in The Paris News back in 1988, and they paid me. My work caught the attention of another paper about an hour away, and a year later I was writing for them, too. Then another, and before long, I was in 50+ papers in Texas and Oklahoma. They paid me, too, but that was then.

When the Internet became a Thing, papers dropped me like falling snowflakes as their income dwindled and readers turned to finding their news online. The first thing to go were the columnists. But that was an excellent place to cut my teeth.

There are still small town papers and independent publications that need content. They may not be able to pay, or pay much, say $5 a column, or they may only offer space for your work, but that space results in tear sheets that can be used to establish your writing reputation.

Online magazines and organizations need writers, and through I have no experience in that world, I’m sure there are online entities that are looking for good writing. Contact them and offer to write for free. It’s the perfect place to polish your craft, and is an excellent way to gain exposure.

“But I can do the same on my blog.”

Yes, mysterious, figment of my imagination. You can, and keep doing it that way, but one outlet these days isn’t enough. You need to expand that foundation and create a name for yourself. Write online, in local magazines and papers, in those small community publications that appear in your mailbox, and anywhere else you can find. Build name recognition, assemble a collection of tear sheets both physical and electronically, and use them to get noticed.

Get it? Reach into a new box of spaghetti and pull out one strand. Yep, there it is, one piece of dried noodle that you can boil and consume. Small. Unimpressive.

Now, shake the whole box into onto the table and watch them scatter like pick-up sticks. Look at all of them. That single stick might be difficult to see, but the contents of the entire box is right there, impossible to miss.

Get your name out there, and eventually, someone will offer a few bucks for your work.

Then build on that momentum. One…step…at…a…time.

Try it my way and someday maybe you’ll have that one book on a shelf, then you can start complaining about not being further along.

In the meantime, Happy New Year and good luck with your writing!

 

 

 

 

Characterization

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

I don’t know where I found this quote. But it had enough impact for me to print and pin it within my mess of motivational messages. It’s some of the best writing advice I’ve got, and it arrived right when I was characterizing a new fiction series.

Ah, yes, the old plot-driven vs. character-driven debate. I’m not going there with this post, as it’s probably been done to death on The Kill Zone and by far more qualified fiction writers than me. But I will share with you a list of 234 Interesting Character Quirks I found while rabbit-holing tips on fleshing-out characters. First, let me tell you about Harry—one of the most interesting and quirky characters I ever met.

Harry was my detective partner. Harry and I paired for five years, and I loved every day of working with Harry. Harry’s real name wasn’t Harry. It was Sheryl. Sheryl Henderson. Sheryl was a large lady with large hair and an even larger personality. We nicknamed Sheryl “Harry” after the Sasquatch/Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons,

Where do I start describing Harry and her character quirks? First of all, Harry was 100 percent Nordic. Her hair—all of it, I assume—was totally blonde with none of those dark roots you see on wanna-be blondes. Harry’s eyes were blue—a shade of blue that had to be seen rather than chronicled. And Harry’s skin was flawless. I’m sure Harry never suffered one zit in her life.

Harry was the most intuitive, innovative, and invigorating cop I ever knew. I don’t know Harry’s IQ, but it had to be high. Once, we gave Harry a Myers-Briggs personality test and she scored an ENFP. Here’s the M-B character synopsis for an ENFP like Harry:

You have a rare ability to be charming and completely rebellious at the same time. You have almost zero respect for traditions or doing things the way they’ve always been done. You think everything can be made newer and better, which sometimes leads to grand innovations and other times leads to “reinventing the wheel”. But even if your ideas don’t always come to fruition, you do everything with such contagious enthusiasm and curiosity that we can’t help but get swept away in the excitement of it all.

Harry was born into policing royalty. Her great-grandfather was a constable in the Northwest Mounted Police that morphed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which Harry’s grandfather joined. Harry’s dad, Hendrik (Hank) Henderson followed suit, and Hank was a high-ranking RCMP commissioned officer when Harry became a recruit.

I’ll never forget meeting Harry. She was assigned to the uniformed patrol division in the same department where I was a plainclothes detective. It was an evening shift when I walked into the bullpen. Harry was there with a circle around her, and she just delivered the punch line of some sexually-explicit joke.

She reared her head and let out a whinny followed by a winded snort and some sort of snot that shot from her nose. She wiped it with her hand, brushed past me, and headed for the locker room.

“Who the &@#* is that?” I asked the harness bulls.

“Our new addition,” a young bull said. “She swears worse than the Sergeant Major who once made a grammatically-correct sentence using nothing but a run of &@#*s with one noun and a single conjunction, but she has a better sense of humor.”

“Smarter, too,” said an older bull. “You’ll wanna keep your eye on this one.”

It wasn’t long before Harry made a name for herself—good, bad, or otherwise. I did keep my eye on Harry as investigative potential and, when a rotational position came open in our Serious Crimes Section, I asked for Harry. It was the best request I ever made.

Harry came on board for three months as part of an experience-building program the department ran. It was a good program, but when Harry’s three months expired she was too good to lose. She stayed my partner until I retired.

Harry’s character quirks? Too many to list.

Harry was left-handed but ate with her right. On dayshift, we always went to lunch at the same diner and Harry always ordered breakfast. Always the same—she hated substitutes. Pork sausages, eggs lightly steamed, shredded hash browns, dry white toast, and black coffee that she loaded with curdles of cream and sacks of sugar. Once served, Harry held her fork in her right, her knife in her left, and chopped everything into one large mangled mess which she mawed down while constantly talking.

Harry was a Starbucks gal. She constantly had a Verdi in her dented, stainless steel travel mug which she slurped and followed with a muffled belch and a “ ’Scuse me.” sort of non-apology.

Harry wasn’t married. Nor did she have, nor want to have, kids. Rumor was Harry played for the other team, but I had it from an unimpeachable source that wasn’t the case. We had an unmentioned agreement, Harry and I. I didn’t probe Harry’s personal life, and she didn’t mine mine.

Harry had money. Detectives make decent salaries, but Harry was better off than most. I believe it was an inheritance and that was okay. She wasn’t a flashy spender, but her house was paid for and she drove a Range Rover.

She was a classy dresser, Harry was. Black on black with a hint of red and a slight white surrender was her style, like her supercharged Range Rover, and I remember one day when Harry and I made a trip to a native reservation on a culturally-sensitive murder investigation. Harry slipped and slid on res-dog crap in her north-of-$300 leather boots which she took off, plastic-bagged, and threw in the back of our police-issued Explorer, driving back in her sock feet. I think she threw the boots away rather than having them cleaned.

Harry was a nervous passenger. She always drove while I rode shotgun. That was okay because Harry was an excellent driver, although she talked non-stop and habitually made eye contact as she spoke.

Harry exuded confidence… but not that in-your-face attitude that turned people off. The longer I worked with Harry the more I noticed how she leaned into people during conversations. One day, when Harry was too close in my zone, it hit me…

Harry was hard of hearing.

She completely and hostilely rejected my concern so, confidentially, I had the boss request a hearing test at her annual physical. After that, Harry reluctantly had hearing aids hidden by her large hair. (We, the other detectives, used to mess with Harry by raising and lowering our voices.)

Some of Harry’s quirks were sucking her teeth when deep in thought, blurting out while writing reports, subconsciously bouncing her left knee, and her stomach chronically growling after her lunch breakfast. She was a bit OCD—a neatish freak—and she’d organize other people’s desks. (We’d also intentionally mess our desks to mess with Harry.)

Harry wore no jewelry, she didn’t apply makeup, she played the same lotto numbers religiously, she listened to George Strait like a George Strait junkie, she line danced Brooks & Dunn’s Boot Scootin’ Bogie like a cow-girl-pro, and she always read the morning paper to which Harry would blast comments at leftish and alt-right columnists that’d make a biker blush.

I could go on and on about Harry, but I’ll leave it with the time she smashed a prized porcelain Confucius statue then cussed-out the Taoist monk who owned the thing. You can read about that in Beyond The Limits.

Now, for the list of 234 Interesting Character Quirks I told you about. I stumbled upon this site while rabbit-holing at yourdictionary.com. Here’s the link:

https://examples.yourdictionary.com/reference/examples/list-234-interesting-character-quirks

If you don’t feel like visiting the site, I’ve copied & pasted most of the content which, I’m sure, you’ll find enlightening for fleshing out your fictional characters. (I make no apologies for the C&P—I’m a big believer that good writers borrow and great writers steal.)

Personality Quirks

  • adrenaline junkie
  • brags about one’s own accomplishments
  • high levels of enthusiasm
  • likes to be the center of attention
  • makes assumptions about others’ motives
  • makes snap judgments about other people
  • needs the approval of others
  • obsessive about personal hygiene
  • overly trusting of other people
  • plans things to the most minute detail
  • quick to recognize others accomplishments
  • seeks adventure or new experiences
  • seeks stability
  • suspicious or distrustful of others
  • takes credit for other’s work
  • tendency to one-up other people’s accomplishments
  • tendency to pull for the underdog
  • tendency to react emotionally
  • tendency to respond objectively
  • tendency to take things personally
  • tenderhearted nature
  • tends to be argumentative just for the sake of arguing
  • tends to see how things unfold without planning ahead
  • very outgoing in demeanor
  • won’t touch people, even to shake hands

Behavioral Quirks

  • always wants to sit facing the door
  • bites lip when thinking or trying to remember something
  • chain-smokes
  • chews gum all the time
  • clears throat frequently
  • eating all of one type of food before moving on to the next item on the plate
  • flipping hair back over one’s shoulders
  • grasping a fork or spoon with one’s full fist to eat
  • jingles keys
  • laughs very loud
  • licks lips frequently
  • makes humming noises
  • makes very intense eye contact with people
  • moves around a lot when talking to a group
  • paces when thinking
  • points at people when talking to them
  • prefers to sit at the end of a row rather than between people
  • sniffs frequently
  • snorts when laughing
  • taps chin or nose when thinking
  • taps fingernails on surfaces
  • tends to giggle
  • uses air quotes when talking
  • very distinctive laugh noises
  • whistles the tune to songs

Quirks Related to Eating and Drinking

  • always orders the same food in a restaurant
  • barely chews food before swallowing
  • brings snacks everywhere
  • burps or belches loudly at the end of meals
  • constantly talks about dieting
  • counts the number of chews before swallowing
  • drinks coffee or tea very frequently
  • eats while driving the car
  • extremely delicate eater
  • grazes throughout the day
  • makes nasty remarks about other people’s food
  • makes sure everyone knows they’re vegan
  • messy eater
  • only eats organic food
  • picks food off other people’s plates
  • prefers junk food to home-cooked meals
  • pretends to be a dainty eater but pigs out in private
  • refuses to eat leftovers
  • snacks excessively
  • takes huge bites of food
  • takes other people’s food without asking
  • tries to win over everyone to their way of eating
  • tucks a napkin into one’s shirt when eating
  • won’t eat in front of other people
  • won’t eat food that other people cook

Quirky Movement and Walking Habits

  • adjusting sleeves frequently
  • bouncing one’s leg when sitting
  • bouncy walk
  • cracking knuckles frequently
  • determined, purposeful walk
  • enters rooms hesitantly
  • extent to which a person’s arms swing when they walk
  • loose-limbed way of walking
  • meandering walk
  • often breaks into a jog when walking
  • picking at nail polish
  • pulling down on one’s jacket or skirt
  • pulling sleeves down over one’s hands
  • scratches one’s head frequently
  • scratching one’s face
  • shakes foot when sitting with legs crossed
  • sidles up to people
  • takes large steps
  • takes tiny, mincing steps
  • tends to push past other people abruptly
  • tugging a sweater or jacket from left to right
  • twisting to crack one’s back or next
  • walks at a very rapid pace
  • walks with a limp
  • walks with an even stride

Posture Quirks

  • crossing legs at the ankle when seated
  • favors one side vs. the other when standing
  • frequently shifts from side to side
  • lays head down on desk or table
  • leaning back in one’s chair
  • leans in toward people who are speaking
  • leans on things when standing up
  • leans to one side when standing
  • looks straight ahead
  • propping one’s feet up on furniture
  • rests head in hands when seated
  • shifting from one foot to another when standing
  • shifts or squirms when sitting
  • sitting with one’s legs crossed
  • stands or sits extremely still
  • stands up extremely straight
  • stands with hands behind back
  • stands with hands on hips
  • stands with hyperextended knees
  • tends to lean away from people
  • tends to slouch
  • tends to stretch a lot
  • tilts head down most of the time

Physical Traits and Quirks

  • a lot of freckles
  • a lot of tattoos or unusual tattoos
  • always too cold
  • always too warm
  • asymmetrical features
  • athletic build
  • different color eyes
  • distinctive moles
  • extremely tall or short
  • lanky build
  • messy, free-flowing hair
  • missing or extra appendages
  • perfectly coiffed hair
  • red nose
  • twitchy eye
  • unique birthmark
  • unusual color eyes
  • unusual facial features
  • unusual hair color
  • unusual hairstyle
  • very long fingernails
  • weight range

Communication Style Quirks

  • chats nervously when there is a lull in conversation
  • chooses words very carefully; speaks in an exacting way
  • describes things very precisely
  • doesn’t speak up unless directly asked a question
  • embellishes or exaggerates stories or information
  • enunciates words very precisely
  • gestures a lot when talking
  • habitually avoids eye contact
  • hinting at one wants rather than stating it directly
  • insists on face-to-face conversations (rather than phone or text)
  • insists on having the last word
  • makes up a nickname for everyone
  • pauses a long time before speaking
  • restating what other people have already said
  • speaks in a way such that statements come across like questions
  • speaks with an accent
  • talking to oneself
  • talks very fast
  • talks with a sing-songy cadence
  • unreadable facial expressions
  • uses a particular dialect
  • very expressive facial expressions
  • very reserved in demeanor
  • winks at people when talking to them

Quirky Clothing Style

  • always looks perfectly pressed
  • always wears boots
  • always wears tennis shoes
  • appears to have been professionally styled
  • becomes disheveled with very little activity
  • doesn’t worry about whether clothing items coordinate with each other
  • dresses in a flashy style
  • dresses in exercise apparel even when not exercising
  • dresses in very revealing apparel
  • overdresses or underdresses for occasions
  • squeezes into clothing that is too small
  • wears cheap knock-offs of designer fashions
  • wears clothes made for much younger people
  • wears loose-fitting clothes
  • wears only designer labels
  • wears shorts even when it’s freezing outside
  • wears socks with sandals
  • wears stiletto heels all the time
  • wears the latest styles
  • wears the same color clothing all the time
  • wears the same style of clothes all the time
  • wears very outdated styles
  • wears wrinkled clothes

Quirky Signature Accessories

  • always carries an umbrella
  • always wears a scarf
  • carries a briefcase everywhere
  • carries a huge purse
  • constantly wears a hat
  • has earbuds in (or headphones on) all the time
  • is never seen without a certain piece of jewelry
  • keeps a pocket square in a suit jacket
  • keeps sunglasses on all the time
  • never seen without a backpack
  • totes a pet in one’s purse or other bag
  • uses a pocket watch
  • wears a flower in one’s hair
  • wears a headband
  • wears a large fitness tracking device
  • wears a lot of jewelry
  • wears a nametag
  • wears an overcoat or other distinctive outerwear
  • wears bangle bracelets that jingle
  • wears enormous earrings
  • wears huge glasses
  • wears socks with weird patterns or in strange colors

Other Characterization Quirks

  • answers for other people instead of letting them speak
  • complains about everything
  • constantly complains about aches and pains
  • constantly correcting other people’s grammar
  • constantly misplaces certain items, like keys or glasses
  • expects unquestioning loyalty from people
  • frequently gets hiccups
  • gets heavily involved in campaigning for political candidates
  • has hypochondriac tendencies
  • holds other people to higher standards than themselves
  • is easily influenced or swayed
  • makes snap judgments about other people
  • makes unusual snoring noises
  • participates in marches and protests
  • quick to find fault in others
  • seeks out flattery
  • seems to turn all conversations political
  • takes in stray animals frequently
  • tends to look for the bright side in every situation
  • tends to make biased remarks about others

I see a lot more Harry-quirks in this list, but I’ll leave the rest of Harry to your imagination. By the way, Harry is now also retired and serving as an elected city counselor in my community. I think I’ll call Harry up and take her to lunch breakfast.

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

That phrase is well worth remembering. Over to you, Kill Zoners. What unique quirks have you embraced in your characters? And if you want to open the character-driven vs. plot-driven debate, go for it, but I’m stayin’ out.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second investigative stint as a coroner. Now, Garry is a writer with based-on-true crime books as well as building a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.

Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast is home to Garry Rodgers where he boats around the Pacific saltwater. You can track down Garry’s blog at DyingWords.net or try him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1. His email is garry.rodgers@shaw.ca.

Those Pesky Pronouns

Those Pesky Pronouns
Terry Odell

PronounsHappy New Year everyone! Wishing you all a year that’s better than its recent predecessors.

Given it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been part of the “typical” workforce, a recent email signature had me scratching my head. Under the senders name was the line (he/him/his). I asked my daughter about this, since she’s more tuned into business communication, and she gave me the Mom, what rock did you just climb out from under look.

Now, I’m not totally oblivious to the change in gender pronouns. Anyone who’s had to fill out a form has seen the choices under ‘gender’ multiply. But I’d never seen it in an email signature. The rationale, I’ve been told, is that if everyone does it, those who are uncomfortable about declaring their pronouns will feel less conspicuous when they do. Am I going to add it to my email signature? I’m not sure. Most of my correspondence isn’t of the formal business variety. And, once you become aware of something you start to see it in many other places. (There’s a name for this. Points if you know what it is.) I did notice the host of a recent Zoom meeting included she/her/hers underneath her name. And I’ve since seen it added to Twitter names.

I’ve been dealing with confusing gender since I was in junior high school. My mom had no idea that girls and boys had different spellings for Terry, and I saw no reason to change. First day of seventh grade, I was assigned to a shop class (exclusive to boys back then). My math teacher called out my name and another one—Robin—and asked us to stand. I wondered what trouble I could have gotten into the first ten minutes of class. We stood, identified ourselves, and she smiled and said, “I just wanted to know if you were girls or boys.” Our English teacher used the Mars/Venus symbols in his roll sheet. Summer before my first year of college, I was invited to pledge a fraternity.

What does this mean for our writing? I’m not sure. Old habits die hard. I’d written the following in the current manuscript:

Ranch work came first, Frank reminded himself, and if there’d been an intruder on the ranch, he needed to find him.

My editor came back and asked if “him” should be “them.” I told her I was following the rules of grammar as I learned them. “An intruder” was singular and would take a singular pronoun.

She came back with “Yes. Either “him” or “them” is fine here. I thought maybe “them” would be better since they aren’t sure if it’s a man or woman. Your call.”

For the record, I’ve left it as “him”—for now. The book won’t be released until February 2nd, so I can waffle back and forth a while longer.

Using “them” or “their” as singular has been acceptable for a long time (Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others, used them), but I’ve always tried to avoid the construction. It simply sounds “off” to me. I would pause at a sentence like, “Terry did well on their exam; they received an A.”

According to Dictionary.com, “their” is defined as:

A form of the possessive case of plural they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun: their home; their rights as citizens; their departure for Rome.

A form of the possessive case of singular they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun:

  1. (used to refer to a generic or unspecified person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): Someone left their book on the table. A parent should read to their child.
  2. (used to refer to a specific or known person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): I’m glad my teacher last year had high expectations for their students.
  3. (used to refer to a nonbinary or gender-nonconforming person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): My cousin Sam is bad at math, but their other grades are good.

A quick trip through the Google Machine revealed even more choices beyond She/Her/Hers, He/Him/His, and They/Them/Theirs. I’d never heard of Xe/Xem/Xyrs, Ze/Hir/Hirs, Ze/Zir/Zirs, or E/Em/Eirs.

What confuses me is why people need all three. If I know someone is a “she” isn’t it automatic that Her and Hers would follow? Or is that to be parallel with the less usual pronouns of Xe, Ze, and E?

But a signature in a business letter isn’t the same as using pronouns in fiction. I had a trans character in Deadly Fun, but nobody realized she wasn’t a woman, so from the point of view of my protagonist, he’d be using she/her/hers when referring to her. The character had left the story by the time Gordon discovered her history, so I never dealt with non-binary pronouns—not that I was aware of them when I wrote that book.

OK, TKZers. Your thoughts? As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve been going through life with blinders on.


In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellNow available for pre-order. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

A Dog’s Tale

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Happy New Year! Welcome back after TKZ’s annual hiatus. 

Heroes Kerrie Garges and Gauge

How about kicking off 2022 with a dog story?

Back in 2020, I interviewed Kerrie Garges, a search and rescue volunteer from Pennsylvania, about a bombing that killed three people. 

Kerrie has spent years training her three Labrador Retrievers, Ace, Luna, and Gauge, in various search disciplines (air scent, article scent, human remains, etc.).

A few weeks ago, Kerrie and I reconnected and she brought me up to date on her dogs and their recent activities.

Sadly, Ace passed away last year from bone cancer. Luna is retired because her hips bothered her on long searches but she quite happily watches TV.

Kerrie’s big news was about Gauge. When we last chatted, he was still a rambunctious puppy. He’s now 2 ½ and has recently been certified in Live Find and Article Search.

And he’s now officially a hero. 

Article search involves items that have been worn by or touched by a person that their scent clings to (examples: fabric, leather, metal, plastic). To test dogs, an area 75’ by 75’ is marked off with flags. Within that area, five scent articles are randomly hidden. Dogs and handlers then wait two hours while scent dissipates, simulating conditions that may occur in real-life searches for a lost person.

One at a time, dogs are turned loose in the area with the command “Search” and given 15 minutes to find scent articles. The quest is confusing because other dogs and handlers leave their own scent as well.

Gauge located four articles in the allotted 15-minute time, earning “Article Search” certification. Four hours later, when scent had dissipated even more, he found the fifth article.

Gauge is also training for Human Remains Detection (HRD). According to Kerrie, patients at the University of Ohio hospital can opt to donate their bodies for search work. The Center for Forensics Training Education (CFTE) procures the remains and uses them for training seminars, one of which Kerrie and Gauge participated in last summer.

Not surprisingly, a recently deceased body gives off a much stronger scent than a body that has decomposed for a long period of time.

Cadaver dogs have located bodies of crime victims concealed for 15+ years. But canine noses are even more powerful than previously realized.

In 2018, archaeologists in Croatia tested HRD dogs to see if they could locate burial vaults that radiocarbon dating determined were from more than 2700 years ago. Dogs alerted to limestone slabs where tiny fragments of human bone were uncovered, along with amber beads and other artifacts. Even when no visible skeletal remains were present, dogs still alerted, leading scientists to posit that fluids from decomposition leaked into the porous limestone where odor remained more than 2000 years later.

Back to Gauge’s training with fresher remains…

Kerrie says dogs are allowed to familiarize themselves by sniffing and exploring the recently deceased bodies, sometimes licking and walking on remains. A handler must take care not to give cues that might confuse the dog, such as expressing distaste.

That must be a challenge.

Gauge’s alert signal when he finds his target is to run back to Kerrie and jump on her.

One particularly hot training day, fluids had leaked onto the tarp the cadaver was laid on. Gauge sniffed while walking around in the fluids, then proceeded to alert Kerrie by exuberantly jumping up on her, sharing the odor of decomposition (decomp) clinging to his furry paws. Fortunately, she was wearing a rubberized coat that protected her…somewhat.

He was, after all, doing his job. 

Being certified does not guarantee the dog and handler will be called out nor that they will have a successful outcome. After 12 long years of dog training, Kerrie had never had a live find until…

On October 8, 2021, she answered a call at 5:30 p.m. at the height of rush hour traffic. She was an hour away from the Gordon Natural Area for Environmental Studies, a 126-acre park on the property of the University of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, the park had been a training area for search dogs.

In fact, the man who had given permission to use the area for training was the very one who went missing that evening.

He and his wife were trail keepers. They had ridden a UTV to the end of a service road to work. The wife walked down to their base, expecting the husband to return on the UTV. She waited but he never showed up. His phone pinged to the left of the service road but he was not there.

He was diabetic so there was concern a medical issue had befallen him.

But where?

Two air scent dogs and one trailing dog, their handlers, a nurse, a paramedic, and other volunteers were deployed to search. Kerrie and Gauge did a “quick hastie”, a preliminary reconnaissance check, hiking to the top of the hill where the UTV was found. From there, a grid search began as the three dog teams split up to cover their assigned areas.

The searchers coordinated the different styles of their dogs with the terrain—Gauge is a “long ranger” while the other two stuck close to their handlers.

Soon the sun was down, leaving the area in darkness. Gauge wore a lighted vest and a bell to allow Kerrie to keep track of him. “Darkness brings out the dog’s nose,” she says, “because he can’t see distractions, like deer, during night searches.”

She adds, “You’re running on adrenaline because you’re trying to save a life.”

The terrain was difficult–steep and littered with fallen trees. There were no trails to follow. She recalls that she and her two flankers “did a lot of butt climbing over logs.”

Gauge indicated the scent seemed to be flowing down from the top of the hill and pooling in a lower area.

Then he alerted.

Kerrie couldn’t see any sign of the missing man until she clambered around a four-foot-diameter log.

Tucked beside the log lay the lost man, unresponsive and ashy-gray. Gauge was standing over him. Unlike training sessions where the dog normally was exuberant at finding the target, this time he seemed subdued, perhaps recognizing the seriousness of the man’s condition.

“In the shape he was in, I don’t know how he could have gotten there,” Kerrie says.

The nurse with Kerrie had glucose in her pack. While she and the paramedic tended to the man, Kerrie took Gauge aside, rewarding him with a game of tug of war.

The man was transported for care and recovered.

Gauge scored a live find with only two years of training.

And he became a TV star:

Thank you, Kerrie, Gauge, and other search and rescue volunteers for your lifesaving work!

~~~

 

 

Meet a search dog who turns up unexpected gruesome discoveries in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff.

Amazon

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The Adventure Begins Anew

I’m honored to be the first to welcome TKZers to 2022! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, filled with family, food and fun, and ending with a resolution to begin a new writing adventure in the new year. Consider this quote by Winston Churchill:

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

While I can’t relate to every one of the phases Mr. Churchill describes, I love the metaphors, and he made me wonder how I would describe.my own adventures in my limited experience of novel-writing. Here goes:

When I begin a new book, I spend some time searching for ideas. Is there some message I want to convey? Or a character who’s anxious to make his/her debut? Is there a particular mystery I want to challenge readers with or a basic theme I’m interested in? I spend time reading good novels and craft-of-writing books. I go for a run and play what-if games. I try not to force the issue, but let my brain relax, hoping for inspiration.

 

Then it happens. Something bubbles up and captures my imagination. Oh, happy day! Now it’s time to get to work.

 

 

I pull on my virtual hiking boots, strap my laptop in place, and head out to First Draft Land. Although I have a good idea where I’m going, I’m not entirely sure how to get there, so I wander around for a while. (A long while.)

Even though I made it to the end of the story, it’s just a mess, so I go into revision mode. Applying lessons learned about plot, structure, dialogue, tension, and other TKZ topics, I straighten out some of those detours and rabbit holes. I weed the prose, kill my darlin’s, and heartily eradicate the dreaded adverbs. (Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.) Now we’re getting somewhere:

 

Having reached what I believe is the end of my writing adventure, I gleefully ship the manuscript off to my developmental editor, convinced she will be delighted with the almost-perfect story. My editor has a very direct approach to feedback as you can see by her response to the manuscript.

Maybe she was just having a bad day, but I trust her judgment, and I take her critique to heart and work some more. The adventure resumes, and we loop through each leg of the journey to clear away the debris so the reader won’t stumble.

Finally, the editor gives it a green light, and I begin the last mile to the finish line. Beta readers come alongside to offer their wisdom, then it’s off to the line editor and proofreader for the final changes. (Who knew it took so many people to write a novel?)

What started as a joyful romp through the garden ends with a quiet sigh of relief and gratitude. There’s only one thing left to do: launch it out into the world.

Success! Adventure complete. Dragons slayed and townspeople rescued. After a short nap, it’s time to start another adventure.

Now where did I put that book on marketing?

* * *

How about you, TKZers. What writing adventure are you planning for 2022? What phases will you go through? How will you manage the long trek to publication?

Merry Writing and a Snappy New Year

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Dinner, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1875

’Tis the season to be jolly.

Or is it?

One view is offered by Mr. Scrooge:

“Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

Thanks, Eb.

At the other end of the spectrum is his clerk, Bob Cratchit:

Then Bob proposed: “A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!”

Which all the family re-echoed.

“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

So what’s it gonna be? You gonna be merry or what? (Why do I sound like I’m grabbing your shirt?)

My favorite dictionary is Webster’s New Collegiate (1960). I have two copies, hoping somehow to preserve the language from the unrelenting lingual onslaught of these latter days. I’ll be the one standing on a hill, waving them around, shouting, “Try and get ’em! Just try!” (Please bury me next to a small town library.)

Here is the definition of Merry:

adj. 1. Pleasant; delightful; of sounds, etc., sweet; of a wind, favorable. 2. Mirthful. 3. Amusing; funny. 4. Marked by gaiety or festivity.

Who doesn’t think we need a little more merriment these days? In life and in writing.

I’ve quoted this before but it’s worth another look:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. — Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)

How do you get that merriment into your writing? One way is to get so invested in your characters that you can’t wait to see them live and breathe. I believe it was Dwight Swain who advised that whenever your tale is getting to be a slog, do some character work until you get excited again—and you always will.

Another method: Pause occasionally in your plot and ask How can things get worse? That’s how we novelists really get merry—by coming down even harder on our characters!

Another thing you can do is pitch your story to a friend or loved one. I don’t mean the 30-second elevator gab. I mean tell them the story right up to where you are in the manuscript. Try to notice two things:

  1. Are you enjoying telling the story?
  2. Is your audience rapt? Or are they squirming around like they want to check their phones?

Use the answers to these questions to fix what needs fixing. That brings its own kind of joy.

And a Snappy New Year.

snappy, adj., 1. Snappish. 2. Colloq. Full of snap, or life, briskness, pungency, smartness, etc.; as, snappy conversation.

Apply this to your social media. We know that we have to be “out there” in some fashion. Agents and publisher expect it. So do readers. The temptation is to blunder around without thought or plan, thinking that the world is waiting with bated breath to hear whatever jumps to the top of your head five seconds ago.

It isn’t.

Revisit Sue’s advice on these matters. As she notes: “Always conduct yourself as a professional, but don’t hide the real you while doing it. There’s so much garbage and negativity on social media.”

So be brisk, snappy, funny, pungent. If you share an opinion, do it with style and even a little humor. Be someone who’d be a welcome guest at any gathering.

Don’t be a dullard, a dolt or a diva.

Hey, how’s that for a snappy ending to TKZ 2021?

Thank you for all your support over this last, challenging year. I speak for all of us at TKZ when I say your hearty and helpful comments create a welcome oasis in the vast internet wilderness. It’s a pleasure to commune with you each day on all things writing and publishing.

We now take our annual two-week hiatus. May this season be full of abundant blessings for you and yours.

See you right back here on January 3, 2022!

Naps, Breaks, Vacations, and Drifting

Counter-intuitive Routes to Creativity and Productivity

 By Steve Hooley

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah has passed

One week until Christmas. Twelve days after Hanukkah. Family gatherings, parties, and travel, all will cause interruptions in our writing schedules. Are these interruptions good or bad? Do they help or hurt our creativity? Do they increase or decrease our productivity?

As I contemplated a topic for this post, I remembered hearing of references to the benefit of breaks from writing to increase creativity and productivity. I had always been somewhat skeptical, being more of a puritanical believer in “put butt in chair” and write. I thought this might be a good time to take a look at some of that research on breaks.

Before I start on the topic today, I should mention that JSB wrote on a parallel topic this past Sunday, 12/12/21 – “Ways to Write When You’re Not Writing.”

Back to today’s post:

I found an article in Scientific American that summarized some of the recent research. And an article in Writer’s Digest, (Writer’s Digest, May/June 2021, pgs. 40-44, “The Curiously Effective Way to Beat Procrastination,” Michael La Ronn), had caught my eye with a discussion of “drifting.” These two articles are the basis for today’s post.

Summary of research over last ten years

In the article from Scientific American, titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” author, Ferris Jabr, begins with a brief intro: “Research on naps, meditation, nature walks, and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.”

He describes what happens when we don’t take those breaks, and defines “cerebral congestion” as that “sense of so much coming at you at once, so much to process, that you can’t deal with it all.” He then shifts to the benefit of long periods of time (vacation) away from the cause of the stress.

Apparently, people in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong take the fewest days off work each year (10 days), versus European Union (20 days) or the Netherlands (26 days).

Along with the intuitive belief that such continuous busyness is not healthy, there is now much empirical evidence from studies that “the benefits of vacation, meditation, and time spent in parks, gardens, and other peaceful outdoor spaces, along with napping and unwinding while awake, can sharpen the mind.” It is argued that downtime restores the brain’s attention, motivation, productivity, and creativity.

Unfortunately, the benefits of vacation may fade within two to four weeks.

Boys in the Basement and the Default Mode Network

The really interesting research has revealed how much the brain goes on working when we are not concentrating, working, or focusing. A “mysterious and complex circuit stirs to life when people are daydreaming.” This is called the Default Mode Network (DMN).

Immordino-Yang, a research scientist at USC, in a review of research on the DMN, argues that “when we are resting, the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes…”

Other research suggests the Default Mode Network is more active in highly creative people.

Power Naps

So, if we need to turn our DMN loose to do creative things for our brain, we should take more naps. Right? Many studies have established that naps “sharpen concentration and improve the performance of both sleep-deprived and the fully rested…”

Here, the interesting data is in the length if naps. One study looked at 5, 10, 20, and 30-minute naps. The five-minute naps barely improved alertness. Ten minutes and higher increased performance, but the 20 and 30-minute naps were associated with half an hour or more of “sleep inertia” (post-nap grogginess). The study concluded that 7-10-minute naps were best.

 Restorative Breaks and Mindfulness Training

Here’s my favorite. Breaks taken in a natural outdoor setting (vs. in a setting full of city noise and chaos) led to a 3-times greater improvement in memory. I wonder how the sound of my chain saw (requiring ear protection) affects the benefit of the “natural outdoor setting.”

And, finally, “mindfulness training” (sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment) is believed to “improve mental health, hone one’s ability to concentrate, and strengthen memory.”

 The Bonus, “Drifting”

This if from the article in Writer’s Digest. When I read this article several months ago, I shook my head. I didn’t know what to think. I grabbed a pen and wrote in the margins: “What!?” “A disease becomes a cure.” “Really?” And “Procrastinate, just not too long.”

But, after reading the other article on brain research and the benefits of taking breaks, I’m trying to be more open-minded about this approach.

If you haven’t read this article, I urge you to do so. Basically, the author is arguing for an approach to writer’s block where you “give your mind permission to do whatever it wants to fuel your creativity. Simply put, you let it be curious.” (Drifting). In the author’s case, drifting took the form of three days off just to let his curiosity explore.

Near the end of the article, he lists 5 ways to “Drift Like a Pro:”

  • Read a Book About Something New
  • Consume Other Content
  • Meet New People
  • New Experiences
  • Travel

And in a final section, he writes, “Teach yourself to drift, and enjoy the journey.”

It sounds too good to be true. I don’t know if I could trust myself to drift purposefully or return from the journey. I worry that it could be addictive, or the easy way out.

 

Okay, time for your thoughts:

  1. What kind of “restorative” breaks have you taken or will you take over the Hanukkah – Christmas holiday?
  2. What type of naps, breaks, vacation, meditation, or drifting do you regularly practice to maintain your creativity and productivity during the rest of the year?
  3. BONUS POINTS – What do you think about “drifting?”

 

This is my last post before the Christmas – New Year’s break. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Productive/Creative New Year! See you in 2022.