First Page Critique: A Goan Holiday

Happy Monday! Today’s first page review is for a novel entitled A Goan Holiday – which seems appropriate since I just got back from India (although, sadly, I’ve never visited Goa). My comments follow and I look forward to feedback from our great TKZ community. Read on!

A Goan Holiday

For the leftover hippies sunbathing nude on the beaches of Goa, drug-induced illusions were often indistinguishable from the breath-taking reality of the moss-covered cliffs and the bright blue sea. Back in the ’sixties, Vagator was one such beach few knew of until a forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers trudged down the mud track to the nearby village, starting a hippie stampede to the settlement. The disgruntled children of the West left the residents puzzled by adopting the matted hair, the rancid clothes, and the broken sandals of the homeless, seeking enlightenment in LSD and heroin, but there was one enterprising fellow who saw in the new arrivals a chance to make an easy buck.

Gossip had it his ramshackle shed at the far end of the beach was the designated cop-free zone where the hippies rented cots to crash at night. To the surprise of no one who knew him, the owner of the establishment disappeared one day, only to resurface the next week as the corpse found in a fishing boat adrift a few miles from the shore.

Half a century later, the shed’s owner was forgotten. Rich, young locals and backpackers from around the world still partied to trance music on the moonlit beaches of the former Portuguese colony on India’s west coast, the pungent smoke from industrial-sized rolls of charas, the home-grown weed, swirling all around. White surf frothed over rocks, tickling the feet of the stoned couples as they groped their companions for the night and made promises which wouldn’t last past daybreak.

The shed itself morphed into a hip café which served delicious seafood and fine wines for exorbitant prices. It was where the rich and the famous were frequently caught in carefully choreographed candid pictures. At least, that’s what the kaamwaali bai—the maid—employed at the Joshi vacation home a few miles away claimed. The woman showed up at her leisure and barely did any work if she could help it but always carried news of the movie stars spotted in the seaside village where her cousin lived.

None of the celebs seemed to have ventured outside this lousy night. Lucky for them, thought Anjali Joshi, skirting the group of tourists dancing to ear-splitting music on the beach despite the ominous dark clouds rolling across the half-moon. Each screech from the synthesiser thrummed across her skull. Even her eyeballs were vibrating.

Overall Comments

To be honest, this first page reads more like a travelogue at first than the start of a novel.

In my opinion it suffers from way too much data dumping about the history and clientele of the beaches of Goa and also from a lack of immediacy. Everything in this first page feels distant and third-hand to me – whereas I really wanted to be sucked into the drug scene at the beach and the ear-splitting music at the bar. I wanted to be introduced to a main character I could care about. I I wanted an inciting incident that would draw me into the story. Instead, I wasn’t sure who the book was really going to be about: Was it the forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers who started the hippie stampede to the settlement? Was it the enterprising fellow who saw a chance to make an easy buck and whose corpse showed up adrift a few miles from the shore? Was the maid who showed up at her leisure and barely did any work relevant to the story at all? Is Anjali Joshi who shows up in the final paragraph actually the protagonist? All of these characters have great potential but they are placed scattershot on this first page with no hint as to their relevance or importance to the story.

In this first page, nothing about the actual story is really clear and until the reader gets a handle on the story itself, the description and background to the drug culture in Goa doesn’t resonate (and, though I liked some of the detail and descriptions, most of this information could be inserted into the first chapter in discrete chunks rather than all at once).

So my main recommendation to our brave submitter is to start again – start the novel where the story really begins. Let us walk along the beach with Anjali Joshi and feel the music (I liked the image of her eyeballs vibrating BTW). Let us be drawn into the drama of an actual scene. Who is she? Why is she there? What incident is going to propel this story forward? Is it the discovery of a celebrity’s corpse? What dark events do the the ominous dark clouds suggest? Once we get these answers on the page, then, as readers, we will want to turn the page and care about the novel and its characters moving forward. Until then, this first page reads more like an interesting catalogue of the drug and hippie culture of the Goan beaches rather than the beginning of a novel.

TKZers, what advice would you provide to our brave submitter. How would you tackle the issues I’ve outlined?




Mad Magazine, RIP

by James Scott Bell

Alfred E. Neuman

And so it ends, after 67 years. One of the great American institutions, Mad Magazine, is closing up shop. Gone but not forgotten will be the famous Mad mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose mysterious background is discussed here. So popular was he that he occasionally ran for president, with the slogan: “You could do worse… and always have!”

Along with my parents and my teachers, Mad played a major part in the formation of my young life. Its influence is with me still—and I hope it always will be.

My big brother bought Mad religiously, and thus I got the issues second hand. I learned about politics from Mad. I knew who Castro and Khrushchev were only because of the cartoon renditions within its pages.

In those years they had literate, educated satirists who were able to skewer sacred cows with a precise wit that appealed to adults, too. And the artists! Here I must call out two of my favorites—Mort Drucker, master caricaturist; and Don Martin, whose mind-bending cartoons blew right past the safe and predictable into uncharted realms of hilarity.

Of all the talent, though, my absolute favorite was the poet laureate of Mad, Frank Jacobs, who, at age 90, is still among us. Jacobs did the libretti for many of the Mad satires of famous movie musicals. I also have a first edition of his legendary collection, Mad For Better or Verse. The amazing thing about Jacobs is that his satirical songs always scanned perfectly along with the originals. He never hit a bad note.

Here’s an example. One of the first political pieces I remember from Mad is East Side Story, a send-up, of course, of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical. It was Jacobs at his best, along with the fantastic caricatures of Drucker (also still alive, also 90. Comedy is healthy!)

Remember how West Side Story begins with the “The Jet Song”?

When you’re a Jet
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last, dying day!

Well, East Side Story begins outside the U.N., with all the major Communists of the day, led by Nikita Khrushchev, snapping fingers and singing:

When you’re a Red
You’re a Red all the way
From your first Party purge
To your last power play!

When you’re a Red
You’ve got agents galore;
You give prizes for peace
While they stir up a war!

You set off a test,
And when you’re halfway through it–
You point at the West
And say they drove you to it!
That’s how you do it!

We are the Reds … With a punch in the face … Which we’re aiming today … At the whole human race … At the whole–! Ever–! Trusting–! Human–! Race!

That, my friends, is genius.

Some of the other satires I recall from Mad’s golden age include Who in Heck is Virginia Wolfe?, Voyage to See What’s on the Bottom, 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy, Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid, and my personal favorite, Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been or Whatever Happened to Good Taste? This was a combo satire of the films Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It featured the following cast: Olivia DeHackhand, Bette Devious, Joan Clawfoot, Joseph Cuttin, Agnes Gorehead … and Greer Garson as a headless torso.

I ask you, what child soaked in such material could fail to grow up into a happy and productive citizen?

And whenever Mad turned its gimlet eye upon social structures, it skewered them with unerring insight. As in their 1961 send-up of the suburbs, titled “A Child’s-Eye View of ‘The Affluent Society.’ ” Look at the chapter called “The Lessons” and tell me it’s not still timely:

Children in the suburbs are kept very busy.
They are forced to take many lessons.
Lessons on how to dance,
Lessons on how to play musical instruments.
What does the suburban child learn at these lessons?
He learns that he is pleasing his parents!
Too bad he cannot take lessons
On how to be a child!

Suburban children must be a credit to their parents.
They must not lie.
They must not cheat.
They must not steal.
Poor suburban children,
They are so unprepared for the adult world!

So goodbye old friend. I shall remember you fondly. And whenever the kultursmog becomes thick with putridity, and the zeitgeist attempts another brain heist, I will bring to mind Alfred E. Neuman’s immortal words to live by:

“What, me worry?”

So what periodical was your favorite as a kid? How did it influence you?


Writing Outdoors

By Mark Alpert

Now that summer is here in full force, I’ve started taking my laptop to Central Park and writing outdoors.

This would be a frustrating endeavor in most parts of the park, which is usually packed with tourists on even the hottest days, but I live near the entrance to the Ramble, an area that’s been left in a more natural state than the Great Lawn or the Sheep Meadow. The Ramble is laced with a confusing tangle of crisscrossing pathways, so most of the tourists avoid the area. (They seem deathly afraid of getting lost.)

In particular, I head for the bird-feeders. They’re in a spot that’s especially hard to find, even for someone like me who’s been visiting the park for 50 years. As you can see from the above photo, the bird-feeders are empty of seed right now; I think the conservancy fills them only during the migration seasons, when the birds are famished. But a lot of species stop by anyway, maybe out of sheer undying hope.

Which, coincidentally, is also what you need to write fiction.

What about you? What are your favorite outdoor writing locations?


An Amazing Research Resource for First Responders

Jordan Dane

Happy July 4th! I’m grilling and celebrating with my family. I hope you all have plans. It’s a time to celebrate the birth of our nation. Freedom does not come free. 


When I think about what makes our country great, I think of emergency first responders who are on duty 24/7/365. It takes a special kind of person to protect the public-from EMTs to firefighters to police.

While working with another author, I found a great resource that I thought TKZ might find useful as a resource for first responders. The show primarily focuses on two EMT teams in New Orleans, but other groups come into play, too. Look on HULU for season 2 – 4 of NightWatch which follows the most dangerous shift time from 9pm to 3am. For those of you not streaming HULU, Season 1 is on A&E and those episodes are available at this LINK.

WARNING: This is graphic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen what EMTs see firsthand as they arrive on scene, for example.

From a writer’s perspective, what I found most interesting is:

1.) Fast paced action with stories well-told. Not sure who writes or directs/produces this series, but it is extremely well done. It’s a good reminder of how to show action scenes with the author craft principle of ELLE – Enter Late, Leave Early.

2.) Dialogue is tight. The scenarios are not staged so the treatment must be the first priority. Quick medical lingo between EMTs is carried on without explanation. You see the action as it happens, but when there is time to narrate, the EMTs share what’s medically happening and why they are doing it. You get to see how each case affects them.

3.) See inside first responders’ heads – EMTs (and other first responders) share their thoughts as they come onto the scene, as in what they expect to find. Often, they are surprised and have to react quickly. Dispatch details can be sketchy. The compassion of these people is striking. They are patient and calm amidst chaos and their first priority is for the patient. They calmly talk to them, reassure them, and do whatever it takes to keep them calm. Sometimes the emergency isn’t about a medical solution and more of a human resolution. It’s all there.

4.) You get to see what dispatch communicates to first responders and how they locate the scene with the GPS equipment they have on-board the vehicles.

5.) You see how the first responder teams work together. One of my favorite teams is a man and woman EMS unit. You can see the camaraderie and the banter while they are driving to a scene, but they jump into action and work intuitively with each other. You also get to witness how the other services work with them. Good stuff.

6.) New Orleans as a Venue – My newest series is set in New Orleans and this series is very helpful to get oriented. I make notes and check each location on an online map to see the streets and how it’s oriented in the city.

7.) Local Dialects & Speech Patterns for Emergency Teams – It’s been helpful for me to hear the speech patterns for first responders (especially in New Orleans) but the banter and emergency jargon and official dispatch lingo/code is authentic.

8.) Medical Lingo & Equipment – For the EMTs, they discuss what equipment they have on “the truck” and how it can assist different patients. They’re proud of their service and what they carry on-board. You also get to see what happens in an emergency and what they have to clean up after they drop the patient off at the hospital.

This series is addictive. I find it helps me get  my head into the writing I am doing, since it takes place in New Orleans, but this series is fast-paced and authentic.


What other movie or TV resources do you use to add authenticity to your writing?

No One Heard Her Scream – Ebook Reissue Now Available (in print soon).

Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2008 – Mass Market


Book Tour!

By John Gilstrap

Total Mayhem, the 11th book in my Jonathan Grave thriller series dropped on June 25, and now I’m on the road meeting booksellers and fans and fans-to-be.  There’s something exciting and romantic in the phrase, “book tour.”  It’s a heck of a conversation starter.

“What brings you to town?” asks the desk clerk or Uber driver.

“I’m here on my book tour,” I reply.

“Oh, you’re really an author?  I love to read.  What’s your book about?”

And we’re off to the races.  “Terrorists are targeting Mid-American small towns, hitting high school football games and county administrative buildings.  We expect major targets to be hit in big cities, but when the carnage comes to soft targets that have always been considered safe, the nation is rocked.  When the FBI learns that one of the terrorists knows Jonathan Grave, it falls to Jonathan to root out the network and destroy it.”

And then I give them a business card (and a bookmark if I have one on me).

Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop

My first stop was Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, in Mechanicsburg, PA., and that turned out to be my favorite format for these things.  People had to sign up in advance, and the outstanding management team provided soft pretzels and dipping sauces (as if there’s a better dipping sauce than mustard).  I spoke for about 45 minutes, then it was time for the ice cream social and book signing.

I had another nice crowd in Sea Isle City, New Jersey at the main library branch there.  Thanks to BAM for providing books for sale.

My lodging in New Jersey was a bed and breakfast in Cape May.  Here’s where it got a little weird.  (Full disclosure: I’m a Hyatt and Hilton kind of guy, but there’s a three-night minimum this time of year.)  Using AirBnB, I reserved a “room with a private bath.”  It had already been a long day when I arrived, and I was shocked to find that in a town that’s famous for its Victorian extravagance, I found myself in a suburban rambler.  My room was just the guest room in a lady’s house, and my “private bath” was down the hall.

The Brown Room at Congress Hall

That night, I Uber’d downtown to see the sights and enjoy the food in Cape May–which really is a gorgeous town.  After dinner, I wandered into Congress Hall, a stately old hotel, which features The Brown Room.  The picture leaves no doubt where the name comes from.  I got a comfortable seat on a sofa, ordered a martini, and took out my fountain pen and pad of paper, and started writing away on Hellfire, the next Grave book which is due to the publisher on September 15.  The lounge was crowded, a talented piano player was tickling the ivories in the corner, and I got totally consumed by the scene I was writing.

Here’s where it got really interesting.  Some people are unnerved, it turns out, when a guy sits by himself and writes page after page.  Three different people interrupted to ask what I was doing–but with a paranoid edge.

One asked, “Are you writing down what we’re talking about?”  Think about that question and the hubris it represents.  Truth be told, I had no idea what they were talking about because I was playing with my imaginary friends.  I told her, “No, I’m an author on book tour and I’m on deadline for my next book . . .” (See paragraph 2 above.)

Another was just the curious, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you seem so intense.  What are you writing?”  See above.

But this was the craziest: “You’re writing a review of this place, aren’t you?  How are you qualified to do that?”  See above.

As I write this, I’m leaving Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on my way to Sykesville, Maryland.  After the Maryland event, I go straight home, where we’ve got to get the house ready for a launch party this weekend, where we’ll have over 100 people.  That’ll be a lot of signing.

Then, next week we’re off to New York for ThrillerFest.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


Guilty Pleasures: Goodbye To
Two Of My Favorite Writers

“I’ve discovered writers by reading books left in airplane seats and in weird hotels.”— Lee Child

By PJ Parrish

Some days, you just don’t want sushi, free range chicken, or, god forbid, kale salad.  You want…Goldfish Crackers, Gummi Bears, Pepperidge Farm Milanos,  Kraft Mac and Cheese, McDonald’s french fries, with two scoops of Moomer’s Cherries Moobilee ice cream, washed down with Faygo Rock & Rye.

Some days, your soul cries out and the only thing you can do is give it what it craves — junk food.  But it has to be good junk food, I say.  Life is too short to eat a Wendy’s Quad Baconator.

Some days, you also need to read junk-food books.  Sometimes called airplane books, the idea being that flying is so grotesque now that you need something soothing or numbing to get through it. I can’t read bad junk-food books on planes. I need the hard stuff. And the hard stuff — really good junk-food books — are in a category all their own. They…endure.

Two of my favorite “junk-food” writers died recently — Judith Krantz and Herman Wouk. Now, don’t get all huffy with me for calling them junk-food writers. I mean that as a sincere compliment. Krantz and Wouk had amazing, long careers creating hugely entertaining books. They got me through countless hard nights in high school, one divorce, the time I was fired from a job I loved, and the week my cat died.  They took me to far away places with strange sounding places.

Judith Krantz died in her Bel Air home on June 22. She was 91.  She didn’t publish her first book until she was 50 — the seminal Scruples.  It’s the story of Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop — first nicknamed Honey, then called Billy — and her journey from a chubby “poor relation” in an aristocratic Boston family to a thin, rich Beverly Hills glamazon — with stops in Paris and New York along the way. (So described by Jezebel, the self-proclaimed Supposedly Feminist Website, which recommends it as a “juicy retro read.”).

God, I loved that book.

Why? It’s a take on the classic Cinderella tale. I was a pretty naive 27 when it came out and it took me to worlds I had no hope of ever knowing — Paris, New York, Beverly Hills, French couture, and rich folk. (I eventually got to all those places, and found out hanging with rich folks isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but that a vintage Chanel bag can change your life). It was really fun and often very funny. It also had some really hot sex:

After that first time he used every art he knew to bring her to an orgasm, as if that might be the key that would unlock the door between them. Sometimes she achieved a fleeting little spasm, but he never knew that it came from her one recurring sexual fantasy. In her mind she was being made love to by an anonymous lover, lying on a low bed surrounded by a ring of men who were watching her avidly…

I can’t print the rest of the paragraph since we are a G-rated blog. Scruples was made into a mini-series starring Lindsey Wagner. Rumor has it Natalie Portman is doing a remake. Bad idea. Just read the book. It’s great junk-food. As Jezebel points out, why settle for Fifty Shades of Garbage when you can get the real deal?

Or as Krantz herself once put it:

“It’s not Dostoevsky. It’s not going to tax your mental capacities. It’s not ahhrtt.”

Now, Herman Wouk, well, most folks wouldn’t classify his books as junk-food. But the critics were brutal to him. Still, many of them begrudgingly gave him props for his propulsive narrative style. He died May 17, a couple days short of his 104th birthday.

Wouk became a bestseller with his shipboard drama The Caine Mutiny.  I didn’t read that as a youngun, but I did feast on his page-turners Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke. The first was another coming-of-ager set in the ’30s with a feminist theme (a girl trying to become an actress in a male-centric world). When I read it, somewhere around age 13, I didn’t even know a Jewish person. (Yes, my childhood was that white-bread). But back then, when I was dreaming about getting out of the Detroit suburbs alive, I loved Marjorie’s grit and related to her big dreams.

Youngblood Hawke was also about a striver — a Kentucky boy who dreams of being a novelist and becomes the toast of New York — but there’s a tragic fall from grace. I read this one when I was maybe 35 and thinking of trying to write a novel. Wouk supposedly had second thoughts about making his protag a writer. “Writers are the world’s dullest people!” he wrote in his notes.  Dull this book is not. It’s got sex, money, betrayal, and characters that live on in your head after you close the book.

And then were Wouk’s World War II epics The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. At 814 pages and 941 pages, they were door-stops! Wouk originally intended them to be one book but decided to break it into two when he realized it took nearly 1000 pages just to get to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The appeal of these books for me was their vastness. I love meaty historical fiction, but with Wouk the history lessons were overlaid by a grand drama about the gnarly family tree of Pug Henry, naval officer and FDR confidant. I learned more about the wars from Wouk than from any of my history classes. Ditto for the Irish conflict and the founding of Israel from another of my favorite authors Leon Uris.  Yes, Wouk had things to teach me but he always, first, entertained me.

Which can make critics, well, crabby. One guy, Stanley Edgar Hyman, described Wouk’s readers as “yahoos who hate culture and the mind.” Wouk, for his part, had this to say about his oft-nasty critics:

“I’ve been absolutely dead earnest and I’ve told the story I had in hand as best as I possibly could. I have never sought an audience. It may be that I am not a very involved or a very beautiful or a very anything writer, but I’ve done the level best I can.

“In the short run geniuses, minor writers and mountebanks alike take their chance. Imaginative writing is a wonderful way of life, and no man who can live by it should ask for more.”

Rest in peace, Judith and Herman. And thanks for all those sleepless nights.

So, crime dogs, who are your guilty pleasure writers?



How Can 1 Person Have 2 Different Sets of DNA?

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

A human with two different sets of DNA is called a chimera, and it’s more common than you might think. Most chimeras don’t even know they have this strange phenomenon going on inside them.

You could be a chimera, and so could I.

As we go along, take note of the interesting tidbits you could twist into a plot to add conflict.

Without any help from the scientific community, the process of becoming a chimera occurs naturally. Numerous books and movies explore chimerism using a killer who’s had a bone marrow transplant or blood transfusion. But are these characters based in fact?

Let’s take a look and find out.

The tissue inside our bones is called bone marrow, and it’s responsible for making white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, doctors use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy all the recipient’s diseased bone marrow. The donor’s healthy marrow is then introduced and continues to produce blood cells with the donor’s DNA, thereby transforming the recipient into a chimera.

In some cases, all of the blood cells in a person who received a bone marrow transplant will match the DNA of their donor. But in other cases, the recipient may have a mix of both their own blood cells and donor cells. A blood transfusion will also temporarily give a person cells from someone else, but in a bone marrow transplant, the new blood cells are permanent, according to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

What if we’ve never had a transplant?

Doesn’t matter. There are other ways to become a chimera.

Early on in pregnancy a mother can be carrying fraternal twins and one of the embryos might die in utero. The surviving embryo may absorb cells from the deceased twin. When the baby is born, s/he can have two sets of DNA. Since twin loss occurs in 21-30% of multiple-fetus pregnancies, think of how many chimeras could be walking around. Are the story wheels spinning yet?

It can also happen with a normal pregnancy.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that a pregnant woman may retain some DNA from her baby, if fetal cells happen to migrate into her bloodstream and travel to different organs. The New York Times referred to this as a “pregnancy souvenir”— but it’s more scientifically known as “microchimerism.”

A 2015 study suggests this happens in almost ALL pregnancies (you read that right), at least temporarily. The researchers tested tissue samples from the kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts, and brains of 26 women who died while pregnant or within one month of giving birth. The study found fetal cells in all of the women’s tissues. The researchers were able to tell the fetus cells from the mothers by searching for Y chromosomes (only found in males). The deceased mothers were all carrying sons.

Writers: Don’t take the obvious road. Think victims instead of killers.

  • What if a human brain washed up on the beach?
  • What if the Medical Examiner wrongly assumed the victim was male due to the Y chromosomes?

This is one way to use research to our advantage.

  • What if the brain contained animal and human DNA?

Remember, we’re thinking victim, not killer, which puts a different spin on it.

According to Live Science, fetal cells may stay in a woman’s body for years. In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women ages 32 to 101. A shocking 63 percent had traces of male DNA from fetal cells in their brains. The oldest woman died at 94 years old, suggesting that these cells can sometimes last a lifetime.

The blood-brain barrier is the body’s defense system to block many drugs and germs in the bloodstream from entering the brain, but doctors have found this barrier becomes more permeable during pregnancy, which may explain how these fetal cells migrated into the brains of their mothers.

  • What if a serial killer only targeted people with chimerism because s/he viewed them as freaks of nature?
  • How might the killer find potential victims?

If you said the medical field, you’re not thinking outside the box.

Interestingly enough, 26 of the 59 women had no signs of brain disorders while alive. The other 33 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than women without the disease.

Previous work on microchimerism suggested fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers, but could increase the risk of colon cancer. Microchimerism can also incite various autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system.

Past research suggested Alzheimer’s is more common in women who had a high number of pregnancies than in childless women. One of the limitations of this research is that the number of brains studied was relatively small. Other researchers involved with microchimerism want to explore what effects a mother’s cells might have in her offspring’s development and health.

Imagine all the different scenarios? Parts of your writer brain must be on fire by now. No? Then check this out …  

Are you a chimera? 

You may never know. Unless you wind up in a similar situation to a woman named Karen Keegan. In 2002, her story became a report in the New England Journal of Medicine after doctors told her that she wasn’t the biological mother of her children.

Imagine? Think of all the ways this one conversation could implode an MC’s life.

  • Maybe the woman’s marriage broke up and the only reason her and her husband reunited was because she said she gave birth to his child while he was stationed overseas.

Turns out, the DNA in Karen Keegan’s bloodstream didn’t match the DNA in her ovaries. The doctors later determined she’d most likely absorbed a fraternal twin in utero.

How’s the ol’ writer brain feeling now?



Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 


Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.


False Crime

Photo courtesy Emile Guillemot,

Before I get rolling let me say that I hope that you are all checking out Debbie Burke’s always informative and entertaining “True Crime Thursday”  feature which appears (by amazing coincidence on the last Thursday) of each month on TKZ. I am giving away the punchline here with my own “Fake Crime” post, which will not be a regular feature. I just could not pass this story up, however. It is amusing, cautionary, and interesting. I hope you find it worth your time. 

This past week police officers in my city responded to a “robbery in progress” call at a local car wash. The establishment in question is one of those semi-automated establishments usually found on the out lots of busy shopping centers. The reporting party was a distraught male who said that, while preparing to get his car washed, a pair of despicable cads had robbed him at knifepoint of his wedding ring. 

We have a wonderful police department in my city. Here is but one example: when my older son was a wee lad his bicycle was stolen. A police officer 1) came out to the house to take a report and 2) subsequently recovered (!) the bike.  They take all reports seriously, even ones that, um, might not pass the smell test. The fragrances in the case of this robbery included Eau de whystealaman’sweddingringwhentheycouldhavetakenhis wholecar perfum. However, the officers dutifully conducted a thorough investigation. This included taking a report from the complainant,  putting crime scene tape up around the carwash, and reviewing surveillance camera footage of the area during the time period when the alleged incident took place. 

The surveillance images told the tale. The complainant’s star turn showed him driving up to the car wash area, sitting in his car for several minutes, and then calling someone. The time of the phone call coincided with the time of his 911 call to the police department. The gentleman, when confronted with this evidence, ultimately admitted that he had staged the whole thing because he had lost his wedding ring and didn’t want to admit it to his wife. Wink wink. One might be forgiven for concluding that it is ordinarily difficult for someone, particularly a man, to lose a wedding ring while they are out and about if said ring remains on one’s finger. We will not presume to hazard a guess as to why he might have taken it off. He is already in enough trouble. Trouble, you say? Why, yes. I live in a city which actually prosecutes those who file false police reports. Our friend accordingly had to explain to his wife not only that he lost his ring but also that he filed a false police report to cover up that he had lost the ring. Oh, the humanity! The icing on this manure cake is that he later reported, somewhat sheepishly, that he had found the ring after all. It was not reported where he found it but my guess would be that it was discovered somewhere it should not have been. 

I found the story somewhat but not entirely amusing. It took two officers off of the grid to investigate what was an intentional goat fling. The car wash was shut down for several hours, inconveniencing potential patrons and keeping the owner from making the daily nut needed not only to meet fixed costs and but also to hopefully turn a profit for the day. It may not be a total laugh but it is a cautionary tale. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Burp (or worse) in public and you’ve got a gaggle of ten-year-olds recording audio-visual of you from seven different points of view and then uploading it to YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. That’s not good. “Character” used to be defined as behaving well when no one is around to see it.  We’re running out of those places. I went out to mow my lawn yesterday and didn’t mention it to anyone. When I got back in the house there was an ad on my phone asking if I was tired of mowing the lawn and suggesting I call a local lawn service. I was told that my cellphone probably heard my lawn mower going, noted my absence of cellphone/online activity, and figured out what I was doing. I wonder if it would send me an ad for scuba diving equipment if I threw it in a reservoir. In any event, be careful of what you do. Anywhere. 

Photo courtesy Siarhi Horbach,

To leave things on a totally unrelated “up” note…were you aware that there is something called a “motion activated bed light” being marketed. The idea is that if you are sleeping in a dark room and get out of bed a soft but very visible light appears and keeps you from stubbing your toe, stepping the residue of cat accidents, etc. You can find out more about the item here. I will confess to wondering if perhaps it might provide an unexpected light show under certain other circumstances but will leave that to the more fortunate of you out there to determine. 

Have a great weekend and Fourth of July…and thank you for yet again stopping by.