The First – “TKZ Words of Wisdom” post

Now and again we reach back into the TKZ archives for some timeless advice and offer them to you for discussion. Please reply, riff, or rant in the comments and interact with each other!

Write what you know. Good God, how many times have we heard that over the years? As if Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy’s pseudonym, or Lincoln Rhyme Jeffery Deaver’s. For way too many years, that write-what-you-know counsel was a real problem for me. I grew up in suburban DC, a middle-class white kid with no respectable non-academic. What the hell was I supposed to write about that was, you know, interesting?

As I got a little older, I came to realize what my writing instructors really meant with that cryptic advice: you have to be convincing. Unless you’ve loved, you’ll never be able to write about it convincingly. Until you’ve had a child and you’ve surrendered that part of your soul to another human being, I don’t think you can write parental angst in a way that will convince parents who are living it. It’s not about relaying events that you know; it’s about conveying emotions that you’ve experienced. – John Gilstrap, August 2008

***

I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words. – Joe Moore, June, 2009

***

How do you fit romance into a non-stop thriller? These genres are not mutually exclusive. Look at your movies for examples. Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, and The Librarian: Quest for the Spear with Noah Wyle and Sonya Walger are two of my favorites. What recent thrillers have you seen where a romantic relationship is involved? How did the film get this across to viewers?

Here’s how to start with your own story: Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is the disaster that will happen if the villain succeeds. The internal conflict is the reason why your protagonists hesitate to get involved in a relationship. Maybe the heroine was hurt by a former lover and is afraid of getting burned again. Or she has a fierce need for independence. Why? What happened in her past to produce this need? Maybe your hero doesn’t want a wife because his own parents went through a bitter divorce, and secretly he feels unworthy of being loved. Or maybe he feels that his dangerous lifestyle wouldn’t suit a family. Keep asking questions to deepen your people’s motivations. – Nancy J. Cohen, December 2012

Let the conversation begin!

Reader Friday: What Are You Reading?

It’s always fun to catch up, and we haven’t done one of these for a while, so…

What are you reading?

Fiction or nonfiction?

Genre?

What are you enjoying most about the book?

I’m deep into HOLLOW KINGDOM by Kira Jane Buxton. Normally, I steer clear from Apocalypse type novels. I’ve never even watched an episode of the Walking Dead. What attracted me to this funny, off-beat, heartwarming story was not the cover, or blurb, or industry praise. It’s narrated by a crow. Brilliant!

How To Get Away With Murder

Are you planning on murdering someone, but your only stop is the fear of getting caught? Or are you plotting a thriller where your serial-slayer stays steps ahead of that dogged detective who’s also top-tier in her trade? Maybe both? Well, I’ll give you a cake and let you eat it, too…if you’ll follow me on how homicide cops investigate murders.

Think about it. There are only four ways you can get caught. Or get away with it. All seasoned sleuths intrinsically know this, and they build their case on these four simple pillars.

Let’s look at them.

What Not To Do

#1 — Don’t leave evidence behind that can identify you to the scene.

Such as fingerprints, footwear or tire impressions, DNA profiles like spit, semen, and blood, ballistic imprints, gunshot residue, toolmarks, bitemarks, handwritten or printed documents, hair, fiber, chemical signatures, organic compounds, cigarette butts, spat chewing gum, toothpicks, a bloody glove that doesn’t fit, or your wallet with ID (seriously, that’s happened).

#2 — Don’t take anything with you that can be linked.

Including all of the above, as well as the victim’s DNA, her car, jewelry, money, bank cards, any cell phone and computer records, that repeated modus operandi of your serial kills, no cut-hair trophies, no underwear souvenirs, and especially don’t keep that dripping blade, the coiled rope, or some smoking gun.

#3 — Don’t let anyone see you.

No accomplices, no witnesses, and no video surveillance. Camera-catching is a huge police tool these days. Your face is captured many times daily—on the street, at service stations, banks, supermarkets, pizza joints, government buildings, libraries, transit rides, private driveways, and in the liquor store.

#4 — Never confess.

Never, ever, tell anyone. That includes your best drinking buddy, your future ex-lover, the police interrogator, or the undercover agent. Loose lips sink ships, and there’ve been more crimes solved through slips of the tongue than any fancy forensic technique.

So, if you don’t do any of these four things, you can’t possibly get caught.

Now…

What To Do

Humans are generally messy and hard creatures to kill—even harder to get rid of—so murder victims tend to leave a pool of evidence. Therefore, it’s best not to let it look like a murder.

Writers have come up with some fascinating and creative ways to hide the cause of death. Problem is—most don’t work. Here’s two sure-fire ways to do the deed and leave little left.

#1 — Cause a Cerebral Arterial Gas Embolism (CAGE)

This one’s pretty easy, terribly deadly, and really difficult to call foul. A CAGE is a bubble in the bloodstream, much like a vapor lock in an engine’s fuel system. People die when their central nervous system gets unplugged and a quick, hard lapse in the carotid arteries located on both sides of the neck can send an CAGE into cerebral circulation. The brain stops, the heart quits, and they drop dead.

Strangulation is an inefficient way to create a CAGE, and it leaves huge tell-tale marks. You’re far better off giving a fast blast of compressed air to the carotid…maybe from something like that thing you clean your keyboard with…just sayin’.

#2 — Good Ole Poison

Ah, the weapon of women. Man, have there been a lot of poisonings over the centuries and there’ve been some pretty, bloody, diabolical stories on how they’re done. Problem again—today there’s all that cool science. The usual suspects of potassium cyanide, arsenic, strychnine, and atropine still work well but they’ll jump out like a snake-in-the-box during a routine toxicology screen.

You need something that’s lethal, yet a witch to detect.

I know of two brews—one is a neurotoxin made from fermented plant alkaloid and the other is a simple mix of fungi & citrus. This stuff will kill you dead and leave no discernable toxicological trace—however, I think it’s quite irresponsible to post these formulas on the net.

What about you Kill Zoners? If you wanted to kill someone, preferably a fictional character, how would you get away with it?

Oh, and watch out for what’s in that cake you’re eating.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner. Now, Garry reincarnated as a crime writer with a popular blog at DyingWords.net. He’s also on Twitter @GarryRodgers1, gave up on Facebook, and has an Amazon profile.

 

Flammable Liquids Don’t Exist

By John Gilstrap

Remember that scene toward the end of “The Bourne Identity” (a really good film) when Jason Bourne shoots the fuel tank in the backyard and it explodes? Yeah, no. Wouldn’t happen. Ditto the car that blows up after getting in a wreck or after the fuel tank is shot.

Somewhere, I know I’ve watch a scene in a movie where Character A douses Character B with gasoline and lights a Zippo, threatening B-boy with immolation if he doesn’t give up the wanted information. That won’t work either because they’d both be consumed by the same fireball.

Under tightly-controlled-don’t-try-this-at-home conditions, you can extinguish a match in a can of gasoline. This is because . . .

No liquids burn. And with the exception of some metallic substances, no solids burn either. Only gases and vapors burn.

Definitions Break:

Vapors are created as liquids evaporate (create vapor). They are the same chemical composition as the liquids from which they are derived, and if they are cooled, they will condense back into liquid form.

A gas is in a gaseous state at normal atmospheric pressure and temperature. When pressurized, gases will condense into liquids, but the instant the containment is breached, the liquid will convert instantly to a gas.

Flash Point

On the coldest day of the year in most parts of the world, if you put a match into a puddle of gasoline, you’ll get a fireball because the flash point of gasoline is about -50 degrees Fahrenheit. (“Flash point” has nothing to do with a visible flash of light. When a liquid evaporates [creates vapor], the technical term for that is to flash. The “flash point” is the temperature at which a liquid begins to create combustible vapors. Given the topic, it’s an unfortunate source of confusion.)

By comparison, the flashpoint of diesel fuel is between 125 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. On that coldest day, you’d have a hard time getting diesel to ignite because there’d be no vapors to burn.

Back when my Big Boy Job had me teaching hazardous materials response classes to corporations, one of my best clients was a company that did hardhat diving into million-gallon tanks of flammable liquids like toluene to use cutting torches to fix plumbing deep inside the tank without emptying it. There was no chance of ignition because there are no vapors in the middle of a liquid. Along the surface of the tank, it gets a little dicey, though.

But The Sign Says “Flammable Liquid”

There’s not a lot of room for nuance or subtlety on a hazmat placard. The US Department of Transportation decided decades ago that first responders should know the difference between a milk truck and a gasoline truck. They came up with their Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). By their definition, a “flammable liquid” is one that has a flashpoint below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A “combustible liquid” is one with a flash point between 100 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Labels notwithstanding, liquids still don’t burn.

Vapors Displace Oxygen, and Nothing Burns Without Oxygen

When you fill the gas tank in your car, you don’t really fill it. You leave a vapor space in the top of the tank. Those vapors displace the ambient atmosphere inside the, bringing the oxygen levels down to nearly nothing.

In your story, when you shoot a car in its gas tank, the bullet tears through a lot of liquid and a lot of vapor, but since there’s no oxygen, there’ll be no explosion. More likely, the gasoline will leak out of the bullet hole. Once exposed to the atmosphere, the spilled gas will begin to evaporate and then the vapors can burn. As more liquid spills, the fire will get bigger, but it’s hard to conceive of the circumstance where you’d get a “bang” from the gasoline. A “whump” is more feasible.

Most Flammable Vapors Are Heavier Than Air

A lot heavier, in fact. When we create that puddle of gasoline, the vapors won’t rise. If we’re at elevation, they will flow down to the lowest point. If we’re on a flat surface, they will spread out, making the hazard area of the spill much, much larger.

Uncontained Liquids Will Evaporate

Let’s go back to the guy we doused in gasoline. All that liquid we poured on him is creating an invisible vapor cloud. If we’re close enough to talk, we’re enveloped in the same vapor cloud. When you thumb that Zippo, you’re likely to have as bad a day as your intended victim.

Does It Matter?

Here’s the question I struggle with when I address the real aspects of guns and hazmats: Does it matter? Should a film director care that the really cool scene couldn’t happen in real life, or should he just go with the really cool scene? After all, we write fiction.

What say you? Does it matter?

First Page Critiques: A Look
Inside The Edgar Winners

By PJ Parrish

Just back from my duties as banquet chair for the Edgar awards. It’s the first time in three years that the event, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, has been held live. Three years…

Seems like longer. The Edgars have been a virtual event and it was great seeing men in tuxes and women in heels again. Great seeing old friends. Even greater meeting new ones. I’ve been chairing this event (spearheaded by MWA executive director Margery Flax) for more than a decade now. And it feels like the torch is being passed to a new generation of crime writers.  Our theme this year was “Top of the World” (hat tip to Tom Petty for that inspiration). Because top of the world is how you feel when you’re an Edgar nominee. One of my favorite duties of the night is manning the nominee registration table. Man, I wish I could bottle the fizzy-feeling emanating from the writers as they collected their red-ribbon badges and drifted off in a daze to the cocktail reception. Great books this year, but alas, only one book in each category wins at evening’s end.

Just for fun, I’ve read the first pages or so of all the novel nominees. You can easily do the same — click here for complete list.  But I thought it would be maybe instructive to take a look at how the winners opened their stories. Ahem…I will not be red-penciling their First Pagers. But feel free to weight in with your comments.

Best Juvenile: Concealed

“Your name?” The barista asked, holding the paper cup in the air.

I hesitated. For a moment I couldn’t remember if my name was spelled with one n or two. Not that it mattered much, since by tomorrow I’d have to pick a new one.

“Joanna with two n’s,” I replied.

He nodded, scribbled something on the cup, and passed it down the line to a girl who began preparing the order.

My drink wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A tall vanilla bean frappé with two pumps of cinnamon syrup, hold the whipped cream. Nothing too easy or too complicated. Something quickly forgotten.

Sort of like me.

Didn’t matter if my hair was dyed blond, red, or even its current shade of brown, I always played the part of some random homeschooled girl from nowhere in particular who usually kept to herself. I was a mix of people you might know, but could never really remember.

That had been the story for when I was called Ana, Beatriz, Carla, Diana, Emma, Faith, Gina, Holly, and Ivette. Joanna was no different. And tomorrow it would continue, except
this time with a name that began with the letter K.

Over the past few years it had all become a game for me. Picking a name while going through the alphabet gave me a sense of order and predictability in my highly unpredictable life. Dad had come up with the idea back when he was still the one choosing my names, but I’d decided to continue the pattern. The question was which K name to choose. It could last me either a couple of weeks, like Joanna, or almost a
year, like when I was Carla.

I never knew.

It all depended on when my parents said it was time to move on and start over.

______________

Me here: I love this concept: A kid whose parents are on the lam so she has to cope with not just the usual angst of pre-teen identity, but the reality of not knowing who she is at any given time. The voice is assured yet vulnerable and very believable. I bonded with this girl at the get-go. I also liked the mix of short and long paragraphs. I don’t read juvie, but I’d definitely read on here.

Best First Novel: Deer Season

Alma held the four-week-old pig against her left hip and pinned him to her side with an elbow. With her right hand she held his ear across his eye as Clyle positioned the syringe perpendicular to the flesh and injected the antibiotics into the piglet’s neck. The pig squealed and Alma’s grip wobbled as Clyle caught the pig by his two back legs, swooped him into the air, and streaked his back with a green Paintstik. On the ground the pig scuttered his hooves against the cement before gaining traction and taking off across the small pen to the rest of the litter.

This wasn’t how Alma wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon. This wasn’t how anyone wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon, but Hal had left Friday with some yahoos to go hunting the first weekend of deer season. She secured another pig across her knee as Clyle gave the shot, marked the piglet with the Paintstik, then moved her to the floor. There were two left unmarked, congregated by the far slatted wall. Clyle grabbed the plywood panel he used to divert the pigs, moving it right to left until one of the piglets was trapped, then reached down and picked him up by the back legs.

_____________

Me again. This is a very leisurely opening. The first chapter is devoted to Alma and her husband marking the piglets and it ends on a note of tension within the marriage. The novel has won raves, including a starred PW review, for its portrait of a small town both severed and knitted together by the tragedy of a missing girl. A little slow for my taste, but I would keep going.

Best Paperback Original: Bobby March Will Live Forever.

It’s Billy the desk sergeant that takes the call. A woman on the phone, breathless, scared, half-crying. She says, “I’d like to report a missing child.”

And suddenly, everything changes.

When news of a call like that comes in, everyone sits up at their desks, stops filling in their pools coupon, puts down their half-eaten rolls. The ones with kids open their wallets under their desks, look at the pictures of Colin or Anne or wee Jane and thank God that it’s not theirs that have gone. The young ones look very serious, try not to imagine pulling some weeping toddler from a cellar or frome under a bed, being congratulated by the boss, thanked by a tearful mother.

Those that are religious cross themselves or say a silent prayer to keep the kid safe. And those that have lived through a case like this before say hello to the familiar dread and fear in their stomach, the knowledge that there is no end to the bad things that men can do to children, that the missing child might be better off dead already.

And like a pebble dropped in water, the ripples start to spread throughout the city. No matter the lockdown, news of a missing child always gets out. Cops come home, tell their wives and girlfriends not to tell anyone but they do. A shilling drops in a phone box across the road from the station, a reporter at the Daily Record answers, and a beat cop earns a tenner for his trouble. Isn’t long before the boys selling the papers outside Central Station are shouting, “Final edition! Missing girl!”

And as night falls and the chatter dies down there’s still one person who doesn’t know what Glasgow is talking about. Alice Kelly. All she knows is she’s got a cloth bag over her head, that her hands are tied and she’s wet her pants. It doesn’t matter how hard she cries for her mum, her mum can’t hear her. Nobody can.

____________

Me again. I really like this opening. It’s omniscient but feels intimate. Nice trick, that. I was drawn in by the rhythm of the writing itself. Note how the writer repeats the triad construction with simple commas. This, this, and then that. This, this, and then that. From the first sentence, we know we have a missing child yet the rhythm induces an almost lulling affect, mimicking the routine of cops coping and doing their jobs. It’s tragic…and normal. How awful. After a double break, the story then moves into the protagonist’s point of view. Well done, I say.

Best Novel: Five Decembers

Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey. It was so new the ice hadn’t begun to melt, even in this heat. A cacophony surrounded him. Sailors were ordering beers ten at a go, reaching past each other to light the girls’ cigarettes. Someone dropped a nickel in the Wurlitzer, and then there was Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra. The men compensated for the new noise. They raised their voices. They were shouting at the girls now, and they outnumbered them. The night was just getting started, and so far they weren’t drinking anything harder than beer. They wouldn’t get to fistfights for another few hours. By the time they did, it would be some other cop’s problem. So he picked up his drink, and sniffed it. Forty-five cents per liquid ounce. Worth every penny, even if a three-finger pour took more than an hour to earn.

Before he had a taste of it, the barman was back. Shaved head, swollen eyes. Straight razor scars on both his cheeks. A face that made you want to hurry up and drink. But McGrady set his glass down.

“Joe,” Tip said.

“Yeah.”

“Telephone—Captain Beamer, I guess. You can take it upstairs.”

He knew the way. So he grabbed the drink again, and knocked it back. The whole thing, one gulp. Smooth and smoky. He might as well have it. If Beamer was calling him now, then he was going to be pulling overtime. Which meant tomorrow—Thursday—was going to be a bust. Molly was going to be disappointed. On the other hand, he’d be drawing extra pay. So he could afford to make it up to her later. He put three half-dollars on the bar, wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve, and went upstairs.

______________

I’m back. The era is the Pacific theater of WWII and the golden-age-of-noir style reflects this. The book got raves pre-Edgar, starred PW review, New York Times Best Mystery and glowing blurbs from Lehane, King, Child. The chapter ends with McGrady’s boss saying he’s been working for five years, this is his first murder, don’t blow it. Given the writing, I’d give it more time to get to a full boil. From all I’ve read, there’s a big payoff. Side note: The book was rejected by 25 publishers before being picked up by Hard Case Crime.

Young Adult: The Firekeeper’s Daughter

I start my day before sunrise, throwing on running clothes and laying a pinch of semaa at the eastern base of a tree, where sunlight will touch the tobacco first. Prayers begin with offering semaa and sharing my Spirit name, clan, and where I am from. I always add an extra name to make sure Creator knows who I am. A name that connects me to my father—because I began as a secret, and then a scandal.

I give thanks to Creator and ask for zoongidewin, because I’ll need courage for what I have to do after my five-mile run. I’ve put it off for a week.

The sky lightens as I stretch in the driveway. My brother complains about my lengthy warm-up routine whenever he runs with me. I keep telling Levi that my longer, bigger, and therefore vastly superior muscles require more intensive preparation for peak performance. The real reason, which he would think is dorky, is that I recite the correct anatomical name for each muscle as I stretch. Not just the superficial muscles, but the deep ones too. I want an edge over the other college freshmen in my Human Anatomy class this fall.

By the time I finish my warm-up and anatomy review, the sun peeks through the trees. One ray of light shines on my semaa offering. Niishin! It is good.

My first mile is always hardest. Part of me still wants to be in bed with my cat, Herri, whose purrs are the opposite of an alarm clock. But if I power through, my breathing will find its rhythm, accompanied by the swish of my heavy ponytail. My legs and arms will operate on autopilot. That’s when my mind will wander into the zone, where I’m part of this world but also somewhere else, and the miles pass in a semi-alert haze.

My route takes me through campus. The prettiest view in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is on the other side. I blow a kiss as I run past Lake State’s newest dorm, Fontaine Hall, named after my grandfather on my mother’s side. My grandmother Mary—I call her GrandMary—insisted I wear a dress to the dedication ceremony last summer. I was tempted to scowl in the photos but knew my defiance would hurt Mom more than it would tick off GrandMary.

I cut through the parking lot behind the student union toward the north end of campus. The bluff showcases a gorgeous panoramic view of the St. Marys River, the International Bridge into Canada, and the city of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Nestled in the bend of the river east of town is my favorite place in the universe: Sugar Island.

The rising sun hides behind a low, dark cloud at the horizon beyond the island. I halt in place, awestruck. Shafts of light fan out from the cloud, as if Sugar Island is the source of the sun’s rays. A cool breeze ruffles my T-shirt, giving me goose bumps in mid-August.

“Ziisabaaka Minising.” I whisper in Anishinaabemowin the name for the island, which my father taught me when I was little. It sounds like a prayer. My father’s family, the Firekeeper side, is as much a part of Sugar Island as its spring-fed streams and sugar maple trees.

When the cloud moves on and the sun reclaims her rays, a gust of wind propels me forward. Back to my run and to the task ahead.

______________

Me once more. I let this one run long because it is yet another slow-build opening, yet I felt connected to the character and interested in the what’s-to-come. The writer is dropping in character backstory early, but notice that she is savvy enough to also tease us. The first graph, for example, feels slow but then we get that last line: “A name that connects me to my father—because I began as a secret, and then a scandal.” And the narrator hints several times that there is a “task” ahead of her. I don’t read much YA, but this feels fresh and engaging to me.

Okay, I’m done. If you are struggling with your openings, I’d encourage you to go to that list of nominees and read the samples online. So much variety there! I think our genre is in good hands.

 

Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

Full Disclosure: Jump cut may not be the correct term for the advice that follows. Years ago, the late great John Yeoman, beloved writing coach and friend, called the cinematic technique a jump cut during one of our lengthy craft discussions. Thus, it’s the term I’ve always used. Then I reread JSB’s 2018 article to prepare for this post. Jim’s correct use of the term is more widely known. Nowhere could I find the description of what I call a jump cut. Nonetheless, the two techniques are basically the same. When I use the term, I’m referring to the macro-level. Jim’s post focused on the micro-level.

Clear as mud? Okie doke, moving on…

The macro-level jump cut is a technique where the writer drops the reader into a harrowing situation—in media res—conflict builds, tensions rise, all without the reader knowing what proceeded this scene (aside from a few hints). The scene ends at a pivotal moment. Next scene rewinds the clock to the days or hours leading up to the opener. We’ve all seen this play out in movies and net-streaming series. Novelists use it to ensure readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist wound up there. Inducing curiosity and/or fear in the opener strangleholds the reader, forcing them to keep flipping pages.

The payoff that follows must live up to the hook. All my Grafton County Series novels (except the first book) open with the first half of the jump cut scene. Chapter One rewinds the story. It isn’t necessary to label this scene as a prologue. I do, but it could also be the first chapter. If you choose to include it as a prologue, Chapter One still needs its own hook.

Remember the pivotal moment where we left the reader? No matter where the payoff is—first plot point, midpoint, or climax—continue the jump cut scene from there. Newer writers may be tempted to copy/paste the first half of the scene. Resist that urge. Trust the reader to connect the dots. They’ll recognize the setting and situation.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Prologue of Pressure Points by Larry Brooks opens like this…

It was the echo of gunfire that kept him running. His body had long ago abandoned hope, pushing on faith alone through a fog of pain and fatigue. Logic screamed that this was pointless, while another voice whispered it was all a lie. Both were old friends that had served him well, and like Jesus on his fortieth desert night, he was tempted.

But neither voice was real. The gunshot had been real. The echo of it was real.

And so he ran. For his very life, and for those left behind. He knew that precious little time remained, and what was left was as critical as it was dwindling. Everything he had ever learned or believed or dreamed was at stake. He was out of options, down to a final chance that, win or lose, would be his statement to the universe.

It was his time. He had come full circle.

It is not paranoia when they are really out to get you. When they are right on your ass, downwind of the scent of your blood, closing fast.

Whoever the hell they are.

He ran all through the night’s relentless downpour. Low branches whipped his forehead and cheeks until they bled. He could feel his heart pounding in every extremity of his body, his vision clouded by sweat and rain. Both elbows were bloodied from a fall when his foot caught an exposed root, sending him skating wildly across a patch of decaying leaves. Leaping over a rotting log, he felt his right ankle turn impossibly inward, and the ensuing bolt of pain seized his leg like a pair of gigantic hands twisting with the enthusiasm of a gleeful sadist. But he had no time for this or any other distraction, not on this night, when, one way or the other, his past would finally and conclusively catch up with him.

Chapter One rewinds to 41 days earlier. I can’t show you the payoff scene without ruining the ending. Trust me, it’s amazing.

Please excuse my using an excerpt from one of my books. I searched my Kindle for other examples but couldn’t find any that jumped out at me.

The Prologue of RACKED opens with…

In the vast openness of the snowmobile trails, solar-powered Christmas lights danced across pine needles on the branches I separated while the lanky silhouette of the Serial Predator tossed shovelfuls of dirty snow on a mound. Was he digging a fresh grave? My calf muscles jumping-jacked beneath my skin, begging me to run. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

A row of thin birch trees bowed over the makeshift grave, thin branches curled like the skeletal fingers of a demon protecting its prey. The overcast sky blurred the hazy moon into non-compliance, its glow hastened by gathering storm clouds.

Who did he plan to bury here? My gloved hand clawed at my throat.

Please tell me Noah’s still with Mrs. Falanga. All the saliva in my mouth dried, my insides squirming, screaming for release. What if Childs left his post long enough for the Serial Predator to sneak past him? What if he murdered everyone in the house? What if he abducted my son after Mrs. Falanga tucked him in bed? She might not realize he’s missing till dawn.

Beyond the tree a flashlight balanced on its end, a smoldering yellow glow pointed toward the heavens. Cigarette smoke billowed through the haze. Hot ash tumbled into the darkness when he flicked the filter into the arctic December air.

I backed away from the tree.

Crunch.

My right heel froze on the pinecone.

The Serial Predator slung his portable spade over one shoulder and stalked toward me. “Hello?”

Male voice. Almost familiar. Where had I heard it before?

Holding my breath, cramps squeezed my calf muscles as I crouched behind the conifer, flames tunneling down my sciatic nerve to my partially raised foot, bent at such an angle mind-numbing pain riddled the whole right side of my leg.

The Serial Predator hustled back to the shallow grave, and I lowered my wet boot to the snow. The moment he turned his back, I nosedived toward the base of the tree trunk, slithering beneath the branches like a frightened garter snake. Snow piled around the bottom helped shield the top half of my body. I pulled my legs out of view. A glacial breeze swept across my wet hair, and I could not stop shivering, the icy snow soaking through my jeans and wool coat.

With one smooth motion, he swiped his flashlight off the snow and aimed the beam toward the pine tree. “Hello?”

After the blinding light struck my eyes, I would never be able to describe his face or any distinguishable features, the black hoodie masking his identity. He could be anyone. Or no one.

With both gloved hands covering my nose and mouth, I held back icy breath that threatened to reveal my hiding spot.

“Is someone there?”

A cylindrical sphere lasered through the pine needles, and I ducked, my bare cheek trembling against a clustered mass of icicles. Snow boots clomped around the tree, then stopped—inches from my face.

Dear God, don’t let him find me.

Chapter One rewinds to 26 hours earlier.

Have you used this technique in one of your novels? There’s nothing wrong with writing a linear storyline. This is just another option. Let’s discuss.

Lust, Football and Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Remember when sports used to be about winning a trophy? Not a participation trophy, which didn’t exist until about thirty years ago. A trophy was supposed to be something you earned.

An athlete wins a letter by meeting a playing-time requirement. I remember winning my letter at ol’ Taft High. How proud I was. I could now rightly don the vaunted letterman’s jacket with leather sleeves and all. A big T was stitched on the jacket, to which I could add pins for certain accomplishments. When I was elected captain, I got to stitch a star to the triceps part of the sleeve.

Back then, jackets and letters and trophies were rewards on the merits. They were an incentive to strive, work hard, do your best.

How times have changed.

We just concluded the NFL draft in—fittingly—Las Vegas. Fitting because a Nevada sex worker offered the #1 pick another kind of “award”—a professional tumble, for free.

How inspirational! Another incentive for all you kids out there to work hard at your sport!

Pardon me as I try to hold down my breakfast.

Ah, but I am most happy to report that this year’s #1 pick, Travon Walker (DE, Georgia) sounds like a class act who will not be taking up the offer. In his video interview he paid homage to his Marine father for discipline and his schoolteacher mother for his grades. And thanked God for them both.

Go forth, young man, and be a star!

Now let’s talk about lust.

Lust—held the poets and philosophers, seers and sages—is the strongest and deadliest of the passions. It gets first place in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Lust, anger and greed, these three are the soul-destroying gates of hell.”

Or as Chaucer put it in Canterbury Tales:

Foul lust of lechery, behold thy due.
Not only dost thou darken man’s mind,
But bringest destruction on his body too…

Which is why lust is such a powerful fire in fiction. It is the force behind every femme fatale in noir, and almost exclusively the downfall of the male. Think of slick insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, or lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat. Think of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, caught in the alluring web of the devious Brigid O’Shaughnessy even as he knows he must deliver her to the cops.

Lust in fiction is not the sole purview of the male, of course, as certain romance covers aver. Those six-pack abs and low-rider jeans do not betoken Sunnybrook Farm. And though I’ve never read it, isn’t lust the entire driving force of Fifty Shades of Grey? (I prefer the Amish version, Fifty Shades of Hay.)

Thus, lust is a potent source of inner conflict, and inner conflict bonds reader to character.

At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Spade has to fight his passion for Brigid, the murderess of his partner, and his inner conflict is evident in what he tells her:

“I won’t play the sap for you.”

“Don’t say that, please.” She took his hand from her shoulder and held it to her face. “Why must you do this to me, Sam? Surely Mr. Archer wasn’t as much to you as—”

“Miles,” Spade said hoarsely, “was a son of a bitch. I found that out the first week we were in business together and I meant to kick him out as soon as the year was up. You didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.”

“Then what?”

Spade pulled his hand out of hers. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly. He said: “Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the—”

“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth—but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before—when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights—but that’ll pass. Listen.” He took her by the shoulders and bent her back, leaning over her. “If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to–wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it—and because—God damn you—you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others.” He took his hands from her shoulders and let them fall to his sides.

Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.

That’s why The Maltese Falcon is a classic and not another run-of-the-mill detective story. It’s not just about greed and murder. It’s about a man’s soul torn between two savage passions—lust and duty.

Is any of that going on in any of your characters?

World Builders

Authors are world builders. We use a gift not many people possess to spin fictional tales about people who live in our heads. Some find that creating characters can be difficult, others concentrate on their characteristics, while many can reach out into the air and pull entire towns and places together without effort.

I find that my fully developed characters walk on stage when I need them. They take over, dropping bits and pieces of their backstories as the story develops and I watch them come alive as my fingers fly over the keys. I’m lucky that way.

Writers sometimes say they have issues creating characters, but I’ve never heard a writer say they have problems with locations. I know several who write about the cities or towns where they lived or grew up. They use existing locations, because they know them. If it’s a historical novel, they might spend considerable time researching a certain setting through whatever means works for them.

As I’ve written before, sometimes you have to actually visit a location during the research process, and there are authors who travel the world to better understand the environment, and the people who live there.

I use real settings in Northeast Texas, West Texas, East Texas and the Panhandle, and more recently Eastern Oklahoma and Hot Springs, Arkansas, but I handle those places differently in print. I change the names of those communities and towns.

But why, if they’re real places? You can use Google maps to find streets, highways, and even buildings. Keep it simple, stupid, and use what’s there.

There’s a reason for that. There are readers who delight in pointing out errors in a novel and I think they receive great satisfaction in writing to stay…

“I enjoyed your book, but 1st Street NW in Paris, Texas, is one way. You wrote that it’s a two way, and sir, that’s wrong!”

Or…

“There’s aren’t any houses at the corner of West Lincoln and Highland Street in Marfa, Texas. They start halfway down the block. You should visit the places you write about.”

I get the occasional email pointing out elusive typos, or in their opinion, cars didn’t have push button shifters in the 1940s. Well, yes they did, I know, because I drove a 1948 DeSoto for a year in high school and it had Fluid-drive in addition to manual shifting.

NOTE: A 1948 DeSoto was not the car that impressed girls in 1970. Come to think of it, the four-door 1959 Galaxie 500 I drove for the next three years wasn’t either.

To alleviate those issues with reality, I simply change the name of existing towns and mold them into what I want, or need. In my Red River series, Paris, Texas, became Chisum. That name came from John Chisum, a central player in the New Mexico Lincoln County War (which made famous Billy the Kid and his Regulators). He’s buried in Paris and it seemed fitting.

I partially grew up in the community of Chicota, and changed it back to the original name of Center Springs. I also merged two towns in the Big Bend Region of the Lone Star state. Alpine and Marfa became Ballard (named after my college roommate), and I’ve created other towns from whole cloth.

Now I can run my streets any way I want. If I need the courthouse to be six stories high, I can do it, and no one has any reason to call me on it. This idea works for me in other ways, too. I was looking at Google maps one day and noticed the Red River twisted out of its banks several years ago. A sliver of Oklahoma wound up on the Texas side.

But it still belongs to Oklahoma and there was considerable litigation about that issue. That orphan piece of land is north of a rancher’s property, and there still aren’t any official roads in and out of there, other than the cattleman’s two tracks made by his own truck.

It was thin I began to wonder…what if?

What if there no one claimed the fallow land?

What if bad buys decided to “homestead” it, pay the Texas landowner for a two-track right of way and build a honky tonk?

What if they sold drugs and had gambling in addition to selling beer and liquor?

What if someone was murdered in this no man’s land?

In Laying Bones, (Book 8 in the Red River series), I addressed all those questions and more, built a fictional honky tonk world on that sliver of land, and explored what could happen.

The plot came from an offhand mention during a funeral about five years ago. Back in 1964, a distant cousin, R.B. Armstrong got drunk in an Oklahoma club one night, drove back across the river into Texas and overturned his car into Sanders Creek and drowned in only a few inches of water. He was my Old Man’s running buddy, and Dad wondered about R.B.’s death until the day he died in 2010.

I was talking to my first cousin, Roger, at the aforementioned funeral and we got to talking about the Old Man, R.B., and the rest of those old men who were part of the Greatest Generation. I told Roger Dad brought up R.B.’s drowning only he died, saying it sure was a shame.

Roger gave me a strange look and shook his head. His daddy was a Lamar County deputy sheriff at that time and Roger knew more than I did. “Rev, R.B. didn’t drown that night. He didn’t have any water in his lungs. He was murdered and they suspect a couple of guys drove him out there and pushed the car off into the creek. That story you know was made up to save the family more grief than they could handle at the time.”

I was stunned. What if that were true?

Our discussion bubbled along in my subconscious until I found that spit of land on Google Maps a few months later. Click. The light bulb went on and I had a novel because we’re world builders.

Use that wonderful imagination of yours, explore alternatives, and no one can call you out on it.

Oh, by the way, 1st Street NW in Chisum is a two way, in my world.

 

 

True Crime Thursday – DEEPFAKES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.

This saying has been around for centuries, variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allen Poe.

Today, thanks to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), you can no longer believe anything you hear or see.

That’s because what your ears hear and what your eyes see could be a DEEPFAKE.

What is a deepfake? Wikipedia says:

…synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s likeness. While the act of faking content is not new, deepfakes leverage powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with a high potential to deceive. The main machine learning methods used to create deepfakes are based on deep learning and involve training generative neural network architectures, such as autoencoders or generative adversarial networks (GANs).

Deepfakes have garnered widespread attention for their uses in creating child sexual abuse material, celebrity pornographic videosrevenge pornfake newshoaxes, bullying, and financial fraud. This has elicited responses from both industry and government to detect and limit their use.

 

I wrote about AI three years ago. Since then, technology has progressed at warp speed.

The first recognized crime that used deepfake technology occurred in 2019 with voice impersonation.

The CEO of an energy business in the UK received an urgent call from his boss, an executive at the firm’s German parent company. The CEO recognized his boss’s voice…or so he thought. He was instructed to immediately transfer $243,000 to pay a Hungarian supplier. He followed orders and transferred the money.

The funds went into a Hungarian account but then disappeared to Mexico. According to the company’s insurer, Euler Hermes, the money was never recovered.

To pull off the heist, cybercriminals used AI voice-spoofing software that perfectly mimicked the boss’s tone, speech inflections, and slight German accent.

Such spoofing extends to video deceptions that are chilling. The accuracy of movement and gesture renders the imposter clone indistinguishable from the real person. Some research shows a fake face can more believable than the real one.

Security safeguards like voice authentication and facial recognition are no longer reliable.

A November 2020 study by Trend Micro, Europol, and United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute concludes:

The Crime-as-a-Service (CaaS) business model, which allows non-technologically savvy criminals to procure technical tools and services in the digital underground that allow them to extend their attack capacity and sophistication, further increases the potential for new technologies such as AI to be abused by criminals and become a driver of crime.

We believe that on the basis of technological trends and developments, future uses or abuses could become present realities in the not-too-distant future.

The not-too-distant future they mentioned in 2020 is here today. A person no longer needs to be a sophisticated expert to create fake video and audio recordings of real people that defy detection.

In the following YouTube, a man created a fake image of himself to fool coworkers into believing they were video-chatting with the real person. It’s long—more than 18 minutes—but watching even a few minutes demonstrates how simple the process is.

Consider the implications:

What if you could appear to be in one place but actually be somewhere else? Criminals can create their own convincing alibis.

If corrupt law enforcement, government entities, or political enemies want to frame or discredit someone, they manufacture video evidence that shows the person engaged in criminal or abhorrent behavior.

Imagine the mischief terrorists could cause by putting words in the mouths of world leaders. Here are some examples: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/pentagons-race-against-deepfakes/

Deepfakes could change history, creating events that never actually happened. Check out this example made at MIT of a fake Richard Nixon delivering a fake 1969 speech to mourn astronauts who supposedly perished on the moon. Fast forward to 4:18.

How was this software developed?

It arose from Machine Learning (ML). The process involves pitting computers against one another to see which one most accurately reproduces expressions, gestures, and voices from real people. The more they compete with each other, the better they learn, and the more authentic their fakes become.

A fanciful imagining of a contest might sound like this.

Computer A: “Hey, look at this Jack Nicholson eyebrow quirk I mastered.”

Computer B: “That’s nothing. Samuel L. Jackson’s nostril flare is much harder. Bet yours can’t top mine.”

Computer A: “Oh yeah? Check out how I made Margaret Thatcher to cross her legs just like Sharon Stone.”

The Europol study further outlined ways that deepfakes could be used for malicious or criminal purposes:

Destroying the image and credibility of an individual,

Harassing or humiliating individuals online,

Perpetrating extortion and fraud,

Facilitating document fraud,

Falsifying online identities and fooling KYC [Know Your Customer] mechanisms,

Falsifying or manipulating electronic evidence for criminal justice investigations,

Disrupting financial markets,

Distributing disinformation and manipulating public opinion,

Inciting acts of violence toward minority groups,

Supporting the narratives of extremist or even terrorist groups, and

Stoking social unrest and political polarization

 

In the era of deepfakes, can video/audio evidence ever be trusted again?

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A big Thank You to TKZ regular K.S. Ferguson who suggested the idea for this post and provided sources.

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TKZers: Can you name books, short stories, or films that incorporate deepfakes in the plot? Feel free to include sci-fi/fantasy from the past where the concept is used before it existed in real life.

Please put on your criminal hat and suggest fictional ways a bad guy could take advantage of deepfakes.

Or put on your detective hat and offer solutions to thwart the evil-doer.

~~~

 

Debbie Burke’s characters are not created by Artificial Intelligence but rather by her real imagination. 

Please check out her latest Tawny Lindholm Thriller. 

Until Proven Guilty is for sale at major booksellers here.