True Crime Thursday – Federal Gas Relief

 

Photo credit: rock staar, unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Something for nothing is the bait that lures many people to fall for scams. Even more insidious are the ones that promise to solve a bona-fide problem. When there is pending legislation about that problem, the scam becomes even more convincing.

With skyrocketing gas prices, the stage is set for enterprising fraudsters who never let a good crisis go to waste.  

Attorney Steve Weisman, creator of Scamicide.com, is consistently on the forefront of new scams that surface faster than lawn mushrooms after a rain. (His alerts have spawned several True Crime Thursday posts and he graciously agreed to be quoted again.)

The latest scam he highlighted is the Federal Fuel Relief Program.

Except there is no such program.

The FTC reports an uptick in calls, emails, and texts supposedly from government representatives who offer rebates or relief checks to soften the impact of high gas prices.

According to Steve: “All you need do, they tell you, is provide some personal and financial information in order to be eligible for the program.”

Sounds simple, right? Simple for scammers to steal your information to commit further fraud.

Why do people continue to fall for these tricks? Because it’s increasingly confusing to parse out actual facts from the news/rumor mill.

It’s even more difficult when some municipalities are in fact paying out such rebates, as described in this article on GoBankingRates.com:

The city of Chicago has already started issuing some of the 50,000 prepaid $150 gas cards and 100,000 prepaid $50 transit cards approved by the city council.

North Carolina and California have pending legislation for similar measures. Californians could qualify for up to $1050 in relief.

The proposed Gas Rebate Act of 2022 is currently being discussed in the U.S House of Representatives, potentially with payments of $100/month or higher to qualified households during every month that average gas prices are above $4/gallon.

Photo credit: boopathi-rajaa-nedunchezhiyan-unsplash

Whether these or other proposals pass is up in the air. Some end up only being hot air.

But people often assume they’ve gone into effect. Next thing they know, that friendly, helpful “government employee” calls up, offering to expedite the process. Just verify your Social Security number and bank account number so they can direct-deposit the rebate.

Steve’s tagline is “Trust me, you can’t trust anybody.” That includes the caller ID that claims the IRS or Social Security is on the line or a link in an official-looking email or text that takes you to a fraudulent site masquerading as a government agency.

Scammers continue to refine their tactics and grow ever more sophisticated and convincing with their frauds.

Warn family and friends, particularly seniors who are prime targets, NEVER to give out personal information when someone calls, emails, or texts, without first verifying the sender is legitimate.

The Federal Fuel Relief Program is pure flatulence. The only relief is to hang up or hit delete.

~~~

TKZers: What’s the latest scam you or someone you know has been targeted by?

Feel free to share horror stories. The more we know, the less likely we are to be victimized.

~~~

 

Please check out my thriller Stalking Midas about a glamorous con artist who targets an addled millionaire with nine feral cats.

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What’s Your Name Again?

By John Gilstrap

Of the countless moving parts in a story, an element I find among the top five most annoying is the naming of characters.

A famous romance writer said in an article I read years ago that she cannot type the first word of her stories until she knows the characters’ names. The names, she said, say so much about the characters and their personalities, and without that bit of creative data locked into her brain, none of the other stuff works.

To me, characters’ names–particularly the minor ones–are little more than labels. I have to call them something, right? There are practical considerations, too. Many of those are tied to the fact that I want to make this writing business as simple as possible for myself.

I keep the names short.

I’m going to be typing the letter sequence of a name dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a manuscript. Typing four letters hundreds of times is easier than typing 12 or 15 letters hundreds of times.

I keep the names pronounceable. 

When I read silently, I actually read aloud but without making noise. I pronounce every word in my head as I plow through, and when I stumble onto a name that I can’t pronounce, the story stops for me. This is one of the primary reasons why I don’t read fantasy stories. In my own writing, one of the reasons why I don’t deal with Middle Eastern terrorists–other than the fact that every other writer in my corner of the thrillerverse is doing it–is I don’t want to get bogged down with Middle Eastern names.

I avoid homophonic names.

At the beginning of each book, I tackle the administrative task of updating my auto correct to automatically capitalize my characters’ names. Thus, when I type jonathan, it automatically converts to Jonathan. Thus, you’ll never find me writing a book with a character named Robin. If I did, then the bird version of the road would be capitalized. The reason why my recurring character named Boxers has an S at the end is so it doesn’t conflict with the pugilistic version of the word.

Google is my friend.

The drug cartels of Central and South America are frequent enemies of Jonathan Grave, which means I create POV characters who need Hispanic names. To find them, I turn to Google and type “Colombian (or Mexican or Venezuelan) surnames” and “Colombian (etc.) first names.” Then I shop for names from those lists.

Excel is also my friend.

My Victoria Emerson series is a true series, where each story builds on the one that preceded it. At this point, having just submitted White Smoke (the third book in the series, following Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire), I’m about 900 pages into the story. Between main characters, secondary characters and walk-ons, I’ve introduced about 150 named players. The only way to keep them straight was to create a spreadsheet that documented their names, a descriptor, and which subplot they’re a part of.

So, TKZ family, are character names important to you? How do you choose them?

Sexual Reeling

By PJ Parrish

Today I want to talk about sex. The dirty deed. The two-backed beast. The Nasty. Le Freak. Riding the Pony. Rock ‘n’ Rolling. Aardvarking. Boinking. Shagging. Doing the No-Pants Dance.

And I want to ask just one question: Why are crime writers such wusses when it comes to sex?

I had to lay aside a nice post I had started for today about settings, and now I have to talk about sex because of the current book I am reading. It’s by a well-known thriller writer and I was having a good time with it until last night. That’s when he got to the sex scene. It was awful. No, worse than awful. I laughed. And now I am having trouble getting back in the mood. So forgive my testiness today.

What the heck happens to some writers when they have to write about sex?

l tell you what I think happens. They get as self-conscious as pimply prom dates. Crime writers can meet murder head on and not flinch, can even render death poetic. But faced with having to describe copulation — especially in the context of — gasp! relationships — they can turn out the most dreadful, unbelievable, embarrassing treacle.

Let’s crack open a page here:

“But the hand was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns — oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest — no, the hand was cupping her entire right — Now!”

That wasn’t from the book I was reading last night. That writer shall remain nameless. I might have to face him someday in the Bouchercon bar. That passage above was written by Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons.

Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?

At the risk of being offensive here, I will suggest that it is usually the guys who fall apart when sex rears its ugly head in their books. Not that women crime writers haven’t turned out some leaden bedroom prose. But I’m thinking it might have something to do with the “guy relationship” thing. Male crime writers tend to get squeamish when they have to write about the emotional stuff. So when the impulses of the heart (or even just loins) propel the hero(ine) into bed, things get icky fast. And guys, especially thriller writer guys, tend to chomp onto the cliches like a rabid Jack Russell. Like: Why is the woman always hot to trot with no warmup? (This was the basic problem with the book I was reading last night).

Believe me, I sympathize with any of you who have problems writing sex scenes. Before I turned to writing mysteries, I used to write what in the Eighties was euphemistically called Women’s Contemporary Fiction. (Big fat sagas about internecine family intrigue with sex scenes). I became pretty good at sex, if I do say so myself. So I know how hard it is to write about it without looking silly. For starters, you have get your folks out of their clothes. And then you have to get the plumbing connections right. And then — and here’s where most writers lose it — you might have to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like two four-year-olds making mud pies.

Okay, I have a confession to make. For six books into our series, we had managed to avoid our hero Louis Kincaid having sex, probably on purpose. Once, I even got a fan letter from a lady in Maine asking me why Louis never had sex. But in A Killing Rain, he fell in love with a woman, Joe Frye, and it was finally time for Louis to get some. My co-author sister Kelly and I knew the scene was coming, and we decided it had to be on camera. No wussy fade to black this time. So there we were, sitting in my office with our Ferrante and Teicher computers. I had drawn duty to write the sex scene, but man, I just couldn’t do it. It just seemed so darn…yucky, given our hardboiled style. But there was Louis and his woman and it was my duty to light their fire. And I froze.

Writing together in my office. Not sure if this was the actual day of the sex scene but from the look on my face, it probably was.

Kelly, hearing no typing, turned and asked, “Okay, what is it now?”
“I can’t do this. I got them out on the dark porch. You take it.”
So we switched chairs and Kelly gave it a go. After a moment, I realized I hadn’t heard any typing. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I got their clothes half off. You take it.”
I rolled back and gave it another shot. Nada. Dry as dust. I had lost that lovin’ feeling.

Finally, we sat side by side and sweated it out. It was brutal. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a From Here To Eternity beach cop-out.

Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, I’ll allow some men to weigh in here. Here’s C.J. Box, at the Montana Festival of the Book, talking about how he does it: “My protagonist is married, so there are no sex scenes.”

Wuss…

Here’s Neil McMahon, in an interview talking about his first book, Twice Dying, where his man and woman ended up in a motel room. He tried to slide by with a few sentences. But his editor demanded a full-blown sex scene, saying, “All right. This is it. You’re going to have to write this. It’s going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker.” So I wrote it, McMahon said.

Brave man…

For a more thoughtful take, let’s go to my good friend Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues: “Sex is a theme in Tribeca Blues — covert sex, back-alley sex, the ramifications of that kind of thing. So there had to be a sex scene between two people who have genuine affection for each other. In the context of the story, I think it works. It’s sensual but not salacious. It wasn’t easy to write. I felt a little squeamish. I don’t know. I’m not a prude, but maybe I had too many years of Catholic school or something. You know, if you’re going to write it, you have to write it well. You’ve got to feel it and make it real. You can’t be saying “wee-wee” and “boobies” any more than you can say “throbbing member” or “heaving love mounds” or some bullshit like that. It’s got to be as believable as when you’ve got him walking down the street.”

At least Jim has the guts to meet the subject head on.

Not all guy crime writers shy away from sex. Some embrace it. Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb have produced some sophisticated erotic mysteries. But those are the small exceptions.

In closing, I’ll give the last word to a woman –veteran mystery novelist and Edgar winner Dana Stabenow: “There are a ton of people, critics and writers alike, who say that in detective fiction it should be the classic Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character who have to be loners. That’s changed a lot with the advent of women writing in the mystery field, because women tend to emphasize relationships. For about 5,000 years that was pretty much all we had, our lives revolved around relationships and our husbands and our families and our children. So there are a lot of women reading mystery fiction and I think publishers are going to publish what they can sell — and if they can sell mysteries that have an element of relationship in them, then that’s what they’re going to solicit writers to produce.”

And damn it, that includes sex.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe we need convention panels or workshops to teach this stuff. All I know is I am glad I don’t write romantic novels anymore. Frankly, sex just wears me out. Writing it, that is. I’m too old now. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.

 

First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. See ya on the flip-side.

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 

CHAPTER ONE

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail, as I walked and dwelled on past sins and future amends, Girl hunted.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.” I wedged the glove in a pine tree branch and headed toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscross the snow and Girl runs in circles.

But her guttural vocals, dog-talk I call it, told me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow; instead of a glove or purse, I saw a bare hand and forearm: black hair and white skin. I wondered if Girl pulled the ski glove off the hand as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive: SEXUEL TABOU.

I brushed snow off the face: a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

My breath clouded in the frigid air as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory of the last pulse I checked—five years ago, an unconscious man prone on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife and I busted a beer bottle over his head and held the jagged edge to his throat—accompanied me down the snow-covered trail.

I checked that guy’s pulse out of self-interest to ensure I hadn’t killed him. Then I walked out of the bar into a dusty street under a hot-as-hell sun and onto a bus heading out of town, leaving a job as a deckhand on a sportfishing boat without notice or collecting pay. Better than getting locked up again.

***

Brave Writer, we have a little colon/semicolon problem that needs to be addressed. With a few rare exceptions, they’re not necessary in fiction. If you pretend they don’t exist, you won’t use them as a crutch. That’s not a dig, btw. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t have crutch words, phrases, or punctuation they fall back on. The trick is learning our crutches so we can kill our darlings during edits.

Let’s dive right in…

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail (Is the day of the week important? If it is, fine. If it isn’t, delete), as I walked (use a stronger verb. Hiked?) and dwelled on past sins and future amends, [my dog] Girl hunted. Added “my dog” for clarity.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl [had a] always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: (change colon to em dash) dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills. <–  Here’s your opening line.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

Condense all of the above, like this…

My dog Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

On the snowy hiking trail of Mount Whatever, Girl slalomed around pine trees in search of prey. I threw a snowball for her to fetch, but she returned with a ski glove instead.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.”

With only a pet character to chat with, be careful your dialogue doesn’t become too on-the-nose. Less is more. Example: “Huh. That’s odd. Somebody must be looking for it.”

I wedged the glove between two in a pine tree branches and headed (be precise. Hiked, clomped, plodded, lumbered, strode…) toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscrossed the snow and Girl runs ran in circles (if she’s running in circles, she’s not digging a hole, yet you say she dug a hole three lines below. Easy fix. End the sentence after “snow”).

But her Girl’s guttural vocals, dog-talk I called it, told (alerted?) me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

Girl bounced on her front paws, then took off, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds to ensure I followed (to give her some personality).

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow.; instead of a glove or purse, I saw (saw is a telling word. Start the paragraph here –>) A bare hand and forearm protruded from a snowbank.: (lose the colons and semi-colons) Black hair, pale and white skin. I wondered (wondered is also a telling word. Rewrite into a question.) Did Girl pull the ski glove off the hand? as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. (<– Nice!) After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive.:  Rather than that pesky colon, set the next line apart like this…

SEXUEL TABOU. (Do you mean Sexual? Also, don’t change fonts. Use italics instead.)

I brushed snow off the face: (you’re killing me with these colons!) a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered (rewrite into a question to remove “wondered”) if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

Why would the MC assume the tattoo and his death are related? If it is a clue, don’t tell us yet. Let the reader wonder if there’s a connection and move on. Later, the MC can circle back to this clue. For more on how to use misdirection, read this post.

My breath clouded in the frigid air (<– great imagery) as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory (reminder?) of the last pulse I checked. (Don’t use an em dash here. It muddies the sentence.) Five years ago, an unconscious man lay prone (you know prone means facedown, right?) on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife. (This paragraph and ones after it can all be summed up in two sentences. Otherwise, it’s a flashback, and it’s much too early for a flashback.) He’s the reason I left a good-paying job and fled to [insert where we are]. Better than getting locked up. Again (I separated Again into a staccato to give it a little added punch, but it’s also fine as one sentence).

Hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Brave Writer. My only goal is to help you succeed. Once you clean up the few issues I mentioned, you’ll have a compelling storyline. I’d flip the page to find out what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

What do you think of the title? Would you turn the page?

Dialogue, Dashes, and Details

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique is labeled biblical fiction. Let’s have a look:

It Fell From the North

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? –”

“Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

“What else can I be,” Meshach retorted, “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my vase and quiet –”

“It’s unlike you –”

“You’ve better manners than that,” he admonished.

“Sir!” Kittim pleaded, “I’ve got some urgent and disturbing news which you need to hear.”

“Kittim!” Meshach said – gesturing dismissively – “What could be more urgent than what I sent you to fetch from where you are supposed to be at now? But here you are! –”

“You need to go back and get it.”

“Sir! Please!” Kittim implored, “You need to hear what I heard out there.”

“Why would I want to? You know I don’t like gossip…and for that reason gossipers too.”

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your –”

“So! Tell me! Of what concern is it to me that I should hear what you heard?” he asked sardonically.

“– Y – Your name came up, Sir.” Kittim stuttered.

Meshach furrowed his brow and seemed surprised. “My name was mentioned? –”

“Yes!”

“Are you sure you heard right?” he asked again still not convinced.

“Yes! It was. More than once. So I thought, maybe you’re somehow involved in it, and you’d want to know what’s going on. That’s why I rushed back here,” Kittim replied.

Meshach placed his thick arms on the table and cupped his chin with his right hand. He scratched the week-old stubble on his jaw for a time and then he muttered, “There’s got to be a sound reason for all of this….”

“What was that, Sir?”

The old man stopped scratching and sighed.

“Eh! Just ignore that, Ok! –”

“Now then, speak! I’m listening. Try to make it quick and brief, there’s no time. In thirty minutes, I’ve to be somewhere else attending to other affairs, and I can’t be late.”

“Sir!” Kittim squeaked, “The King has finally lost it.”

Meshach stiffened and turned pale at the news. He felt his heart pounding loudly against his chest, his breathing coming in short but quick bursts.

The old man rose and headed for the door.

***

JSB: Here’s what I like about this opening. It starts with dialogue, which automatically makes it a scene. It’s not description or exposition. We get right into the action. (Remember: Dialogue is a compression and extension of action. It’s a physical thing characters engage in to pursue an agenda.)

The dialogue is confrontational. That means the scene starts off with the lifeblood of fiction, conflict. This automatically means there is a disturbance to the character’s ordinary world.

Now we have some cleaning up to do.

Don’t Confuse the Reader

With dialogue there has to be absolute clarity about who is speaking and what their attitude is. Thus, at the start, we’re confused:

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? –”

“Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

So we have two characters, Kittim and Meshach. The latter is chewing out the former. Meshach speaks first. But then there’s a second line of dialogue which is still Meshach.

No: A new paragraph starting with an open quote is always—always—another character speaking. (Yes, in the past it was the style to break up a character’s long speech into two or more paragraphs, where you did not close the quote at the paragraph break, and then began the new paragraph with an open quote. But that’s hardly done anymore and might seem like a “typo” to many readers.)

I’m going to rewrite this for you, taking care of the issue. There will be others that we get to, so let’s do this one step at a time.

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled – and threw a cold look across the table – “What’s the matter with you, boy – breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

For the same reason, you’ve got to rewrite this:

“What else can I be,” Meshach retorted, “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my vase and quiet –”

“It’s unlike you –”

“You’ve better manners than that,” he admonished.

That should be one paragraph, and you don’t need the second attribution (he admonished). (You do it again with the line: “You need to go back and get it.”)

There’s a typo (vase should be peace). You’ve also got a mixup on the punctuation. You really have to nail this stuff! First line should read:

“What else can I be?” Meshach retorted. “When you barreled through my door like a whirlwind and destroyed my peace and quiet.  It’s unlike you. You’ve better manners than that.” 

Now we have to talk about..

…Em Dashes

I love the em dash. It’s a great tool when used correctly. The author here is using an en dash, which is exclusively for dates (e.g., 1958–1963). Make sure you know how and why to make an em! (Please see my post on the subject.)

In dialogue, the em dash is used for interruptions, not for pauses in the dialogue itself. For that, a simple comma suffices. Thus:

“Kittim!” Meshach snarled, and threw a cold look across the table. “What’s the matter with you, boy, breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

The young man clung to the arms of his chair as if he was bracing for a wallop and he said, “Don’t be cross, Sir!”

Every other em dash on this page should be cut, save one:

“Why would I want to? You know I don’t like gossip…and for that reason gossipers too.”

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your –”

“So! Tell me! Of what concern is it to me that I should hear what you heard?” he asked sardonically.

That’s an interruption. But note two things. Make it a real em dash, and stick it right up against the dialogue:

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your—”

Aside: Here’s a little Word trick with smart quotes. If you just type the close quote after the em dash, it’ll come out backwards, like this:

Kittim hesitated. “Yes! But your—“

So after the em dash, use Shift-Option-[ and it’ll come out right.

Unnecessary Dialogue Tags

Now let’s get into the overuse of tags. My advice is simple:

  • Use said or asked as defaults. They do their job and get out of the way.
  • As much as possible, make it clear from the dialogue itself, or an action beat, how someone is speaking. Then you won’t need any tag at all. Thus:

“Kittim!” Meshach threw a cold look across the table. “What’s the matter with you, boy, breezing into my house without a knock? Now, see the grief you’ve caused me again.”

We don’t need snarled. It’s obvious from the exclamation point and the cold look. Here are the other tags used, as if the writer has been told not to use said too much, and to crack open the thesaurus:

retorted

admonished

pleaded

implored

replied

muttered

squeaked

These simply aren’t necessary, and anything unnecessary in fiction becomes what I call a “speed bump.” These mount up and make the fictional journey less than smooth for the reader. We want smooth!

Here’s one example

“– Y – Your name came up, Sir.” Kittim stuttered.

First of all, no em dashes! Stuttering is shown by ellipses, and because of that you don’t need any tag at all.

“Y…your name came up, Sir.”

Adverbs

You’ll hear it all the time, and it’s worth repeating—cut the adverbs. Almost always, especially with dialogue tags, you should let the action or dialogue itself do the work. Now, I’m not the adverb sheriff, and there are some occasions when it may be needed. But be ruthless. First see if you can strengthen the verb. Here you have:

sardonically (not even sure how many readers understand what that is anymore)

dismissively (this one you can probably keep)

loudly (he feels his heart. Can he really hear it?)

Details for Time and Setting

With historical fiction, you’ve simply got to weave in a few descriptive details to let us know where we are. I’m not sure where that is with this piece. Since it’s biblical fiction, and Kittim references a king, we’re probably somewhere in Old Testament times. But are we in Israel? Judah? Babylon? Persia? Cyprus?

Many authors simply use a setting and time stamp, e.g.,

Jerusalem
595 BC

Or you can drop in details a bit at a time. As an example, you might mention the name of the king:

“What could be more urgent than what I sent you to fetch from King Nebuchadnezzar, may he live forever!”

From John Jakes’ historical novel, The Furies, which begins:

About four o’clock Abraham Kent woke from a fitful sleep and realized he couldn’t rest again until the day’s action was concluded, in the Legion’s favor or otherwise.

His heart beat rapidly as he lay sweating in the tiny tent. He heard muted voices outside, saw a play of flame and shadow on the tent wall. Campfires, burning brightly in the sweltering dark. No attempt had been made to conceal the presence of three thousand men on the north bank of the Maumee River. The Indians already knew that the general who commanded the arm of the Fifteen Fires had arrived, and meant to fight. The only question was when.

POV confusion

It seems that Meshach is your POV character because we never get into Kittim’s head. But some of your choices confuse us

Meshach furrowed his brow and seemed surprised.

Seemed? The only one it could seem to is the other character, Kittim. Another speed bump.

and turned pale at the news.

A POV character can’t see his own face (unless looking at a reflection). Again, this is Kittim’s POV.

Make it clear which character the reader should follow, and stay firmly inside that head.

Whew! That’s a lot to think about, writer. Let me conclude with the happy note I began with. You’ve got a handle on the most important narrative strategy for opening pages: a scene with disturbance and conflict. What you have to do now is get rid of the clutter that gets in the reader’s way. If you take to heart these fundamentals, you’ll be well on your way to engaging fiction.

Comments welcome.

Influential Books and Films

I wonder, are writers born with the gift of lying…uh, natural storytelling on paper, or is it inspired by some event in our lives?

In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with our interest in reading and gathering a lifetime of stories. Anyone who’s heard me speak knows I grew up in rural Chicota, Texas, where the old men up at the store loafed on the porch and talked about the world while I drank RC Colas and listened in silence.

My maternal grandparent’s little frame farmhouse had two bedrooms. Back in my larval stages, I slept with my mother in the room with two beds. My grandmother slept in the other. Being country folks, we turned in with the chickens and after lights out, they talked quietly in the darkness while a soft breeze and the call of a whippoorwill flowed through the rusty screens.

And I absorbed every word from every one of those old folks.

I think all those stories planted a seed that morphed into the obsession to spin my own fictional tales. Choosing what to write about might have been hard for some budding authors, but not for me. I fell into mysteries before migrating to thrillers and now, westerns both traditional and contemporary.

Looking back, my life and ultimate genre choices came from books and movies. Stephen King can point to the comics and horror movies he read and watched as a youngster. I’d bet a dollar to a donut that John Grisham writes law thrillers because of his profession, though I imagine he always wanted to be an author. Louis L’Amour wrote his westerns because he loved cowboys, honor, and the west.

Mine came from different sources.

I guess I was pretty malleable back in 1963 when the Old Man took me to see a movie that significantly impacted my life. Y’all likely know the story that started with Earl Hamner Jr.’s novel and eventually became the successful television series, The Waltons. The original movie, though, was filmed in God’s Country, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and featured Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.

In Spencer’s Mountain, Clay and Olivia Spencer are the fourth generation of a family living on Spencer’s Mountain in the Snake River Valley. Though a solid family man with high morals, Clay distains religion while Olivia raises their nine children in the church. They live with his parents, and he promised to build her a dream palace on the mountain to replace their small house.

Their goals are redefined when Clay Jr. is the first Spencer to ever graduate from high school at the top of his class. He wants to continue his education so he won’t have to work in the quarry like his father, but money is issue. Clay Jr.’s teacher, Miss Parker, and the newly arrived Preacher Goodman, do what they can to help him achieve his goal.

An engaging, yet simple movie, but here are my similarities. Dad promised to build mom their dream house, but due to financial difficulties, it never happened. I went to college to become an architect (they helped and I paid the rest), the Tetons are my favorite place to visit and I was once offered a principal’s position in nearby Jackson (which I turned down when I found they had the lowest income and the highest cost of living in the state). I was the first on Dad’s side of the family to graduate college. I live by Clay Sr.’s moral code, though up until I met the Bride I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. I was inspired to read and write by teachers who took an interest me. Clay and I love to fish, especially for trout, and like him, I don’t mind a drink or two…

So, did that movie become the foundation for my life, like the often-seen framing structure of the Spencer house? Did that story spark an interest in becoming an author? Houses and the land are always significant items in every book I write. Hummm….

Before we recline on the couch while a doctor lights a pipe and takes notes, let’s look at another significant movie in my life, Junior Bonner.

One of Director Sam Peckinpah’s lesser successful novels, this rodeo picture skewed me into an entirely different direction the year I graduated in 1972.

Junior Bonner is an almost over the hill rodeo rider. He first appears on the screen taping his injuries after an unsuccessful ride on an ornery bull named Sunshine. He returns to his home town to ride at the annual Fourth of July Prescott rodeo in Arizona to find his brother Curly, a disreputable real-estate developer, is bulldozing the family home in order to build a trailer park. Junior’s womanizing father Ace, and down-to-earth, long-suffering mother, Elvira, are estranged. Ace dreams of emigrating to Australia for once last chance at finding his fortune, but he’s broke.

Junior eventually floors his arrogant brother with a punch and bribes rodeo owner Buck Roan to again let him ride the bull that broke his ribs, promising him half the prize money. Buck thinks he must be crazy, but Junior actually manages to pull it off this time, going the full eight seconds.

Junior walks into a travel agent’s office and buys his father a one-way, first-class ticket to Australia, asking for it to be delivered with the line, “Tell ‘em Junior sent you.” The film’s final shot shows Junior leaving his hometown, his successful ride on Sunshine continuing to put off the inevitable end of his rodeo career.

After seeing that movie a couple of times, I launched a brief, unsuccessful rodeo career that ended when a doctor taped my own ribs after being thrown (familiar, huh?). “You need to find another job, kid. You’re not too good at this one.”

The  movie, Junior Bonner, also taught me pacing, style, dialogue, and action. There are tiny moments in that film that have made their way into my work. If you haven’t seen it, buy the blue ray and listen to the comments, especially about a scene involving a typewriter. It’s an education in filming, directing, and character motivation.

I think both of these films helped me see my work cinematically as it progresses through the evolution of a manuscript. Reviewers often comment that my novels have a cinematic quality, and the comes from watching well-crafted movies.

You won’t get that with today’s super hero pablum.

What I am good at is collecting ideas and writing, and I have the feeling those movies, experiences, teachers, mentors and friends have all guided me toward my success. Oh, and don’t forget those early books I read like The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark.

Now that book truly did change my life and sparked a dream to write novels.

The Two-Ton Albatross by William C. Anderson, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp (eventually filmed as Die Hard), Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry, and Recollection Creek by Fred Gipson, and dozens, if not hundreds more, established a solid path to writing.

So the question is to published and budding authors alike. Do you have a movie or book, or a combination of both, that sent you on this interesting and frustrating road?

Oh, and I have a follow up. Is there a movie, or book, that mirrors your life?

Building a “Hollywood” Film Treatment

Don’t say ‘Hollywood’. It’ll mark you as a rank amateur or a media flake, not as a working professional. Hollywood is more like a concept, a has-been idea, than an actual production place. You’re best to say, ‘the LA-based film industry’.”

I heard those words when I ventured into film content producing. They weren’t to put me down. Rather, they were to build me up and help me break into a world I had no experience with—the film industry—and understand how important a film “treatment” is.

I think every novel writer’s dream is to see their work on the screen. At least mine was. When I wrote my first novel, I so saw it in the movies that “as the camera sees it” was my guiding light. Did it make the movies? No. Not yet.

But, my ten years of plugging along in this writing biz taught me a few things. Perseverance. Craft knowledge. Networking. And experimenting in different mediums, including screenwriting.

I’m now immersed in four film content producing projects. They keep me occupied and energized. I’m learning a lot of new stuff including how to build a “Hollywood” film treatment.

The film industry has its jargon. Logline. Tagline. Teasers. Shopping Rights. Pitch. Option. Purchase. Green Lit. Fade in. Fade out. Roll A. Roll B. Scripted. Non-scripted. Those sorts of things. But, one term I think really important for wanna-be screenwriters to understand is Treatment.

In the film industry—whether LA-based, Vancouver-based, New York-based, London-based, or Toronto-based—producers have one common problem. It’s not funding or filming. It’s finding decent (saleable) content.

Like book publishers, film producers constantly seek decent (saleable) content. They say every Barista in “Hollywood” has a screenplay for sale. Probably true, but how many are saleable?

Film producers, like book publishers, have only so much time. They’re bombarded with screenplay submissions and can’t read them all. So, the film industry has a thing similar to a book publisher’s synopsis. In the film-biz, they’re called treatments. Treatments are a structured itemization of the screenplay that stop short of going to the work of an actual script written on speculation.

Here’s a film treatment I developed for The Fatal Shot. The storyline is based on a true crime case I investigated,. It’s a similar plot to the 1984 film The Burning Bed starring Farrah Fawcett.

Because of an effective treatment, The Fatal Shot is now optioned for screenplay buildout. Whether it gets green lit, who knows. At least the pitch was purchased and it’s out there, being shopped around Hollywood..

I hope you folks at the Kill Zone gain some insight into the film industry’s screenplay submission process through this treatment example. Don’t we all want to see our stories played out on the screen?

THE FATAL SHOT — FILM TREATMENT

Working Title

The Fatal Shot

Central Story Question

Who fired the fatal shot?

Logline

A battered woman charged with killing her abusive husband faces tremendous obstacles by defending herself and her children against bureaucratic criminal and social service systems. (Based on an actual incident—a true crime story.)

Tagline

She fought her husband… now she fights the system.”

Theme

Domestic Abuse – Intimate Partner Violence – Child Protection and Apprehension – Homicide Trial – Jury Deliberations – Battered Woman Syndrome Defense

Location

Set in the American Pacific Northwest at the village of Clearwater and city of Port Townsend in Jefferson County, Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula.

Era

Current – modern day.

Duration

18 months from inciting incident to denouement.

Protagonist

Deeana (Dee) Finnigan — 28-year-old wife and mother of boy 10 and girl 8.

Antagonists

Lyle (Finn) Finnigan — 31-year-old husband and children’s father.

Society — portrayed through dysfunctional bureaucratic structure and incompetent representatives of the criminal justice and social service systems.

Brief Storyline

Deeana Finnigan suffers 11 years of domestic terror at the fists, boots, mind, mouth, wallet, and penis of her husband, Lyle (Finn) Finnigan. Their children, Logan (age 10) and Millie (age 8), witness a deteriorating marriage and escalating violence.

Finn is on the run from a Seattle drug gang he’s double-crossed as well as arrest warrants for narcotics trafficking. He hides the family in a cramped cabin near the remote village of Clearwater on the west coast of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.

On a cold winter night, Finn returns to the cabin drunk. Dee’s made mac & cheese along with wieners for supper. There’s little else to eat in the place. Finn and Dee argue over the meal. Finn slaps Dee and grinds hot food into her face. He knees Dee and puts the boots to her on the floor. Logan and Millie cower in a corner, watching. Finn is enraged. He takes a rifle and threatens to shoot the family. Finn then drags Dee to the bedroom. He rapes Dee and passes out cold.

Dee’s finally had enough. She takes the rifle and shoots Finn while he’s unconscious. The first shot badly wounds Finn in the face, blowing off his lower jaw. He wakes and tries to get at her. Dee reloads to shoot Finn again. The rifle jams. Finn is incapacitated due to shock and blood loss. Dee gets Logan’s help to find another rifle and finish Finn off. Dee takes Logan and Millie to a neighbor’s house and calls the police. They’re taken to the Jefferson County seat at Port Townsend.

Investigation determines three shots were fired. One bullet got Finn in the jaw. One missed. One fatally struck Finn in the back. Dee states she fired all shots. She claims self-defense—shooting Finn to ultimately protect herself and her children from what she knows is looming, certain death. The investigators doubt Dee fired the fatal shot and believe Logan did—Dee is covering up to protect Logan. The District Attorney rejects Dee’s self defense stance. He takes the position Dee had plenty of opportunity to take the kids, leave, and have authorities intervene as the police and social systems dictate.

Dee is charged with second-degree (non-capital) murder and faces life imprisonment. She’s represented by the public defender. Dee can’t make bail. She’s half Native Indian from a Canadian reserve and considered an international flight risk. Dee remains in custody awaiting trial. Logan and Millie are apprehended by social services and made wards of the state. They’re placed in a foster home. Because the police and DA are trying to establish who fired the fatal shot to Finn’s back, a no-contact order is placed between Dee and her kids.

Dee sinks to despair. She attempts to hang herself in jail. At her lowest point, Dee undergoes a catharsis. She’s mentored by a female jail guard. They work on upgrading Dee’s education and communication skills. Slowly, Dee builds confidence. She begins to fight for what she truly wants—justice, freedom, and her children’s welfare. Dee pushes the system. And the system pushes back.

The DA hands Dee a bargain—plead guilty to manslaughter with five years in prison. The public defender wants to run a temporary insanity defense. Dee refuses both offers. She stands her ground. Dee maintains she was forced to kill Finn in ultimately protecting herself and her children, all the while denying that Logan fired the fatal shot which would have had her acquitted of murder. Years of continuous spousal battering, plus a justice and social system failing to aid her, placed Dee in a mind state where she had no option—it was kill—or eventually be killed.

The State Child Protective Services assign a spiteful social worker to oversee Dee’s children. A court application rules Logan and Millie aren’t allowed to visit Dee in jail. Dee learns the kids are being bounced between homes. Now they’re in a facility run by questionable hosts. With her jail guard’s help, Dee turns to the media.

Dee’s plight attracts intense public interest. Advocates from women’s groups surround Dee. They use the power of mainstream, internet, and social media to raise awareness of Dee’s case. Sympathizers work to crowdfund money for a competent legal defense. From jail, Dee quickly becomes a sensational face for battered women and children’s’ rights.

The criminal justice and social service systems throw continuous obstacles at Dee’s struggle to regain her children and freedom. Her private advocates are an enormous support. They find a top legal team who are passionate about the “Battered Woman Syndrome”. All work with Dee to shape that portrayal.

But as the prosecution and defense build their cases, disturbing details rise from Dee’s past. What she’s hidden, and what new evidence investigators uncover, are devastating. Rumors leak out. Stories spread. Some of Dee’s friends become foes.

After 18 months, Dee’s case goes to trial. Testimony is dramatic and unexpected. A torn jury faces forcing the law as it stands or conceding to humanity as it exists. Their decision comes down to one recurring question—not who fired the fatal shot—but why didn’t Dee just pack up the kids and leave before things became fatal? The answer lies in the Battered Woman Syndrome.

The jury struggles between wants of the system and needs of the individual. They see an enormous precedent being set with the Battered Woman Syndrome defense becoming open season on abusive men. Jurors also doubt Dee’s credibility about who fired the fatal shot into Finn. By now, most suspect Dee coerced Logan and is covering up.

Deliberations are lengthy. They hotly debate application of the law, validity of the Battered Woman Syndrome, and the parameters of self-defense. Two camps form in the jury room. Those who see the law as black and white. Those who see many shades of gray.

Overall, the jury sympathizes with Dee. They show empathy for her state of mind at the moment of the killing and her family situation. Unanimously, the jury directs an acquittal.

Dee is freed. Logan and Millie are returned. The verdict is appealed and upheld. Dee settles into a new life with her kids. She parlays her experience into helping other battered women and their children around the world.

Recurring Story Questions

Why didn’t Dee just leave? And why cover up for Logan when, at 10-years-old, he can’t be prosecuted and Dee could easily be freed?

Human Issue

The story explores Dee Finnigan’s character change from hopeless submission as a battered wife to ultimate triumph by taking defensive action against overwhelming legal and social obstacles.

Stakes

Dee’s life. Her personal freedom. Her children’s future. Worldwide precedent for the Battered Woman Syndrome legal defense. Long-term education and assistance to other victims of domestic violence.

Protagonist Character Arc

The story opens showing Deeana Finnigan displaying all the classic battered woman characteristics that come from learned helplessness. Dee is terrified of Finn but, in her mind, has nowhere to run. To survive, she’s submissive and does everything to keep from setting Finn off. Dee has poor self-esteem. She self-loathes and feels worthless. Dee’s weak mentally, physically, and spiritually. Still, she’s ultimately protective of the only thing that really matters to her in life—her children.

After experiencing the horror of Finn beating her in front of their kids, coming within a trigger’s pull of killing them, and then being sexually violated, Dee reaches an emotional plateau where she lies on the bed in desperation. She floats toward a sense of calmness and makes the decision to kill Finn.

Inwardly, Dee experiences peace. Outwardly, she’s shaking so bad that she can’t hold the rifle. Her limited control turns to chaos when Finn is wounded and claws to get at her. Terror, horror, and panic overpower Dee. Her thought process breaks, and she reacts instinctively to have Finn finished off.

Once Finn is dead, Dee is filled with relief. Her thought patterns return, and she focuses on her children’s welfare. Finn is no longer a threat, and she knows she’ll survive. Mentally, Dee makes plans for their future. She cooperates in the investigation. Dee is convinced she’s totally justified in shooting Finn. It never occurs to her the authorities would view otherwise.

Dee is incredulous when she’s arrested and charged for murder. In her eyes, killing Finn was the only recourse available to prevent her own death and her children’s demise. Her internal relief and elation at Finn being eliminated quickly ends when she’s locked up, denied bail, and loses her son and daughter to the “system”.

In total despair and at rock bottom, Dee tries hanging herself in her cell. A jail matron intervenes. This turning point lets Dee reach a catharsis or “venting the tank”. With help from the matron and advocates found through social media attention, Dee finds a progressive legal team who take on her case. The “Battered Woman Syndrome” is their card, and they play it hard.

Dee’s world view changes while she’s incarcerated, defending herself and her family as “the system” plays out. She remains steadfast in regaining custody of her son and daughter. This conflicts with her refusal to agree to a lesser charge and gain early release. Dee gambles on taking the high road for the long haul, gradually realizing that true justice will pay greater rewards than short-term compromise.

Dee also realizes greater forces are emerging, and she’s now serving a role for educating and inspiring abused women and their children. She understands the historical legal precedent she’s setting by invoking the “Battered Woman Syndrome” defense. A greater purpose drives Dee’s will to survive, be set free, create legal history, and share her story in helping other families with domestic abuse issues.

Dee experiences betrayal and disappointing setbacks when damaging information surfaces about her past. She is devastated but reacts by facing them, not denying her foes. Dee develops in inner confidence that she’ll be vindicated. Her belief in ultimate victory becomes unshakable, and her will to win is unstoppable. She finds inner peace through self-examination rather than religious redemption which is offered in spades.

Once Dee is acquitted, she shows class. She is gracious with gratitude, appreciate of all, and reflective about moving forward to help others.

The issue of who fired the fatal shot—Dee or Logan—is never resolved.

Protagonist Emotional Range/Arc

Weak – Submissive – Scared – Helpless – Self-loathing – Worthless – Protective of Children – Terrified – Enraged – Shocked – Relieved – Confused – Sickened – Trapped – Despair – Suicidal – Catharsis – Redemption – Hope – Will to Survive – Succeed – Encouraged – Inspired – Intent – Toughness – Fight – Focus – Will to Win – Betrayed – Disappointed – Nervous – Courageous – Confident – Triumphant – Gracious – Thankful – Appreciative – Reflective

Character Cast

Family and Associates:

Deeana (Dee) Finnigan — Protagonist and battered woman – jailed and tried for murder

Lyle (Finn) Finnigan — Antagonist and wife beater – shot and killed

Logan Finnigan — Son, age 10

Millie Finnigan — Daughter, age 8

Ramona Robinson — Dee’s twin sister

Andrea Sparrow — Dee’s close friend from the Canadian reserve

Valerie (Val) Bonamassa — Dee’s friend in Seattle

Muriel Finnigan — Finn’s mother – Dee’s mother-in-law

Linton Finnigan — Finn’s brother – Dee’s brother-in-law

Louise Labee, nee Finnigan — Finn’s sister – Dee’s sister-in-law

Barton (Black Bart) Smythe — Seattle Drug Gang Enforcer and DEA Informant

Police & Forensics:

Detective Alvin (Al) Kangas — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Detective Stacy Rooke — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff Hendrik (Hank) DeVries — Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Officer Patricia (Patty) Lloyd — Forensic Investigator, Washington State Patrol Crime Scene Response Team (CSRT)

Coroner Heather Tamagotchi — Jefferson County Coroner’s Office

Moses (Uzi) Galil — Seattle DEA Agent and Informant Handler

Criminal Justice System

C. Mitchell Dowd — District Attorney, Jefferson County

Jonathon Boatwright — Prosecuting Attorney, Jefferson County

Melissa Steele — Assistant Prosecutor, Jefferson County

Wallace Froude — Public Defender, Jefferson County

Emily Coulson — Lead Trial Defense Lawyer

Duncan Campbell-Elliot — Assistant Trial Defense Lawyer

Judge Morris Fish — Presiding Jury Trial Judge

Dr. Margaret Barr — Battered Woman Syndrome Expert Witness

“Margo” — Jail Guard Matron / Dee’s Mentor

Social System

Annie Lambert — Social Worker

Care Serene — Social Worker

Grace & Greer Grimsby — Foster Care Hosts

Karla Truman — Social Service Adjudicator

Media & Advocates

Ellen Capier — Port Townsend News Reporter

Rachel Vanstone — Women’s Abuse Social Media Leader & Primary Advocate

Cynne Simpson — TV Talk Show Moderator

Jennifer (Jenny) O’Donnell — Seattle TV Reporter

Gerald Gideon — Seattle Radio Reporter

Nathan Rott — NPR Investigative Reporter

Audrey Washington — CNN Investigative Reporter

Reverends John & Isobel Burke-Gaffney — Evangelists from the Reformed Baptist Church

Maria Mercedes Hernandez — Online Feminist Advocate

Nikki Daum — Native Indian Representative

Anastasia Lee — Crowdfund Organizer

Jury

12 Members Referred to as Nicknames Given by Court Staff.

“Kay” — Court Bailiff and Jury Messenger

Episode Structure

Episode One — Beating and Finn’s Death

Episode Two — Charge/Arrest

Episode Three — Children Apprehended

Episode Four — Suicide Attempt

Episode Five — Legal Adversaries

Episode Six — Black Bart

Episode Seven — Exposing Dee

Episode Eight — Trial Proceeds

Episode Nine — Retire to Deliberate

Episode Ten — Verdict and Denouement Message

Kill Zoners — Help yourself to this film treatment format. It’s not universal in the business, but it worked for me to get an option purchase.

Questions—Who out there has worked in the film industry, and who wants to? Who’s familiar with treatments, and who wants to write (or has written) a film treatment to shop their work around “Hollywood”?

It’s a Touching Good Story

It’s a Touching Good Story
Terry Odell

diagram showing the relationship between the brain and body parts for the sense of touchUse the five senses in your writing. We’ve all heard it. Often, writers consider that a ‘rule’ and try to incorporate all five into every scene. For me, that inches into “laundry list” territory. I liked David Morrell’s approach, which was to assume sight is a given and include two others, varying them across the scenes.

I’ve already talked about the senses of sight and smell. What about touch? It’s an important sense—and a very interesting one. Do your characters utilize it? Notice it? React to it?

What are some ways you can use the sense of touch in your writing?

Common sensations for your characters:

Weight. Heavy or light? Can it be unexpected? My marine mammal specialist Hubster was big into bones. A manatee rib is amazingly heavy for its size. When people pick it up, they’re always compensating as their senses readjust.
Smooth or rough?
Bumpy or deep indentations?
Solid, or does it give?
Warm, hot, or cold?

How does your character react if they come into contact with something painful?

Side note: Our nervous system includes a ‘shortcut’ to react to pain. Grab that hot pan on the stove by mistake? Ever notice that your hand jerks away before you feel the pain? That’s because you’ve got nerve pathways to the spinal cord that cause your muscles to contract while the sensation is still working its way up to the brain, which then interprets the feeling as pain, and that’s when you say ouch. Meanwhile, you’ve avoided potential damage.

diagram of nerves to and from the spinal cord in response to painAre you describing the sensations of walking barefoot through the mud? Trying to get a handhold on a slick surface? What about on the rough stones as the character tries to climb to safety?

How do you describe the sensations? Need a prompt or two? Here are over 200 descriptive words.

If you’ve got your character in the dark (eliminating the sense of sight), touch becomes more predominant. But, dark or not, your characters can feel the stickiness of a bloody wound, the roughness of the ropes they’re tied up with, the warmth of another character’s hand, the hardness of the chair they’re sitting in.

folding metal chairPerhaps more important is that there are two systems of touch. One is the obvious factual description. The chair in the interrogation interview room (have to keep up with the terminology) is cold, hard, and off balance. But there’s also the emotional side of the sense of touch.

There are completely different sensors for physical touch vs emotional touch.

If all you’re writing is what that interview room chair feels like as the character sits there, you’re missing an important way to connect with your readers. Does it trigger a visceral reaction as well as a physical one? Let the readers in on it. Maybe instead of the fear or at least the mental discomfort the cop his hoping for, what if the chair evokes happy memories of sitting at the boisterous kids table at Thanksgiving with all his cousins, joking, flipping mashed potatoes across the room at Great Aunt Martha?

When your character picks up a firearm, it might be feel cool, hard, maybe the grip is rough in his palm. Does picking up the weapon give him a sense of power? Of calmness, knowing he’s now in charge? Or is it an unwelcome foreign object? Something the character has no desire to hold, to be in the same room with, but he now needs it for survival? Or to defend someone he cares about? What emotions would those same sensations trigger in him?

Romance writers might have an edge over mystery writers here, since they’re used to showing emotion, and touch is very important to creating a bond between people. And yeah, it plays a part in sex. Even if you don’t like sex scenes on the page, there’s a lot of touching in foreplay. Touch is connected to the release of pheromones. While for men, it’s the sense of smell that triggers them, for women, it’s physical contact with the partner.

Other interesting facts about the emotional side of touch. An experiment showed that people holding hot drinks when meeting someone rated them warmer, as having a more pro-social personality than if they were holding cold drinks.

Another experiment had people evaluating resumes of others. Resumes on a heavy clipboard resulted in people being considered as having more authority. Not that they would be better in the job, but just more weighty.

Remember, senses don’t exist in a vacuum. The feel of rough burlap when the bad guy puts a hood over his victim will intersect with the sense of smell. Use both to add depth to your story.

Your turn, TKZers. How do you incorporate the sense of touch in your books? Do you connect them to the emotional side? The floor is yours.

Some references for this post:
For more about the science of touch, go here.
For more about incorporating touch into writing, go here.

If you’ll permit a brief moment of BSP, in anticipation of releasing Cruising Undercover, Book 11 in my Blackthorne, Inc. series, the first box set of Blackthorne, Inc. novels, including When Danger Calls, Where Danger Hides, and Rooted in Danger, is on sale for 99 cents this week. Price goes up on July 27th.


Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.


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