Stone Libraries

I was recently asked by a family member as to whether I had a preference with respect to being either buried or cremated. My immediate response, ala Bob Hope, was “Surprise me.” 

The sincere question and my flippant response brought to mind a story that my mother told me many years ago. A college professor of hers took her class to a graveyard near Cincinnati where they examined headstones. Over half of them bore the same year of death for those occupying the graves beneath. The reason for this, according to the professor, was that an illness — it might have been smallpox — had swept through a village adjacent to the graveyard, all but wiping the population out. 

I then found myself thinking about cemeteries generally. I have visited many graveyards and cemeteries in Louisiana — in Baton Rouge, St. Martinville, and, of course, New Orleans — but have neglected what is practically in my own backyard of Westerville, Ohio, just northeast of Columbus. While the Westerville cemeteries do not contain the remains of anyone of the notoriety of Marie Leveau or Huey Long, the very ordinariness of those who now rest hidden from view of the living  provides grist for conjecture. The collection of granite headstones and markers constitute what I have come to call stone libraries, which tell or hint at stories in words carved rather than printed or spoken. What follows are three of many.

1909 was a tragic year for the Ballard family. The document standing in evidence of that conclusion is a tombstone in Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery is a relatively small plot of land which somehow has managed to constitute a tranquil island in the middle of a sea of commerce which has formed around it over several decades while Westerville made its transition from a farming community to a bedroom suburb.  The Ballard gravestone is large, though neither Ozymandias-sized nor ostentatious by any means. It notes the location of the remains of the three Ballards, being  Bessie L., Herman F., and Irma Ruth. It is Irma Ruth — remarked as “Daughter” — whose birth and death years are listed as 1909, who gives us pause. History has not recorded the reason for the shortness of her journey, but we can certainly draw the conclusion that she was not forgotten in her wake. Bessie L. and Herman F. are recorded as “Mother” and  “Father” rather than “Wife” and “Husband.” It is understandable if we conclude that a sorrowful chill permeated the home of Irma’s mother and father until their respective passings some six decades later. 

Otterbein Cemetery is a fifteen-minute drive north from its sister Pioneer and is tucked into the corner of a quiet residential neighborhood, not far from a private college.  The oldest part of the cemetery is in the back.  There one will find the grave markers for the Hanby family. Benjamin R. Hanby is a major figure in Westerville. Hanby was an abolitionist and minister but is best remembered now as a composer. You know his work. His song “Lovely Nellie Gray” was recorded by Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers, later by Bing Crosby, and as “Faded Love” by Bob Wills, but it is “Up On the Housetop” for which Hanby is most famously remembered.  Hanby’s compositions were popular but did not gain a wide audience until a half-century or so after his death in 1867 at the age of 36. The fame of his compositions aside, probably no one of that era would have been more surprised than Hanby himself to learn that in Westerville an elementary school, a small shopping center, and a street have been named after him. He might also be somewhat nonplussed to learn that the cemetery to which he is consigned, as well as the private college nearby, is named after his brother.  Hanby’s life was unexpectedly cut short thanks to a visit to a disease-ridden locale known by its residents to this day as “Chicago,” where he contracted tuberculosis and passed away after a short hospitalization. Hanby was survived by his family which included his father, who was also a minister, and his brother, who was a physician. I have no way of knowing but I would guess that as each of them wondered at the premature passing of their son and brother they must have concluded that neither of their fields of vocation fully possessed the answer to the question as to why a life so demonstrably full of promise was taken so quickly.   

A similar question was undoubtedly asked by the Kern family, who rest near the Hanbys in the Otterbein Cemetery. Ruth Ann Kern was consigned to dust at the tender age of 13 in 1863. She was so young, undoubtedly on the cusp of the promise of adolescence. Her death at that age could have come from any number of sources. Perhaps it is better that we don’t know.

In death, we mark the inevitable as tragic. The converse is true as well. The world is a dangerous place, one in which we — or most of us, anyway — drag our feet as we are inexorably tugged toward the final precipice. It is that tragedy and inevitability which, ironically, make our world and the stories we tell — the ones ultimately marked in those stone libraries — so interesting. It is one reason that I often tell people that boring, as a day-to-day state, is good. 

I looked neither long nor hard for the stories I have remarked upon. It took me about a half-hour to find them and others in two different cemeteries. There are undoubtedly more in cemeteries near you, waiting for you to give voice to what you find.

Today’s fun fact: the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is a burial ground located on the property of a church or occasionally on a family farm. A cemetery is a larger burial ground not usually affiliated with a church. I did not know that until today, demonstrating that life and death are learning processes. 

Good day and be well. And be boring, in your life but not your writing. 

Photos by Al Thumz Photography and used with permission. All rights reserved.


Reader Friday: Slow or Fast Reader?

No one could ever call me a skimmer. Rather, I take my time while reading.

It’s mind-boggling to me how some readers are able to devour multiple novels per week. I have a friend who reads one novel per day and still finds time to write. Sadly, that will never be me.

Even when I get lost in the story, I can’t help but see the underlying craft. And I delight in the skill of other writers, highlighting passages (on my Kindle) or adding notes when it sparks an idea for my WIP.

Would I love to read faster? Absolutely. But when it comes to craft, I seem not to possess an OFF button.

What about you? Are you slow or fast reader? 


Perilous Work: Writing Cliffhangers

By Elaine Viets 

The 1914 movie serial “The Perils of Pauline,” was the ultimate cliffhanger. Week after week, Pauline escaped airplane crashes, searches for buried treasure, and multiple abductions. She was even carried away in a hot air balloon. But contrary to legend, the original Pauline was never tied to a railroad track, or nearly sawed in half by a buzz saw.
Pauline’s perils made great cliffhangers, and kept moviegoers crowding the theaters for some twenty episodes.
Cliffhangers are the hooks that make your readers keep turning the pages, pulling them into the next scene or chapter. Most cliffhangers come at the end of the chapter. If your readers are hooked, they’ll continue reading.

Here are some tips for good cliffhangers:
A cliffhanger should catch your readers by surprise.
Something unexpected has to happen: Someone threatens to jump off a bridge. Their car goes into a skid on a snowy curve. A door opens unexpectedly. Then, bam! The chapter ends.
Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope novel, has a perfect cliffhanger chapter ending. Vera follows a killer, who gets her alone and strangles her. I’ve edited out the killer’s name in this section, but you get the idea.
“As Vera began to lose consciousness, she thought that this was her fault. . . it was her pride again, making her think she was indestructible.
“Then the world went blank.”
I couldn’t wait to turn the page and see what happened to Vera. Not to mention the killer.

The Perils Of Pauline, poster, Pearl White, 1914. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Someone unexpected arrives. A crook, an innocent person, a cop, just in time. This person is a surprise. They abruptly break up the scene.
Someone leaves.
A bride suddenly leaves the groom standing at the altar. A couple is fighting, and he walks out on her. She suddenly quits her job.

Sometimes, the cliffhanger is a new piece of information.
Your character learns something. She’s not married legally to her husband after all because he never divorced his first wife.
Or, he’s not the son of the man he called father: the DNA test proved it.
Your character notices something. The detective sees the scratches around the door lock and realizes the house had been broken into. A wife finds lipstick on her husband’s shirt – scarlet lipstick. She never wears that color.
Your character figures something out. She finally understands the key to the puzzle the dead man left behind. He finally knows why his dead father wanted him to listen to the CD he left in his desk drawer.

Your character decides something. She’s going to leave her abusive husband. He’s going to rob the store to get enough money to feed his family.
She’s going back to school.
Your character feels something. I looked at my husband of twenty years, and wondered, “Why had I married him? What did I ever see in him? Maybe it was time for me to walk away.”
Or, I looked at his picture, and suddenly, I couldn’t see it any more I was blinded by rage.
Your character makes a demand. “Get me to the hospital now!” she told the cabbie. “There’s fifty dollars if you make it in ten minutes!”

How do you end a chapter with a cliffhanger if nothing new is happening? Give a simple pastime a feeling of foreboding.
Agatha Christie, in The A.B.C. Murders, does that. Tom Hartigan and Lily Marbury are out for a carefree night of dancing while a killer stalks the area. Dame Agatha writes:
“They danced on happily – in their conscious minds nothing but the pleasure of being together.
“In their unconscious minds something stirred . . .”
Your character doesn’t show up. In Jeff Abbott’s thrillers are chockfull of cliffhangers. In Cut and Run” Claudia is in a booth at a Mexican restaurant, waiting for Judge Whit Mosley, a man on the run.
“Claudia traced the beer rings on the worn wooden table, waiting for Whit, waiting to see if he was still the man she knew, afraid of what she heard in his voice.
“The nachos grew cold. Whit never showed.”
Whit’s no-show is a cliffhanger and one reason why Jeff’s books are page turners.

Give your readers a sense of menace.
Let them know your characters will be going off to a dangerous place or a risky situation. Or something has happened that will change everything.
Before She Was Helen, by Caroline B. Cooney has some first-rate cliffhangers. Like this one:
Helen thought, “Cold cases are solved by DNA and fingerprints.
“Her fingerprints.
“Which were on the doors and knobs at Dom’s and the Coglands’ houses.
Where the police would shortly be summoned to reunite a stolen artwork with its owner.”
Would Helen’s guilty past catch up with her? I kept reading to find out.

Tick-tock. Time is running out. This is a favorite plot device in thrillers.
“He looked at the clock. He had two hours before the terrorists blew up the bus full of school children. He had to find them.”
Unexpected news. Important information, or a person, shows up unexpectedly. End your scene with the protagonist receiving devastating news: his wife is dead. His office was blown up. Her partner was shot in a hold-up.

Cliffhangers you should avoid. Two of them are: “If I’d only known,” or “Had I but known.”
I ended a chapter like that and my editor cut the line. She told me it was a cliche.
Ending a novel with a cliffhanger.
Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? But it often ticks off your readers and leaves them feeling frustrated. Don’t do it. Unless, like Pauline, your new episode is available next week.
Good news! A Star Is Dead, my fifth Angela Richman mystery, sold out its first printing. Buy your copy here:


Banished Words 2020

Banished Words 2020

Terry Odell

Banished WordsOne of my final editing tasks is removing overused words. I have my list of offenders, and I run the manuscript through SmartEdit, which will find more I was unaware of.

But “overused” can’t be decided based solely on number of uses. It depends on the word.

We all have words and phrases we like to use, often to the point of overuse. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re using them. When we’re writ­ing, they seem to sneak into our man­u­scripts via our fin­gers, as if the brain isn’t involved at all.

Lit­tle words, like “just” and “really” and “well” are com­monly listed among words that don’t add any­thing to the man­u­script other than giv­ing our brains time to catch up with what we’re try­ing to write. They’re the equiv­a­lent of the “um” in speak­ing.

Big “fancy” words, or “unusual” words are in another cat­e­gory. Miasma? Efful­gent? Par­si­mony? They’re going to jump out at a reader, and should be used spar­ingly, per­haps only once or twice in an entire man­u­script. I recall an author using halcyon repeatedly, and it made me stop after the second time.

Recently, one of my critique partners asked about my use of libation, bringing up an important point. How many characters used the term? Often, it’s good to have specific vocabulary words used by specific characters.

While I’m looking at my repeated words, I will check for con­text. Is it dia­logue? Does it enhance the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? Then, I look to see how long it’s been since the last time I used the word. (There’s that “you’re on page XXX” thing at the bot­tom of Word.)

If it’s a com­mon word, my goal is at least 10 pages between uses. “Medium” words, maybe 30–50 pages. And those big fancy ones? If they’re truly the char­ac­ter speak­ing, and not autho­r­ial intru­sion, once is enough. Not a rule, just something I consider.

And, of course, the caveat that any “fancy” words are appro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter, the genre, and the time­frame of the book. If you’re read­ing a Regency romance, the lan­guage is going to be totally dif­fer­ent from a contemporary.

There are other words one might want to avoid. Every year, Lake Superior State University publishes its “Banished Words List” of words based on misuse, overuse, and general uselessness. Their list for 2020 contains the following.

Most nominated

  • quid pro quo

Words that attempt to make something more than it is

  • Artisanal
  • Curated
  • Influencer

Words banished for pretentiousness or imprecision

  • Literally
  • I mean
  • Living my best life
  • Mouthfeel

Those darn millennials!

  • Chirp
  • Jelly (Abbreviation of jealous)
  • Totes (Abbreviation of totally)
  • Vibe/vibe check

To see why these were selected, go here.

What about you? Any words that jump out at you when you’re reading, either mundane or unusual?

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


Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke


A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.



Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.


Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious


I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!




#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment


There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.




Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.


#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR


Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.



The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”




Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA



She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.







The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”






So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.





Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.


This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.


TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?




To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.


Saved by the Spelling Bee

Happy Monday after Mother’s Day! I hope all the mums out there got to enjoy their day. Mine descended into horror when I received the dreaded text: ‘I got Queen Bee!!’ from one of my twins…

Let me explain…During our self-imposed exile my boys and I have become obsessed with the NYT online game, Spelling Bee. I credit it (along with the crossword) for saving much on my sanity and (sadly) turning me into one of those Uber-competitive mums who rushes to get to it first so I can get the pangram before my kids do!!

For those of you unfamiliar with Spelling Bee, it’s basically an online, highly addictive version of Boggle, comprising a daily hexagon shaped word game made up of 7 letters (6 of which surround a central letter which must be used).

The goal of the game is to make as many 4+ letter words as possible, urged on by various awards that take you from beginner accolades (‘solid’, ‘nice’) through to ‘genius’ level and then, if you find all the possible words, ‘Queen Bee’. One of the key aims of the game is also to find the pangram or a word that uses all the letters (sometimes there’s more than one pangram just to keep us on our toes!).

I’m not really sure why Spelling Bee is as addictive as it is – but I do know that I’m not alone in loving it, or turning to it for solace during these long 8 weeks under ‘stay at home’ orders. The best part about it all is that it’s become a shared obsession…the worst part, my boys are also so much better at it than me!! We now fight each morning to see how quickly we can get to ‘genius’ (a level we feel compelled to achieve) or, if we’re super lucky, to be crowned ‘Queen Bee’.

So now you can understand my Mother’s Day ‘horror’:)))

I hope that all TKZers are staying safe and healthy during these ongoing, difficult times, and that you have managed to find some distractions to keep up your spirits. Even though Colorado has begun to lift the stay-at-home orders, I am sure our obsession with Spelling Bee will continue.

So TKZers, what has kept you sane during the last 8 weeks? Are any of you Spelling Bee obsessives? What online games or apps have kept you going??



How Much Research is Enough?

by James Scott Bell

My research tells me it’s Mother’s Day. So: Happy Mother’s Day! As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

But before the internet, it was rather easy for a writer to “fake it” when it came to research. That’s because a) there wasn’t an easy way for a reader to find, instantly, whether a detail was correct or not; and b) there wasn’t any social media or customer reviews for blowback. Thus, an author could get away with a bit of sloppiness—if that’s the kind of writer he wanted to be.

I have a friend who is an accomplished historical fiction writer. He worked his tail off on a series that came out in the early 90s. His research was impeccable. While his series sold okay, another historical fiction writer was enjoying much greater success with his series which (to put it mildly) was rather deficient in the research arena. Indeed, I read one of the books in preparation for my own historical series. This author’s book took place in 1904, but after a couple of chapters I had to put it down, because he had a thriving silent movie industry happening in Hollywood.

One problem: Hollywood did not become a popular movie location until around 1910, and certainly wasn’t hopping until the teens.

These days, you couldn’t get away with such a mistake. But would you want to?

Some significant fakery occurs in the classic film, Casablanca. One of the screenwriters, Julius Epstein, once admitted:

There never were Letters of Transit. Germans never wore uniforms in Casablanca, that was part of the Vichy agreement. But we didn’t know what was going on in Casablanca. We didn’t even know where Casablanca was!

But Letters of Transit sounds real. Which is, of course, the key to fakery!

In the 1960s Lawrence Block wrote a paperback series about a world-roaming secret agent named Tanner. When he got the galleys for one of the books he saw an odd term in the text: tobbo shop. What? He checked his own manuscript and saw that he had written tobacco shop. The typesetter had made a mistake. But Block sat back and mused that tobbo shop had a realistic ring to it and besides, how many readers would have been to Bangkok? (I believe he even got some letters from readers who had been there, and did remember those “quaint tobbo shops.”)

Harlan Coben issues a warning about research:

“I think it’s actually a negative for writers sometimes when they’re writing contemporary novels to know too much. First of all, doing research is more fun than writing, so you start getting into the research and you forget to tell your story. And, second, which is on a very parallel track … sometimes you learn all kinds of cute factoids you think are so interesting that you include them in the book, but you weigh the story down. I try not to do that.”

One method I’ve used when writing hot (and not wanting to stop) and I get to a spot where I know I’ll need research, I’ll put in a placeholder (***) and keep writing. I’ll make my best guess about how the scene should go, then do any additions or corrections later.

On the other hand, when writing historical fiction, which demands detail precision, I have to do a lot of research up front. For my series about a young woman lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, I spent many, many hours in the downtown L.A. library, poring over microfilm of the newspapers of the day. I have two huge binders full of this research, and I’m really proud of the results. But man, it’s hard work (am I right, Clare?)

But it’s worth it. When the first book came out almost twenty years ago it sold great and got uniformly positive reviews, several mentioning the historical accuracy. I did, however, get a physical letter (remember those?) from the curator of a telephone museum! He said he enjoyed the book, but there was one little detail about my lead, Kit Shannon, using a wall telephone, that I got wrong. The one guy in the United States who would have noticed this happened to read my book!

Naturally, it was not plausible to dump all the books in the warehouse to change that teeny, tiny thing. And who else was going to notice? But it rankled me, nonetheless.

When I got the rights back to the series, that was the only thing I wanted to change. All those years later I was still mad about it! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the letter from the museum guy. I decided to try to find him online. Instead I found another museum and emailed somebody there, explaining the detail. In return, I got a nice email back telling me there was a model of telephone that operated exactly like I had it. It would have been used only by very wealthy people.

Which is how it was in my book. Kit lives with her wealthy great aunt in the posh section of town known as Angeleno Heights.

I’d been right all along! How about them apples? (Yes, I’ve been wrong before. It was in October of 1993. I thought the Phillies would win the World Series.)

Today, there are areas in your fiction that you’d better get right or you’ll hear about it, boy howdy. Perhaps the biggest of these is weapons. If you have your hero cocking the hammer of his Glock, expect a flood of abuse letting you know that a Glock has no hammer. (And if Gilstrap reads your book, duck, because he’ll be throwing it at you.) If you have your hero shoving another clip into his Beretta, you’ll have an irate horde telling you to shove … never mind, just note that a clip is not a magazine.

If you’re not accurate about a place, you’ll hear from people who live there. This is partly why I base most of my books in my hometown of Los Angeles. I grew up here. I know it. That it also happens to be the greatest crime-noir city is a bonus.

But sometimes I want to venture forth. In some instances, to save me from a cumbersome research trip, I simply make up a town and slap it down somewhere. If people want to take the time to look it up and find out it doesn’t exist, they’ll know I made it up and accept it. Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton set their series in Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara that allowed them plenty of leeway to make up locations within. No one’s complaining.

So I’ll throw it open. What’s your philosophy on research? Do you follow rabbit trails that can be an excuse to not write? Do you like to do as much….or as little… as possible? Do you, when the spirit moves, “fake it”? 



Reminder: My latest stand-alone thriller, LAST CALL, is still available at the launch price of 99¢. Because I want you to have it. Enjoy!


The Coronavirus Diaries, Extended

By Mark Alpert

And now, eight weeks after our quarantine began, it’s time for some dark thoughts…

One thing that distinguishes thriller writers from the rest of the human species is our ability to conceive the horrible. Ordinary people don’t dwell on murders. They don’t spend months trying to imagine what compels a criminal to slaughter a friend or a boss or a lover. They don’t focus with perverse intensity on the awful details of the crime: the blood splatter, the exit wounds, the bite marks, the maggots. They prefer to push all of this dark reality out of their minds and think happier thoughts.

But thriller writers are gluttons for punishment. We have a knack for describing horrors that would make ordinary citizens flee the crime scene. And we have a different view of humanity, more sobering and realistic, because we’re reminded all the time of the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing.

So it’s natural for writers to have a darker outlook on the current pandemic. Our imaginations fixate on desperate scenes: Covid-19 victims fighting for breath as they wait for the ambulance, anguished family members separated from their loved ones at the hospital, doctors and nurses struggling to calm a thrashing patient. Realism and skepticism are in our bones, so we’re less likely to believe the official reassurances that the crisis is ebbing and everything will be just fine in a matter of days or weeks.

In my own case, the darkness is literal, because I’m spending more time walking the streets at night. As the weather warms in New York City, people are growing careless about social distancing, and the parks have become crowded with sunbathers, dog-walkers, antic teenagers and toddlers, and hundreds of joggers spewing streams of potentially contaminated spittle. So the safest time to get some exercise is after midnight.

In the wee hours, the Upper West Side of Manhattan is deserted. The only people on the street are the homeless, who have now been barred from the subway between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. (This week the transit authority started closing the subway stations every night for cleaning and disinfection.) Some of the homeless linger near the entrances to the closed stations, shivering on park benches and waiting for dawn, when they can return to the relative warmth of the trains and platforms. Others have set up camp in the doorways of the shuttered stores on Columbus Avenue, the sleepers wrapped in blankets and garbage bags, all their possessions stuffed in a nearby shopping cart. As I walk down the avenue I give each encampment a wide berth, out of safety and respect.

Traffic is so sparse late at night that most of the time I can safely stroll down the middle of the street. The only vehicles I usually see are police cars and garbage trucks. Last night was a garbage-collection night, and the sidewalks were crammed with pyramids of overloaded bags, some of them trembling from the exertions of the rats feeding within. I saw a lone bus cruising down Central Park West, with just one passenger inside. And on Columbus I saw a pack of mopeds going the wrong way on the one-way street. The kids on the mopeds wore black masks, and half of them were doing wheelies, and it was impossible not to think of the joyriding gangs in the Mad Max movies, getting away with things that would’ve been inconceivable in normal times.

But here’s the strangest, darkest part. As I crisscross the neighborhood, I recite poetry. I don’t want to wake anyone, so I say the words under my breath. The only audience I want is myself.

I studied poetry for two years in graduate school, so I’ve memorized quite a few poems. Last night I recited “London” by William Blake:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 


How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls, 

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls 


But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear 

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse 

It’s an apt poem for long walks across a blighted city. I love Blake because he had such an idiosyncratic philosophy. He was very religious, but he rejected all conventional religions and essentially invented one of his own. In Blake’s view, the Creator is actually Satan, and the only thing that can save us is the power of human joy and unfettered imagination. Blake hated the militarism and industry of early 19th-century England, and he wasn’t a big fan of his time’s sexual mores either. Loveless monogamy, he believed, was a major cause of prostitution and venereal disease, as expressed in the last lines of the poem.

Here’s another Blake poem about VD, “The Sick Rose.” Although Blake knew nothing about microbiology — Louis Pasteur didn’t postulate the germ theory of disease until thirty years after Blake died — he seemed to have a metaphoric sense of how an illness can spread:

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howling storm: 


Has found out thy bed 

Of crimson joy: 

And his dark secret love 

Does thy life destroy.

I’d like to conclude this dark journey by mentioning another poet who was, in his own words, “acquainted with the night.” Robert Frost is best known as the author of “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” two poems widely studied by high-school students and almost universally misread as the homespun musings of a folksy New England geezer. In reality, though, Frost was a poet of existential terror. Like Blake, Frost suspected that God might actually be Satan. Consider one of his masterpieces, a poem titled “Design”:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

As you can probably tell, I need to cheer up and chill out. I should go on a few more Zoom calls, watch another Netflix series, buy some more crap from Amazon. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the dark side seems closer during a pandemic. That’s yet another unfortunate legacy of this global fiasco.


A Farewell Message: Winnie the Pooh said it best

Jordan Dane 


Photographer Credit: Shaun C Williams

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Winnie the Pooh

This will be my final TKZ post, my fine friends. It’s been nearly ten years that I’ve had the good fortune to be invited as a contributor. You might think all those years would make it an easy decision to step down, but the years made it harder to decide to move on.

I started writing in 2003, sold in auction in 2006 with my first 3 books released in 2008 and beyond. Even with the experience I have (on paper) from then until now, I still feel like the mesmerized kid who sneaked under the big tent at the circus, afraid someone will find me & toss me out. I’m a sponge for the information presented here every day–posted by each author contributor as well as the helpful comments made by our followers. That’s YOU. I’ve learned a great deal from our TKZ family of subscribers & followers. Thank you.

It’s clear how dedicated TKZers are about the passion we share when reading the comments to our posts. As a writing community, we take great care in nurturing the burgeoning talents of the many anonymous submitters who request feedback on their first pages, for example. Or we read a post & feel free to contribute our comments to develop the topic with our personal thoughts because we feel comfortable in doing it here. Our outspoken family is what I love the most and will never forget.

If there is anything I can wish for our followers, I wanted to share some parting words of encouragement.

1.) Be fearless. Write as if no one knows IT’S YOU. There’s an old saying that made a difference for me when I first started to write.

“Write like your parents are dead.”

Truer words were never spoken. I remember my first books when I pushed the line and wondered if readers will connect ME to what I wrote, especially my friends–or WORSE, my parents. My mother told the book store manager (at my first book signing) that she loved my book, except for the pages she had to duct tape together. True story.

Or the time I had my parents join me at a speech I gave to a large writers’ group in Austin, Texas. After reading a passage aloud, I gulped when I realized they were behind me, listening to a graphic excerpt. My mother told attendees afterwards that she would have to give me a time out.

I also heard from a fellow male author that his most mortifying experience came when his mother corrected his sex scene. OUCH!

2.) Push your skills with each new book. No one needs to know your limitations. If you keep pushing, you won’t have any.

3.) Write on the edge of your comfort zone. Try anything that intimidates you. Otherwise how will you ever overcome & achieve? With every new book, I picked a new plot method that stretched me. If another author claimed to know all the “rules” and told me what I shouldn’t do, that became my new goal.

The one genre I thought I would never write, I took a stab at with THE CURSE SHE WORE when I wrote historical fiction. It took a lot of research and the help of friends like the lovely and talented TKZ’s Clare Langley-Hawthorne to give me the courage to try it. One less thing to intimidate me. (TKZ’s Joe Hartlaub helped me with the setting of New Orleans and I will forever be grateful.)

4.) Pay your good fortune forward. Our writing community is very generous in helping other writers. We see that here at TKZ or we have probably all benefited by a helping hand from other authors in our circles. Do the same for others. You will receive far more from giving than receiving.

5.) Never forget who got you to the dance. Most times it is family who endure the challenges of living with an author. I definitely had the support of family, but I sold because one bestselling author stuck her neck out for me. The story is on my website at this LINK & I have never forgotten her kindness. She changed my life forever and helped me realize a lifelong dream. There are no words to thank someone for that. In fact, after I sent her flowers and gushed, she told me to simply ‘pay it forward.’ So there are no words – JUST DO.

My years of involvement with TKZ was one way I chose to spread her generosity and DO in the spirit of paying kindnesses forward. But I received far more than you’ll ever know. Thank you, TKZers! I won’t forget you.


Good friends never say goodbye. They simply say ‘See you soon.’