Did You Forget to Mention You’re a Writer?

Real life offers inspiration when we least expect it. That moment can also be awkward, especially if you forget to mention one crucial distinction between you and a psychopath: the word writer.

A service person comes to your home. While you’re watching her — yes, a woman — do her job, a brainstorm strikes you out of nowhere; it rounds first base, second, and third, and charges at full speed for home plate. But you need more information to flesh out the idea, mentally draft the story from beginning to end to see if the premise has merit.

So, you drill her with questions, lots of questions, dark probing questions, and then you feel like you have to explain, but you’re so focused on the story — the story is all that matters — you blurt out, “It’s for a murder.” But you don’t expand, so now, this woman who’s working in a male-dominant field starts to twitch, flinch, her eyes pleading with your husband to stop you if things take a turn for the worse, her protective posture praying to God that you won’t snap right here, right now. Or maybe, she’s contemplating whether or not to call the police.

Whatever. You’ve been down this road before. At the same time, you’re not oblivious to the woman’s discomfort. After all, you’re not a monster. You just need facts, and she’s the perfect person to give them to you.

Ah, well, it’s not the first time your enthusiasm for murder and body disposal made a stranger squirm. Probably won’t be the last, either. No biggie. It’s all good.

You continue. “So, in your professional opinion, how long would it take for the flesh to fall off the bones? Oh, wait.” You mull over the possibilities. The hook of your story emerges like a phoenix from the deep recesses of your mind, and you try to control the smirk that threatens to expose your dark, grisly thoughts. “Would the bones also disintegrate?”

“Err … umm …” Her work boots shuffle backward a few feet. Nervous laughter takes hold — you know the type, that “he-he,” pause, “he-he,” pause, followed by a visual gulp. “Do you have somebody specific in mind?”

What a strange thing to say. Obviously, she’s never read your books. Bitch. “I’m still workin’ out the details.” Meh. You write it off to can’t-please-everyone and move on. “So, about that flesh, what’s your best guesstimate for a time-frame?”

“Ah … well, I worked with a guy once who had to be airlifted to Boston after his skin made contact with … third-degree burns all over his body … it took about five hours.”

“Five hours? Hmm, what if I added lye or sulfuric acid?” You weren’t really asking, more thinking aloud.

In a tone unfit for human ears, she says, “I’m not sure what that is.”

As your eyebrows arch in disbelief, your husband steps in to explain. “If she adds lye or sulfuric acid, the mixture should dissolve the flesh, skull, and whatnot a lot quicker.” Something must occur to him, because he whirls toward you. “Babe, wouldn’t you need to heat the sulfuric acid?”

That draws your full attention. “Not necessarily. If we didn’t kill her first, it’d definitely prolong the torture, but maybe that’s a good thing.”

He laughs.

You laugh, too. Perhaps a bit harder than you should.

The service woman’s stone-cold expression snaps toward your husband and then you, her gaze shifting back and forth before refusing eye contact with either of you.

To break the awkward silence, you say, “Really appreciate you comin’ out on a Saturday. You’re doin’ a great job.”

“Thanks.” Her rigid shoulders relax a bit. “This was my father’s business. After he passed, I left it up to my ex-husband to handle the day-to-day operation, but he screwed me over. So, now, I’m juggling this job with my day job.”

Half-tuning her out, this news doesn’t surprise you. It’s the reason you gave her the work in the first place; you’re a sucker for the underdog. To avoid being rude, you pretend that you’re unfamiliar with the story. As she rambles on and on about her ex, you retreat to fictionland where you create plot points and milestones for the new premise that has you all fired-up. You can’t afford to lose focus. If you do, the plot could slip away. Nothing can get in your way, not now, not while the creative juices are flowing like Niagara Falls.

“Yeah, what a shame.” To not appear unsympathetic, you wait a quick beat. “So, what about teeth?”Writer brain

She startles. “Excuse me?”

“Y’know, the murder. Enamel reacts differently than bone.”

“Gee, I … I …” Another nervous giggle escapes her lips as she swivels to face your husband, who loves it when your writer brain takes over. “Aren’t you the least bit worried?” On the sly, she jabs a chin in your direction.

You catch the insinuation, and roll your lips. “Please. Don’t let the innocent face fool you. He’s just as bad as I am when it comes to driving aimlessly, searching for the perfect place to dump a body.”

More ideas skip past the concept, premise, plot points, and milestones. “Hey, you must know the area really well.” Your gaze slides to your husband, and he nods in solidarity. “A desolate area, a deserted farmhouse, a dirt trail that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, a particularly eerie swamp, maybe woodlands that no one dares to enter due to a savage attack-slash-murder that happened decades ago … do ya get what I’m sayin’?”

Silent, her jaw slacks.

Some people, eh? Figures you get stuck with the weirdo. In an attempt to clarify, you rephrase. “What I mean is, have you ever had a call from a homeowner that lived in a Buffalo Bill-style house? Y’know, something remote, or a property that exuded evil, a place where as soon as you pulled on to the long dirt driveway all your tiny body hairs stood on end.”

She smacks her gloves together. “Well, I’m about done here. If you give me a minute, I’ll get you a receipt.”

“But–”

Your husband gives you the slow eye-close, signaling you to let her leave.

“Okay, thanks for your help.”

“Hey,” she hesitates, “you were kidding about killing somebody, right?”

“Not at all.” With no further explanation, you turn and strut back into the house. And your poor husband is left to relay the one piece of information that separates you from a psychopath: you’re a writer. Did you forget to mention that?

This scenario really happened to me. True story.

Can you relate? Care to share a funny miscommunication? Let’s start the week with laughter.

Winner of Readers’ Choice Award in Mystery/Thriller

When Shawnee Daniels–cat burglar extraordinaire and forensic hacker for the police–meets Mr. Mayhem in the dark, she piques his curiosity. Sadly for her, she leaves behind an item best left undiscovered. Or is it serendipity by design?

*All books in the Mayhem Series can stand alone.

Available as ebook or paperback on Amazon.

Other retailers listed on my Tirgearr Publishing page.

10+

Are Only Humans Creative? Plus, 6 Ways Creativity Improves Health

By SUE COLETTA

My husband and I recently watched an excellent documentary on Netflix entitled The Creative Brain. “Neuroscientist David Eagleman taps into the creative process of various innovators while exploring brain-bending, risk-taking ways to spark creativity.” 

I’ve written about creativity and the brain before, so I didn’t want to write another post on the same subject. Nonetheless, all creatives should find the show fascinating. But — yes, there’s a but — the narrator claims only humans possess the ability to create. I disagree. Creativity surrounds us. We just need to remain open to it.

I think we can all agree that dancing is a creative form of expression. So, if dance is part of the arts, then the Birds of Paradise are creative geniuses …

Now, let me ask you, do you think this little guy is creative or working only on instinct?

Side note: ladies, how cool would it be if men had to woo women in the same way? 😉

Let’s dive into the ocean. In South Carolina lives one pod of bottlenose dolphins whose creativity gains great rewards.

Think about this … If they’re working strictly on instinct, then why aren’t other dolphins hunting in the same way? This “beaching” activity can only be seen in this one pod.

Check out these creative thinkers …

What if an elephant painted a self-portrait, would it then mean she’s using her creativity?

Meet Suda …

If you’re short on time, jump ahead to 10:45 to see what she painted.

This Australian Satin Bower selectively steals from humans. The female he’s courting has a fondness for blue. Only blue. Another color might ruin the design.

This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my beloved crows. Crow nest building is serious business, but creativity also plays a role. Made of interlocking twigs gathered from surrounding trees and shrubs, they weave these twigs with metallic wire to strengthen the nest. Some crows even incorporate knotted lengths of thick plastic. But it’s their love of shiny objects that really speaks to their individuality and creativity.

How ‘bout an entire nest made of coat hangers? This magpie’s nest may not look very comfortable, but it’s creative!

That concludes the fun half of the post. Now here’s why creativity is good for you.

6 Ways Creativity Improves Health and Wellness

1) Increased Happiness

When you’re completely absorbed in a project, psychologists call this state Flow. Writers often refer to it as The Zone. For those unfamiliar with either term, have you ever been working on a project and completely lost all sense of time? That’s Flow. And Flow reduces anxiety, boosts your mood, and even slows your heartrate.

2) Reduces Dementia

Studies show that creative engagement not only reduces depression and isolation, but can also help dementia patients tap back in to their personalities and sharpen their senses.

3) Improves Mental Health

The average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day and 95% are exactly the same. A creative act such as writing helps focus the mind. Some compare creative engagement to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body. Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant.

Creativity reduces anxiety, depression, stress, and can also help process trauma. Writing in particular helps to manage negative emotions in a productive way. Creating something through art (painting or drawing) can help people to express traumatic experiences that are too difficult to put in to words.

4) Boosts Immune System

Studies show, people who keep a daily journal have stronger immune systems than those who don’t. Experts don’t know why it works, but writing increases your CD4+ lymphocyte count — the key to your immune system.

Listening to music can also rejuvenate function in your immune system. Music affects our brains in complex ways, stimulating the limbic system and moderating our response to stressful stimuli.

5) Increases Intelligence

Studies show that people who play instruments have better connectivity between their left and right brains. The left brain is responsible for motor functions, the right brain focuses on melody. When the two hemispheres communicate, our cognitive function improves.

Writers use both hemispheres of the brain, as well. Muse on the right, the critic on the left.

6) Decreases Chronic Pain

People dealing with certain medical conditions that result in chronic pain showed improved pain control after expressing their feelings through the written word. Over a nine-week period, the test subjects also showed an overall decline in pain severity.

According to Medical News Today, “music may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus. These brain regions are implicated in mood regulation and hormonal processes, as well as in the body’s inflammatory response.”

The world needs creatives.

Let’s nurture creativity rather than force our youth into professions they’re not passionate about. We’re not born creative. It’s a skill learned over time. As such, parents and/or mentors need to encourage creativity and allow our children and young adults to excel in the arts.

Need more motivation? No problem …

Now, go forth and create something amazing!

11+

ELVIS PRESLEY — WHAT REALLY KILLED THE KING OF ROCK ‘N ROLL

By SUE COLETTA

I invited my dear friend Garry Rodgers — retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner — to share a fascinating post about the real cause of Elvis Presley’s death. Prepare to be wowed. Welcome to TKZ, Garry!

Elvis Presley suddenly dropped in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion on the afternoon of August 16, 1977. Elvis was rushed to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was pronounced dead, then shipped to the morgue and autopsied the same afternoon. Three days later, the Memphis County coroner issued Elvis Presley’s death certificate stating the cause as hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease — a heart attack subsequent to high blood pressure and blocked coronary arteries.

It was a rush to judgment. Toxicology results soon identified ten pharmaceutical drugs in Elvis’s system. Codeine was at ten times the therapeutic level and the combination of other prescription drugs suggested a poly-pharmacy overdose. This revelation started immediate accusations of a cover-up and conspiracy theories quickly hinted at sinister criminal acts.

Four decades later, modern medicine and forensic science looked at the Presley case facts. The review indicated something entirely different from a heart attack or drug overdose really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll. It said Elvis Presley accidentally died after long-term complications from earlier traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). TBIs are known as silent, stalking, and patient killers.

Looking back, it’s likely old accidental head injuries triggered events leading to Elvis Presley’s death.

From my experience investigating unexpected and unexplained sudden deaths, the accidental conclusion makes sense when you consider the totality of evidence in Elvis’ death. Setting aside media reports of gross negligence, arm-chair speculation of cover-up and fan accusations the King was murdered, there’s a simple and straightforward conclusion based on facts. But before examining the facts and knowing hindsight is 20/20, let’s first look at how coroners conduct sudden and unexplained death investigations.

Coroners are the judges of death. Their responsibilities include establishing five main facts surrounding a death. Coroners do not assign blame or fault. In the Presley case, the five facts determined at the immediate time were:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, 1977
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee
  4. Cause of Death — Heart attack
  5. Means of Death — Chronic heart disease

There’s a distinct difference between Cause of Death and Means of Death. Cause is the actual event. Means is the method in which death happened. Example: cause being a ruptured aorta with means being a motor vehicle crash, or cause being massive cerebral interruption with means being a gunshot wound to the head.

Once the facts are known, it’s the coroner’s duty to classify the Manner of Death. There are five universal manner of death classifications:

  1. Natural
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
  4. Accidental
  5. Undetermined

Elvis Presley’s death was ruled a natural event, thought at the time being an acute cardiac event from existing cardiovascular disease. If the coroner determined Elvis died from a drug overdose, the ruling would have been accidental. No one ever claimed it was suicide or homicide.

One principle of death investigation is to look for antecedent evidence—preexisting conditions which contributed to the death mechanism or was responsible for causing or continuing a chain of events that led to the death.

Another principle of death investigation is examining the cornerstone triangle of Scene—Body—History. This compiles the totality of evidence or case facts. Given that, let’s look at the evidence and case facts in Elvis Presley’s death.

Scene

Elvis was found on his bathroom floor, face down in front of the toilet. It was apparent he’d instantly collapsed from a sitting position and there was no sign of a distress struggle or attempt to summon help. When the paramedics arrived, Elvis was cold, blue, and had no vital signs. Rigor mortis had not set in, so he’d probably expired within the hour. He was transported by ambulance to Baptist Memorial Hospital where a vain attempt at resuscitation occurred because “he was Elvis”.

ER doctors declared Elvis dead at 3:16 p.m. He was then moved to the morgue where an autopsy was promptly performed. There was no suggestion of suicide or foul play, so there wasn’t a police investigation. The scene wasn’t photographed, nor preserved, and there was no accounting for what medications or other drugs might have been present at Graceland. There’s no official record of the coroner attending the scene as this was considered an in-hospital death and a routine occurrence.

Body

Elvis was in terrible health. His weight estimated at 350 pounds—gaining 50 lbs. in the last few months of his life. He was virtually non-functional at the end, being mostly bed-ridden and requiring permanent nursing care. Elvis suffered from an enlarged heart which was twice the size of normal and showed advanced evidence of cardiovascular disease in his coronary vessels, aorta, and cerebral arteries—certainly more advanced than a normal 42-year-old would be. His lungs showed signs of emphysema, although he’d never smoked, and his bowel was twice the length of normal, with a partially-impacted stool estimated to be four months old.

Elvis also suffered from hypogammaglobinemia, which is an immune disorder, as well as showed evidence of an autoimmune inflammatory disorder.

Toxicology tested positive for ten separate prescription medications but showed negative for illicit drugs and alcohol. The only alarming pharmaceutical indicator, on its own, was codeine at ten times the prescribed manner but still not in lethal range.

This is a quote from Elvis’s toxicology report:

“Diazepam, methaqualone, phenobarbital, ethchlorvynol, and ethinamate are below or within their respective ranges. Codeine was present at a level approximately 10 times those concentrations found therapeutically. In view of the polypharmacy aspects, this case must be looked at in terms of the cumulative pharmacological effect of the drugs identified by the report.”

History

Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi and had a twin brother who died at birth. As a youth, Elvis was active and healthy which continued during his time in the U.S. military and all through his early performing stage when he was a bundle of energy. He began experimenting with amphetamines, probably to enhance his performances, but shied away from alcohol as it gave him violent tendencies.

In 1967, Elvis came under the primary care of Dr. George Nichopoulos who was well-known to celebrities. Then, Elvis was 32 years old and weighed 163 pounds. His only known medical ailment was slight high blood pressure, presumably due to his high-fat diet.

Also in 1967, Elvis’s health took a sudden turn with progressive pain, insomnia, hypertension, lethargy, irrational behavior and immense weigh gain. Over his remaining years, Elvis was seen by a number of different doctors and was hospitalized a number of times, all the while resorting to self-medication with a wide assortment of drugs from dozens of sources.

Doctor Nick, as Nichopoulos was called, stayed as Elvis’s personal physician till the end. He was present at the death scene as well as during the autopsy. Doctor Nick concurred with the coroner’s immediate conclusion that the cause of death was a natural cardiac event resulting from an arrhythmia, or sudden interruption of heartbeat, and agreed that Elvis’s death was not due to a drug overdose.

When the toxicology report was released, it came with a qualifier:

“The position of Elvis Presley’s body was such that he was about to sit down on the commode when the seizure occurred. He pitched forward onto the carpet, his rear in the air, and was dead by the time he hit the floor. If it had been a drug overdose, [Elvis Presley] would have slipped into an increasing state of slumber. He would have pulled up his pajama bottoms and crawled to the door to seek help. It takes hours to die from drugs.”

Because the tox report appeared to contradict the autopsy report’s stated cardiac cause of death, a prominent toxicologist was asked to review the findings. His opinion was:

Coupled with this toxicological data are the pathological findings and the reported history that the deceased had been mobile and functional within 8 hours prior to death. Together, all this information points to a conclusion that, whatever tolerance the deceased may have acquired to the many drugs found in his system, the strong probability is that these drugs were the major contribution to his demise.”

The Tennessee Board of Health then investigated Elvis’s death, which resulted in proceedings against Doctor Nick.

Evidence showed that during the seven and a half months preceding Elvis’s death—from January 1, 1977, to August 16, 1977—Doctor Nick wrote prescriptions for Elvis for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables. Going back to January 1975, the count was 19,012.

These numbers might defy belief, but they came from an experienced team of investigators who visited 153 pharmacies and spent 1,090 hours going through 6,570,175 prescriptions and then, with the aid of two secretaries, spent another 1,120 hours organizing the evidence.

The drugs included uppers, downers, and powerful painkillers such as Dilaudid, Quaalude, Percodan, Demerol and Cocaine Hydrochloride in quantities more appropriate for those terminally ill with cancer.

Doctor Nick admitted to this. His defense was because Elvis was so wired on pain killers, he prescribed these medications to keep Elvis away from dangerous street drugs, thereby controlling Elvis’s addiction—addiction being a disease.

One of the defense witnesses, Dr. Forest Torrent, a prominent California physician and a pioneer in the use of opiates in pain treatment, explained how the effects of this level of codeine would have contributed to Elvis’s death.

Central to misconduct allegations was the issue of high codeine levels in Elvis at the time of death—codeine being the prime toxicological suspect as the pharmaceutical contributor. It was established that Elvis obtained codeine pills from a dentist the day before his death and Doctor Nick had no knowledge of it.

The jury bought it and absolved Doctor Nick of negligence in directly causing Elvis Presley’s fatal event.

Continuing Investigation

Dr. Torrent was convinced there were other contributing factors leading to Elvis’s death. In preparation for Doctor Nick’s trial, Dr. Torrent had access to all of Elvis Presley’s medical records, including the autopsy and toxicology reports. Incidentally, these two reports are now the property of the Presley estate and are sealed from public view until 2027, fifty years after Elvis’s death.

Dr. Torrent was intrigued by the sudden physiological and psychological changes in Elvis starting in 1967. He discovered that while in Los Angeles filming the movie Clambake, Elvis tripped over an electrical cord, fell, and cracked his head on the edge of a porcelain bathtub. Elvis was knocked unconscious and had to be hospitalized. Dr. Torrent found three other incidents where Elvis suffered head blows, and he suspected Elvis suffered from what’s now known as Traumatic Brain Injury—TBI—and that’s what caused progressive ailments leading to his death.

Dr. Torrent released a paper entitled Elvis Presley: Head Trauma, Autoimmunity, Pain, and Early Death. It’s a fascinating read—recently published in the credible medical journal Practical Pain Management.

Dr. Torrent builds a theory that Elvis’s bathtub head injury was so severe it jarred brain tissue loose, which leaked into his overall blood circulation. Later additional head injuries exacerbated the problem. This is now known to be a leading cause of autoimmune disorder, which causes a breakdown of other organs. This progression was unknown in 1967 and Elvis went untreated. Side effects of TBIs include chronic pain, irrational behavior, and severe bodily changes such as obesity and enlarged organs like hearts and bowels.

Today, TBI is a recognized health issue in professional contact sports as well as incidental to motor vehicle accidents and workplace falls or other head injury events.

Dr. Torrent’s hypothesis holds that with a change in mental state and suffering chronic pain, Elvis Presley entered a ten year spiral towards death. He became hopelessly addicted to pain killers, practiced a terribly unhealthy diet and lethargic lifestyle, and resorted to the typical addict’s habit of sneaking a fix wherever he could. This led to early coronary vascular disease and, combined with his escalating weight and pill consumption, Elvis was a heart attack ready to burst.

Note that I used the term “antecedent,” like all coroners do when assessing a cause of death. Given Dr. Torrent’s observations—and all the facts compiled from forty years—if I were the coroner completing Elvis Presley’s death certificate today, I’d write it like this:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley.
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16th, 1977.
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee.
  4. Cause of Death — Cardiac arrhythmia, antecedent to hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease, antecedent to poly-pharmacy, antecedent to autoimmune inflammatory disorder, antecedent to traumatic brain injury/injuries.
  5. Means of Death — Cumulative head trauma.

Therefore, I’d have to classify Elvis’s death as an accident.

There’s no one to blame—certainly not Elvis. He was a severely injured and sick man. There’s no specific negligence on anyone’s part and definitely no cover-up or conspiracy of a criminal act.

If Dr. Forrest Torrent is right, there simply wasn’t a proper understanding back then to clearly determine what really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

*   *   *

 

Garry Rodgers now works as an investigative crime writer with a number of publications to his credit.

 

In The Attic is based on a true double homicide he investigated involving a psychopathic ax-murderer. Garry also hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net.

 

Note from Sue: I read IN THE ATTIC in August of 2016, and I doubt the story will ever leave me. It’s just one of those books that I’ll never forget. Visceral, raw, emotional, and true!

16+

First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy. I’ll catch you on the flipside.

WATCH ALL NIGHT

It was the other buildings that looked sinister. They slumped against each other, lining the alley in ancient, faded red-brick. Their boarded-up windows bothered Joe the most. They made the buildings look blinded. February chill, boosted by the river, let him hurry past those dead old things, still hanging round like they didn’t know their time had come and gone.

He could hear the Felbrigg changing from a warehouse to an apartment-building before he saw it. And there it was, full of life, construction crews hammering and buzzing, wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, fancy new glass door. Fitting into the London of now.  

Joe went in.

#

Greeley, the building manager, took off his reading glasses and nodded to the two construction guys coming up the corridor where the gym and lift were going to be. The men headed for the front door. This desk station and security room made an island in the middle of the reception floor. A corridor ran all the way to the back of the building, on both sides of the island. Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

Now the men working on the gym had gone, he could hear Greeley’s nasal voice better through all the banging and drilling.

Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck. He said, “So. Think you can remember all that?”

Joe nodded.

***

The way Anon set the scene in the first two paragraphs works for this particular reader. We know where we are, and I found the dinginess of the building compelling enough to keep reading. The first line implies something terrible is about to happen within said building. Which is great. Could the sentence be stronger? Yeah, but that’s an editorial nitpick. I’d rather focus on the big picture.

The largest concern for me occurs after the hashmark. We have a couple POV hiccups and a distant narrator. A hashmark indicates a new scene, yet we’re in the same building as the previous paragraphs. See my confusion? At first, I thought we’d switched to Greeley’s POV, but it doesn’t appear that way. 

Anon, if you meant to switch to a different POV, then we have an even bigger problem. The first page should only be one scene. One POV per scene. 

Everything after the hashmark is more world-building. There’s also a lot of telling. Whenever we use words like heard, saw, thought, knew, etc., we’re not showing the story in a deep point of view. Think about how you, the writer, views the world. For all intents and purposes, you are that POV character. So, rather than tell us you heard or saw something, show us.

Example of telling (limited POV): I heard waves crashing against the rocks. I saw the salt water slash through the veil of ivory foam.

Without adding to the imagery, here’s the same example, only this time we’re in deep POV (showing): Waves crashed against the rocks, the salt water slashing through the veil of ivory foam.

See the difference? You don’t need to tell the reader that the character heard or saw the waves. It’s implied. How else would s/he know?

Okay, there’s another problem. Everything after the hashmark isn’t interesting enough to carry the first page. The building is under construction. We get it. Move on. Don’t waste precious real estate by over-describing. If you want to include the debris, then sprinkle it in later.

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

  • Raise story questions
  • Pique interest
  • Indicate genre
  • Introduce hero (or in some cases, the villain)
  • Gain empathy; not necessarily likability
  • The POV character needs a goal

I recently finished a terrific thriller entitled A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer. Let’s look at the first paragraph as an example of how to include all of the above by showing, not telling …

The sharp scent of formaldehyde filled the room as he poured the liquid into the mixture. He had hated the smell at first. But he’d learned to appreciate it, knowing what it represented: eternity. The embalming fluid kept things from deteriorating. “Till death do us part” was an unambitious concept at best. True love should ascend beyond that point.

Did this paragraph raise story questions in my mind? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out who this killer was embalming.

Did it pique my interest? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out what this killer might do next.

Did it introduce a character in a compelling way? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out more about this killer.

Did I know the genre right away? Absolutely! It’s a serial killer thriller.

Did I have empathy for the villain? Yes! He’s looking for love and thinks the only way to keep Mrs. Right is by embalming her.

Does the villain have a goal? Absolutely! His goal is to build a life-long union with a woman who will never leave him.

And Omer accomplished all of it in one paragraph. Bam. I’m hooked! The rest of the first page drew me in even more. Powerless to fight the urge to stop reading, the world faded away as I frantically flipped pages like a junkie searching for a fix.

Check out the rest of the first page …

He added more salt than the last time, hoping for better results. It was a delicate balance; he’d learned that the hard way. The embalming fluid promised eternity, but the saline solution added flexibility.

A good relationship had to be flexible.

There was a creak beyond the locked door. The noises—a series of irregular squeaking and scraping sounds, intermingled with the girl’s labored groans—grated on his nerves. She was trying to untie herself again. Always moving, always trying to get away from him—they were all the same at first. But she’d change; he would make sure of that. There would be no more incessant movement, no muffled begging, no hoarse screams.

She would be quiet and still. And then they would learn to love each other.

Notice, too, how the killer is moving; he’s active. We’re not hearing about what he did after the fact. We’re experiencing it firsthand through the killer’s POV.

Anon, you need to do the same in your first page. Show us where Joe goes after he enters the building and why we should care. You don’t need to reveal any big mystery, but you do need to hint at it to hold our interest.

This next paragraph tells us what happened instead of letting us experience it ourselves:

Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Granted, it’s best to breeze over the boring stuff. We don’t need to know how to operate CCTV, unless it impacts the plot in some way. If the paragraph falls into the boring stuff category, then it doesn’t belong on the first page.

Ideas

What if Joe reviews last night’s tapes and sees something strange … a burglar, someone being kidnapped, UFO lights, whatever fits your genre. He shows the footage to Greeley and we’re off and running with a new mystery, a goal for our hero, and intrigue.

Or …

What if Greeley storms over to Joe’s work station with damning footage of Joe sneaking into the building last night. But Joe was at home all night. See all the story questions that might arise from that one simple action? Is someone trying to setup Joe? For what, burglary, murder, or a far more sinister scheme? Who hates him enough to frame him? And why? How’d he or she get his passcode or security card?

With the right action, it’s easy to plant questions in the reader’s mind. But you do need the right angle. We also need to plant the reader in that moment with the hero or villain, rather than the narrator telling us about it after it happened.

This paragraph confused me:

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

I’m guessing Anon’s trying to describe Joe, but it doesn’t work. Some authors never describe their characters. They leave it up to reader-interpretation. On Facebook, a fan asked Karin Slaughter what one of her main characters looked like. Her response? He looks exactly how you picture him in your mind. Perfect answer, right?

The writer needs to know their characters intimately, including their looks, but the reader doesn’t, unless their unique style adds to their character in some way. For example, some of my characters wrongly assume Shawnee Daniels lives a gothic lifestyle. She hates the label, but I show her uniqueness to enhance her character — dressing goth-like raises questions about her. Is she hiding behind all black for a reason? Is she using makeup like a mask to shield the innocent girl who cowers inside? See where I’m going with this?

Greeley has that bulldog look. Great. Let another character tease him about his downward-sloping eyes. Men give each other s*it all the time on construction sites. Show him getting razzed by one of the guys, and then show his reaction to the ribbing. Does he fire the guy on the spot? Does he throw things? Cry? I wouldn’t let this play out on the first page, though. Just spitballin’. 😉

Anon, I see something special in the first two paragraphs. You have the writing chops to make this first page compelling. You just dropped the ball after the hashmark. Happens to the best of us. So, take a moment to curse me out, then get back to work. Make us proud, because I know you have it in you. 

Favorite line of this first page: Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck.

You nailed the body cue in that line. So, stop playing it safe elsewhere. 🙂

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page? Did the first two paragraphs draw you in? Could you guess the genre from this small sample? What’s your favorite line? Which, if you’re game, I’d like to include in all first page critiques. Not only will asking for a favorite line add a positive spin to the critiques but knowing where the brave writer succeeded is just as beneficial as knowing where s/he went wrong. 

4+

7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer

By SUE COLETTA

When we first begin our writing journey, our dreams often overshadow the realities of working as a professional writer.

Which publishing path we chose (self-publishing or traditional) doesn’t make a difference. The products we produce do.

For those of you who are at the early stages of your career, let’s take a look at 7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer.

For the professional writers in our TKZ family, please add your truths.

Truth #1:

Writing consumes us. We decline more offers for lunch than we accept. We could analyze one sentence ad nauseum, and still not be happy with it. To an outsider, at times we may look like we’re staring into space, but our mind is whirling with ten different scenarios after a character did something unexpected or our storyline banged a hard right instead of a left, even though we’d planned the milestones in advance.

Truth #2:

When you work from home, friends and family assume you have time to chitchat. No matter how many times you mention your deadline, book launch, or any “author” subject, many will breeze right over it with, “Yeah, so, anyway …”

I’ve tried using signs or mugs as a clear signal not to interrupt me (see above pic), but there are those who still barge right in, whether by phone, text, or (gasp!) in person. Not in a callous way; it’s because they don’t understand the amount of brain-power required to plot and successfully execute a novel.

Writers always have multiple balls in the air at once. Yet, from the intruder’s perspective, they think there’s no harm in breaking our concentration for a minute or two (or five or ten), that we can simply return to where we left off as though the disruption never took place.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong. Interrupting a writer should be punishable by death! At least fictionally. 😉

Truth #3:

Writers spend hours alone in our fictional worlds, and we like it that way. To write professionally, we must be comfortable behind the keyboard. Buy a nice comfy chair; you’re gonna need it. Many professional writers work six or seven days per week, and some hold down full-time day jobs as well. Not everyone has a supportive spouse or makes enough money to write full-time yet.

Truth #4:

Our writing process won’t make sense to anyone but other writers. Don’t even try to explain how a certain song transports you to fictional place or why you have two tiny squares (no more, no less) of chocolate every day as your reward while you read your new favorite thriller.

Writers, did you know daily chocolate* is good for your health? It certainly is, and here’s why:

  • Flavonoids, found in many plant-based foods, including cocoa, can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain, and make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to clot and cause a stroke.
  • Flavonoids can lower cholesterol.
  • Quality dark chocolate with a high-cocoa content is nutritious, contains a decent amount of soluble fiber, and is loaded with minerals.
  • The fatty acids profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
  • Chocolate contains a stimulant like caffeine and theobromine but is unlikely to keep you awake at night.
  • Chocolate is a powerful antioxidant. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavonoids than any other fruits tested, including blueberries!
  • Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease by significantly decreasing oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
  • Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • A study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.

*I’m referring to a small amount of daily chocolate. Everything in moderation. Too much of anything is never a good idea.

Truth #5:

Our debut is just that, a starting point. It’s where our publishing journey begins. For the first time, the public will read our words, and it’s a terrifying experience akin to standing naked for all to judge. I’d love to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I’m as nervous for my thirteenth book to release as I was for my debut. Maybe more so, because the dream of becoming the next “overnight success” isn’t still obscuring reality.

Truth #6:

Many professional writers have health problems. Our bodies weren’t meant to hunch over a keyboard all day, every day. This position can lead to slipped discs, narrowing of nerves in the neck and back, joint issues, carpel tunnel … the list goes on and on.

Remember to take good of yourself! Buy the proper tools of the trade, like an ergonomic chair, a keyboard and/or mouse with wrist support, a sit/stand desk or have the option of switching from the desktop computer to a laptop. Exercise breaks help, too.

Truth #7:

Write for love, not money. The sad truth is, until we build a backlist, writers can’t survive on royalties alone. We can supplement our income in a variety of ways. Some writers coach, some appear on panels or do guest speaking, others offer online courses or webinars. My favorite is mingling with readers at book signings. I make most of my income from May to December. Memorial Day through Labor Day are my busiest time of year, with book signings every weekend.

By studying my area, which is a hotspot for vacationers, I’ve learned where I should appear and when. Year after year, I return to the same venues around the same date. Gone are days of sitting around an empty library, hoping for reader to approach my table, but it took time, consistency, and patience.

There are no shortcuts. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you.

***

I haven’t even broached the subject of marketing, piracy, or endless “buy my book!” emails from total strangers who expect you to promote “the book that’ll change the world!” to your audience. You might be surprised by how many new writers believe that, and I seem to attract all of them.

All that said, I love this profession. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

What are some other hard truths of working as a professional writer? If you’re beginning your writing journey, is there something you’ve wondered about but never had the chance to ask? Now’s the time.

13+

Wounded Writer Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Being a writer can be traumatizing.

Back in October I finished writing Silent Mayhem, a book that deeply affected me.

Sure, I was passionate about the story — I wouldn’t have written it otherwise — but it morphed into more than that; it slashed open another part of me.

I’m still not sure if I’m feeling my own emotions or my character’s, the line between reality and fiction blurred beyond a rational explanation.

While writing, I became the vessel and something else inside me wrote the story, my soul taking it places I hadn’t foreseen in the planning stage. This sounds like a good thing on the surface, but something occurs in the story that wounded me on such a deep personal level. Was it the best thing for the Mayhem Series? Absolutely. This series of events became the catalyst for the next book. And yet, I was still grappling with how to move past it.

The holidays rolled around, and I reverted back into my happy-go-lucky self again. During that time, I started writing Book 4 of my Grafton County Series, but even this new storyline pierced several layers of my heart, illuminating the fact that I may never escape emotional turmoil.

Fast-forward to the beginning of February. My publisher and I worked with the cover designer for Silent Mayhem. On the day the final cover popped into my inbox, my editor sent back the first round of edits.

No big deal, I told myself. I’m a professional. I’ll just leapfrog into the story, bang out the edits, and then plunge back into my WIP. Easy peasy, right?

Wrong.

I read the story one last time from start to finish, making my corrections along the way. Well, I soon found myself in the same quandary, the storyline almost crippling me emotionally.

Friday night I finished my edits and had planned to reopen my WIP on Saturday morning, but as I sat at my desk, I wasn’t able to let go of Silent Mayhem, the storyline tearing open scars I didn’t even know existed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off the emotional upheaval. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Unlike before, though, I don’t have the luxury of processing my feelings ad nauseam, or even take a well-earned break. Grafton County, Book 4, is due in March.

So, what do you do? Exercise, read, watch a movie … anything to take your mind off the story, right? But what if you still can’t flip the emotional switch to off?

I turned to our ol’ friend Google for the answer. Surely other writers have experienced the same thing. One brave soul must have written about it, right? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find one post. Not one! I read about specific emotions that may lie at the heart of my unrest … grief, betrayal, uncertainty, vengeance, etc. etc. But nowhere could I find advice on this topic as a whole.

What would you even call it, Wounded Writer Syndrome?

Psychology Today has a fantastic article about trauma and how writing about it can help heal us. Writer’s Digest also advocates using a traumatic experience to fuel our writing. Harvard Medical School uses the term “expressive writing” when writing becomes cathartic after a difficult life event. But what if writing caused the trauma?

After a lot of soul-searching, I came up with my own way of coping.

The first step is the hardest of all. It requires us to delve deep within our psyche and unearth the root cause. At what point in the story did our emotions entangle with the character’s? Where did we lose control? Is there a certain scene or chapter that arouses a physical reaction, like crying, shaking, or squirming in the chair? If we’re able to pinpoint the exact moment that first had a profound effect on us, the healing process can begin.

Expressive writing may hold the key to healing a wounded writer’s soul, even if the trauma’s self-inflicted. Expressive writing is also beneficial to our overall well-being. Researchers studied the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines.

They conducted a study in Kansas, where women with breast cancer experienced fewer symptoms and went to fewer cancer-related appointments in the months following expressive writing. The aim of the study wasn’t to combat the disease, and the authors of the paper don’t claim the actual cancer cells were affected. However, the study shows other aspects of the women’s health improved faster than the control group, who merely stated facts rather than expressing the emotional impact of the disease.

From BBC.com

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.

He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system. 

I propose the same holds true for those of us afflicted by Wounded Writer Syndrome. Find the exact moment in your story and write about how that scene, or scenes, affected you, the writer. At that point, we can then piece together our shattered spirit … just in time to traumatize ourselves all over again with the next book. 🙂

Have you experienced Wounded Writer Syndrome? What are some ways that helped you heal?

 

13+

When Real Life Collides with Fiction …

By SUE COLETTA

Lately, I’ve been consumed by my WIP. It happens with every book. You know the drill. At a certain point something inside takes over. No more struggling, no more hair-pulling, no more research trips down endless rabbit holes. Instead, we spend more time “in the zone” than out of it.

Keep that in mind while I share this conversation between me and my husband, Bob — with pics!

He’d just stretched out after a long day doing tile work as a favor for a friend, so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to take his boots off yet.

I’m sitting across from him. And within seconds, I’m enthralled by his boot treads. I can’t tear my gaze away, my mind whirling with endless scenarios of how I might use them in my WIP.

Bob: Why’re you staring at my boots?

Me: How long have you had those? Didn’t I buy ‘em, like, two Christmases ago?

Bob: Yeah. Why?

Me: Two years … gee, I woulda thought you’d have more of wear pattern by now. You must walk fairly even.

Bob: Thanks, I think.

It was more of an observation than a compliment, but he didn’t need to know that.

Eyes in a squint, I lean in to study the details of each tread, searching for any anomalies I could use.

Bob: What’s so fascinating about my boots?

I thumb the camera on my iPhone and aim at the treads. “Straighten your feet.”

Bob: In your mind, they’re bloody, huh?

Me: Why do you always assume the worse?

Okay, fine. Maybe I was envisioning blood in the grooves, but nobody likes a show off. 🙂 My main focus, however, was the type of impression these specific boots would leave in snow. At a crime scene, if footwear evidence is found and collected, examiners can compare these unknown impressions to known impressions, collected from other crime scenes and stored in databases.

To do this, examiners use three main characteristics for analysis …

  • Class
  • Individual
  • Wear

Class characters result from the manufacturing process and are divided as “general” —characteristics that are standard for every item of that make and model — or “limited” — any variations that are unique to a certain mold. Two boots may have identical tread patterns but may also hold slight differences due to imperfections in the molds during manufacturing.

Back to Bob’s boots for a moment. This time, let’s zoom in …

See that tiny dot on the “S” in Sorel? On his right boot it’s on the bottom. On his left, it’s at the top. The “O” is filled in on the left but not on the right. Also on the right, it almost looks like there’s an apostrophe after the O, as if the brand spells its name as So’Rel. These imperfections are the perfect example of class characteristics.

Individual characteristics are unique to a particular shoe that’s worn from use, not manufacturing. Suppose someone steps on a nail. That nail hole is there for the life of the shoe, and that mark will show in the impression. Same holds true for a cut or gouge from stepping on something sharp, like broken glass. Even a small stone or twig stuck in the grooves of the tread will transfer to the impression.

Wear characteristics result from the natural erosion of the shoe caused by use. Specific wear characteristics include the wear pattern, the basic position of tread wear, the wear condition, the amount of depth of the wear, and the damage to, or destruction of, the tread pattern. The location and amount of tread loss varies for each individual, wearing that particular brand and style of shoe, based on how and where they’ve walked and the length of time they’ve owned the shoe.

Footwear impressions provide valuable information for investigators …

  • Where the crime occurred
  • Number of people present at the scene
  • Direction the suspect traveled before, during, and after the crime
  • Link other crime scenes to the same suspect

Prints are divided into three types …

  • Visible
  • Plastic
  • Latent

A visible print is exactly like it sounds. These prints can be seen by the naked eye. Think: bloody shoe prints across a linoleum floor.

A plastic print is a three-dimensional impression left on a soft surface, like in sand, mud, or snow.

A latent print is one that’s not readily visible. It’s created through static charges between the sole of the shoe and the surface. Examiners use powders, chemicals, and/or alternative light sources to find latent prints. Think: a burglar’s shoeprint on a window sill.

The FBI compiles and maintains a footwear (and tire tread) database, which contains manufacturers’ information, as well as information from previously submitted evidence. But did you know the National Institute of Justice also maintains various forensic databases? They sure do. Which is perfect for an amateur sleuth character who doesn’t have access to the FBI’s database.

For print impressions, the NIJ maintains three databases called …

  1. SoleMate
  2. TreadMark
  3. TreadMate (for tire impressions)

For detailed information about how each database works, here’s the link to help with your research.

Knowing the basics of footwear impressions, I thought I was all set to write my scene. But if experience told me anything, it’s that a hands-on exercise trumps imagination. Hence why I’ve trapped myself in a steel drum to experience my character’s terror. And why, after spotting the boots, I dragged my poor husband outside to make prints in the snow.

Turns out, he had more of a wear pattern than I thought. After close inspection of several prints, worn spots in the grooves of the heel, toe, and instep revealed themselves. Guess someone doesn’t walk evenly after all. 🙂

If Bob hadn’t stretched out after work with his boots still on, and I wasn’t sitting across from him, consumed by my WIP, my story wouldn’t’ve taken a hard-right turn and led to several intense, gripping scenes. And I probably wouldn’t have written this post, either. Isn’t it amazing how that works?

We writers need to remain open to outside stimuli. If your short on ideas, you’re not paying attention to the world around you. Look through the writer’s lens at all times. That’s the biggest takeaway from this post (outside the helpful info. re: footwear impressions ;-)).

Our experiences bleed through every page we write. So, go ahead and drag your spouse/neighbor/friend into the snow to make prints, if that’s what you need for research. Or pause to listen to the throaty rattle of a raven, if you need a moment of clarity. Life is our greatest ally. Don’t squander the gift of perception by ignoring her.

Has real life ever collided with your fiction? Are you viewing the world through a writer’s lens? Please share a brief sliver of time. Like when a raindrop catches kaleidoscope colors as it rolls down a windshield or how the neighbor’s cat only limps when his owner’s watching.

11+

TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

7+

Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

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Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

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