Where Do You Find Inspiration?

By Sue Coletta

Whenever I’m plotting a new novel, I read a lot of true crime stories for inspiration. I may even steal character traits from one real world serial killer or victim and combine them with another. Reading triggers the muse to fire off plot, character, and subplot ideas. Somedays, though, the stories are almost too bizarre to believe. In which case, I’ve merely entertained myself for a while. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t call it wasted time, because true stories have a way of worming into our subconscious mind. When we’re in the writing zone, these alleged “useless facts” can morph into an intriguing scene that we never expected. Don’t you love when that happens?

With that in mind, I pose the following question to you, my dear TKZers. Did you know serial killing families existed? I’ve written about them before on my blog, as well as serial killing couples, which aren’t as rare.

Wes Craven found inspiration for his 1977 slasher film The Hills Have Eyes when he read about the horrors of one particular family of serial killers — the Sawney Bean clan. This is their story. (Did anyone else hear Law & Order’s theme song when they read that line?)

In the times of King James I, Mr. and Mrs. Sawney Bean transformed Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire, Scotland, into their home. Long, twisting tunnels extended for more than a mile underground. The cave also featured several side passageways to accommodate a growing family. And grew they did. Over the years they created their own army of psychopathic cannabals.

Opposed to getting a job to support his new bride, Sawney Bean resorted to robbery. On the lonely back roads that connected the villages, he’d lie in wait for travelers to pass by. Townsfolk believed the roads were haunted due to the massive amount of disappearances.

A budding serial killer stalked those streets.

Bean’s sole reason for escalating to murder was to not leave witnesses. But then, Agnes, his wife, had an even sicker idea. If they butchered their victims, their remains could provide a high-protein diet, which had the added benefit of evidence disposal. Their relationship had already forced them to flee from their homeland in northern Scotland, after locals repeatedly made accusations of Agnes being a witch, claiming she’d been involved in human sacrifice and conjuring demons.

Over the years Sawney and his wife had fourteen children — all as twisted and evil as their parents — who became an army of serial killing cannibals.

During the next two decades, through incest, the children bore more children, who refined the art of murder and cannibalism, often salting and pickling human flesh. According to the Bean family ledger, found many years later, these incestuous acts brought Bean and Agnes a total of 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, now bringing the Bean clan to a total of 48 inbred, cannibalistic monsters.

Decaying body parts washed up on the beaches surrounding Bennane cave. Which prompted massive search parties. But no one thought to check the cave.

In about 1430 A.D., fate intervened when the Bean army — who had split into several small groups to hunt — attacked a man and his wife while on their way home from the fair. Half the Bean clan dragged the woman off her horse and had already disemboweled her before the other half of the group had a chance to wrestle the man to the ground. Fighting for his life, the distraught husband trampled several members of the Bean clan with his horse. This caused such a commotion a group of twenty bystanders came to his rescue.

During an all-out war, the Bean clan found themselves outnumbered for the first time in their pathetic lives. They retreated to the cave, leaving behind the mutilated remains of the man’s wife and a score of witnesses. The surviving victim was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to tell his tale. With the longest missing persons list the country had ever seen, they reported to King James I, who arrived in Ayshire with his own army of 400 men and a pack of dogs.

Together with several hundred volunteers, another search was underway. Yet again, no one thought to search the cave. Until one cadaver dog alerted at the entrance.

Nothing could have prepared them for the horrors inside. The Bean family lived in that cave for 25 years. In total, the number of missing persons during that time is said to be over 1000.

Bennane Cave

Torches in hand and swords drawn, the army soldiered into Bennane cave and into the mile-long twisting passageways to the inner sanctum of the Bean lair. Dank cave walls held row after row of human limbs, heads, and torsos displayed like the window of a butcher shop. Bundles of clothes, jewelry, and picked-clean bones littered the ground.

A fight broke out between the King’s Army and the forty-eight Bean members, resulting in the arrest and apprehension of Sawney Bean and his kin.

Their crimes were so heinous that normal channels weren’t enough, so King James I sentenced them all to death. Twenty-seven Bean men were left to exsanguinate after executioners disarticulated their limbs. The twenty-one Bean women were hung, staked, forced to watch their male kin bleed out, and finally. set ablaze. Through the entire ordeal not one member of the Bean family showed any sign of fear or remorse. Instead, they spit obscenities toward their captors.

Until the moment Sawney Bean drew his final breath, he repeated one continuous phrase, “It isn’t over, it will never be over.”

Legend says, one of the daughters escaped during the fight with the King’s Army and a local family adopted her. At seventeen years old, she married and had a son. In hard times they also killed and cannibalized to stay alive. When the villagers caught wind of their gruesome activities they hung the Bean daughter and her husband, but not before her son escaped to America, settling what was then known as Roanke Island. The entire colony later disappeared without a trace.

Legend also says that if you sit under the hanging tree in Scotland, you can still hear the Bean daughter’s bones scrape against the bark.

I’ll end this post the same way it began. Where do you find inspiration?

7+

Eavesdropping on Quora

By Sue Coletta

Crime writers do their research in various places. Many of us have experts we can call on, but I hate to bother friends unless I can’t find the answer elsewhere. A great place to look is Quora. Numerous LEOs volunteer their time to answer questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Quora, you can follow topic feeds, like Police and Law Enforcement, and scan the Q&As. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask a new question.

Because I write about serial killers I also follow Psychopathy and Psychopaths. Some of the information is valid, other times alleged “real” psychopaths write in. Although it’s not unheard of for psychopaths to brag, Quora allows anonymity. Any time the poster doesn’t need to reveal their true identity, the information becomes unreliable.

Even if the poster has a valid profile, still double check the information. I recommend confirming with least two or three reliable sources for any internet information you intend to use in a book. Two of my favorite sites are Psychology Today and Explore Forensics, depending on what I’m looking for. I also need to give a quick shout-out to my dear friend Garry Rodgers, RCMP (Ret.), weapons expert and forensic coroner, who blogs at Dying Words. Quora also has its place in the pecking order.

In the Q&A below, I did not edit the answers for two reasons:

1. It’s not my writing; full credit goes to the poster;

2. The voice, including grammar and/or spelling errors, helps with the overall mental image of the officer who’s answering. After all, that’s one of the best parts of eavesdropping.

How many of you have listened in on a conversation while shopping or out to eat? You may not be able to see the person, but their language paints an image in your mind. As you read the following stories, I want you to imagine the officer who’s speaking. There’ll be a fun exercise at the end of this post.

Please note: the s-word is used a few times. Cussing and cops go together like peanut butter cookies and milk. You’ve been warned. 🙂

As a cop, what are the weirdest things you ever experienced?

Scott Conroy, 17 year veteran of law enforcement, answers:

Years ago some construction workers found some human bones in a a concrete patio that they were tearing up in the Venice Beach Area. In looking into the concrete we noticed that there were cavities in the concrete that were made by the now decomposed body. We summoned the Scientific Investigation Unit (LAPD’s version of “CSI”) and we came up with an idea to inject latex rubber into the cavities to get the body contours. Lo and behold we pulled out a latex rubber hand impression of the person to whom the bones belonged.

The detail of the latex replica was amazing. We could see defensive knife wounds and more importantly we saw fingerprints on the latex. We printed the “fingers” of the latex cast and discovered they belonged to a teacher who had disappeared around the time the concrete patio was poured. The ensuing homicide investigation revealed that the primary suspect in this homicide was a nephew who had worked in construction and on that particular patio job.

Epilogue: The suspect, however, had suffered an industrial accident a few years before the discovery of the bones in the concrete and was existing in a vegetative state. In the interest of justice, he was not charged or put on trial for that crime.

What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a police officer?

Jim Lee, Former Military Police officer (8 years) answers:

I was running a solo unit one unseasonably cold (for San Diego) November night over 20 years ago when dispatch sends me to an on-base bowling alley; apparently, security personnel were dealing with a D&D (Drunk/Disorderly) individual running around the parking lot half-dressed and beating on cars. I arrive on scene 5 minutes later and see the contact, and something wasn’t right about the situation. As I attempted to make contact with the individual I already didn’t like what I was seeing: no shirt in 40 degree weather but still sweating like a pig; dilated pupils; blank thousand-yard stare and wandering aimlessly. I’d seen these symptoms before, and they had jack sh!t to do with alcohol from what I’d remembered.

As I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to this guy he starts toward me in a threatening manner; I decided to deploy my collapsible baton and warn him off, but he wasn’t listening. That’s when I realized what I was looking at: My new “friend” was on PCP (aka “Angel Dust”).

Officers who have experience dealing with contacts on PCP are familiar with the dangerous situation I found myself in. But for those who don’t know: PCP prevents the actions normally caused when a neurotransmitter, called glutamate, attaches to its receptor in the brain.

It also disrupts the actions of other neurotransmitters. PCP distorts sights, sound and other senses. The user may experience “out of body” sensations that are related to the dissociative effects, feel like they are “floating” with strange impressions of space and time, or imagine things that aren’t real. Some abusers experience euphoria and invulnerability while others experience drowsiness and calming sensations.

PCP is dose-dependent and the effects on the brain intensify with greater doses depending on the methods of consumption and certain biological or psychological factors of the abuser with effects, generally, last from 4 – 6 hours. While the intoxication effects on the brain may be short-lived, the disruptions in neuronal activities can cause the person to feel unpleasant symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings, and general dysphoria when the intoxication effects subside.

I threw the baton to the security personnel; I knew, thanks to the effects of PCP, that I could beat the brakes off this guy all night long and he wouldn’t feel a damned thing, so the baton was absolutely pointless. I requested a cover unit to the scene; it usually takes several officers to subdue someone who is on this stuff, and I couldn’t trust the barely-trained security personnel, so I knew I’d have to keep the suspect at bay for a few minutes until “real” help arrived.

This is when things went sideways.

The suspect immediately went for my 9mm Beretta sidearm. I knew I had to keep him from getting to my service weapon at all costs, even if it meant taking an ass-kicking; a bloody nose or broken jaw would pale in comparison to what would happen if he were to somehow get hold of my pistol. Fortunately there were two things going in my favor:

  1. Our department issued retention holsters as standard equipment. Retention holsters serve the same purpose as regular holsters with one exception: instead of simply lifting the gun on of the holster one has to use a sort of “twisting” motion to be able to get to the weapon, otherwise it won’t budge. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know that.
  2. This guy was about 140 pounds soaking wet; this meant he gave up about 80 pounds to me (I was about 220–225 back then).

With a simple “bear hug” I was able to slam this guy on the pavement, as I was hoping to knock the wind out of him for a second. That was the easy part.

But now the fun was about to start.

Remember what I said about PCP’s effect of the human body’s nervous system? I finally got to see this effect first-hand; no amount of punching, arm bar holds or pressure point manipulation was going to stop this freak. It took all I had just to wrestle this guy and hold on for dear life (namely, mine). Despite the fact that I outweighed him by such a large amount I could barely hold this guy down, and he was determined to get his hands on my weapon. I’m not sure how long it took the cover unit to finally show up; it was probably about another 5 minutes but it felt like an hour.

Fortunately the officers in the other unit (they were riding a partner unit, thankfully) immediately recognized the situation I faced and helped me hold the drug-crazed nutjob down while security personnel contacted a paramedic unit under our orders. Upon the paramedic’s arrival it took no less than five of us to apply restraints to the suspect, “hogtie” him and prepare him for transport to the medical facility for treatment and evaluation. A subsequent search revealed that he was also armed with a 4-inch blade; I wondered why he didn’t use it but was relieved that he must have forgotten about it (otherwise this story would have been about a police shooting).

After I was also examined by the paramedics (and found to be still intact) my watch commander ordered me back to the station to take a rest and start my report. Good thing, too, because that was probably the longest 10 to 15 minutes of my life at that point; I was worn out, and someone just tried to kill me.

Yeah, fun times.

Benjamin Bender, Retired Police Detective St Louis Metropolitan Police, answers:

For me its almost getting thrown off a 6 story bridge that was over a freeway while fighting a guy who outweighed me by 100 lb or watching a Woman burn alive 3 feet from me that I would have saved if I had arrived literally 10 seconds earlier.

Bridge incident story starts as all my stories do. One day while on “routine” patrol (again on a day my permanent partner had a Kelly Day…which was a common thing for me to get the call of the century while he was off….drove him nuts).

I got a call for a “vehicle accident” on the Freeway, I-55 near the North Bound exit onto the Poplar Street bridge. Traffic often backed up on that on ramp and rear end collisions were common. I was in an area not my normal one because my partner Blake was off I got stuck in a sector car that a guy was off and would be deadheaded. When I got the call it was crucial that I take one particular hidden on ramp to arrive at the location the quickest. I unwisely chose to go to one that was 2 blocks further (because the other was hard to find off an alley hardly marked and it was dark).

When I pulled up 3 cars had been in an accident. A drunk in the rear slammed into a guy who slammed into a 3rd car in front. The furthest car in front had a Mother in Law in it. The Son in law was the middle car. Drunk as I said..in the rear ramming and causing it.

Well as I pull up the Mother in laws car erupts in flame from gas leaking out of the tank by the back bumper. She is trapped in the car but nobody had got her out by breaking the window. Nobody noticed the leaking fuel. By the time I run to her the flame is fully over and in the back seat of the car. I break the window and cut her seat belt …go to pull her 100 LB body out like a kid but just before I can the flame billows over and engulfs both of us…the entire car bumper to bumper. I drop away and lose most of my exposed hair and a shirt. She burned alive in front of us..and the Son in law. I then had to take him to the station and sit there while he called his wife and told her he just rear ended her Mother and she died.

If that was my beat or I knew that exit better she would have lived. 100%

Second was a Home Invasion robber wanted for many crimes was leading Cops from 6 or more jurisdictions on a high speed chase through the City and County. I was listening in on the radio and correctly guessed he would go for the bridge over the Mississippi to get to Illinois. The chase went on for over an hour and I correctly deduced he was circling the rabbit hole to get home to Illinois and couldn’t find the bridge on ramp.

I went to the easiest one for him to get to based on his location north of the city. I then cause a traffic jam on the 1 lane on ramp by ordering 1 car to stop on the ramp and not move until I said ok. 10 Min of round about chase later…sure enough…here he comes. Goes on the side of cars as much as he can till its blocked..gets out on foot and starts running up the ramp to the bridge on foot with me 10 feet behind..letting him run a bit and get tired before we fight.

So…he gets higher up and apparently then did get tired and want to fight. When it didn’t go well for him he tried to jump off the side of the bridge (he didn’t realize that the earth rise fell away to a long drop the higher you went up…he thought ground was about 10 feet down or something). I instinctively grab his forearm as he went and I held a second. Then I felt his weight pulling me over. I knew I was going over now…I saw the terror in his eyes as he realized he had screwed up and was about to get very hurt and or dead. I then made the split second decision to let go. I saw his eyes go wide as saucers as I said…”bye”…and let go. He fell 60 feet and shattered both legs and his pelvis and lived. Almost got ran over too. That scared the shit out of me. He came sooo close to pulling me over head first…not feet first like he fell.

Love the dark humor, love the voices. I hope you enjoyed them as well. Ready for a fun exercise? Take one of these fascinating stories and describe the officer who told the tale. No clicking the name to peek at their profile picture!

5+

How to Handle Critiques

After undertaking quite a few first page critiques here at TKZ, it occurred to me that it might be timely to (re)consider the role of critiques and, perhaps more importantly, how a writer should handle the feedback received.

Receiving criticism, even when constructive (but especially when it isn’t!)  is never a pleasant experience (and trust me, I’ve been there many, many times) but it’s a vital part of any writer’s review process. The tricky part comes when the feedback provided isn’t consistent – which quite often it isn’t (Hint: when the feedback is consistent, it’s usually worth considering!). As we’ve seen here at TKZ, reviewing someone’s writing is a very subjective experience. So how should a writer handle multiple points of view, advice and feedback?

Here are some of my thoughts – based on my experience with beta readers, reviewers, writing groups, agents and editors….

Trust the opinion of those you admire and who genuinely want you to succeed in your writing.

I would say everyone who provides feedback here at TKZ is supportive of the brave souls who submit their work for a first-page critique – so this comment is more directed to other reviewers or writing groups, where sometimes the quality of the feedback provided may be colored by differing degrees of experience as well as intention (just saying!) so make sure the advice you’re getting is from people whose honest opinion you admire and trust. This also means not seeking opinions solely from friends or family members who may hold back on giving you an honest appraisal out of fear of hurting your feelings.

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

If everyone has difficulty say with the voice or POV you’re using in your work, even if their advice differs on how to fix that, I’d genuinely consider the issue. If a consistent ‘flaw’ is identified by multiple reviewers, then it’s always worth take a close look at the problem even if, as the writer, you disagree with the solutions offered.

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

There’s not much a writer can do with ‘I just didn’t like the character’ feedback so it’s much better to focus on specifics rather than vague generalities. That being said, if everyone gives you the same (albeit vague) feedback, then fundamentally something isn’t resonating with readers so, as a writer, I’d take that feedback on board and see what I could do to fix it.

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

Sometimes, when my agent has identified an issue I haven’t even thought of, and none of my beta readers have identified, I’ll go back to them with her comments – and 9 times out of 10 they will agree…so it’s always worth bouncing ideas and feedback with your reviewers. This often leads to greater clarity and consistency in terms of what may not be working in a story.

When multiple, conflicting, but specific feedback is given, go with what feels right for you… 

This is the trickiest aspect of dealing with inconsistent feedback and, as writer’s gain more experience, it does get easier to identify what rings true and what doesn’t. In one of my writing groups, I’d sometimes get random feedback that I quickly realized was completely wrong for the genre of book I was writing, or which led me down a path that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s extremely hard, though, to sift through all the comments given in a writing or critique group and know what feels right. In that situation, I’d go back to my initial comment about relying on the feedback of those you trust and admire and who really want you to succeed in your writing.

But also take a big step back to see what the heart of the issue might really be…

One of our TKZ alumni, Larry Brooks, identified it best in his book ‘Story Fix’ – where he noted that what brings a story down is often less about the writing and more about the inherent appeal and strength of the story itself. So when digesting the plethora of feedback  you’ve received, I’d initially classify the advice into two buckets (1) feedback on the actually mechanics of your writing (weak grammar, clumsy sentence structure etc.) and (2) feedback that goes to the heart of the story you are trying to tell (POV, appeal of characters, dramatic tension etc.). It’s much easier to fix issues that reviewers identify in bucket number (1). Feedback the falls into bucket (2), may require you to take a long hard look at the concept and premise of your story. That doesn’t mean despairing, it just means going back to identifying the core of story you are hoping to tell and seeing whether it holds up under scrutiny. That could be the first step in identifying what is going wrong and the best way of rectifying it.

So TKZers, what advice would you give, particularly to our brave first page submitters, on handling multiple, sometimes inconsistent, feedback when it comes to your writing?

8+

Nature Provides Amazing Opportunities

By Sue Coletta

It’s no secret that I’m a huge animal lover. Folks who follow me on Twitter may’ve noticed my interest in wildlife, conservation, and protecting our ecosystems.

When our last two dogs crossed the rainbow bridge, part of me died right alongside them. In 10 years we’d lost eight dogs, seven of which died to cancer and one to a brown recluse spider bite. I longed for another to help fill the void, but my husband couldn’t go through the pain again. I understood. Nonetheless, I still grappled with the lack of pitter-pattering of paws across the hardwood. The house didn’t feel the same.  

To help heal, I turned to nature. The woods surrounding our house had to be teeming with life. Surely some little fella needed love.  

At the time, I was writing Blessed Mayhem and had studied crows extensively. How hard could it be to befriend a crow?  

One day, I piled peanuts on the grass. Circus peanuts, unsalted. In my research I’d discovered that circus peanuts are high in carbs. It takes a high-carbohydrate diet to flap wings. Within thirty minutes, a crow landed in the yard. A bubble of joy burst inside me, a tidal wave of love shattering the protective layer of my heart.  

“Poe?” I said, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.   

Unlike in my book, my Poe turned out to be female. The only reason I knew this was because a few days later, she brought her mate, Edgar, who was noticeably larger. Poe struts with an unmistakable wiggle to the hips and Edgar acts as the great protector. A real man’s man, if you know what I mean. The proud parents flew peanuts back and forth to their nest … in the woods across the street.  

OMG, they had chicks! The helplessness that had consumed me each time cancer stole another dog from us, withered away like lilies in a frozen pond.  

Days turned into weeks as I marveled at their intelligence, grace, and loving nature. My husband got swept up, too. 

Then we had a new visitor. The Marilyn Monroe of squirrels, this gorgeous dirty-blonde with a swanky strawberry-blonde tail sauntered into the yard. Hesitant at first but making a b-line for the peanut pile. Uh-oh, she could be trouble. Would Poe and Edgar accept her, or would they retaliate for the intrusion?  

Since I’d already matched the crow names to fictional pets, why not stay consistent? From that day forward, the sexy squirrel became Shawnee. Then I noticed she was pregnant. If Poe didn’t accept her, how could I ever kick her out? Better lay out two piles of peanuts from now on. 

Fights broke out between the two mothers as I bit all my fingernails to the quick. And then something amazing happened. Little by little, day by day, the taunts, lunges, and overall discourse lessened. It’s like they’d struck a deal — you stay on your side of the yard and we’ll stay on ours. With tiny mouths to feed, the kids remained their top priority.  

Just like that, harmony was restored.  

Neither Poe nor Shawnee cared when Hippy joined the party. Hip is a tiny chipmunk who at the time hadn’t even formed stripes yet. Instead, two dotted lines trailed down his back. My heart puddled into goo. Hippy must be the most enthusiastic of his kind. Each time he scores a peanut he leaps a good four-to-six inches into the air, as if screaming, “Hip, hip, hooray!”

Poe and Edgar brought the chicks once they were old enough to fly. Tears teemed my eyes as they taught their babies how to crack peanut shells against the rock. Their beaks weren’t strong enough yet to pry the shell apart. Shawnee brought her babies, too. Two older chipmunks joined Hippy. That was it. No other birds, no other animals of any kind. Until the sun set in the night sky, when Foxy Lady and her kit, Cornelius, ensured the yard was properly licked clean. Jeff, the opossum, and two of the fattest raccoons on record, the Fatty Patty Twins, also helped with the clean-up. Albeit in shifts. The night crew story I’ll save for another time before this post morphs into a book. 

Back to Poe, Shawnee, and Hip … 

In the yard, I designated a pile of peanuts for each family and they stayed at their respective piles, never encroaching on their neighbor. The two mothers formed the foundation for a mutually beneficial arrangement and everyone played fair.  

The nice thing about crows is, they know how to keep a secret. This becomes especially true with places they feed. Sure, they may bring a guest here and there, but it’s a one-shot deal. If the visiting crow(s) try to hang around, Poe and Edgar escort them past the property lines. Crows also aren’t opposed to playing dead next to a consistent source of food, so other crows flying by will think the feast is toxic. They really are smarter than fifth-graders! 

In New Hampshire, winters are long and brutal. This fact alone worried me. How would my new fur-and-feathered-babies weather harsh conditions? Little did I know, they worked out a solution ahead of time: me. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m an easy mark, and they knew it from day one. A tilt of the head, a swish of the tail, and I’m out the door, trudging through two feet of snow. My husband also isn’t immune. Thank God, too, because someone needs to shovel a path for them. He’ll even clear the snow around the bottom of Shawnee’s tree so her feet don’t get cold when she climbs down.

During the same blizzard, Odin, our chatty raven who loves to hang out on my deck railing, sang for his breakfast around 6:00 a.m.  

Crows and ravens have an amazing range of calls, which include mimicking other animals. They can even imitate us!  

Once the snow arrived, I moved peanut piles up a level to shorten my trek. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that slight alteration caused a major shift. The waft of peanuts caught the attention of blue jays, who wasted no time in muscling in on the action. Shawnee’s kids had kids of their own, or she’d spilled the beans to one of her squirrel suitors. Between you and me, she’s a bit of a floozie.  

The harmony in the yard became a massive feeding frenzy, new squirrels zigzagging around crows, blue jays divebombing from all directions, warring with one another in mid-air while Poe and Edgar played referee. Add in an adorable red squirrel, aptly named Wile E. Squirrel, and I created the perfect storm. Absolute madness unfolds daily around here … but everyone’s fat and happy.   

The truly beautiful thing is, Poe and Shawnee still eat wing to tail without even so much as a harsh glance. Even after all this time they’ve never broken that initial vow to put family first. Can’t say the same for their offspring, though. If a baby squirrel tries to take off with one of the suet squares (yes, I cut them into bite-sized pieces), the Poe clan gangs up on the poor little fella. Massive black wings flapping behind you will make anyone drop their stash.  

I’ve also witnessed new behavior. Poe and Edgar’s kids – who are huge by the way; they take after their Dad – line up on the lower level, their backs concealed by the skeletal-branches of the bushes. When one of the baby squirrels takes off down the hill with a mouthful of nuts, the wings spread. If he makes it past the defensive line, they soar after him. It’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around, either. I go through 15-20 lbs. of peanuts per week. Maybe stolen food just tastes better.  

Spending time with wildlife is one of my favorite ways to relax. Enjoying nature is an excellent excuse for taking a well-needed break from the computer. Thanks to Jim, TKZers know why it’s important for writers to step away from their WIP from time-to-time.  

My neighbors probably think I’ve lost my mind … again. Passerby’s certainly do. Twice a day, if I haven’t been beckoned, I stand in the yard, hands cupped around my mouth, and call into the sky for Poe. A caw always echoes in return. Within minutes of closing the sunroom door, the yard erupts – a Coletta family signal that a new day has begun.  

It’s impossible to have a bad day when you’re surrounded by tiny paws and talons. Let’s start the week off on a fun note. Do you feed the wildlife around your house? Tell me about the animals in your life.  

8+

Fear, the Ultimate Motivation

(Photo by author)

I love it when a reader tells me one of my books gave them a good scare. Oddly enough, despite having written many dark suspense and gothic novels and stories, I’ve rarely actually set out to frighten readers. The scares in my stories are incidental to their unfolding.

Though, now that I think about it, there was one time I tried my hand at a truly creepy passage, but my editor shot it down. In my first novel, Isabella Moon, I thought it would be very cool for the villain to roll the decapitated head of my heroine’s erstwhile love interest into the kitchen to scare the hell out of her. The image seemed dramatic and seriously creepy to me, but my editor said it went too far. And I knew he was right. So I took it out. (Also, take note. DON’T kill off the love interest unless you’re writing a tragic love story, or you reveal that the love interest was a bad, bad person, and probably deserved to die. It’s almost, but not quite, as bad as killing a fictional dog or cat or rabbit or bird or mouse or even a particularly memorable flea. Kill all the humans you like, but leave the critters alone unless your story’s about the life of a very lovable dog that dies peacefully in its sleep.)

You don’t have to be writing a horror or suspense story to make good use of fear. Fear is a remarkable motivator in both life and fiction. I’m convinced that I write crime stories because I’m the most paranoid person I know.

When we write about things that frighten us, chances are there will be lots of readers who share our fears. We can exploit (terrible word, but I mean it in the nicest way) those fears and redeem ourselves through characters that may suffer for a while, but journey to overcome their fears or terrifying situations.

As humans we all have fears. They don’t have to be big, bloody fears, or deeply felt emotional fears to propel or inspire a story. They can be as small as a spider or as microscopic as damaged chromosomes. Resonance is the important thing.

Here’s a list of fears that immediately spark stories of all sorts for me:

Fear of death.

Fear of being submerged in water.

Fear of my embarrassing secrets being revealed in public.

Fear of losing a child.

Fear of being blackmailed.

Fear of being taken advantage of.

Fear of success.

Fear of being a failure.

Fear of a bug crawling in one’s ear or nose.

Fear of being watched in a lighted house from the darkness outside.

Fear of being pulled over by a fake cop on a lonesome road.

Fear of being mistaken for a criminal.

Fear of home invasion.

Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of snakes in the house.

Fear of roaming packs of dogs.

Fear of being watched through a computer’s camera.

Fear of being kidnapped.

Fear of a child being hurt or being killed by one’s carelessness.

Fear of being judged and found wanting.

Fear of being too happy, because it can’t last.

Fear of one’s eye(s) being gouged out.

Fear of the supernatural.

Fear of random violence.

Fear of cancer.

Fear of loving too much.

Fear of poverty.

Fear of seeing open, bleeding wounds.

Fear of corpses.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of betrayal.

Fear of snarky groups of teenage girls.

Fear of being vulnerable.

Fear of losing a lover.

Fear of losing a friendship.

As you can see from the list, many of these fears are close to being universal for humans. Readers always want to discover things in stories that they can identify with. It’s all about the resonance, and not so much about the shock value.

I’d love for you to add to this list!

 

 

 

3+

1st Page Critique: Across the Road

By SUE COLETTA

We have another brave writer who submitted a First Page for critique. My comments will follow.

ACROSS THE ROAD

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required. On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.

It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.

It was a stupid thing to do. The pain in his head only worsened. He looked at his watch to ensure it wasn’t already mid-day. Even at 7:45 in the morning, the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat. If he kept driving, he’d be in his office in fifteen minutes waiting on an aspirin from his secretary. He squinted in the direction of the helpless young woman, and marched towards her.

Every step he took increased the throbbing in his head. He’d stopped his car only a couple of metres away. Amidst her gasping and choking, Edward heard the woman say, “Let…go of me.” Her small hands slipped and slapped against the man’s vice-like grip.

“Give me my money or else…” The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four, threw up a big, veiny left hand, palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target on the side of her face.

Edward reached it in time. He caught the weapon in his left hand before it reached its target. His fingers barely closed around the thick wrist. “Easy, my friend,” he said.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand from his left hand to his right. With his left hand he grabbed the choking hazard and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off. Edward fixed his gaze. Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes.

* * *

The writer has given us a peek into Edward’s character and we’re thrown into an action scene. Yet the writer didn’t hook me enough to turn the page. Why? Because when we don’t resist the urge to explain every movement in detail, it ruins the suspense. Readers are smart. Trust us to fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a quick example.

He reached for the bloody rag. By two fingers he pulled it from the stranger’s grasp, then retracted his arm.

See how overly descriptive that is? Remember, every word counts.

He snatched the bloody rag.

Same action. Same visualization. Four words instead of 19. We know what it looks like to snatch a rag from someone’s hand. Too many body movements slow (or stop) the suspense rather than enhance it.

The Headache

Throughout the first page we learn about Edward’s headache. I’m guessing these episodes play a key role in the story. In which case, the writer has done a good job of showing us how migraines start as a dull ache and little by little build into mind-numbing pain.

A word of caution here. Headaches aren’t all that interesting, nor are migraines. They help gain empathy for the MC, but they’re not enough to carry an entire story. Unless— and this is key—these migraines are a symptom of something larger. Jason Borne had migraines after the CIA erased his identity. If Edward went through a similar procedure, then you need to drop a few clues. As it stands now, Edward’s an average Joe who makes his secretary bring him aspirin. Speaking of, unless the story takes place before the 1970’s, this tidbit makes Edward look like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to turn your female readers against Edward?

Word Choices

Throughout the first page the writer chose odd wording. For clarity, the brave writer’s questionable word choices are in red, my remarks in blue. Please add your own helpful suggestions in the comments.

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. “Brought” is generic. The edge of the road makes me think Edward stopped at the edge of a steep cliff. Breakdown lane or dirt shoulder may work better. 

It hit him like a falling object. What hit him? “It” tells us nothing.

The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four (don’t confuse the reader with odd wording. If he’s the size of a Patriot’s linebacker, say so), threw up a big, veiny left hand (first, gross; second, unless Edward is inches away he wouldn’t be able to see the dude’s veins), palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target (what target? Did a bullseye suddenly appear on her cheek?) on the side of her face.

Edward reached it (reached what?) in time. He caught the weapon (there’s a weapon now?) in his left hand before it reached its target (I still don’t see a target).

Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked (did he look a first time?) to make certain his intervention (intervention reminds me of an alcoholic who needs to get sober) was indeed required.

Also, the first line is nowhere near strong enough for an opener. Rather than rehash TKZ’s sound advice on first lines, I’ve linked a few posts that may help HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Always try to use strong action verbs. You can find an active verb pdf HERE.

On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. The first half of the sentence shows us that Accra isn’t a safe place. Bravo! After the comma, however, is called over-writing. Most people don’t like others prying into their business. Because it’s common sense and it doesn’t help to clarify, well, anything, we can (and should) delete.  

But the man still held the young woman by her throat (still? This is the 1st time you’ve shown us), and she squirmed in vain (meh. You can do better) to break free. 

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car. 

Unless men have a habit of strangling women on the side of the roads in Accra, the terror should be palpable. He’s killing her! Yet Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car? No, no, no.

Edward slammed the shifter into park and leaped out the driver’s door. “Let go of her, you bastard!”

Force us into that fight! Let us feel Edward’s face flush with rage as he witnesses a man beat on a woman half his size.

Let’s jump ahead.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. His head exploded? What a mess! I understand what the writer is trying to convey here, but I can’t help but giggle every time I read that line. Migraines are no joke, though. Please choose words that best describe how painful they are.

Example:

A volcanic blast exploded within Edward’s head. Vision blurred. Words jumbled. With a flat hand, he latched on to the hood to steady his gait. The goon dragged the woman by the hair, but Edward couldn’t react. The migraine held him hostage.

Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. How does one turn their eyes? I’m able to “shift” my eyes, but alas, I cannot turn them. I’m also a stickler for “eyes” that shoot across a room. “Gazes” can shoot to and fro. They can also roam, wander, and dance.  Eyeballs, to my knowledge, remain in their sockets at all times. Unless, or until, someone pries them out.

Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. Simple, clear, paints an image in the reader’s mind. Well done!

 In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand (Seized? Money and property can be seized, hands cannot) from his left hand to his right. With his left hand (avoid repetition. In less than two sentences the word “hand” is used three times. Too many details confuse the reader. Which hand did what now?) he grabbed the choking hazard (I must admit, I’ve reread this first page umpteenth times and am still unsuccessful in finding “the choking hazard.” To me, a choking hazard is a small toy or toy part that we keep away from babies and toddlers) and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men (we’re not in Edward’s head anymore) glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off (cliché). Edward fixed his gaze (this works better than the preceding sentence; good job here!). Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes (delete this line. Not only is it irrelevant, but it makes no sense in this context).

To review

  • Resist the urge to explain every single body movement.
  • Choose words carefully.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Trust the reader to fill in the blanks, but give us enough information to do so.
  • Know your audience.

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give this brave writer?

8+

Our Brain and Creativity

By Sue Coletta

Creativity and the brainFirst, let’s define the word “muse.”

A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.

An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.

What happens inside the brain?

Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.

Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?

First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.

Novice Writers 

Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.

Hippocampus in red.

The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.

During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?

Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.

The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.

What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer? 

Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.

Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …

During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.

High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.

You can read the full report here.

Let’s break it down in easier terms.

The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”

He discovered more differences.

Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.

Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.

What’s the best way to summon creativity?

Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.

Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?

8+