Tips on Writing Believable Conspiracies for Thriller Fiction

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

www.cgpgrey.com

“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Conspiracy theories have captured our imaginations for many decades. With the advent of the Internet, such theories have proliferated from the comfort and anonymity of your cell phone with your fake handles. Rightly or wrongly, the anonymity of the Internet has spurred conspiracies and brought them into our homes, linked to our smart phones and other devices.

Some popular, long standing conspiracies involve:
• A secret world order that controls the globe – Illuminati/Knight Templar
• The government secrets from Area 51/Roswell/Alien Autopsy
• Reptilian aliens walk on two legs among us
• The JFK assassination – Oswald wasn’t alone
• The moon landing was fake
• The FDA is withholding the cure for cancer

“WHAT IF” questions can generate plot ideas. Many conspiracy theories revolve around big institutions like the church, educational institutions, big oil, rogue agents operating within the CIA, a secret government agency,Wall Street, big pharma or similar organizations that touch people’s lives and make them vulnerable. Your notion of conspiracy can be domestic or foreign, localized or global, political, religious, military or big corporations.

Here are some popular movies that were based on conspiracy theories:
Wag the Dog – White House officials and a Hollywood producer create a fake war to distract the public from a sex scandal involving the US President.(1997)
All the President’s Men – Based on Watergate and secret factions operating in our government.
Manchurian Candidate – An evil corporation brainwashes US soldiers into fighting in Iraq in order to create a perfect assassin capable of eliminating undesirable political rivals. (2004)
Syriana – An energy analyst, a CIA agent, a middle-eastern prince, and a corrupt lawyer become embroiled in a high-level assassination involving Big Oil. (2005)
Network – Upon learning of his dismissal, failing news anchor Howard Beale goes on hugely popular rants quickly angering the Powers That Be. (1976)
JFK – Oliver Stone’s masterpiece documenting District Attorney Jim Garrison’s struggle to prove the involvement of a conspiracy behind the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. (1991)
The Insider – A research chemist turns whistle blower (Jeffrey Wigand) and threatens to reveal to the world Big Tobacco’s cover up of the negative health effect of cigarette smoking. (1999)
They Live – A drifter accidentally discovers a pair of sunglasses which enables him to see Aliens among us, the true rulers of the world. (1988) (I can’t believe I actually saw this one.)

If you want to add a twist to your plot, consider combining multiple conspiracy theories that might not be related on the surface. I once combined a secret global human trafficking ring making illicit use of the dark web and combined it with a news story set in India where people were getting robbed on the street for their kidneys and other organs. I envisioned a contemptible shadowy organization that traded human flesh online and used my energy trading experience to visualize how such a group would conduct business across a network that resembled the control panels at large oil refineries (places I had seen many times).

Medical Conspiracies

Like telling a good ghost story, tap into fears people would believe. Not too far-fetched. Medical conspiracies are a great combination of personal vulnerability with a high stakes thriller plot. Think of the many ways we all accept certain medical procedures as normal. What if a covert group interferes with a “normal” procedure and hunts innocent victims without reason or a connection to the crimes? A great example of a medical thriller based on a believable fear is Michael Palmer – The 5th Vial.

Seemingly unrelated victims across the globe are targeted by a top secret cabal of medical specialists dealing in illegal organ donation. Standard blood work—and the 5th vial—put a target on their backs and seal their fate.

Robin Cook’s Coma is another classic medical thriller where certain victims are targeted and their bodies are harvested for illegal organ donation after the victims are suspended in a coma state. Innocent patients go in for standard and routine operations, only to become the latest addition to a body farm in a secret facility operated by wealthy patrons through the Jefferson Institute.

8 Key Ways to Writing Believable Conspiracies

1) Take advantage of paranoia. Mistrust and suspicion are keys to pulling off a believable conspiracy plot. Even if readers haven’t considered darker subversive motives at play during relatively routine activities, trigger their paranoia with your plot and a different way to look at it.

2) Write what you fear. If you fear it, chances are that readers will too. Convince them. Exploit common fears and highlight deeper ways that get readers thinking. In fiction, it works to grip readers in a personal way. The fears we all share—the things that wake us up in the middle of the night—can tap into a great plot.

3) Villainous motivation must feel real. You can be over the top but give your diabolical conspiracy a strong and plausible motivation. Don’t be vague. Drill down into your conspirators and justify their motives and existence from the foot soldiers on up the line.

4) Give your bad guys believable resources. Make it seem insurmountable to stop them. Think of the infrastructure it would take to plausibly pull off your thriller plot. Have them use believable technology, science and manpower to give them the appearance of Goliath when it comes to your hero/heroine fighting their diabolical acts.

5) Know organizations and your governmental jurisdictions to give your plot teeth. How do they operate in secret? Give them a plausible connection to organizations the reader may know about. Draw from organizations or systems readers will understand. If you’re too vague, readers will dismiss your plot as unlikely and a shadowy plot with no substance.

6) Make the risks personal for your hero and heroine. High stakes are important, but force your main character(s) to dig deep to fight through their fears and insurmountable odds. This is what will keep readers rooting for your characters. Make them worthy of their star role. A global phenomenon can put readers on edge, but bring the impact down to the personal stakes of real human beings for maximum impact.

7) Ripped from the headlines stories can add layers of credibility. The best fictional thrillers come from events or news that readers are familiar with.

a.) Re-imagine a well known historical event. Add your best twist to a conspiracy makes your work more interesting and forces readers to think.

b.) Or dig into a headline story for facts that are not readily known. Often that story will be deeper than most readers are aware of, especially if there are personal human stories within the big headline. I used the Mumbai terrorist attack to add bones to some of my stories. I’ve also used the National Geographic’s TV show Locked Up Abroad in my book The Echo of Violence and wrote my own version of those amazing events when a married couple (Christian missionaries) were abducted and held for ransom for a year by a small terrorist cell. It saddened me to realize that only one of the missionaries came back. They had gone to the Philippines for a second honeymoon to celebrate their wedding anniversary. I didn’t exploit their horrific story, but I re-imagined a “what if” scenario involving a nun.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What conspiracies can you imagine from today’s headlines? Get crazy. Add humor or scare the hell out of us.

2.) Do you have helpful resource links for writers interested in conspiracies?

3.) What book sticks in your mind that scared you with a plausible and frightening conspiracy?

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Smell Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was nosing around for the subject of today’s post, and sniffed out the sense of smell. It is under utilized in fiction. We rightly concentrate on sight and sound, because those are the most immediate and pervasive senses, necessary for the telling of a story. But touch, taste, and smell should be used judiciously to enhance the narrative.

Today, let’s take a whiff of some ways you can use smell in your fiction.

Create a Tone

At some point in the beginning of a scene, use smell to help set the tone. In Michael Connelly’s The Narrows, FBI agent Rachel Walling arrives at a desert crime scene, the work of the notorious serial killer, The Poet:

As they got close to the tents Rachel Walling began to smell the scene. The unmistakable odor of decaying flesh was carried on the wind as it worked through the encampment, billowed the tents and moved out again. She switched her breathing to her mouth, haunted by knowledge she wished she didn’t have, that the sensation of smell occurred when tiny particles struck the sensory receptors in the nasal passages. It meant if you smelled decaying flesh that was because you were breathing decaying flesh.

Boom. I’m there.

Reveal a Theme

In Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream, San Antonio detective Rebecca Montgomery is ordered into her lieutenant’s office:

Lieutenant Santiago’s office smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a by-product of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke-free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever managed to eliminate the odor.

Not only does this give us an added descriptor of the scene, but it also signifies the conflict between the younger detective and the old-school guard of the department.

Make a Comment

Travis McGee, the creation of John D. MacDonald, is a houseboat-dwelling “salvage expert” who gets dragged into various mysteries. One of the marks of a McGee is when he riffs on some contemporary issue, or makes a generalization that tells us about his view of life. In Nightmare in Pink, McGee is waiting on a bench at a police station, watching “the flow of business.”

It is about as dramatic as sitting in a post office, and there are the same institutional smells of flesh, sweat, disinfectants and mimeo ink. Two percent of police work is involved with blood. All the rest of it is a slow, querulous, intricate involvement with small rules and procedures, violations of numbered ordinances, complaints made out of spite and ignorance, all the little abrasions and irritations of too many people living in too small a space. The standard police attitude is one of tired, kindly, patronizing exasperation.

Now we know why McGee prefers to live on a houseboat, and goes around the cops when he’s on the job.

Show the Inner Life of a Character

McGee again. After the slings and arrows of the mystery in The Turquoise Lament, we have an epilogue. McGee is on his boat, The Busted Flush, with his friend Meyer. They’re playing chess.

I had Meyer crushed until he got cute and found a way to put me in perpetual check with a knight and a bishop. We turned off all the lights and all the servomechanisms that click and queak and we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the September night, enjoy the half moon roving through cloud layers, enjoy a smell of rain on the winds.

I love that smell, too, which carries with it both a sense of peace (which McGee needs) and a portent of coming storms—setting up the next McGee adventure. Nicely done, John D.*

So remember, it never stinks to use the sense of smell in your stories. Does that make scents?

*NOTE: The word queak in the last clip is in the print version I own. I wonder if JDM made a typo and then decided it sounded good, even though it’s not in the dictionary.

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12-Archetypes: A Framework for Creating a Cast of Memorable Characters

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons-Falkue

How do characters come to you? For me, each book can be different. I don’t have a set method, nor do I want to nail my process down. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night with a character speaking to me about his or her story. I leap from bed and rush to the bathroom with pen and paper in hand to jot down notes.

Sometimes from my preliminary research, I can meld 2-3 ideas together and a character might spring from that work. For example, I might realize I need an adventurer hero, a love interest and one of them might need a scientific background or have other special cognitive skills to pull off the plot that’s developing. Those characters come at me slowly and build, where I sometimes throw in fun hobbies or weirdness to keep the plot interesting.

Have you ever gone back into a novel you’ve already written and examined character archetypes?

You can also do this deep dive for themes you generally write about, even if it’s not a conscious awareness you have when you first start your project. I write from a gut level. Too much structure might inhibit my process, but I do find it interesting to take a closer look after I finish writing a book, especially if it sells well and the feedback is good from industry professionals. It’s helpful to dig into a plot I created organically to find threads of themes I love to explore.

Let’s take a closer look at character archetypes. In researching this post, I found a more comprehensive list of 99 Archetypes & Stock Characters that Screen Writers Can Mold that screenwriters might utilize in their craft. Archetypes are broader as a foundation to build on. Experienced editors and industry professionals can hear your book pitch and see the archetypes in their mind’s eye. From years of experience, it helps them see how your project might fit in their line or on a book shelf.

But to simplify this post and give it focus, I’ll narrow these character types down to Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung‘s 12-Archetypes. Listed below, Jung developed his 12-archetypes, as well as their potential goals and what they might fear. Goals and fears can be expanded, but think of this as a springboard to trigger ideas.

TYPE/GOAL/FEAR

1.) Innocent

GOAL – Happiness

FEAR – Punishment

2.) Orphan

GOAL – Belonging

FEAR – Exclusion

3.) Hero

GOAL – Change World

FEAR – Weakness

4.) Caregiver

GOAL – Help Others

FEAR – Selfishness

5.) Explorer

GOAL – Freedom

FEAR – Entrapment

6.) Rebel 

GOAL – Revolution

FEAR – No Power

7.) Lover

GOAL – Connection

FEAR – Isolation

8.) Creator

GOAL – Realize Vision

FEAR – Mediocrity

9.) Jester

GOAL – Levity & Fun

FEAR – Boredom

10.) Sage

GOAL – Knowledge

FEAR – Deception

11.) Magician

GOAL – Alter Reality

FEAR – Unintended Results

12.) Ruler

GOAL – Prosperity

FEAR – Overthrown

I recently sold a series to The Wild Rose Press. Book 1 is called THE CURSE SHE WORE – A Trinity LeDoux novel.

TRINITY – When I looked back at my heroine, Trinity appeared to be a combination of two archetypes, until I gave her a closer look. On the surface, she’s an innocent AND an orphan, but when I examined her from the GOAL and FEAR angles, I saw her clearly as an ORPHAN. No family. She’s homeless and living on the streets of New Orleans. She hasn’t known much happiness and punishment would only make her more stubborn. Her soft underbelly lies in her own thoughts on where she belongs and what she deserves. She keeps her life at a distance from others–her self-imposed exclusion. She thinks she doesn’t need anyone until she meets Hayden, but what she has planned for him, there won’t be anything left to build on. Loyalty can be a double-edged sword.

HAYDEN – My hero Hayden Quinn doesn’t fall neatly into the HERO category. Because of his psychic ability, he’s become a CAREGIVER to a small needy Santeria community in New Orleans. But his gift didn’t help him when he needed it most. He’s drawn to help others, but his ability only reminds him of the worst day of his life.

CROSSED PATHS – As a child of the streets, Trinity exploits Hayden’s guilt and grief to get what she wants. He’s unable to say no because of his guilt. For an author, it’s not easy to walk a line of conflict that I wanted to sustain throughout the first novel in this series. Surprises and unexpected outcomes twist through the plot until the very last page of book 1. The roots of their conflict grow deeper and extend into book 2.

SUMMARY: Whether you use these 12-archetypes to analyze a completed manuscript or consider them when you begin framing a new story, these building blocks can sustain an effective character study and get you thinking. It helped me dive deeper into my characters and this will help me develop the series. Any series needs the stakes to escalate and it all springs from a foundation of knowing your characters well. You have to keep punishing them. Show the reader why your characters deserve star status.

Can you see how you might utilize a list if archetypes to infuse your creative process?

When you consider these basic types, imagine pitting them against one another for sustained conflict. In the case of Trinity and Hayden, she risks putting his life at risk out of her loyalty to a dead friend. Any hope she had for a future is snuffed out by her own decisions.

For him, the very gift that had been a blessing failed him at the worst time of his life. Now his gift might kill him, but he can’t resist protecting Trinity. It’s in his nature.

All Hayden and Trinity have in common is death.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) As an exercise, forge conflict between two archetypes of your choosing to create a one-liner plot pitch.

2.) Share your main character archetype from your current or latest WIP. Does the Carl Jung matrix above help you define your character?

***

The Curse She Wore – A Trinity LeDoux Novel

 They had Death in Common                                                 

Trinity LeDoux, a homeless young woman in New Orleans, has nothing to lose when she hands a cursed vintage necklace to unsuspecting Hayden Quinn at one of his rare public appearances—a wealthy yet reclusive clairvoyant she hopes to recruit for a perilous journey. She prays that the jewelry she’d stolen off a body at a funeral will telepathically transport the powerful psychic to the murder scenes of two women at the exact moment of their deaths—even though the killings take place 125 years apart and span two continents.

When the ill-fated necklace connects the brutal crimes in a macabre vision, Hayden becomes a sympathetic believer. After enduring the tragic loss of his beloved wife and child, Hayden is touched by Trinity’s vulnerability and her need for justice in the cruel slaughter of her best friend, the rightful owner of the necklace.

Hayden and Trinity are two broken people who have nothing but death in common when they take on a dangerous quest. They must stop a killer from resurrecting the grisly work of Jack the Ripper by targeting the ancestors of the Ripper’s victims. Trinity will learn the hard way that trespassing on Fate’s turf always has its reckoning.

6+

How Writing is like a Good Brisket Recipe – 8 Key Questions for Every Writer

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

When this post is released on TKZ in the wee hours of the morning, my brisket will be cooking low and slow all night and waiting to be swaddled in heavy foil. I’m praying for a crispy thick bark, an elusive phenomenon for me. My house is filled with an incredible aroma. Someone should bottle it.

There is a genuine art form to making a perfect Texas-style smoked brisket and I already know I will never be worthy, but I’m giving it a go. My older brother is a God when it comes to being a pit master. He’s given me tips and I am sticking to them…as much as my headstrong mind will allow me. I am my mother’s ‘let’s wing every recipe’ daughter.

I will be posting pictures and recipe tips on my Instagram account where I focus on my low carb ketogenic diet and other interests.

Just like a good, tried and true recipe is for brisket, we pick up new tips but keep what works. The same goes for writing. There are ways we all use to build upon our craft methods of writing a novel. We try new things to see what works. We discard other methods that we’ve outgrown as we evolve.

Below are some questions I’d like for you to answer if you see anything that fits you. Feel free to add what you’ve learned about writing in your comments. I am a sponge for picking up new stuff.

Writer Questions – Share your Experiences

1.) Are you still finding time to read? Do you read outside the genre you write? Even when life gets busy, reading can be a comfort, but it can also open your eyes to new techniques or interesting POVs or genres. Always be a student when it comes to your writing craft. You will keep growing.

2.) Do you cherish the time you write, where you write and make sure you don’t get interrupted? Life, family/friends and your day job can pile on to add stress in your life. Is your writing the first thing to go? I hope not. Even if you only finish a page a day, that’s progress. I find that once I establish a routine, my body can react in a bad way if I stray from my writing schedule. I can physically get the shakes. Even when I had my day job, I made sure to write every evening and on weekends. It wasn’t easy but it paid off.

3.) How do you capture those big ideas that can spring on you any time of day or night? Do you keep notebooks all over the house or a voice recorder? I get lots of ideas while I’m driving. The best ones, I pull over and reach for my purse where I keep a small notepad and pens. Or better yet, get someone to drive you so your genius is unfettered. Is there a place where you consistently get your big ideas? No pictures if you tell me “the shower.”

4.) Do you have personal rules/discipline when it comes to unplugging from social media and the internet while you are writing? My usual day is writing 9:00 am until 3:00 pm with short breaks to care for my dogs and grab a snack. I try to get up every 3 hours to stretch and walk and replenish the well for a quick change of scenery but I don’t get to emails or social media until after I’ve achieved my word count goal. YES, I have a daily goal. I generally shoot for 1500-2000 words per day and do rolling edits to keep my progress going on the overall project. But social media and emails are a time drain. No sneak peaking as a diversion when you hit a wall. Pick another way to shake out the cobwebs.

5.) Do you read your work aloud? After all these years, I still read my edits aloud. It’s a great way to insure you have a natural cadence to your dialogue and prose. Even if you don’t do this every day, I recommend doing it for important passages/proposals or as one of your final draft processes. This is the best way to find words you’ve left out.

6.) Do you use the first third to a quarter of your book to set up your world building and character introductions? An editor with a large publishing house said something at a writer’s conference about expecting to read the basic set up with characters and conflict within the first 3 chapters. Now it may not be 3 chapters exactly, as I see it now, but he wasn’t wrong about how to establish your world for the reader. Even if you don’t plot ahead of time, expect that readers and editors and agents will expect you to set that foundation for your story and include your cast of characters and their conflicts in the first part of the book.

7.) Do you plan the ending of your book while you’re working on your plot idea or are you willing to let it happen when you get there? If you’re like me, each book can be different. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night with a new character telling me the ending to his/her story. True. That doesn’t happen with each book, but when it’s that strong that it wakes me, I listen. On the other hand, I am flexible enough to see new ways to add twists. I want to be open to new character motivations too. More times than not, I have found better books by staying open to my endings. How rigid are you? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised with an ending you never expected, just because you followed a rabbit trail or discovered something new about your main character?

8.) How open are you to criticism? Does it matter who gives it? I used to be more prickly when anyone criticized my masterpiece, but after having many good editors from the publishing houses I’ve worked with and solid beta readers, I’ve grown very open to their suggestions. I think of their criticism as a collaboration to make the book better. I may not always take every suggestion. Only the author should decide what makes sense for the world they are building, but pick your battles. Generally, if someone is confused or something isn’t working for them (even if they can’t describe it exactly), I pay attention and try to find a solution. I’ve never regretted that approach. For anyone taking the time to give a critique, take what they say and make changes where it’s appropriate, even if you have to come back to their feedback later. Keep an open mind.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your answers to any of the questions I’ve mentioned above–the questions that resonated with you the most.

2.) Add any new questions or tips that you have found a must to your process. What are your core “must dos” and what have you discarded?

3.) Any brisket tips? I promise I will listen, even if you’re not from Texas.

11+

Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons – Author Cliff (GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS) https://www.flickr.com/people/28567825@N03

An intrepid anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words of “The Nature of Things” for critique. My feedback follows. Please help this author and provide your constructive comments, TKZers. Enjoy.

***

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” said the reporter.

Anna perused the mutilated body. Damage to the head. Impressive gash in the temple and the empty eye sockets.

“Who or what do you think did this?” the reporter prompted. “You were invited out for an expert opinion. Do you think a man or animal killed him?”

The cuts to the head and upper torso were massive and random. It was hard to recognize the face with most of it eaten.

The salty Oregon coastal breeze wafted into the cave opening. It mingled with the stench of rotting flesh warming in the sun. The smell of death has many scents.

“Looks like our friend here met up with some pretty irate sea dweller,” she said. “I’m thinking giant Pacific octopus.”

“How so?”

“See the cuts? How they’re sometimes random, then more concentrated at the injury sites? Looks like damage from an octopus beak to me. Sliced open the soft spot near the temple to get to the soft stuff inside.”

A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.

“You recognize this guy at all?” the reporter said.

“Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

“No particular reason. You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.”

“I’m mostly out in the big ocean. Deep sea. But a person can get lost very easily if they want to.”

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

She said, “My guess is he went diving in this cave and surprised a trapped and hungry animal. Tentacles most likely grabbed his head and the beak started gnawing away.”

“Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.”

“It’s a public beach. Footprints could be from anyone. Anytime,” Anna said.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – I enjoyed this author’s “stick to the action” writing. The author jumps into dialogue without over-explaining the action.

POLICE PROCEDURE ISSUES – Right off the bat, I’m left wondering how a reporter would be inside the crime scene tape, which is the way this appears. Anna (whoever she is to the investigation as an expert) is examining the body, up close. She’s carrying on a conversation with a reporter as they apparently stand over the body.

Standard police procedure is that medical examiners or coroners (there’s a difference) would make the call on the cause and manner of death. The ME or coroner would take charge of the body and would not leave the corpse behind or bring in anyone at the scene to give an opinion on how the person died. That would be done in the autopsy, if the examiner needed the assistance.

For avid crime fiction readers, this opener would read as implausible for these reasons. That’s a “throw the book against the wall” error, in my opinion. Despite what I may like about this author’s writing, I’m not as forgiving on poor research and lack of knowledge on police procedure.

OCTOPUS KILLS HUMAN? – This seemed odd to me. I had to query it online. Most octopus or squid can cause harm to a human, but not death. Many species are venomous, but they’re mainly harmful to their usual prey and not harmful enough to kill a person. The Humboldt Squid is known to attack a human being en masse and there are videos of these attacks. Very creepy. Is this story about a giant squid or octopus? There’s not much known about them, only if they are found dead and can be studied. If this story is about the JAWS equivalent to a giant octopus, introducing that possibility through Anna in the first scene seems too soon. It would be best to build on the suspense.

GENERAL QUESTIONS – Why would the reporter say, “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella” in the first line? There’s no follow up on why the reporter disparaged the dead man. Then the reporter asks Anna if she knew the dead guy, without offering an identity. It would appear that the reporter doesn’t know the dead man either, so why the first line insinuation?

Why keep Anna’s last name a secret? This excerpt reads like a first draft with details stripped out. Now is the time to layer in details that don’t overwhelm the reader and slow the pace, but will add a gripping setting with details of who is on that beach with the corpse.

There’s also an assumption that the corpse is dead because a man or animal killed him (the reporter asks). A body could’ve been dumped in the water with animals eating at the corpse or damage sustained from churning in the water over rocks. The reporter is asking questions and leading the reader by TELLING what they should know. I would suggest that if Anna is the expert, let her examine the body and give her opinion to a detective or medical examiner/coroner. A reporter would be the last person allowed onto a crime scene when the body is still exposed. Also, if I were the reporter who got beyond the police barrier, I would be taking photos with my phone. Asking questions is secondary to getting those gruesome pics.

Why would the eyes have been eaten out of the body? Would an Octopus be so selective? Seems like a delicate procedure to focus on the eyes like that.

SHOW – DON’T TELL – In the dialogue lines, the reporter tells Anna what the author wants the reader to know. A sneaky way to TELL and not SHOW. Here are some examples of TELLING lines:

Reporter: “You were invited out for an expert opinion…” (Anna would already know this. A reporter would not.)

Reporter: “You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.” (Again, Anna would already know her occupation, but why would the reporter know?)

Reporter: “Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.” (Reporter is TELLING the reader what the author wants them to know. Why isn’t the detective the one talking to Anna? And why isn’t she the ME or coroner? The author must do the research to make this more plausible.)

Maybe make Anna be the person who spotted the body on the beach and called it in to the police. She’d be involved and have to be questioned on the spot. A reporter wouldn’t be allowed near the body, especially if the next-of-kin notifications have not been done. Major No No.

BACKSTORY DUMP OUT OF CONTEXT – Because of the spartan style of this author’s voice, not much is known about Anna. Not even her last name. The excerpt below feels out of context. I would prefer the author stick to the action and layer in more details of the setting and the feeling of standing over a gruesome body than to read the details below that could be pieced in later when they fit better.

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

SETTING CAN ENHANCE THE SCENE – Is the weather cold and windy? What are the waves doing? Are they a calm ebb and flow of water or do the waves dramatically crash onto a rocky shoreline? The Oregon coast is mostly rocky, but pick a spot and describe it so a reader from the area recognizes the setting.

How does the sea mist and air feel on her skin as she stares down at a grotesque corpse? Sand carried in the wind and salty sea air can feel gritty on the skin. The brackish water has a smell that can mingle with the stench off a putrid corpse. Is the body tangled with seaweeds? Have other creatures crawled onto the body as the ocean laps around it?

I would recommend focusing on selective details that ADD to the setting and the emotion the author wants the reader to feel when they read this intro. Don’t write volumes that slow the pace, but pick the most essential descriptors that will trigger memories in the reader, even if they’ve never visited the Oregon coast.

CHARACTER ESSENCE – I had mentioned that the backstory dump seemed out of context, but nothing is known about Anna up until that point. Let the reader in on who she is without TELLING the reader in that backstory dump. The same way it is important to stick to the action and not TELL the reader about the character, try sharing details about Anna that SHOWS who she is.

What is she wearing? Does her clothing and other details say anything about who she is? Proper footwear? Jewelry? How does she fix her hair? Are her nails short or long, polished or not? You don’t need to describe all of these points, but have an idea who she is and pick the most essential ways to show the kind of woman she is to the reader by subtly filtering the most essential details into the narrative.

Is she repulsed or clinical about examining the corpse?

Is she observant about the details of the body AS WELL AS the details of the whole crime scene and who is there?

If Anna is the star of this story, the author could set her up better than the way she comes across in this intro. The reporter seems to know more than she does, for example. I have some suggested changes listed below:

SUGGESTED CHANGES – SUMMARY:

Pair Anna up with a detective that might challenge her. Have there be friction between them because she is an outsider and not a detective. If she proves to be a necessary expert where the detective is forced into using her, the friction you start with will only enhance the story line. Have her mind work like a detective as she clinically examines the dead body and doesn’t act squeamish. Any dialogue in an introduction like this could be like reading a game of cat and mouse. The lines would SHOW who these two are and how they’re matched for each other. Have him obviously trying to get her insights then try to get rid of her, while she keeps adding things that make him wonder if she might help him more. Do they know each other from the past? That could be fun.

Layer in more setting that enhances the morbid scene. That would be delicious.

Tease the reader with what killed the man and not spill the beans right away. It’s very cool that we could be talking about a giant octopus – an 8-legged JAWS creature. Milk that. I can hear the dialogue between the detective and Anna now. He thinks he knows how the guy died. Body dump. The sea and its creatures did the damage, but what if at the end of the scene, Anna breaks the news that the man died from a rare octopus attack. Have her hint that it’s not the first as she walks away. That could be a chilling start.

OVERALL – I really liked the voice of this author. Like I said before, this reads like a first draft and stark, bare bones writing. But it’s a good place to begin to fill in details that can only enhance the writing. Many of the typical beginner mistakes are not raging in this intro. Yes, the lack of crime scene research would be a deal killer for me as a reader, but if the author has a good foundation on writing, the research can be learned and developed. There’s lots to tweak with this beginning, but there’s a great deal of promise here. Good luck with your project, anonymous.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Provide your feedback in your comments.

6+

Mystery Elements and Sass Are the New Black – First Page Critique-The Dangerous Dame

Jordan Dane

@jordandane

Don your fedora and breathe in the smoky air of a shadowy life when you read this anonymous submission of 400 words for THE DANGEROUS DAME. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

CHAPTER ONE

Ida Lucas was Hamilton’s answer to Mata Hari – a blonde bombshell who mesmerized the upper-crust gents in the Circus Roof at the Royal Connaught Hotel. Some folks said that her scandalous strip-tease rivaled that of Gypsy Rose Lee. One night with Ida was rumoured to cost you a King’s ransom and that, in the Hamilton of 1948, translated into a cool 100 simoleons. For the working man – two weeks pay. But the working man was the last guy Ida wanted to see.

She came to my attention while I was doing some leg-work for a local law office. And I didn’t find out until much later that there was a helluva lot more going on in this shady lady’s busy life than I’d ever suspected.

It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter as he grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. The sharp tang of burnt toast hung in the air and I guessed that Madge was late for her early shift this morning.

The food here was nothing special and the coffee was so-so but it was close to my office. And don’t get me started about its owner.

“Don’t often see you in here, Max. Now that you’re a big-shot private dick with a fancy assistant and a secretary and all,” he said.

I’d met Spiro last summer when I opened my private detective agency on King Street, across from the Connaught, and right off the bat we’d developed a spikey kind of relationship. But with the ladies, of course, he was always the perfect gent – “Yes, Ma’am, right away, Ma’am. My, you’re looking swell today.”

I ignored his ‘big shot’ remark and slid onto the end stool at the counter. “A large carafe to go. If it ain’t too much trouble.”

He bounced his hard look off me but I didn’t react. Then he motioned with his head toward the rear of the café. “Bob said he wanted to see you if you came in. I told him –”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.”

At the end of the row of booths, Spiro had rigged up a small table that looked like a cut-down student’s desk. It was low enough that my veteran friend, Bob, could use it while seated aboard his wheeled dolly. A brave soldier overseas, he’d lost both his legs on that godforsaken, stony beach in Dieppe on August 19, 1942 – a date forever seared into the memory of every Hamiltonian.

Bob was puzzling over a Daily Racing Form and scribbled something in the margin as I approached. He looked up, then parked his pencil behind his right ear. “Hi-de-ho, Max. How goes it?”

“Everything’s copacetic,” I said as I pointed to the paper. “Trying to pick me a winner at the Woodbine track?”

FEEDBACK

There is plenty to like with this submission and the ease of a voice that reminds me of old black and white detective movies. The attention to detail of the White Spot Grill and the guy filling in his race track form with a pencil is Bob, a WWII war veteran–the sights and sounds and smells are vivid and drew me in.

Time Frame & Setting – I would like to know what time frame this is written for. A simple tag description at the start would be a simple fix – What year and city?

Where to Start – Given the Noir voice of this submission, I liked the intro and got into the description of Ida Lucas, but that intro is coming from a character I’m not properly introduced to. The first two paragraphs are about Ida Lucas and I don’t know why because there is no link made to her and Max, the narrator. There doesn’t appear to be a connection that explains why the woman PI begins the story with her–plus there isn’t action to jump start this passive beginning.

My suggestion would be to start with the action of the woman PI walking into the White Spot Grill (3rd paragraph). I would rework the new introduction to be meatier with a mystery centered on the woman entering the grill alone, hinting at why she had come.

A simple fix:

BEFORE: It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter…

AFTER: When I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown, my high heels clacked on the black and white checkered linoleum and Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter. He grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.

Max obviously knows all the names of the people who work at the diner. Why not take the opportunity to introduce the narrator when she walks into the restaurant? All we know is her first name is Max.

If the author saved the first two paragraphs, those could be used later, once the reader understands why Ida Lucas is important to this rendezvous. As it stands now, the first two paragraphs are isolated (as to purpose).

First Person POV Gender – From the start, I pictured the voice to be that of a man, but it’s not until dishwasher busboy Spiro says “Yes, ma’am” that I realized the narrator is a woman PI. Even the nickname of Max doesn’t shed light on gender. If the author takes my suggestion of starting with the action of the woman PI making a mystery clandestine meeting at a low rent grill, adding words like “my high heels clacked on the sidewalk” or have Max put on lipstick outside. Or have Spiro be the only one who calls her Maxine and she rolls her eyes and has a snappy comeback.

SUGGESTION: “No one calls me Maxine, Spiro. Not even my mother. How many times do I have to say it?” Working as a single woman in a man’s world, I preferred the nickname, Max.

I stumbled over this – When Spiro is trying to get Max to check in with his boss, Bob, she acknowledges his request but says, “Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I didn’t get this line. It made me think Max had to get her coffee order back to her office and that she would return to visit with Bob when she could stay longer. I had to reread it a few times. Maybe the author meant that Max would come to the “back” of the restaurant after she gets her order. I would recommend the author clean this up and make the transition clearer.

Mystery Elements/Where to go from here – Does Bob get Max into a case involving Ida? I don’t know what to suggest since I don’t know where the story is going. To tie this in better and make the story start with a mystery, Max could be holding a note clutched in her hand, a cryptic message asking her to meet at the diner. She could recognize the handwriting, but the note isn’t signed. Or for added interest, the note could end with a compelling mystery line – something like “I’m sorry, Max, but I need to know this time.”

Bob could have tried a few times to trace the whereabouts of Ida for personal reasons. Max sees the cryptic note and she knows who wrote it. Her mind could flash on Ida and her reputation (where the author brings back the first two paragraphs without spilling the beans on why she makes the connection).

I would recommend adding mystery elements to draw the reader into this intro. The exchange between Max and Bob is too casual and chatty, with no tension or mystery to their interaction. Why not add something? Have the reader walk into Max’s life with a mystery she’s been working on with Bob. It would give more purpose to this introduction and the reason Ida Lucas will play a part.

More Sass – I think there is potential for Max to have sass throughout this novel. We’re only seeing the first 400 words, but I would like to see more of a hint of it in this brief opener. That’s why I added the line, “I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.” This reads like a period piece and to have a woman working in a traditionally male career, Max would have to be over the top aggressive in order to get work as a private detective. She’d have to have guts and think out of the box just to compete.

I once researched women bounty hunters and the stories I found online and in newspapers on how they outsmarted the male fugitives (for higher bounty) are hilarious. I see Max street savvy and smart mouthed, able to talk her way through anything. Adding color to Max’s voice and her life could make the difference in setting this story apart from other novels.

Overview – There is a lot to like about this submission. I would definitely read on since I love police or PI procedurals. I love the author’s attention to the detail of sights, sounds and the reader’s senses. I’m also intrigued by the voice of the woman detective. Well done.

DISCUSSION:

What would you add, TKZers?

 

 

4+

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.

7+

Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

3+

Make Your Characters Memorable

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

From Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed that as a writer, you rarely can sit back and simply enjoy watching a TV show or a movie without thinking about plot or character development or pace? As authors, we “see” how the writers disguise plot twists or change direction. We may see behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, but on those rare occasions when you can forget you’re a writer and utterly enjoy the show, that’s when you truly are watching something special.

So the next time you watch a memorable movie or TV show, observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of. What makes them unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human, something we can relate to.

Here are some ways to make your characters memorable:

1. Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey

• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps

• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

3. Clichéd Characters can be Fixed

• If you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a weird hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart. Maybe the computer nerd writes porn scripts for a local indie film company or the jock writes a secret blog under a girl’s name giving advice to teens on love and romance for the local paper. When that hobby is surprising and unexpected, that’s what will shine about the character and that’s what editors will remember.

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters

• Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption—from the innocent to the “totally vile” characters.

• As in real life, not everyone is good or bad. They are a mix of both.

• Sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things. How does one character handle his or her love life versus another character?

5. Flesh Out your Villains or Antagonists

• Villains or antagonists are the heroes to their own stories—Spend time getting to know them.

• Give them goals.

• Give them a chance at redemption—will they take it?

• Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader.

• The better and more diabolical they are, the more the reader will fear for the safety or well-being of your protagonist.

At the end of a TV show or a movie or your next book, characters that linger in your head are a gift that can help your writing. Examine what works in movies or TV shows as an exercise to tapping into your own creativity.

For Discussion:

1.) Do you have any personal tips for making your characters memorable?

2.) What characters have you been drawn to and find hard to forget – in TV movies, or books? Why have they stuck with you?

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Valet de Poulet – Some Thoughts on Self-Care (Guest: Bill Cameron)

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

A man and his chicken

It’s my pleasure to have my friend, Bill Cameron, join us today. I’m a big fan of his writing ever since I read his debut book LOST DOG. Bill was in my debut authors group for the International Thriller Writers (ITW) in 2008. That book featured an unlikely kleptomaniac anti-hero smart ass, Peter McKrall, with his unique voice that has always stuck with me. It launched Bill’s detective series that features Detective Skin Kardash.

I also follow/harass Bill on Instagram (@bcmystery) where he posts pics of his urban chickens. His daily videos and pics of his chicken drama are tons of fun and addictive, like his writing. Thanks for being our guest, Bill. Shake a tail feather and take it away.

***

Much of my day was spent chasing chickens around my yard—an act of pure slapstick if there ever was one. Usually the ladies will come right up to me (probably because I often have treats), but today they sensed I had something else in mind. So they fled, making comical “bock-bock-bock” sounds as they went. I was no doubt equally comical, trying to both run and scoop up indignant chickens simultaneously. The result was a kind of bow-legged lurch with my hands flapping around near ground level. I may have fallen, but if you don’t have video you can’t prove anything.

My problem, or rather the chickens’ problem, was a possible infestation of scale mites. These awful little bugs burrow under the skin of a chicken’s legs, drink blood, and can wreak havoc on the well-being of a flock. (Do not image search for “chicken scale mites” unless you want to see true horror.)

Now, I say possible infestation because until the the situation gets really bad, the vermin are difficult to see. Some discoloration on the legs of our oldest hen, Hinie, was the only indication something might be amiss. That discoloration could also mean nothing at all, but since we don’t want the mites to get a leg-hold, I decided to address the problem proactively.

The treatment is basically Chicken Spa Day, which probably sounds nice to you and me. And in fact some chickens enjoy a soak in a warm bath and maybe a massage. (Do image search for “chicken taking a bath” for some entertaining pics.) Not so much our ladies. But I was not deterred.

In advance, I’d prepared a warm Epsom salts bath with a little mild soap. As I caught them, the girls each got a soak and a mild scrub to clean off any mite eggs or mites that hadn’t yet burrowed. Then, after they were dried off, I coated each hen’s legs with Bag Balm to suffocate the pestilent buggers who remained.

The good news is all went relatively as planned, though it took me more than an hour to get all four into the tub. (Farm Fact: chickens are fast.) The girls had a lot to say about it, probably in the form of chicken swearing. But the endeavor was a success—though I got wetter than the girls did.

So what does this shenanigan have to do with self-care?

Well, for me, taking care of chickens is a lot like writing. It can be rewarding, fun, challenging—and also a source of heartbreak. Right now we have four girls: the aforementioned Hinie, plus Cheeks, Tuchus, and Buns. (Do you detect a theme? Guess what!) Earlier this summer, one of our first hens, Fanny, died unexpectedly. And last year, two others (Moon and Patootie) turned out to be roosters, which are verboten within city limits. That’s the heartbreak side of things. But the rest of the time there’s the slapstick comedy and the reward of eggs and affection from smart, engaged birds who each have their own personality.

When I’m away from the keyboard, I find chicken care is a good way for me to get my “I’m not an incompetent buffoon” fix—something that can be rare in my writing life. On days when things seem especially dire (“wait, did you say there’s no market for that manuscript I spent five years on?”), time with the chickens can give me a sense of worth. They need me—for food and water and spa days, and for a lap or shoulder to cluck on. And I’m up to the task.

The day Hinie pooped on Bill’s head

But as with writing, there’s no guarantee of success. They might get scale mites, and while I’m confident I have that problem in hand, the next problem might cost me a beloved pet. In the morning, I might get a manuscript rejection, but in the afternoon I might get a fresh egg and a nuzzle from a bird named after a butt.

Chicken Tending (think about it) isn’t the only thing I do for self-care. But the ways it’s like writing helps me deal with the tribulations of my writing life. Sometimes we just need a little success. For me, chasing birds around the yard goes a long way toward keeping me grounded and believing I can make a difference—on the page as much as in the coop.

Fanny (RIP) & Hinie by Bill’s daughter, Jessica

FOR DISCUSSION:

What do you do to take care of yourself?

 

Bill Cameron BIO

Bill Cameron is the critically-acclaimed author of gritty, adult mysteries featuring Skin Kadash. His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineKiller YearPortland NoirFirst ThrillsDeadly Treats, and West Coast Crime Wave. In 2012, his novel County Line received the Spotted Owl for Best Northwest Mystery. His latest book, the young adult mystery Property of the State, was named one of Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2016: Teen.

Bill is currently at work on a mystery set in the Oregon High Desert.

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