Which Word is Correct: Coffin or Casket?

By SUE COLETTA

Last Friday I was editing what I wrote the day before in my WIP when a word stopped me cold: casket. Should that be coffin?

The specific year in question is 1901, so I needed to figure out exactly when “coffin” first became “casket”?

The words are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be.

Coffins and caskets give two distinct mental images. I could ruin my scene if I used the wrong word.

Coffin

The word coffin comes from the Old French word cofin and the Latin word cophinus, which translates to basket. First used in the English language in 1380, a coffin is a box or chest for the display and/or burial of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.

The shape of a coffin resembles the shape of a body, with either six or eight sides, wider at the top to allow for the shoulders, then tapered toward the bottom—the foot, if you will. 😉

Think: Dracula movies.

Coffins date back to ancient Egypt when bodies were placed in a sarcophagus after the mummification process but before being buried in pyramids. Around 700 AD, the Celts in Europe began fashioning ornamental flat stones to coffins.

Casket

Interestingly enough, the word casket was originally used to describe a jewelry box, similar to the one George modeled in the above photo. 😀

In the mid-nineteenth century, casket took on an additional meaning synonymous with coffin.

Once morticians and undertakers started operating funeral parlors instead of mortuaries, the word coffin changed to casket because polite society considered it less offensive. The exact date still escaped me, though. I also had to consider the location of my story. What if Maine townsfolk used casket while Massachusetts residents still used coffin?

I kept digging…

A casket is rectangular in shape and often has a split-lid for viewing the deceased.

Caskets and coffins have been made of wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, real glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, and even gold. Wicker and wool threw me. How ’bout you? Carved whalebone, ivory, or precious metals adorned the ornamental trim, if the family coughed up the extra dough.

Both possess side handles for easy carrying. The main difference is the shape. Which, for writers as well as readers, is a pretty big deal. How would it look if pallbearers carried a triangular coffin? See what I’m sayin’? Details matter.

In 1784, a disturbing new law went into effect for a brief period. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared coffins should be reused to save on wood. So, coffin-makers installed trap doors on coffin floors that would drop open as soon the wood hit the grave. After the funeral service, the undertaker would hoist the coffin out of the hole, rinse and repeat. Public outcry abolished the law six months later.

That’s all well and good — fascinating, even; I love learning new tidbits for the ol’ memory bank — but I still hadn’t answered my original question. Should I use coffin or casket in my WIP? Some might not understand a writer’s obsession over one tiny word, but TKZers know every word counts. More importantly, they must be the right words.

Next, I read about the different materials used in coffins…

From 1848 through the 1870’s Almond Fisk made some coffins out of cast-iron. Shaped like a sarcophagus, they weighed over 300 pounds. Total cost: $100. How many pallbearers would it take to carry 400, 500, 600 pounds of dead weight?

Wooden coffins sold for $1.00 to $3.00 during that time. Imagine? Today some “burial boxes” can cost a whopping $50,000., depending on material and style.

In 1950, Fisk died penniless after mortgaging his patent rights to John G. Forbes, who resurrected the company and continued the cast-iron coffin business till it folded in 1888. The affluent members of society, however, preferred cast-iron coffins to wood; they helped to deter grave robbers. In fact, some say General Ulysses S. Grant is buried in a steel casket for this very reason.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial added to the chaos of the 1700’s and 1800’s, when folks feared being buried alive. Which is when coffin-makers introduced the safety coffin, complete with cord and bell. We’ve all heard those stories, right? Countless novels, short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and even plays hopped on that particular bandwagon.

Poe’s The Premature Burial exacerbated many people’s worst fear.

            The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; — but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-appareled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmolded shroud.

            A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation.

          On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron — work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.

As you can probably guess, I got sucked right into the master of darkness’ story instead of searching for the answer to my research question! It wasn’t easy — Edgar Allan Poe’s mind intrigues me — but I finally managed to refocus on the task at hand.

Turns out, I had the answer all along in my printed research paperwork, hidden in a news article. The story told of a victim’s father who argued over the price of his daughter’s coffin, believing he should be charged the wholesale price rather than retail. *facepalm*

Ah, well, I figured, maybe I can use this casket/coffin research for my Monday post on the Kill Zone. 🙂 There must be a lesson or two in here somewhere. Or maybe, just maybe, this information might save one of you research time in the future.

What say you, my beloveds? Have you ever gotten hung up on one word? Did it lead you to uncover a fascinating tidbit or two? Tell us about it.

International Thriller Writers wrote a feature article about RACKED, which I’m still *happy dancing* about. If you’re interested, you can read the full article HERE.

The ebook of RACKED is on sale for 99c on Amazon for another day or two.

*All books in the series can stand alone.

 

6+

A Real-Life Monster Will Soon Walk Free

By Sue Coletta

Back in 2017, I shared the story of the Toolbox Killers on my blog. I’m reposting it today to help bring attention to the case, because one of the men in the deadly duo dubbed the “Toolbox Killers” is scheduled to walk free this year.

Halloween night, 1979, 16-year-old Shirley Lynette Ledford made one fatal mistake — trusting the two men who offered her a ride. Forty-eight hours later, a jogger found her naked remains on a random front lawn in Sunland, California. Posed with her legs apart, her mutilated corpse lay in an ivy patch.

No one could have imagined the horror she endured.

If you’re at all squeamish, you may want to stop reading. The following is a true account.

It all started in 1977 when 29-year-old Roy Norris met 36-year-old Lawrence Bittaker while incarcerated at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. The two men — later dubbed “The Toolbox Killers” — shared sexually violent fantasies, which led to a maniacal pact. Upon release they planned to rape, torture, and murder teenage girls. Specifically, one girl of each teenage year from 13 to 19. Two years later, they teamed up on the outside and bought a silver 1977 GM cargo van, nicknamed “Murder Mack.”

From February to June 1979, this murderous duo picked up more than twenty female hitchhikers, not to assault but to practice luring girls into the van. They also used this time to search for a desolate locale. In April, they discovered a secluded fire road in the San Gabriel Mountains. Crowbar in hand, Bittaker snapped the lock on the gate to the fire road and replaced it with his own.

All they needed now was a victim.

On June 24th, 16 year-old Lucinda Lynn Schaefer left her Presbyterian Church meeting in Redondo Beach. She couldn’t have known the evil that awaited her.

After Bittaker and Norris finished constructing the bed in the rear of the van, beneath which they placed tools, clothes, and a cooler filled with beer and soda, they drove to the beach around 7:45 p.m. Lucinda was walking down a side street, and Bittaker remarked, “There’s a cute little blonde.” But their first attempt to entice her into the van was unsuccessful. Bribes of marijuana, beer, and a ride home didn’t work. So, they drove past her and parked alongside a driveway, where Norris exited the vehicle, slid open the side-door, and leaned into the van with his head and shoulders obscured from view. As Lucinda passed by, she exchanged a few words with Norris before he pounced, dragging her into the van.

That moment sealed her fate.

With bound wrists and ankles, her mouth duct-taped, Lucinda had no way to defend herself. Despite her initial scream, the only thing she could control was denying these monsters the satisfaction of witnessing her pain.

“She displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions of which she had no control,” claimed Bittaker in a written statement. “She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.”

With the radio volume at full-blast, Bittaker drove to their pre-arainged spot in the mountains. Norris remained in the back of the van with Lucinda. Once on the fire road, the two men took turns raping Lucinda while the other “took a walk.” The only thing Lucinda asked for was “a second to pray” before Norris attempted to manually strangulate her. Forty-five seconds in, and he became so freaked out by her protruding eyes he ran to the front bumper of the van and vomited.

Bittaker remained unfazed. He wrapped his vice-gripped fingers around her neck, her body slowly wilting to the ground. When the convulsions started Bittaker snaked a wire coat hanger around Lucinda’s throat and squeezed it tight with pliers — an act both men would repeat again and again.

The Toolbox Killers - Lawrence Bittaker

Lawrence Bittaker at his trial in 1979.

Norris and Bittaker rolled Lucinda’s dead body in a plastic shower curtain and tossed her into a canyon, where they expected wild animals to cover their heinous act.

A similar cycle occurred two weeks later when the murderous pair spotted 18-year-old Andrea Joy Hall hitchhiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. After raping and torturing Andrea, they forced her to pose for Polaroids. Sheer terror shone in her eyes as she pleaded for her life. Neither man listened. Instead, they drove an ice pick through her skull, strangled her, and then tossed her lifeless remains off a cliff.

On September 3rd, Jackie Doris Gilliam and Jacqueline Leah Lamp waited at the bus stop near Hermosa Beach. Luring the two girls into the van with marijuana and a free ride worked remarkably well. Until the girls noticed Bittaker wasn’t heading toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Rather, he drove toward the San Gabriel Mountains. When 13-year-old Jacqueline slid open the side-door in an attempt to escape, Norris slammed her over the head with a pre-filled bag of lead weights, knocking her momentarily unconscious. He then bound and gagged 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam. But Jacqueline regained composure and again tried to flee. Sadly, she was no match for Norris, who wrenched her arm behind her back and dragged her back into the van.

The Toolbox Killers

Roy Norris shortly before his arrest.

Meanwhile, Bittaker, noting the struggle was in full view of potential eyewitnesses, slid the shifter into park, climbed in back, and sucker-punched Jacqueline in the face, then assisted Norris in binding and gagging the two girls.

They finally arrived in the San Gabriel Mountains, where Jackie and Jacqueline were held captive for nearly two full days, repeatedly raped and forced to pose for pornographic Polaroids.

Bittaker tape-recorded the first time he’d raped young Jackie, telling her to “feel free to express your pain.”

At trial, Norris claimed he buried the cassette in a nearby cemetery, though it’s never been recovered.

These poor girls were tortured in unthinkable ways, including having their breasts punctured with an ice pick. Norris also tore off one of Jackie’s nipple with pliers.

Even death didn’t come swiftly. Bittaker drilled an ice pick into both of Jackie’s ears before strangling her to death. He beat Jacqueline with a sledgehammer, strangled her for fun, beat her again, and then strangled her to death. The Toolbox Killers tossed both bodies over an embankment into a California chaparral.

From the grave Shirley Lynette Ledford, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post, ignited the strongest emotional response in the jurors and courtroom audience. The prosecutor played 17 grueling minutes of a tape recording that showed the amount of terror Shirley endured before death. The transcript of which you can find here. Before you click that link, I need to caution you. This isn’t easy reading, nor is it easy to listen to the first few minutes of the accompanying video, where Shirley’s blood-curdling screams carry through closed courtroom doors. This sweet, young girl endured masochist behavior at the hands of pure evil. Proceed at your own risk.

Some say 16-year-old Shirley Ledford accepted a ride on that fateful Halloween night because she recognized Bittaker from the restaurant where she’d worked as a part-time waitress. Apparently, Bittaker was a regular.

Moments after Shirley climbed inside the van, Bittaker drove to a secluded side street while Norris drew a knife. He then bound and gagged Shirley with barricade tape.

The nightmare had begun.

Bittaker traded places with Norris, who drove aimlessly for over an hour as Bittaker tormented Shirley, ordering her to “scream louder. What’s the matter? Don’t you like to scream?”

On tape, Shirley pleaded with Bittaker. “No! Don’t touch me!” To which Bittaker replied, “Scream as loud as you wish,” and then bludgeoned her with a sledgehammer, punched her breasts in order to “beat them back into her chest.” As Bittaker raped and sodomized Shirley repeatedly, he tortured her with pliers, tearing her insides till she was no longer “rape-able,” according to Norris.

At trial, Norris described “screams … constant screams” from the rear of the van.

“We’ve all heard women scream in horror films … still, we know that no one is really screaming. Why? Simply because an actress can’t produce some sounds that convince us that something vile and heinous is happening. If you ever heard that tape, there is just no possible way that you’d not begin crying and trembling. I doubt you could listen to more than a full sixty seconds of it.” ~ Serial Killer Roy Norris

Don’t be fooled by that quote. Norris has an IQ of 135. So, even though he tried to downplay his involvement during his testimony, he still switched places with Bittaker to torture and sexually assault this young girl. Norris was also the one who switched on the tape recorder to memorialize their sadistic treatment of Shirley. Both men were equally vicious. They had no empathy for the victims or their families. In my opinion, Norris deserved equal punishment, but he was able to cut a deal by testifying for the prosecution.

Shirley Lynette Ledford

Back in the van, Shirley saw Norris grab the sledgehammer, and screamed, “Oh no! No! No! No! Please, no!”

Norris struck her in the left elbow, shattering the bone. Shirley begged him not to hit her again, but he didn’t listen. Norris struck that same broken elbow 25 more times.

When he finally stopped, he glared at Shirley, who was sobbing, shaking, and terrified.

“What are you sniveling about?” he said.

“Please, just do it! Kill me!”

After two solid hours of unfathomable torture, Norris finally killed Shirley by strangling her with a coat hanger, tightening the wire with pliers. Bittaker opted to pose her body on a random lawn in Sunland to gauge the public’s reaction. Norris agreed. So, under the cover of darkness, Bittaker played look-out as Norris posed Shirley’s mutilated remains on an ivy patch. Not wanting to waste his last chance to humiliate this poor girl, he wrenched open her legs.

Death by lethal injection is too kind for these two, IMHO. They deserve to die like Shirley, Jackie, Jacqueline, and many others.

The autopsy revealed extensive blunt-force trauma to Shirley’s angelic face, head, breasts, left elbow, with her olecranon (the bony tip of the elbow) sustaining multiple fractures. Torn genitalia and rectum was caused in part by Bittaker raping her with pliers. Her left hand bore a puncture wound and a deep slash mark scarred the finger on her right hand. At trial, Bittaker claimed the tape recording was nothing but a threesome, but added that toward the very end Shirley Ledford pleaded for death.

Can you blame her? There’s only so much pain a body can endure. I’d probably pray for death, too.

Investigators eventually found the remains of Jacqueline Leah Lamp and Jackie Doris Gilliam in the San Gabriel Mountains. The bodies of Lucinda Schaefer and Andrea Hall have never been found.

As for Bittaker, an initial execution date was set for December 29, 1989, which Bittaker appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision and set a new date of execution for July 23, 1991. And again, Bittaker appealed. Only this time, on July 9, 1991, the court granted a stay. As of 2017, Lawrence Bittaker remained on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

In total, police found 500 Polaroids and identified 19 missing girls, but Norris only admitted to five murders before he stopped talking. The parole board denied his request for release in 2009. But this year, 2019, he will have served his full 45-year prison term. The worst part? He promised to “have a little fun once he gets out.”

Let’s all take a moment to remember these innocent victims who died way too young, way too brutally. Hug your children a little tighter tonight. This monster will soon walk free.

5+

One Writer’s Strange Encounter with a Reader

By SUE COLETTA

Joe’s Saturday post inspired me to share a strange encounter I had with a reader last week. I loaded up the SUV for my annual trip north to appear at a 5-star library in New Hampshire (rated by Library Journal). I’ve all but given up on libraries for book signings, but this library has the coolest librarian/director I’ve ever met. She’s a walking contradiction! Inside the library, she’s quiet, polite, and super helpful. When she locks the library doors, however, she really lets her hair down, hops into her supped-up Mustang convertible and races down the streets—a quick streak of blue and white whizzing by. I adore this woman! Every signing, successful or not, ends with a hug. Which keeps me coming back year after year.

Sometimes my timing is perfect. Other times, not so much.

Last week, the local priest decided to hold his retirement party across the street from the library on the same night as my book event. Needless to say, it wasn’t my most successful signing ever. Didn’t matter. Whether we’re speaking to a packed room or only three or four readers trickle in, we still need to put on the same show. Sometimes a more intimate setting is really nice, as it gives us the opportunity to chitchat with the folks who read our books.

Unless you get an angry-looking woman in the front row who does nothing but glare at you.

All she wanted was for me to keep reading excerpts, one after another. It was strangest thing. Every time I stopped she’d point to another book and ask me to read the opening chapter. No one else objected, so I gave her what she wanted. After I read about four, I was beginning to feel like a puppet on a string. So, I asked her why she’d rather hear me read than chat with me.

Her response? “I don’t even think about the writer when I read. I don’t care about the research. I don’t care about the story behind the story. All I want is the next book.”

“Wow,” was all I managed before the librarian jolted to her feet.

“I care,” she said, “I care very deeply for writers.”

The others in the room agreed.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking, how sad. Here this woman sat surrounded by books lining every wall, every partition. Decades, if not centuries, of writers who’d worked endless hours, alone, pecking the keyboard or typewriter or writing longhand by candlelight, their joys, their sorrows, their laughter and pain spilled across the pages, and this poor woman was incapable of seeing any of it. Didn’t care to, either, apparently. But even if she continued to disrespect writers, I wasn’t about to stoop to her level and spout an equally snarky comeback. I’m a big believer in karma. So, I gave her a free signed paperback and thanked her for coming to the event.

If you haven’t done book signings yet, let me put your mind at ease. For every one clueless reader, there are thousands of others who cherish every word. Readers who sit our books on a shelf of honor because they loved it so much. Our characters become their best friends, sometimes their only friends. When these devoted readers finally get the chance to meet the writer who brought their beloved characters to life, they shower us with love. Some might even mistake the writer for one of their characters. You know what? That’s okay, too… unless she’s a Delores Claiborne type. 😉 It means our words, our stories, touched their lives in some way.

Isn’t that why we write?

Please excuse me while I share my love for those who read my books. I’ve been blessed with an amazing, generous, thoughtful, kind, funny, loving, and downright nutty audience. It’s no secret that I adore crows, right? I’m so enamored with these birds that I’ve set out to change the public perception that crows are pests. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spotting one in the yard does NOT equate to a bad omen. These amazing creatures—the smartest of the bird world, by the way, along with their cousin, the raven—do NOT bring death and destruction. They’ve been saddled with an unjustified bad reputation for no apparent reason. It’s time to stop judging birds by the color of their plumage.

Ahem. Excuse me. I get a little carried away when it comes to breed profiling. 🙂

Anyway, since I share my love for Poe (my crow who lives free, yet comes when called) along with Edgar, Allan, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and the rest of my black beauties (some of which I’ve turned into characters for my Mayhem Series) readers are now decorating my office with crows. Here are a few I received this summer…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZ family. Have you ever heard a similar remark as the woman in the library? If so, how’d you handle it? Tell us about your strangest — or best! — encounter with a reader?

*I’m on the road today, researching, so I may be late responding to comments.

6+

How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

By SUE COLETTA

A few regular readers of TKZ requested tips to help research criminal cases from the past. If the crime occurred in the 18th or early 19th century, the task becomes much more difficult. My hope is that these tips will aid you in finding reliable information.

Let’s say you only have a name, place, and approximate year for your victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you get lucky and find a couple articles, other times … *crickets* Which I happen to like, because it means the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. But it’s also harder to find what we need. Not impossible; we just need to think like an investigator.

GENERAL TIPS

If you find an online article about the crime, do not solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime writers will either link to another source or cite where they gathered their facts from, and that’s where the gold resides.

My overly suspicious crime writer brain tends to question where bloggers and/or journalists get their facts. To satisfy my own curiosity I use a three-source rule. Meaning, if I can’t verify a fact with two other sources, then I don’t consider it a historical fact.

By the way, this is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Although, some publishers do ask that you verify each major fact with one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. So, be sure to keep a log of where you find information, both primary and secondary sources. It’ll save you from having to go back to find where the killer said something, or whatever.

There’s one exception to my three-source rule…

Suppose I find a newspaper article that I am able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Because I have the primary source (court document) which says the same thing, then the newspaper article gains credibility. If I don’t have access to a primary source for verification, then I need two secondary sources to substantiate the fact(s).

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. It’s our job to question a reporter’s research and not take what s/he says at face-value. They want to sell newspapers, so facts can often be embellished or sensationalized. When I first started searching through old newspapers (I’ll share where you can find them in a sec), I was shocked to find misinformation, discrepancies, untruths, and rumors stated as fact. Embellishments help to create eye-popping headlines but can also hinder a true crime writer/researcher if we’re not careful.

For example, there’s a lot of online content about one of my five female serial killers due to the fact that she rocked the nation with her cold-bloodedness. But all these articles weren’t ideal. If anything, they muddied the water. In order to separate fact from fiction I had to wade through opinions, theories, innuendoes, and rumors. You may have to do the same. My best advice is to roll up your sleeves, consider it a challenge, and dig in. 😉

PRIMARY vs. SECONDARY SOURCES

Think of research as a bullseye, with the killer and/or victim at the center. The first ring around the bullseye includes eyewitness accounts, investigative reports, court testimony, the killer’s journal and/or confession — primary sources. Moving outward, the next ring would be secondary sources, such as a newspaper article written by a journalist who interviewed someone involved with the case (killer, detective, juror, DA).

The third ring includes newspaper articles written by someone with no first-hand or second-hand knowledge. To get the article written on time they simply regurgitated information from other articles — that’s where you’ll find the most mistakes. In this ring you’ll also find bloggers, some credible, some not.

See why I created a three-source rule? If we were to write historical nonfiction using only the third ring as our primary source, the book and its author would lose all credibility among historical nonfiction readers as well as writers. I’ve read numerous snarky remarks about true crime writers who play fast and loose with the facts. Since I would never advocate to spotlight another writer’s inadequacies, I’ll leave it at that. My point is, research as though the whole world is watching. It’ll keep you honest. 🙂

HOMING IN ON PRIMARY SOURCES

One of the best places to gather historic information is the National Archives. Once called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which retired in 2013 and was replaced with the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the National Archives Catalog searches all web pages on Archives.gov and lists articles, pdf documents, books, and periodicals on a search result page. Along with catalog records, researchers are able to add notes that may cite additional sources, so during your search also be mindful of gold nuggets hidden in research notes.

The current catalog provides access to over two million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA). These digital records aren’t available elsewhere. The National Archives is a fantastic place to find reliable primary source material.

Now, suppose the case you’re looking for hasn’t been digitalized. In that case you’ll need to Google “National Archives of [insert the state capitol where the crime occurred].” Note the email address and send a formal record request. The more information you provide, the greater your chances of gaining results. Record requests take about ten business days to complete.

If the crime you’re researching was not heard in federal court, then you’ll need to drop down to the state level. Google: “[state where crime took place] State Archives.” Example: Massachusetts State Archives. This may sound like the same place as above, but it’s not. State Archives house court records on the district court level.

Then there’s the Supreme Judicial Archives. In Boston, it’s a separate building with a separate email address. This may not always be the case, though. You’ll need to find out how it works in the state you’re researching, but you can use this example as a guide.

Prepare to spend time on the phone with law libraries and historical societies. The folks who work in these places are extremely helpful, and they love writers. The law library directed me to a wealth of information that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own, because they have access to databases that the public does not. Search for the county where your crime was committed, then add “law library.” For example, I searched for “Barnstable Law Library” for one of my female serial killers.

For my New Hampshire killer, the local historical society had diaries tucked inside an old box, with daily logs written during the string of murders. The gentleman who wrote these diaries knew the victims and the killer. Scoring a firsthand account of a centuries old murder case is difficult to find, but when it happens, it’s the best feeling ever.

See why it pays to keep digging? You never know what you might uncover next.

Most police departments are useless, as they don’t keep investigative records that long. It’s still worth sending a quick email, though. If I didn’t contact one particular department, I would have never known that the town where my killer operated housed their own independent archives that were a lot more detailed than the records I’d acquired elsewhere. It also gave me two primary sources to check facts against.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

As you may have guessed, a great place to find old newspapers are libraries. Depending on your subject’s location, many libraries have transferred newspapers to microfiche. Be sure to have the month and date for the librarian. If the crime you’re researching made national headlines, you may even luck out at your local library.

But wait …

Before you truck down to the library, check out the Library of Congress. They list 15,273,703 digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1963. Always best to save the shoe leather whenever possible. 🙂

Remember, as you research, search for primary source material to verify your secondary or thrice-removed accounts. Readers will thank you for the added effort.

Researching historical crime takes time and patience, but it’s also fun to piece the puzzle together. Just don’t get discouraged. For every three or four dead ends, you’ll stumble across something new and exciting that’ll set your writer brain ablaze.

I better stop there before this post morphs into a book. Do you have any research tips to share?

 

 

10+

How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal

By SUE COLETTA

Remember my last post, entitled Why Waiting is Difficult? Well, I’m happy to report that my wait is over!!! And now, I can share my good news.

In May, Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a true crime novel about female serial killers of New England who were active prior to 1950.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog, so I won’t bore you by repeating all the details here. Suffice it to say, Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killer’s of the Region’s Past is anticipated to hit stores Fall 2020. Yay!!!

For those of you who missed the announcement on my blog, the acquisitions editor gave me two weeks to send her a book proposal. And like any professional writer, I assured her that a two-week deadline would not be a problem. When I hung up, panic set in.

What did I know about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Not a darn thing!

Plus, I now had mountains of research into historical female serial killers. I’ve written true crime stories on my blog many times, but never a novel-length true crime book. This was a huge opportunity, with a well-respected publisher in a new-to-me genre. All I kept thinking was, if you blow this chance you’ll regret it forever.

Once I managed to get my breathing somewhat regulated, I contacted my dear friend, Larry Brooks. You probably know this from his time on TKZ, but it bears repeating — he is amazing! Not only did he assure me that the editor didn’t contact the wrong author for the job, he explained in detail what she was looking for in the proposal. Most importantly, he told me why she’d asked for certain things, from a nonfiction publisher’s point of view. Knowing “the why” helped me focus on what to include. Incidentally, Jordan was also a godsend through the entire process.

See why it’s important to befriend other writers?

On TKZ, we’ve talk a lot about the business side of writing. In nonfiction, it’s important to show how and why the proposed book will be profitable for the publisher. My situation was a little different, since they came to me, but I still followed the same format as if I’d cold queried. After all, the acquisitions editor still needed the board to approve the project before offering a contract.

So, today, I’d like to share the proper format for a nonfiction book proposal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps this post will save you some agony.

Each heading should start a fresh page.

Title Page

Title

Subtitle

Author’s Name

If you’re cold querying an agent and/or publisher, then also include your address, website, phone number, blog address, and agent contact info, if applicable.

Table of Contents for the Book Proposal

Keep this basic format and chapter headings unless the publisher/agent guidelines asks for something different. Next, I’ll break down each chapter to show what to include.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Overview …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Target Market …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Competitive Titles …………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Author Bio …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Marketing Plan …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Length & Special Features …………………………………………………………  (page #)

Chapter Outline …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Sample Chapter …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Overview

You need to hook the agent/editor with a strong opener and establish why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. A sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book.

A few questions to consider …

What’s the book about? What’s your pitch? Does the book fill a need? Why are you the right author to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject matter?

Target Market

You cannot say “this book will appeal to men and women from 18-80,” because it won’t. Instead, you need to provide an actual target audience with real figures to back it up.

Where do we gather these statistics? Social media is a great place to start. Search for Facebook groups about the subject of your book. For example, I included Serial Killer groups, True Crime groups, Historical groups, and groups related to New England, like the New England Historical Society. For each group, I listed the subscribers and, where available, a breakdown of the members’ gender, age group, etc. Next, I went to YouTube and searched for podcasts related to my subject matter. I also included a brief psychological study of why true crime attracts women.

See what I’m saying? Think outside the box to find your audience.

What if you’re proposing a cookbook? You can still use social media as a jumping off point, but I’d also search for culinary classes. Are your readers likely to subscribe to certain magazines? List the circulation numbers. Is your book geared toward college students? Call the universities.

Take your time with this section. It’s vitally important to prove there’s an audience for your book. Publishing board meetings sound more like product development meetings. By providing accurate, measurable data, you’re helping the acquisitions editor convince the board to approve your project.

Competitive Titles

Search bookstores, Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Books in Print, and libraries. You want to show at least five title that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, provide author’s name, title, price, publisher, publication date, ISBN, any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the book’s success.

I also used this section to show why I chose to focus on five serial killers instead of ten (as proposed by the editor), with titles that proved my theory.

Author Bio or “About the Author”

Unless you’re proposing a memoir, write your bio in third person. Include why you’re qualified to write this book, as well as previous publishing credits and accolades. If you’re short on publishing credits, then include tidbits about yourself that show your passion and/or expertise in the subject matter.

Marketing Plan

How do you plan to market this book? Does your blog get lots of traffic? List how many hits per month. Also include the number of email subscribers, social media followers, etc. List speaking engagements. For example, I included a list of venues I appear at every year (all in New England).

If you’re writing a how-to, do you teach courses? Workshops? Have media exposure?

Length & Special Features

Here, you include word count, photographs, or other special features of the book. I can’t divulge the special features for my book, but again, I thought outside the box to make the book unique.

Table of Contents

There is no pantsing in nonfiction. You’ll have to outline each chapter, with eye-catching headlines, and list them here. To give you some idea of the work, I had 50 chapters in my book proposal, each chapter meticulously plotted. Will they change once I complete my research? Maybe, but the publisher expects you to stick fairly close to the original. After all, that’s the book you sold.

Sample Chapter(s)

Follow the agent/publisher guidelines on length, etc. They’re looking for writing style, tone, and voice. Now that the business side is completed, this is your chance to shine!

And that’s about it, folks.

Nonfiction writers, did I miss anything? Please share your tips.

Fiction writers, have you considered writing nonfiction? If so, which subject/genre are you interested in?

 

9+

How Can 1 Person Have 2 Different Sets of DNA?

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

A human with two different sets of DNA is called a chimera, and it’s more common than you might think. Most chimeras don’t even know they have this strange phenomenon going on inside them.

You could be a chimera, and so could I.

As we go along, take note of the interesting tidbits you could twist into a plot to add conflict.

Without any help from the scientific community, the process of becoming a chimera occurs naturally. Numerous books and movies explore chimerism using a killer who’s had a bone marrow transplant or blood transfusion. But are these characters based in fact?

Let’s take a look and find out.

The tissue inside our bones is called bone marrow, and it’s responsible for making white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, doctors use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy all the recipient’s diseased bone marrow. The donor’s healthy marrow is then introduced and continues to produce blood cells with the donor’s DNA, thereby transforming the recipient into a chimera.

In some cases, all of the blood cells in a person who received a bone marrow transplant will match the DNA of their donor. But in other cases, the recipient may have a mix of both their own blood cells and donor cells. A blood transfusion will also temporarily give a person cells from someone else, but in a bone marrow transplant, the new blood cells are permanent, according to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

What if we’ve never had a transplant?

Doesn’t matter. There are other ways to become a chimera.

Early on in pregnancy a mother can be carrying fraternal twins and one of the embryos might die in utero. The surviving embryo may absorb cells from the deceased twin. When the baby is born, s/he can have two sets of DNA. Since twin loss occurs in 21-30% of multiple-fetus pregnancies, think of how many chimeras could be walking around. Are the story wheels spinning yet?

It can also happen with a normal pregnancy.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that a pregnant woman may retain some DNA from her baby, if fetal cells happen to migrate into her bloodstream and travel to different organs. The New York Times referred to this as a “pregnancy souvenir”— but it’s more scientifically known as “microchimerism.”

A 2015 study suggests this happens in almost ALL pregnancies (you read that right), at least temporarily. The researchers tested tissue samples from the kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts, and brains of 26 women who died while pregnant or within one month of giving birth. The study found fetal cells in all of the women’s tissues. The researchers were able to tell the fetus cells from the mothers by searching for Y chromosomes (only found in males). The deceased mothers were all carrying sons.

Writers: Don’t take the obvious road. Think victims instead of killers.

  • What if a human brain washed up on the beach?
  • What if the Medical Examiner wrongly assumed the victim was male due to the Y chromosomes?

This is one way to use research to our advantage.

  • What if the brain contained animal and human DNA?

Remember, we’re thinking victim, not killer, which puts a different spin on it.

According to Live Science, fetal cells may stay in a woman’s body for years. In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women ages 32 to 101. A shocking 63 percent had traces of male DNA from fetal cells in their brains. The oldest woman died at 94 years old, suggesting that these cells can sometimes last a lifetime.

The blood-brain barrier is the body’s defense system to block many drugs and germs in the bloodstream from entering the brain, but doctors have found this barrier becomes more permeable during pregnancy, which may explain how these fetal cells migrated into the brains of their mothers.

  • What if a serial killer only targeted people with chimerism because s/he viewed them as freaks of nature?
  • How might the killer find potential victims?

If you said the medical field, you’re not thinking outside the box.

Interestingly enough, 26 of the 59 women had no signs of brain disorders while alive. The other 33 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than women without the disease.

Previous work on microchimerism suggested fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers, but could increase the risk of colon cancer. Microchimerism can also incite various autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system.

Past research suggested Alzheimer’s is more common in women who had a high number of pregnancies than in childless women. One of the limitations of this research is that the number of brains studied was relatively small. Other researchers involved with microchimerism want to explore what effects a mother’s cells might have in her offspring’s development and health.

Imagine all the different scenarios? Parts of your writer brain must be on fire by now. No? Then check this out …  

Are you a chimera? 

You may never know. Unless you wind up in a similar situation to a woman named Karen Keegan. In 2002, her story became a report in the New England Journal of Medicine after doctors told her that she wasn’t the biological mother of her children.

Imagine? Think of all the ways this one conversation could implode an MC’s life.

  • Maybe the woman’s marriage broke up and the only reason her and her husband reunited was because she said she gave birth to his child while he was stationed overseas.

Turns out, the DNA in Karen Keegan’s bloodstream didn’t match the DNA in her ovaries. The doctors later determined she’d most likely absorbed a fraternal twin in utero.

How’s the ol’ writer brain feeling now?

 

15+

Why Waiting is Difficult

By SUE COLETTA

It’s no secret that the writing biz requires patience. Sometimes, though, waiting can be agonizing. Recently, an exciting opportunity came my way. In order to make this dream come true, I had two weeks (two weeks!) to produce something I’ve never done before. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I don’t want to jinx it.

Now that I made my deadline, all that’s left to do is wait. And wait. And wait. Even with a new release, my mind keeps wandering back to this secret project … and the wait.

via GIPHY

That got me thinking, I wonder how or if waiting affects the brain.

Turns out, researchers recently asked the same question. For the first time, a research team at McGill University clearly identified the specific parts of the brain involved in decisions that call for delayed gratification.

Here’s how it works …

The hippocampus (associated with memory) and the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure) work together to make critical decisions where time plays a role. For example, suppose you send a query to a literary agent or publisher. You’re making a decision that requires you to wait for the outcome, thereby triggering both the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens.

Still with me? Okay, cool. Let’s look at exactly what these researchers did to prove or disprove their theory …

The researchers used rats trained to make choices between stimuli that resulted in rewards. Some rewards were delivered instantly, some meant delayed gratification. The rats had a choice between two identical visual shapes on a touchscreen (similar to an iPad). In exchange for sugar pellets, the rats had the choice to press their noses against the shape that delivered one sugar pellet immediately or the shape that would deliver four sugar pellets if they waited to receive the reward.

Over time, the rats learned to negotiate a trade-off between the smaller, instant gratification and a windfall, even if it meant waiting for a short period. Researchers argue that most people will also wait for a decision to pay off, if the reward is worth it.

Do you agree? she asks a community of writers whose dreams stand at the intersection of hurry up and wait.

Now, what do you think happened when the researchers disrupted the circuit from the rats’ hippocampus and nucleus accumbens? You guessed it. The rats became impatient and irritable, unwilling to wait even for a few seconds.

Why?

Our brains weigh the pros and cons of thousands of situations every day without conscious thought. The nucleus accumbens is made up of a group of tiny cells deep within our brains, and those cells are responsible for the release of dopamine. The amount of dopamine released depends on the size of the reward.

Is it any wonder why we hate waiting? Our bodies crave dopamine! Hence, why exercise is so important for good mental health.

What can we do to help with waiting for news? You guessed it. Get your body to pump dopamine. Which is why today (Saturday) I jumped on my husband’s tractor and mowed the lawn before writing this post. 😉

Yeah, he couldn’t believe it either. I’m not what anyone would describe as a manual labor type of chick. I like my fingernails too much to break them. But I needed a way to switch off my brain before I drove myself crazy by checking and rechecking my email. When I saw my husband on the tractor, it looked like fun.

You know what? I had a blast! Who knew mowing the lawn could double as an exercise in creativity? As my husband cringed, I sailed around the yard creating animal shapes with the blades. Always keep ‘em guessing, ladies!

Men, you can stop groaning now. You’ll be pleased to know I fixed the grass afterward by riding back and forth in military straight lines, but it was nowhere near as fun.

In other study, researchers at the University of Texas measured what occurs inside the brain during a long wait vs. a short wait. For the experiment they used two different tones. The first tone meant a 15-20 second waiting period, the second equaled wait times of 65-75 seconds. Both tones signaled the same reward. The only difference was the length of delay. What they discovered was the nucleus accumbens released more dopamine when the short wait tone sounded. Which means, we’re willing to wait for a reward if the wait doesn’t take too long.

Makes sense, right?

So, if you’re waiting for something to happen as a result of a decision you made, do yourself a favor and get outside, or hit the gym … anything that might help to release dopamine. If you follow this advice, the wait won’t feel as long.

Are you in the wait zone? Care to share what you’re waiting for? What are some ways that have helped you to wait?

 

It starts with an innocent stuffed animal. It ends with mind-numbing terror. 

RACKED, Grafton County, Book 4, is now available for pre-order! Only 99c.

 

 

 

11+

Did You Forget to Mention You’re a Writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She startles. “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

Silent, her jaw slacks.

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

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

“But–”

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

“Okay, thanks for your help.”

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

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

This scenario really happened to me. True story.

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

Winner of Readers’ Choice Award in Mystery/Thriller

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

*All books in the Mayhem Series can stand alone.

Available as ebook or paperback on Amazon.

Other retailers listed on my Tirgearr Publishing page.

10+

First Page Critique: Go

By Sue Coletta

Today, we have another brave writer who submitted their first page. My comments will follow.

Title:  Go

Ch 1 Go, Said the Bird

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath.They scrambled into coats and jackets.

“…tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside, food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said.

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s store.

A grin lit his broad ochre-colored face, and dissolved into drawn brows. “Long face, Nettie. ”

I leaned on the counter. He whipped out two pineapple popsicles and handed me one. Too sweet, the sour taste of lying to my mother, of seeing her killer, thick in my throat.

“You visit your parents today?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

A smile tugged at my mouth.

“Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

“And here I thought I didn’t have a mother.” Thrusting Redmann out of my thoughts–I had to–I bought tomato soup, Swiss cheese, and bread while we made plans for dinner and checkers later in the week.

Across the street, Redmanm hauled the woman toward his car.

***

This is a tough opener for me to critique, because I get the feeling Anon is early in his/her writing journey. When we begin our writing journey, magic surrounds us. We can’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a magical beauty in that simplicity. A harsh critique at this writing stage could do more harm than good. It’s in this vein that I offer a few suggestions to help nudge this brave writer forward.

First lines

Your first sentence should entice the reader to continue on to the next sentence and the sentence after that. “I twirled a pencil.” Doesn’t accomplish that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sentence, except that it’s generic. Meaning, it delivers no punch, nor does it hint at the genre, nor does it promise an intriguing storyline to come. It just sort of sits there.

We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Back in 2010, Joe Moore described a first line this way:

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Joe nailed it! See how important your first line is, Anon? For further study, type “first line” in the search box and you’ll find numerous articles on this subject.

Point of View

Nailing Point of View is one of the hardest elements to grasp. It’s also imperative to learn, because readers connect with our main characters through the proper use of POV. 

The third sentence We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.” is a point of view slip. As Laura mentioned in a recent first page critique, “we” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator. If we’re inside the teacher’s head, then we can’t know what the students are thinking i.e. “how slow its hands moved.”

You could show their boredom through the teacher’s perspective …

Carlton’s chin slipped off a half-curled palm, his elbow unable to hold the weight of his head till the bell rang. (then add a line or two of internal dialogue to show us the MC’s reaction –>) Why he insisted on sitting in the front row still baffled me.

Clarity

We never want to confuse the reader or make them re-read previous paragraphs in order to know what we’re talking about. My remarks are in red.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

With this sentence structure, the reader has no idea what the narrator means by “I couldn’t” until the end of the sentence. That’s too late. Easy fix, but it’s something you’ll want to look for in your writing.

Rewrite option: After years of avoiding my parents’ grave, I made it a point to swing by the cemetery once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother (mother’s gravestone?). “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

Here again, you’ve given us context too late. “Someday, I’d mean those words” should come before “I kicked at the slush of the last snow.” Which I love, btw. Great visual.

Dialogue

If you haven’t read How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by TKZ’s own, James Scott Bell, do it. The book’s a game-changer.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned (<- is it your intention to show Redmann as a racist? If so, just tell us she’s Hispanic. Also “small” and “tall” are generic terms. “Petite” implies small in stature, though) woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said. Dialogue should sound natural. This woman sounds stiff and unconcerned. If she’s being unfairly accused of stealing, make us feel her frustration.

He leaned forward (why would he lean forward? Did you mean Redmann invaded the Hispanic woman’s personal space? Towered over her?) She retreated and bowed her head. Try to be as clear as possible. “She coward” or “quailed back” works.

Possible rewrite: Redmann invaded the petite woman’s personal space, and she coward.

“Look at me, bitch.”  Add body cue so we know who’s speaking. Perhaps something like, his spittle flew in her face.

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I don’t understand this body cue. Do you mean, my hand balled into a fist? Which implies anger.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-sixyearold the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. Delete the MC’s age. Or make it less obvious that you’re sneaking in information. Something like: For twenty years, I’d avoided him. Little did he know, I wasn’t the same terrified six-year-old who huddled in the closet while he murdered my family. Soon, he and I would reconnect.

Good luck dragging me out of the closet by my hair now, asshole. (Please excuse the foul language. I’m trying to show Anon how to use inner dialogue to portray rage, and the nickname works to prove my point.)

Sparse Writing

There’s a big difference between writing tight and writing that’s too sparse.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

Here again, my initial reaction was, paid what? Sure, you cleared up the confusion in the second sentence, but that’s too late. Be concise. Don’t let your writing get in the way. “Redmann never paid the price for killing my parents” works just fine.  

I’m going to stop there. All in all, I like where the story is headed. A schoolteacher runs into the killer who murdered her family. Intriguing premise!

Favorite line: I kicked at the slush of the last snow. 

TKZ family, please add your thoughtful and gentle suggestions for this brave writer.

 

5+

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

By SUE COLETTA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out these creative thinkers …

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

Meet Suda …

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

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

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

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

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

6 Ways Creativity Improves Health and Wellness

1) Increased Happiness

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

2) Reduces Dementia

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

3) Improves Mental Health

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

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

4) Boosts Immune System

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

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

5) Increases Intelligence

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

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

6) Decreases Chronic Pain

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

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

The world needs creatives.

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

Need more motivation? No problem …

Now, go forth and create something amazing!

11+