Executions Gone Wrong Or Divine Intervention?

If a prisoner survives multiple trips to the gallows, should he be set free?

Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse lived in “The Glen,” a small village of Babbacome, England, with her servants, Jane and Eliza Neck, Elizabeth Harris, the cook, and Emma’s brother, John Henry George Lee.

In the early hours of November 15, 1884 Miss Emma’s lifeless remains were discovered with three knife wounds to her head. The murderer also tried to set the body on fire.

John Lee had worked alongside his sister at the The Glen since leaving school. In 1879, he joined the Navy. A medical discharge sent him home to Torquay to work as a footman. But he stole from his employer and was convicted. Upon his release from prison in 1884, he returned to work at The Glen.

As the only male in the household at the time of the murder, police zeroed in on Lee as the prime suspect. Along with other circumstantial evidence, an inexplicable cut on his arm sealed his fate. But did the police have the right man?

Attorney Reginald Gwynne Templar was a frequent visitor to The Glen. After Lee’s arrest, he offered to represent him for free. Which was highly unusual, considering Templar and Miss Emma were good friends. Lee told police Templar was also in the house that night. Odder still, folks wondered how he found out about the murder so soon after it happened.

Could Templar be the killer?

There was little evidence to prove Templar was guilty. Just as little to prove Lee was, either. Nonetheless, police believed they had their man.

“The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord,” Lee told the judge at trial, “and He knows I am innocent.”

John Henry George Lee was found guilty and sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison on February 23, 1885. That day, James Berry, the hangman, went through the usual testing of the trap door, the scaffold, and the rope. But when they slipped the noose over Lee’s head and pulled the lever, the trapdoor wouldn’t open.

They tried to hang him again. And the gallows misfunctioned a second time.

“It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death,” said Sir William Harcourt, British Home Secretary.

Three times a charm, right? Wrong. After the third failed attempt to hang John Lee, officials commuted his sentence to penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labor).

The public interpreted the gallows malfunction as divine intervention. Lee served 22 years for the murder of Miss Emma, describing his time as “moving from one tomb to another.” He was released from prison in 1907.

Numerous stories exist about how Lee spent his life from that point on. Some say he moved abroad; some say he moved to London. Two Lee enthusiasts conducted research in 2009 and placed his grave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That same research claimed Lee deserted his wife and children in Britain after his release from prison for a second family in the U.S.

Templar went insane and died at an early age. Witnesses say he “babbled about murder on his death bed.”

John Henry George Lee rose to infamy as “The man they couldn’t hang.” His name went on record as “the only person in the world to survive three hangings.” But was he?

A little digging led me to an English criminal named Joseph Samuels. In 1801, a jury convicted Samuels of robbery at the tender age of 15 years old and shipped him to Australia, to serve his time at a penal colony in Sydney Cove.

Security in those early penal settlements were reinforced by isolation—prison guards trusted the Australian wildlife to hunt and kill any escapees.

Despite the risk to life and limb, Samuels and his gang of thieves succeeded in escaping. Once they were safe from the confines of prison, the unruly bunch robbed a wealthy woman’s house. They were in the process of stealing a bag filled with gold and silver coins from her desk when a policeman showed up. One of the gang members shot and killed him. Because Samuels had some of the stolen coins in his pocket when he was eventually caught, the police believed they’d snagged a cop-killer. The wealthy woman also identified Samuels as one of the robbers.

After an intense interrogation, Samuels confessed to the robbery but claimed he had no part in the murder. Almost all of Samuels’ fellow gang members were acquitted due to lack of evidence, except one—Isaac Simmonds, who admitted nothing.

Samuels, however, was sentenced to hang.

On September 26, 1803, twenty-three-year-old Samuels and another prisoner stood before a crowd of onlookers, cheering for the event to begin. Back then, Australia didn’t employ a drop-hanging method of execution. Instead, they placed the prisoner on a cart pulled by a horse. Once the noose was slipped over the prisoner’s head and secured, the executioner would slap the horse to get him to take off. This resulted in the prisoner slowly strangling while being dragged to his death. Five thick cords of hemp made up the rope that reportedly could hold 1,000 pounds without breaking.

Could divine intervention save young Samuels, too?

The executioner slid the nooses around the necks of the two prisoners. Officials gave the men a moment to pray with a priest, and then offered them a chance to make a public statement. Samuels confessed to the robbery, but, he said, he was no killer. In fact, the real murderer was in the crowd right now. Isaac Simmonds, he pointed out, was the one who shot the policeman that night.

Since Samuels had just prayed with the priest and wouldn’t want to die with such an egregious sin on his conscious, the public believed him. Men in the crowd dove on Simmonds and held him for the authorities.

Once the crowd quieted, the executioner slapped the horse. The other prisoner strangled slowly while the noose around Samuels’ neck snapped, causing him to fall off the cart with only a sprained ankle. A second rope was brought in and Samuels was lifted back on the cart. This time, when the horse tugged the cart, the noose around Samuels’ neck unraveled.

The crowd went wild. God had spared his life a second time!

A third noose was secured around Samuels’ neck. Incredibly, the rope broke again. By then, the crowd had whipped into a frenzy, shouting, demanding the release of Joseph Samuels. It was then that the State Marshall ordered a stay of execution until he could track down the governor.

Later that day, the governor inspected all three ropes for tampering but found no signs of anything wrongdoing. Like the townsfolk, he also presumed three broken nooses must be proof of Samuels’ innocence. Things like this just didn’t happen… unless God had intervened.

Isaac Simmonds was arrested, convicted, and hanged for the murder of the police officer. His noose worked just fine. 🙂

I found another story of a teenager who got strapped to the electric chair twice, and survived. I’ll let the prisoner, Willie Francis, describe his ordeal…

I wanted to say good-bye, too, (Captain Foster had cheerfully said, “goodbye Willie”, before throwing the switch) but I was so scared I couldn’t talk. My hands were closed tightly. Then—I could almost hear it coming.

 

The best way I can describe it is: Whamm! Zst! It felt like a hundred and a thousand needles and pins were pricking in me all over and my left leg felt like somebody was cutting it with a razor blade.

 

I could feel my arms jumping at my sides and I guess my whole body must have jumped straight out. I couldn’t stop the jumping. If that was tickling it was sure a funny kind (He had been told it would tickle and then he’d die). I thought for a minute I was going to knock the chair over. Then I was all right. I thought I was dead.

 

Then they did it again! The same feeling all over. I heard a voice say, “‘Give me some more juice down there!’” And in a little while somebody yelled, ‘”I’m giving you all I got now!”

I think I must have hollered for them to stop. They say I said, “Take it off! Take it off!’” I know that was certainly what I wanted them to do—turn it off.

 

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Just Breathe… You’ve Got This

By Sue Coletta

Writers wear many hats… wife/husband, mother/father, sister/brother, friend, marketer, editor, (some add) publisher, (some add) cover designer, (some add) audiobook narrator, (some add) speaker, (some add) coach, housekeeper, bookkeeper, blogger, social media user/expert, tax preparer, holiday host, baker, cook, etc., etc., etc.

Under the best of circumstances, it’s a lot to juggle. During the holiday season, forget about it. Feeling overwhelmed is the new normal, especially if you’re hosting a holiday event.

First, breathe. You’ve got this.

When chaos starts shaking the to-do list in my face, I close my eyes, lean back, and breathe… It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do. There’s a running joke in my family that I’m so chill, I’m practically a corpse. It’s true! My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60, even under stressful conditions. And you know why? Because I take advantage of the most powerful and the most basic gift we have — the ability to breathe.

It may not sound like much of a superpower, but controlled breathing improves overall health. Controlled breaths can calm the brain, regulate blood pressure, improve memory, feed the emotional region of the brain, boost the immune system, and increase energy and metabolism levels.

The Brain’s Breathing Pacemaker

A 2016 study accidently discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem that plays a pivotal role in the breathing-brain control connection. This circuit is called “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” because it can be adjusted by alternating breathing rhythm, which influences our emotional state. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit while fast, erratic breathing increases activity. Why this occurs is still largely unknown, but knowing this circuit exists is a huge step closer to figuring it out.

Breathing Decreases Pain 

Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Ever watch an infant sleep? Their little tummy expands on the inhale and depletes on the exhale. They’re breathing through their diaphragm. We’re born breathing this way. It’s only as we grow older that we start depending on our lungs to do all the work.

Singers and athletes take advantage of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Why not writers? If you find yourself hunched over the keyboard for too long, take a few moments to lay flat and concentrate on inflating your belly as you inhale through your nostrils. Then exhale while pulling your belly button toward your core. It takes a little practice to master the technique. Once you do, you can diaphragmatically breathe in any position. The best part is, it works!

Count Breaths for Emotional Well-Being

In 2018, another scientific study found that the mere act of counting breaths influenced “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain” in regions related to emotion. When participants counted correctly, brain activity showed a more organized pattern in the regions related to emotion, memory, and awareness, verse participants who breathed normally (without counting).

Controlled Breathing Boosts Memory

The rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that affects how well we remember. Scientists linked inhaling to a greater recall of fearful faces, but only when the participants breathed through their nose. They were also able to remember certain objects in greater detail while inhaling. Thus, researchers believe nasal inhalation triggers more electrical activity in the amygdala (brain’s emotional center). Inhaling also seems key to greater activity in the hippocampus, “the seat of memory,” according to Forbes.

Relaxation Response

The “Relaxation Response” (RR) is a physiological and psychological state opposite to the fight-or-flight response. RR therapy includes meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer, and has been practiced for thousands of years. These stress-reducing practices counteract the adverse clinical effect of stress in disorders like hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, and aging.

Yet, research on the underlying molecular mechanisms of why it works remained undetermined until a 2017 study unearthed a fascinating discovery. Both short-term and long-term practitioners of meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer showed “enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function…” and more efficient insulin secretion, which helps with blood sugar management. Relaxation Response also reduces the expression of genes linked to inflammatory responses and stress-related pathways. In simpler terms, controlled breathing helps boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.

Creativity

This probably goes without saying, but I’m mentioning it anyway. Good brain health increases creativity. Creativity helps inspiration. And inspiration ups word counts.

With all the rushing around for the holidays, combined with writing deadlines — either self-imposed or contracted — please take the time to breathe. Your body and your muse will thank you later. 🙂

Happy Holidays, my beloved TKZers! May all your writer dreams come true in 2020.

 

 

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What Is This Historic Mystery Stone?

By Sue Coletta

One of my recent research trips led me to the New Hampshire Historical Society and Museum. I went there to copy two diaries — one from 1880, another from 1881 — written by a close family friend of the victims and female serial killer, a man who gave a fascinating firsthand account of daily life before, during, and after the murders. Reading the handwriting is a challenge that I’m still working on.

Quick research tip: if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it helps to photograph the handwritten pages so you can enlarge the chicken-scratch at home.

After I finished photographing the diaries, my husband and I toured the museum, and we stumbled across an intriguing unsolved mystery.

In 1872 construction workers unearthed a suspicious lump of clay near the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee (also in New Hampshire). The clay casing hid an egg-shaped stone with nine carvings, depicting a face, a teepee, and an ear of corn, along with strange geometric designs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amateur and professional archaeologists have speculated about the “mystery stone” ever since. At the time, the American Naturalist described it as “a remarkable Indian relic.” In the 1880s and early 1890s, sources claimed, “this stone has attracted the wonder of the scientific world, European savants having vainly tried to obtain it.”

A geological study of the stone conducted in the 1990s found it to be made of quartzite or mylonite, material not known to be otherwise present in New Hampshire. The “mystery stone” is perfectly shaped and unblemished by any distortions or markings other than the pictogram carvings. Recent examinations with a microscope suggest that the hole bored through the stone may actually have been drilled by a machine. Whether carved by hand or power tools, the stone’s manufacture indicates it lands somewhere in the mid to late 19th century. But does it?

The stone quickly gained public attention, with the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, the leading newspaper in the Granite State at the time, running a piece on July 17, 1872, announcing the stone’s discovery.

With such publicity, word of the stone reached far and wide, even to European scientists, who could not discern any more about the stone’s history than the Americans. In succeeding years, newspaper stories about the stone popped up at random intervals. In 1895, the Manchester Union reported that “the strange relic has attracted much attention,” even from the likes of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. A geological survey conducted by the State of New Hampshire in 1994 failed to shed much light on the stone, either.

To this day, amateur and professional archaeologists have speculated about the Mystery Stone’s origins.

NH Historical Society writes…

The most prevalent explanation has been that the Mystery Stone is a prehistoric Native American artifact. The discovery of an unusual Indian relic was not unprecedented at the time, encouraged by a highly romanticized view of America’s native heritage developed in the mid-19th century, especially in the East where fears of Anglo-Indian conflict were generations in the past.

An increasing reverence for the power of nature combined with nostalgia for a pre-industrial America combined to elevate Native Americans to the role of “noble savages” for many Americans. Indians’ perceived ability to commune with a pristine and unspoiled environment lent an air of mystery to the natural world, suggesting that natives could somehow unlock the secrets of the universe in a way that “civilized” men and women were no longer able to do, bound as they were by an overreliance on logic and reason and wholly cut off from their more intuitive and emotional natures by the standards of society.

The anomaly of the stone’s alleged “machine-made carvings” and the fact that it was composed of a rock type not found in New Hampshire could never be explained, nor does it support the idea that the stone is of Native American origin. The native culture depicted on the stone bear no resemblance to the Abenaki, New Hampshire’s native people. The face on the stone likens more to Eskimo or Aztec culture, and the carved teepee leans more toward natives in the American West.

Some Mystery Stone enthusiasts have suggested that the stone has spiritual significance for a prehistoric native culture that once covered most of North America. If that’s true, the stone may depict the forging of a treaty between two different tribes, or it may have been part of a ritual that accompanied a water burial for a native figure of importance in New Hampshire.

Over the years, other theories as to the stone’s origin have been posited. In 1931 a letter-writer suggested to the president of the New Hampshire Historical Society that the Mystery Stone was actually a thunderstone (rocks that fall from the sky during lightening storms), calling it “the most perfectly worked thunder-stone ever discovered.”

Another more recent theory argues that it is a lodestone, a natural magnetized mineral used for navigational purposes in the 16th century as an alternative to a compass. Other theories link the Mystery Stone to numerology, aliens, massive planetary shifts, or a worldwide apocalypse.

Facts 

We know the stone was found encased in clay in 1872 at Lake Winnepasaukee. The stone is either quartzite or mylonite, neither rock type found in New Hampshire. There is a hole bored through both ends, done with different sized bits — 1/8″ at the narrow end, 3/8″ at the broad end. Each bore is straight, not tapered. Scratches on the stone’s lower bore suggests it was placed on a metal shaft and removed several times (which might make sense if it’s lodestone and was used as a compass). There’s a notch or divot in the bore. Perhaps it’s some sort of “key” for mounting the stone?

The mystery…

Who made the stone?

Who carved the stone?

For what purpose was the stone made?

How old is it?

How was the stone carved, by hand or machine?

No one else has ever reported finding another stone like this anywhere in the United States. The one thing that most Mystery Stone interpreters can agree on is that it’s an “out-of-place artifact.” Meaning, it should never have been discovered in New Hampshire.

Any guesses what the Mystery Stone might be?

 

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Reader Friday: Writer or Reader Gifts

What’s the best writerly gift you’ve ever received? Why was it so helpful?

Are you hoping for a writerly gift this year? If so, what?

Bonus Questions:

What’s the best gift you’ve received from an author? What made it so special?

Do you include reader gifts in your holiday promotions? Care to share where you create/buy your promotional gifts?

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Reader Friday: Favorite Holiday Recipe

Photo credit: https://littleshop.fandom.com/wiki/

With the holidays in full swing, many of us have recipes somersaulting through our mind, along with a mile-long to-do list.

In the Coletta household, the first whiff of the holiday season triggers my family to drool in anticipation.

Not-so-subtle chants for almond biscotti waft through our house, similar to Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. “Feed. Me!”

I shared this recipe in the comments last year, but some of you might’ve missed it. If you’re interested in adding a tasty treat to your holiday table, the recipe is as follows…

Ingredients

3/4 C (180 ml) Whole Almonds

3 Large Eggs

1 t. Vanilla Extract

1/2 t. Almond Extract (optional)

2 C. Flour

3/4 C. Sugar

1 t. Baking Powder

1/4 t. Salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread out almonds on a baking tray and bake 8-10 minutes until light brown and fragrant. Let cool a few minutes, then chop coarsely.

Reduce over to 300 degrees and line baking sheet with parchment (wax) paper.

Whisk eggs and extracts in a separate bowl, then whisk in the dry ingredients. Lastly, fold in your almond pieces and stir till you get a doughy consistency.

Flour your cutting board (or whatever surface works for you) and divide the dough into 7″ logs that are about 3″-4″ wide. Transfer logs onto baking sheet and bake for approximately 35 minutes or until firm to the touch (log will spread during baking).

Remove and let cool on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes. Transfer to cutting board and slice 1/4″-1/2″ pieces on the diagonal. Place slices of biscotti on the baking sheet and bake an additional 10-15 minutes on each side until golden. Keep in mind, the longer you bake the crunchier they’ll be, so the time depends on your preference. My family likes them somewhere between soft and crunchy.

To Triple the Recipe (which I do; makes about 60 biscotti)

2 1/4 C. Almonds

9 Eggs

4 1/2 t. Vanilla

6 C. Flour

2 1/4 C. Sugar

3 t. Baking Powder

3/4 Salt

Be sure to make more logs so they cook all the way through. Then proceed as above.

A word of a caution: once you make almond biscotti a la Coletta ;-), you may have to do it every year.

Care to share your favorite holiday recipe?

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Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

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Reader Friday: Favorite Time of Year

As many of you know, I live in northern New Hampshire, where trees burst with color in the fall. It’s impossible to be down, upset, or melancholy when you’re surrounded by such beauty.

I’ve lived in New England my entire life, and the foliage never gets old. Nature is magnificent, is it not? And oh, so, inspiring. For this reason (plus I’m a Libra 😉 ), fall is my favorite time of year.

What’s your favorite time of year? It could be a month, a season, or even a special week. Just be sure to tell us why.

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How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has shared his/her first page for critique. Enjoy! My notes will follow.

Traders Market

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, Emelia Lopez watched through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno. She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Keep to the plan, Nick said.

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.

“It had to be a gas explosion…”

“Was it a house?”

Another boom, another explosion.

“Holy shit! What is it?”

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.

Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

The second explosion?

Couldn’t think about it now.

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned. She pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand. Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready. She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open, the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptying the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom, out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions. Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick.

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came.

Dear God. I’m a murderer.

This first page has so much promise. Anon did lose me a few times, though. So, let’s see if we can make things a bit clearer for the reader. Below is the first page with my notes.

Traders Market (I don’t have enough info. to comment on the title)

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed. (Awesome first line!)

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, (one clause too many) Emelia Lopez watched (use a stronger verb here: peered, stared, gaped?) through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno (Nice!). She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Any time you use words like thought, heard, saw, considered, etc., you’re telling the action rather than showing it. Rearrange the above sentence to avoid that.

Example: When the first siren squealed, a spike of adrenaline shot through Emelia and she shoved off the fencepost. Sprinting toward the bus station (added to show the reader a destination), Nick’s words echoed through her mind. Keep to the plan. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one out here in the dark (added to weave in some personality).

Keep to the plan, Nick said. 

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she [Emelia] moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar. Very good. Don’t believe the advice that all gerunds are bad. They can be effective tools. Here, you’ve created emotional rhythm, which works for this particular reader.

“It had to be a gas explosion…” Who’s speaking? If it’s a bar patron, then please briefly describe the character so we can visualize the scene. Even something simple like: a bleach-blonde cougar in a leopard-print blouse.

“Was it a house?” Here, too.

Another boom, another explosion. Meh. It’s a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. I’d rather see Emelia stop short when the earth shakes beneath her sensible shoes—in other words, show vs. tell.

“Holy shit! What is it?” I have no idea whose dialogue this is, either.

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.” Here, too. Show us who this is.

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round. Who are “they”? Show us! Also, since you’re not in their heads, you can’t know that they’re “untouched” by anything. You can show disinterest, but you cannot tell us they’re untouched. You also can’t know they’re going inside for another round. The protagonist can presume they are, but then you need to make that clear. For more on writing in deep POV, read this first page critique.

Emelia moved away (backed away? From what?), her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed (Here again, you’ve slipped out of Emelia’s POV. Emelia wouldn’t think of herself of having a lumpy figure, would she? Most women would never use that term to describe themselves. By choosing Emelia’s POV, you, the writer, have effectively slipped inside her skin. You are Emelia while writing this scene). one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

On my second read-through I discovered that you might be referring to padding inside her disguise. If that’s true, then show us how itchy the material is or the padding lumping together. But you need to clue in your reader to what’s going on. Most readers won’t take the time to go back and reread the first page. See what I’m saying? Nailing an effective POV is one of the more difficult craft elements to master, but it’s crucial that you do. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. 

The second explosion? Couldn’t think about it now. (Nice. I just moved her response up a line.)

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned (beckoned what? beckoned her closer?). She [Emelia] pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand (key? Where’d it come from?). Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion (don’t tell us; show us. Inside the station five fat guys guzzling Budweisers huddled around a black-and-white television with a tinfoil antenna. Monday night football—perfect timing). Too far away (Maybe the explosion was too far away? Not sure how they missed the sirens, though they weren’t uncommon around here). Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready (Head down, Emelia shuffled to a row of lockers, stacked two high).

Side note: show Emelia searching for the right locker number to drag out the suspense, show her excitement over finding the duffle bag (or her devastation when the locker’s empty), show her hand tremble as she drags the duffle bag off the metal shelf, careful not to make a sound. Or maybe the zipper scratches the metal and draws unwanted attention from a security guard. See all the ways to create conflict? The possibilities are endless. Don’t make things too easy for Emelia. Your protagonist needs to stumble, fall, get back up and move forward, stumble again…that’s how we humanize her into a flesh-and-blood character.

She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open (that’s convenient; maybe too convenient? Something to think about.), the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptied the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone (why is she certain she’s alone? Did she peek out a crack in the door? Did she press her ear to the door as footfalls trailed down the hall? Show us!), she came out, stuffed the refilled (refilled with what?) duffle into the trash can under the counter. [Emelia] slipped a carry-on bag (where did this come from?) over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Okay, so, I assume the duffel bag contained all these items. Show us the action as it happens. Don’t make us guess after the fact. Why risk confusing your reader? You did a terrific job of showing us Emelia’s transformation—bravo on that!—so I know you can do it. Yes, it takes more time to show an action, but the payoff is well worth the added work. Every time we draw the reader deeper into the scene they become more invested in the story.

[With her head held high,] Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom [and slipped right past the drunken footballers who failed to notice her departure. Go Pats! (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-)) At the door to an awaiting cab Emelia hip-checked some business-type dude out of the way and stole his ride. Sucker.]

“Corner of Howser and Jewel Street.” She flashed a fan of bills over the front seat. “There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there in ten minutes.” (Note: I added dialogue to show Emelia giving directions to the cabbie, rather than telling the reader about afterward.) out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions.Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick

[Glancing at her phone, Nick still hadn’t texted.]

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came. Dear God, I’m a murderer. (This makes me want to flip the page to find out what happens next. Nicely done!)

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. If I didn’t see so much promise in this first page, I might be reluctant to bathe your opener in red ink. I want you to succeed, and I know you can. With a little more knuckle grease, this opener could be amazing.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Be careful with run-on sentences. Same goes for staccato sentences. They’re most effective when used sparingly. If used too often, they become a writing tic. 🙂

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

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Welcome to Murder 101: PG Halloween Edition

With Halloween arriving next week, murder is in the air. It might be the only time of year when “normal” people can fully relate to crime writers and readers. So, ladies and gents, grab your favorite beverage and kick back for a little Murder 101, complete with visual aids.

Let’s say your male character is cheating on your protagonist.

During the confrontation — we can’t ignore that type of behavior, now can we? — take the homewrecker by surprise with one well-placed stab to the carotid artery. Don’t forget to withdraw the hunting knife! We wouldn’t want it to act as a plug.

Notice how the kitty is priming the carotid artery? The subject is nice and relaxed. More importantly, he doesn’t suspect a thing.

There are two carotid arteries in the neck, one on the left side and one on the right. Each carotid artery branches into two divisions:
• Internal carotid artery supplies blood to the brain
• External carotid artery supplies blood to the face and neck

If it were me, I’d aim for the internal carotid, but it’s a personal preference. If you’d rather watch the blood drain from the subject’s face and neck, then shoot for the external. Both will get the job done.

A quiet execution is an effective way to murder…

If you choose this murder method, be sure to use a fast-acting poison. No need to act psychopathic by dragging out your subject’s agony. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re into. No judgments!

May I make a suggestion? Try using Tetrodotoxin, which is a complex biochemical found in two marine creatures, the blue-ringed octopus and the puffer fish. It’s also in slugs, but on a much smaller scale. Garry Rodgers wrote a fantastic article about this deadly poison.

Whether Tetrodotoxin is injected via octopus bite — how might you explain a pet octopus? — or ingested by way of food or drink, the poison will kill the subject within a few minutes, depending on the character’s size vs. the amount of poison administered. Tetrodotoxin first blocks nerve responses and then paralyzes the victim, which prevents the victim from breathing. Finally, it stops the heart. As little as 1 milligram is all you need to accomplish your goal.

Some people prefer a good ol’ fashioned murder method, complete with sound effects.

Ladies, please don’t close your eyes while firing a weapon. I know murder isn’t easy, but if you’re determined to see this through, you may as well do it right. For information on the correct ammunition to use, John Gilstrap, wrote a post about what works best. Hint: hollow points are your friend.

Manual suffocation adds an up-close-and-personal touch.

This method is fairly straightforward. Notice how the sloth covers the kitty’s nose and mouth with one smooth motion? Perfect execution! Only use this murder method on humans please. We’re not savages, after all. 😉

Sometimes, you just gotta let loose — and that’s okay.

Nothing screams you’re on the edge of sanity quite like an ax. Don’t you agree? You may want to act this one out at his place to avoid a lengthy crime scene clean up. Notice the plastic coveralls? Get yourself an identical suit but wear the hood. You wouldn’t want to leave hairs behind for the crime scene unit.

I swear, Your Honor, I had nothing to do with it. He tripped.

Do NOT harm the family dog. Please note how Miss White effortlessly pushes her lover down the stairs. So graceful, so ladylike, a little flick of the wrist and her problem is resolved.

Unless, of course, his neck doesn’t snap. Yeah, that could happen. Then what do you do? No problem. Finish him off with a quick slash to the neck like this …

Time is running out, folks. By November 1st some people may not “appreciate” a crime writer/reader’s passion to help others. Before then, it’s perfectly acceptable to say…

I’ll leave you with one final word of wisdom…

For those participating in NaNoWriMo this year, remember that. Happy hunting! I mean… writing. 😉

 

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