The Woman Without a Face

The sleepy town of Bad Kreuznach, Germany found itself at the center of one of the most bizarre, high-profile murder mysteries in the country’s history — the search for a serial killer the police called The Woman Without a Face.

The police found no fingerprints. No witnesses. No description. But they did have a trail of DNA that stretched back 15 years and across three countries. A case so bizarre that the mystery woman — aka The Phantom of Heilbronn — wasn’t only an elusive female serial killer but a cop-killer, as well.

On May 23, 1993 in the quite town of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, a neighbor knocked at the door of Lieselotte Schlenger. No one answered. She knocked again and again. Still no answer. Finally, she phoned the police. When they arrived, they found Lieselotte on the living room floor. Someone had strangled her to death using wire from the floral bouquet. Police interviewed dozens of potential witnesses, but no one heard or saw a thing. The only clue to the killer’s identity were trace amounts of DNA found on the lip of a teacup. Police couldn’t match the DNA to a suspect. They did, however, determine the sample came from a woman.

Fast forward eight years.

In March 2001, in Freiburg, a southwestern town in Germany miles away from Idar-Oberstein, a 61-year-old antique dealer, Jozef Walzenbach, was found strangled to death. Where they found his body isn’t clear. Residents feared The Woman Without a Face had struck again. Sure enough, authorities matched the DNA to the first crime scene. Germany, it seemed, had a budding serial killer in their midst.

Seven months later in October 2001, at a public playground in the quaint German town of Gerolstein, miles from the previous scene, a seven-year-old boy stepped on a discarded heroine needle. His frantic mother turned the syringe into police, which set off a chain of events that no one could foresee. Identical DNA from the first two murders was now found on the syringe.

A serial killer with a drug problem is even more unpredictable.

The BKA — German equivalent to the FBI — retested all the samples, which resulted in a bizarre turn of events. Not only was this mysterious woman a murderer, she was also a thief.

In 2004, The Phantom of Heilbronn traveled to Austria and broke into garden sheds along the main drag. She discarded the pants of a tracksuit, a hooded cardigan, and other items. The Woman Without a Face broke into a caravan, stole items, and took a bite out of a biscuit. Authorities found her DNA in saliva on the bite impression. Next, she stopped in France and committed burglaries there, too.

A real menace to society!

The mysterious DNA didn’t turn up again for four years.

On May 6, 2005, a member of the local gypsy community was shot and nearly killed. Shortly after, someone from the same community turned in his brother’s 7.65 caliber pistol. Guess whose DNA they found on the handle? Yep. The Woman Without a Face.

Police remained baffled. The Phantom was running ramped. Nowhere in Europe seemed safe.

Then, in April, 2007, German officer, Michele Kiesewetter, 22 years old, presumably approached the mystery woman in a car park. At close range The Phantom shot her in the face, killing her instantly. She also shot Officer Kiesewette’s male partner, who slipped into a coma from his injuries. When he woke he had no memory of the killer.

Didn’t matter. The Phantom left her DNA in the patrol car.

In 2008, German police arrested a former informant, suspected of killing three Georgian car dealers who’d visited Germany to buy used vehicles, their bodies dumped in the river. The informant denied knowing The Woman Without a Face. He also denied committing the crimes. Instead, he said an Islamic radical from Somalia killed the car dealers. Because the Islamic radical was already in police custody, they questioned him. He also denied any wrongdoing.

Left with few options, police stripped the informant’s car, analyzed the upholstery, carpet, and lint. And guess whose DNA showed up? Yep. The Phantom had struck again. This triggered police to concoct a new theory of the case, a theory that pointed the finger of the law at The Woman Without a Face. Tirelessly they worked to track down the previous owners of the motor vehicle in the hopes that the car once belonged to the murderess, even though the police had loaned this car to the informant in exchange for his cooperation in numerous cases.

Police Chief Erwin Hetger couldn’t be more thrilled, calling the vehicle a “down payment” to solve the case of the mysterious and elusive Phantom of Heilbronn.

“We’re closing in on her,” he told reporters.

But was he?

Over the course of 15 years The Woman Without a Face joined the Most Wanted list for her connection to 30 crimes, including six murders and dozens of burglaries and robberies

Quick crime writing tip: Robberies and burglaries are not the same. Robberies involve victims; burglaries occur in empty residents or businesses. Be sure to use the proper term in your WIP!

In a stunning new twist, German police released a photo-fit picture of a man who was either the suspect or an accomplice. Could The Phantom be transgender?

The Woman Without a Face

Police released this photo.

Eyewitnesses reported to have seen this “man” at the scene of an attempted break-in at a flat in Saarbruecken (another German city) in 2006. At the crime scene, police found traces of The Phantom’s DNA on a stone.

A police spokesperson, Rainer Koeller, said:

We can’t rule out that our suspect is a man now, or that she looks like a man. We just don’t know. This is a unique case. We have 30 crime scenes where we have found traces of her DNA, but we have no face. It’s a huge mystery and it’s incredible that the suspect has managed to hide herself for so long.

Can you guess the outcome?

The police and BKA relied heavily, if not solely, on trace DNA evidence. The startling truth is, a serial killer never stalked those streets. A woman who worked at the factory where they made cotton swabs for DNA testing (and medicinal uses) infected dozens of samples.

What does this story teach us?

Though forensics can be used as a strong backing for other circumstantial evidence, DNA evidence alone is not always a sure sign of guilt.

True stories like The Woman Without a Face make my writer brain sizzle. Just think of the countless ways to siphon elements from this story to send the detective and/or amateur sleuth(s) down the wrong path.

For discussion: Writers, do you pull details from real cases to suit your fictional needs? How did you use those details? Readers, have you ever noticed similarities to a real case in a novel? 

For my fellow birders who requested an update on the injured raven, I wrote a post about it for my blog since I didn’t include writing tips like I did in the original story. Enjoy!

10+

When Corvids Go Rogue

By SUE COLETTA

The following is a true story. While reading, take note of the bracketed MRUs [Motivation-Reaction Units in red] and scene/sequel structure in parenthesis (in blue), and my unrest can double as a TKZ lesson. 🙂 We’ve talked about these subjects before. Industry professionals write with the MRU (also called action/reaction) construction without conscious thought. For a new writer, learning this rhythm and flow can be a game changer.

For the last five days I’ve been in the middle of a crow verse raven war. I love both species, but I also understand why they’re fighting. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It all started last Wednesday when a vicious red-tailed hawk chased Shakespeare — the runt of my beloved crow family — past the dome window in my living room [Motivation].

Big mistake. No way could I not get involved (Scene Goal).

So, I bolted outside to help [Reaction]. Allan, Shakespeare’s older brother, was with her. Both seemed exhausted [Motivation] (Scene Conflict).

I called for Poe, their mother [Reaction]. She called back, but she wasn’t nearby [Motivation]. I called again and again, each time panic rising in my tone [Reaction].

Poe soared into the yard, landed on “her” tree branch, and gazed down at me [Motivation]. I pointed over to the left and screamed, “Hawk! The babies are in danger!” [Reaction] (Scene Disaster)

And Poe took off in that direction. Seconds later, a chorus of caws erupted in the treetops. It’s not smart to anger a mother crow — any crows, for that matter. Perched atop the tallest conifer, Poe called for the rest of her murder.

The hawk froze, like, “What the heck’s going on? Did that human call for backup?”

Within moments, the rest of Poe’s family soared in from all directions and attacked. [Motivation] I stood motionless, awestruck by the intelligence of my black beauties and the bond we’ve developed [Reaction] (Scene Reaction). For any hawk lovers out there, s/he’s alive. At least, I assume so. Angry caws trailed into the distance as the crows escorted the hawk out of their territory. If you’re wondering, Shakespeare and Allan flew away unscathed. 🙂

Later that same day, my husband and I had just finished lunch when a second commotion exploded outside [Motivation].

I had no idea my day would take such an ominous turn.

When we rushed into the yard [Reaction], I found a raven with an injured wing [Motivation]. My heartstrings snapped in two [Reaction]. On one hand, I refused to sit by and let that raven die. On the other, I couldn’t blame Poe and Edgar for protecting their chicks. Ravens tend to target a crow’s nest for an easy meal.

How could I be angry over the corvids acting on instinct? If an intruder was sniffing around my home, nothing could stop me from defending my family.

Even so, I couldn’t let the raven die. I’m just not built that way.

After four hours(!) of trekking through the woods after “Rave,” I came to the conclusion that I’d never catch her (Scene Dilemma). But I had to do something (Scene Decision).

I called New Hampshire Fish & Game (Scene Goal). A large part of their job is to help wounded animals, right? Well, not exactly. Much to my dismay, their “rules” don’t apply to corvids [Motivation].

The officer’s response infuriated me [Reaction].

“Since we’re talking about corvids,” he said, “it’s best to let nature take its course. We don’t respond to these types of calls because crows and ravens aren’t endangered. Besides, there’s plenty of them in the state.” (Scene Conflict) [Motivation]

“There’s plenty of people in the state, too, but I’d still try to save a human life.” [Reaction] #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter!

Needless to say, the phone call rolled downhill from there. I was on my own (Scene Disaster). My biggest problem? How to sneak food to Rave without upsetting Poe. Which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

I waited for Poe and the gang to make their daily rounds in search of intruders within their domain. In a country setting, a crow’s territory stretches for several acres.

Once caws trailed into the distance [Motivation], I bustled up the walkway—my gaze scanning the sky—headed toward the woods where the raven was hiding out [Reaction]. As soon as I’d hustled halfway across the dirt road, Poe rocketed out of a nearby tree [Motivation].

I tried this all damn day. And every single time she busted me. I flung up my hands and tried to reason with her (Scene Reaction) [Reaction for MRU, too]. “Listen, Poe. The raven’s no longer a threat. Can’t you please — please — leave her alone long enough for the wing to heal?”

That didn’t go over well (Scene Dilemma) [Motivation].

I tried again (Scene Decision). “Tell ya what. If you let the raven heal, I’ll reward you with a juicy steak.” [Reaction]

Better, but a little more convincing was in order. [Motivation] (Scene Goal)

“Hey, how ’bout you two come to an understanding? You’ll leave her alone if she promises not to go after the chicks once she’s airborne.” [Reaction]

Poe cocked her head, as if to say, “You can’t be serious. That’s not how this game is played.” [Motivation] (Scene Conflict)

“Fine! Then you’re just gonna have to get comfortable with me feeding her. I refuse to abide by your stupid rules.” (Scene Decision) And I stormed off. [Reaction]

Not my finest moment. Whatever. The neighbors already call me “that crazy crow lady,” so if anyone saw me arguing with Poe it wouldn’t even faze ’em.

As darkness rolled in, I lost track of the raven. There wasn’t any more I could do but pray she survived the night.

First thing Thursday morning, guess who’s waiting for breakfast? [Motivation] I brought out the leftovers from a roasted chicken [Reaction] (Scene Goal). The raven grabbed the carcass by the spine and hopped toward the woods. A few feet away she must’ve thought better of it. Stealing the whole thing could paint an even bigger bullseye on her back. Rave tore the chicken down the middle, stuffed one half in her beak, and left the rest on Poe’s rock.

I didn’t see Rave the rest of the day. (Scene Conflict)

On Friday night a tornado-like storm hit our area, complete with 50 mph winds, downpours, and lightning strikes. [Motivation] (Scene Disaster) If the raven survived, it’d be a miracle.

Eagle-eyed on the woods the next morning, I waited for hours as sunbeams speared across the grass. My beloved crows arrived on time. But no raven. Did Rave perish in the storm? In front of the window I wore a path in the hardwood floors. (Scene Reaction) [Reaction for MRU, too]

Time slogged. [Motivation]

About 10 a.m. I peeked out the window one last time before hitting the keyboard [Reaction]. And there stood Rave, well-rested, hungry, and disappointed to find the rock empty [Motivation]. The millisecond I stepped on the deck with a fresh plate of raw bacon [Reaction], Poe and the gang emerged from surrounding trees [Motivation] (Scene Dilemma).

Uh-oh, now what? [Reaction]

While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions. They dared not attack her, though. I have a strict “no fighting” policy, and they know it.

Thick tension engulfed the yard. [Motivation]

To create a diversion, I tossed half the bacon in the woods and half on Poe’s rock [Reaction] (Scene Decision). Which seemed to satisfy everyone. The saga, however, continues…

10+

Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

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

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

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?

3+

First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

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

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

7+

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?

 

 

8+

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?

 

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First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

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

WATCH ALL NIGHT

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

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

Joe went in.

#

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

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

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

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

Joe nodded.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the rest of the first page …

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

A good relationship had to be flexible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas

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

Or …

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

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

This paragraph confused me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

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

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

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

From Jordan Dane:

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

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

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

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

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

From James Scott Bell:

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

From Joe Hartlaub:

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

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

From Laura Benedict:

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

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

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

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

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

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

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

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

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

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

From Mark Alpert:

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

From PJ Parrish:

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

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

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

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

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

From Debbie Burke:

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

From John Gilstrap:

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

***

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

For discussion …

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

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

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

 

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