Saturday, June 16, 2018

You Can Find Great Story Structure Anywhere: Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc.

One of my favorite modern cartoons was Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated. The show, which ran for two sporadic seasons, came at the perfect time for my boy, who had just discovered the original series and enjoyed it. But Mystery Inc. was something different. Not only did it issue meta commentary on the original series, it offered an excellent example of ongoing storytelling amid ‘monster of the week’ episodes.
I re-watched the first episode again. The more I watched the breakdown of the episode, the more I realized how the scenes were actually structured. Yeah, it’s the curse of a writer always to be mindful of how stories are constructed.
Effortlessly, scenes relayed not only the backstory and current situation of our five heroes—Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby—but also subplots and main plots. Sure, it’s a cartoon, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built like a movie.
And this episode was. The precise moment I realized it was when Velma was about to tell Scooby about her relationship with Shaggy—still not one of my favorite aspects of the show, but I understand why—when the monster attacks the Mystery Machine. Thus, subplot averted for main plot. This subplot remerges one more time and then is tabled until the next episode. Ditto for the Daphne/Fred subplot.
The coolest thing is one of the clues. Daphne finds a key that is also a locket. Inside, there is a photo of a couple. She can’t figure out what it means to *this* episode until the end when the Bad Guy reveals he’s never seen it before.
But Fred’s dad, the mayor, has. The last scene is the gang at a local radio station and they get a call. A spooky voice says “You don’t know what you’ve uncovered: the truth of the curse of Crystal Cove.” When asked who the caller is, he identifies himself as Mister E. “And the real mystery is about to begin.” And the episode ends.
Boom! Now you’ve got an entire season’s worth of storytelling.
I really loved this show. Season 1 was pretty consistent in terms of airing, but Season 2 was sporatic. The casting was great. Patrick Warburton is the sheriff.  Each set of parents were an older reflection of the each gang member. Shaggy’s dad was voiced by Casey Kasum, the original Shaggy. The look, the feel, the vibe of the entire series is excellent. And the series finale is mindblowingly good.
Anyway, just thought I’d share some writerly thoughts about the first episode, “Beware the Beast from Below” of Scooby Doo and remind you that you can find inspiration about writing everywhere.

And don't even get me started on the series finale. Brilliant way to end this show...

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Podcast on the way

By Steve Weddle

So we’re bringing back the podcast.  Well, bringing back A podcast. OK. So it’s kind of a new thing.

We did a podcast many years back, which was mostly interviews and reviews. And then Russel and Dave and Jay talked about Doctor Who for a dozen or so episodes. So, this will be our third series, I guess.

The format of the new version will be this:

• Chat with Chris Holm for seven or eight minutes about new music he’s digging.
• Chat with Holly West for seven or eight minutes about TV shows she’s watching.
• Chat with Jedidiah Ayres for six or seven minutes about movies he wants to discuss.

And, if I have some loose audio lying around, I might work that in. I did an author chat last week with Caleb Johnson, so listen for that. Hear Caleb answer this question:

Twice a month, starting next week. Keep your ears peeled. Cheers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

First Person Posthumous

I stole that from Laird Barron, the horror writer whose new crime novel Blood Standard is a blast. It started with a tweet (rather like the upcoming world war) where he said it amused him that readers assumed that his protagonists would survive, when he writes about them in the first person.

You might assume this as well. I wrote a story in high school set during the Civil War, possibly inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," where a deserter tells us his story as he dies, impaled on a cavalry saber. It wasn't very good, I'll admit, but the only feedback I received from my English teacher was "you can't kill this character and write in the first person." Her reasoning was that he was telling the story, so he had to have survived to tell it, write it down, pass it on.

But the character isn't telling the story. The writer is.

Now that I think on it, I had recently read Grendel by John Gardner, which flips Beowulf and tells the story from the monster's point of view, and he of course dies at the end. The Viking hero tears his arm off and he bleeds to death, staggering across the countryside:

They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction.

"Poor Grendel's had an accident," I whisper. "So may you all."

Now, I am not defending my story, which was crap, but the use of the First Person Posthumous. We've seen it in film plenty of times. Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, D.O.A., Carlito's Way off the top of my head. I remember a wonderful Lawrence Block story (I remember many of them, that fellow has a knack) titled "Miles to Go Before I Sleep" about a man who cannot rest in death until he solves his own murder. It's in his collection Enough Rope, which you should read anyway. It's a doorstop of a collection, full of delights. A few of Mr Barron's stories that are in first person are "More Dark," the finale in his excellent story collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, and the title novella in the collection The Imago Sequence, about art that is too terrible to contemplate. I'll leave it to you to figure out if the protagonists live happily ever after.

What are your thoughts on this? In another tweet, editor Jim Thomsen said that he finds it hard to feel concern for series protagonists when he knows there are 23 more novels after the one he's reading, or if he's convinced that the author won't kill off the series character this early on. Who has done a two book "series"? You'd have to be a well known author to trick readers who expect a trilogy and kill off the guy in book two. I can't imagine a publisher going for it. Perhaps Tana French could get away with it, since her Dublin Murder Squad series jumps protagonists? I haven't read them all, so I don't know if she's done it yet.

David Morrell argued in The Successful Novelist that first person is not as easy as it looks, and you should have good reason when using it. Others like Lawrence Block almost write novels in it exclusively. Almost all I've read by Octavia Butler is in first person, and she creates such empathy for the character with it that I recommend her as a lesson for any who prefer that point of view.

Do you have strong feelings about this? Let's hear it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Present History – Writing Past vs. Present

Scott's Note: 

Terrence McCauley guest posts here today. Over the last several years, Terrence has gone back and forth between writing books set in the present and books set in the past, and I asked him to talk about this.  How does he approach jumping around through different time periods when imagining and writing stories?  

Let's see what he says.

I have enjoyed the good fortune of having publishers buy several of my novels set in different time periods. My University Series (SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, A MURDER OF CROWS and A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS from Polis Books) are all cutting-edge thrillers set in the modern day. My Doherty novels (THE DEVIL DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD from Down and Out Books, SLOW BURN and THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT from Polis Books) are set between 1918 and 1933. My upcoming westerns (WHERE THE BULLETS FLY and DARK TERRITORY from Kensington) will be published in September 2018 and 2019 respectively and are set in 1880s Montana.

Why would I want to write about so many different eras? The first reason is a selfish one. I’m always looking for a reason to challenge myself as a writer. I never want to be known as just the ‘spy guy’ or the ‘1930s guy’ or ‘that Westerns guy’. I never want to fall into a rut where the next book feels easy or the next entry in a series is predictable. Sure, I want the audience to be familiar with my characters and my work, but I never want to deliver a book that feels like I mailed it in. By changing the time frame of my stories, I am required to do constant research that keeps my talent and my writing as fresh as it possibly can be. If someone’s going to spend money on a McCauley novel, I want them to know I wrote the best book I could at that particular time.

Time also plays a huge role in my inspiration for each book. Although I may enjoy writing about various eras, I’m very much a product of the 21st Century. I read most of my books on my iPad and write all of my work on a MacBook. I’m also a news junkie, so the events of the day always affect my current project, whether it’s James Hicks hunting down terrorists or Charlie Doherty hunting Nazis in 1930s New York.

Our series of unfortunate current events were a major inspiration for my latest novel, THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT. I’d like to be able to say that ugly political and social discourse in our country today is a new phenomenon, but that’s not the case.

After the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, people in this country and elsewhere began to wonder if fascism might not be a viable alternative here in the United States. The German American Bund began to rise. At first, it was seen as an ambivalent fraternal organization where people of German ancestry were encouraged to come together and celebrate their heritage in the wake of the humiliating defeat in the Great War. Youth camps similar to the Boy Scouts were set up around the country, including in Long Island and New Jersey, to help German-American children be proud of who they were and what their ancestors had achieved. They embraced their diversity from the rest of the country.

Slowly, it became much more sinister than that, culminating in a large, pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in 1938. That event led to more scrutiny of such organizations and the movement dissipated in the days before The Second World War. German-Americans and German immigrants alike stood with their country instead of their culture.

Although that particular movement fortunately failed, it showed that people can be manipulated into believing all sorts of things if the message and the messenger is packaged in the right way in the right time. In recent memory, we’ve seen other, less sinister political movements come and go and morph into other causes. For example, those who were part of the ‘Save the Whales’, ‘Global Warming’, ‘Acid Rain’, ‘Global Cooling’ movements have migrated to the more general Environmental Justice movement. ‘The Tea Party’ movement, that held a political party hostage for several election cycles and threatened to hold sway over the nation for a generation, has slipped into obscurity and become fractured. What will ultimately follow in the wake of the Tea Party remains to be seen, but the signs are already disturbing.

If I have learned anything by writing and researching several different eras in American history, it’s that times and movements may change, but people do not. Their motivations for joining movements remain the same. Fear. A sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. A nostalgia for a past that may or may not be misplaced. A dream of a better future.  

THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT is a novel about a dedicated group of people who risked their lives to ensure that extremism never gained a foothold in this country.  My work may be fiction based on factual events, but our country's resistance to extremism is not fiction. I hope that resistance will continue to be the case in the future.

You can get THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT right here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Jennifer Hillier Delivers a Shocking Mystery

The story of three best friends: one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who's been searching for the truth all these years . . .


"I couldn’t have written this book a day sooner than I started. I had to get my heart broken, start over, fall in love, get married again, have a baby, write and publish four books, struggle with my self-confidence as a writer, and move about a hundred times (okay, more like eight times in ten years, but whatever, it’s still too much) to get good enough, and sad enough, and angry enough, and motivated enough to write this book. In other words, I had to live my life. As all writers do. It’s fiction, but it all comes from somewhere real."

- Jennifer Hillier

Meet Georgina Shaw, a character like no other.

"JAR of HEARTS is harrowing and intense...with a central character you won't soon forget. Jennifer Hillier locks you in on the first page, and astonishes to the last."
―Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of THE SWITCH

"My favorite part of JAR OF HEARTS is Georgina “Geo” Shaw."
- Sarah M Chen, Anthony nominated author of CLEANING up FINN

"...because the story is hers, Geo, which gave me the freedom to explore her every thought, feeling, and decision. (It also helps that I’ve long stopped worrying about making my protagonists likable - I’m more concerned about complexity). The bigger challenge was writing Kaiser, whose POV makes up two-fifths of the book. Writing how he sees her - which reflects how the world sees her - was a hell of a lot harder, because he’s the moral compass of the story. The lines are so blurred in Geo’s head that it becomes difficult to remember what’s right and what’s wrong, where the lines are drawn, where the boundaries are. She’s a hole we can’t help but sink into. Kaiser is the safety rope, the slap back to reality, the cue to how to feel about what she’s done, and the reminder that there are painful consequences to terrible decisions. It was much harder to get that right, because his perspective on her story was so important for balance and believability." - Jennifer Hillier


JAR of HEARTS available June 12th


Early Reviews

Sarah Chen
"I love that you're featuring Jennifer Hillier's latest! My favorite part of JAR OF HEARTS is Georgina “Geo” Shaw. She is the most complicated, sympathetic, and hated main character I have come across in a long time. For a character to create such a tug of war inside of me, it takes an especially talented and courageous writer to accomplish this. It’s Geo who compelled me to turn the pages: her audacity to move on with her life after such a horrific crime, her overwhelming guilt in being complicit, and her grim determination to put her life back together. I both admired and abhorred her. When I think about this book, it’s not the brutal violence or disturbing sexual abuse that haunts me; it’s the sobering realization that Geo could be any one of us."

Here's the link to my Goodreads review:

Sarah M. Chen has worked a variety of odd jobs ranging from script reader to bartender and is now an indie bookseller and private investigator assistant. Sarah's crime fiction has been accepted for publication by All Due Respect, Akashic, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Dead Guns Press and Betty Fedora. Her debut novel with All Due Respect Books, CLEANING UP FINN, is a Lefty and Anthony finalist and IPPY award winner. Visit Sarah at


Gabino Iglesias

"Jar of Hearts is amazing. Hillier commands time shifts like Escher commanded depth. Strong character, great dialogue, and some gruesome descriptions make this novel stand head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries, and that's saying a lot because this has already been a superb year for thrillers."

Gabino Iglesias Author Appreciation Week

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, editor, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books), HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). He is the book reviews editor at PANK Magazine, the TV/film editor at Entropy Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media. His nonfiction has appeared in places like The New York Times, Z Magazine, El Nuevo Día, and many others. The stuff that's made up has been published in places like Red Fez, Flash Fiction Offensive, Drunk Monkeys, Bizarro Central, Paragraph Line, Divergent Magazine, Cease, Cows, and many horror, crime, surrealist, and bizarro anthologies. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.


Holly West

"I loved JAR OF HEARTS. I pre-ordered the book months ago but when I lucked upon an advanced reading copy I devoured it in two days--quite rare for me since I'm both a slow reader and don't devote enough time to reading. JAR OF HEARTS demanded my time, however, and I happily gave in.

At this point in my writing career, it's difficult for me not to analyze how the sausage is made, and in JAR OF HEARTS, Jennifer does a few of things particularly well. First, the way the story unfolds is unique, unexpected. It doesn't follow a typical structure which is refreshing and brings me to point two. Jennifer doles out information really effectively in this book, and part of that is the overall way she chose to tell the story. Finally, Jennifer strikes the difficult balance of making me wonder if her protagonist, Geo Shaw, really got what was coming to her (given her crime, which is pretty awful), while at the same time making me sympathize with her to the point of thinking she didn't deserve the punishment she got. Geo is flawed, like we all are, which makes her experiences almost relate-able, as in "what would I do if...?"

I'm excited to see how this book does when it's out in the world. For my part, I hope it sells like crazy. Talk about the perfect summer read!"

Holly West is the author of the MISTRESS OF FORTUNE series, set in late 17th century London and featuring amateur sleuth Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortuneteller. The first in the series, Mistress of Fortune, was published by Harlequin’s Carina Press in February 2014 and was nominated for the Left Coast Crime Rosebud Award for Best First Novel in 2015.

Holly is represented by Elizabeth K. Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, and is the Wednesday contributor to the Do Some Damage blog."


BIG NEWS! Cinelou Films has acquired the film rights to JAR OF HEARTS!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Can Serial Killers Stop?

Last week, I wrote about the Golden State Killer, a serial murderer believed responsible for a dozen slayings and more than 50 rapes throughout California in the 1970s and ’80s. Authorities recently arrested a suspect in the case – 32 years after the last homicide.
Sketches of what the suspect looked like at the time of the crimes. This poster was released as part of a huge push by law enforcement in 2016 to bring more publicity to the decades-old case.
Joseph James DeAngelo was taken into custody at his nondescript suburban home in Citrus Heights, California, a suburb of Sacramento. The 72-year-old has been charged with the 12 murders and is currently being held without bail. He hasn’t yet entered a plea to the charges.
Even before the arrest of a suspect, this case prompted an extremely intriguing question. Why did he stop? Why was the 1986 killing of Janelle Cruz the last one? The killer had an MO (premeditatedly casing and then breaking into homes, binding victims, raping them, and then killing them) that indicated he was motivated by serial desires. He perfectly fit the “classic” definition of a serial killer. 
Strong theories at that point included that he was dead or that he was in prison for other, possibly unrelated crimes. He also could have moved, out of state or even out of the country. Any of those reasons would explain why the killings stopped in California.
DeAngelo fits none of these explanations. He’s not dead, he was not in jail or prison during this time period, and he worked for almost 30 years at a grocery distribution center that was mere miles from where the first East Area rapes occurred in the ’70s. 
So what happened? If DeAngelo is indeed the Golden State Killer, why did he stop? It’s a bigger issue that experts have given a great deal of thought.
“It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. There are, however, some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught. In these instances, there are events or circumstances in offenders’ lives that inhibit them from pursuing more victims. These can include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions.”
This comes from an FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit report that is based on a symposium with investigators, mental health professionals and forensic specialists. Other experts interviewed in response to DeAngelo’s arrest agree.
“These are not acts that a person is compelled to do,” University of California, San Diego, forensic psychologist and psychiatry professor J. Reid Meloy told the New York Times. “They are intentional and predatory. There is choice, capacity and opportunity that is exercised.”
There are a few examples to point to:
Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, murdered ten people from 1974 to 1991 in and around Wichita, Kansas. He wasn’t caught until 2005. During police interviews, he admitted to engaging in auto-erotic activities as a substitute for killing.
Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, killed 48 women in the Seattle area during the 1980s and 1990s, leaving their bodies near the Green River south of the city. He had been married three times. During the first two marriages, he killed regularly. During the third, which was a happier union, the killings dwindled. One pause between murders lasted eight years. He was arrested in 2001 and later confessed.
DeAngelo’s first daughter was born just after the 1981 killings of Cheri Domingo and Gregory Sanchez in Goleta. The next Golden State Killer-linked slaying didn’t happen until five years later. If DeAngelo is guilty, would that life event have played into the gap between murders?
Of course there is another, darker, question hovering over all this. What if he didn’t stop? What if he just changed his MO enough to make connections to past crimes more difficult? Now that they have a suspect whose history and whereabouts they can comb through, authorities assuredly are looking into that very carefully.