Thursday, October 28, 2010

Novelists and Dead Body Calls

Homicide ALWAYS Called Out?
By Mark Young
Most crime fiction has a dead body turn up somewhere near the front of the book. Emergency lights flashing, uniformed cops standing around, and a grizzled and ornery homicide detective lumbers onto the scene. The detective might be guzzling lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam cup while scowling at the supervisor for calling him out in the middle of the night. The detective—suffering from too much booze and too many call outs—glares at the world through blood-shot eyes. A cigarette dangles from cruelly-drawn lips if the detective does not give a hoot about contaminating his crime scene. How often have we read this sort of scenario?

Want to add just a little more tension to the story?

Roll back the tape until you reach a point in the story where the dead body is first discovered—if the author felt this event significant.  Maybe cops stumbled over the body or witnesses called it in to dispatch. Maybe hospital staff or caregivers reported another death of an elderly person or a person succumbing to a terminal illness—the kind of calls that come in every day. By the time we—the reader or viewer—get to the scene in our novel, everyone seems to know a murderer is loose. We see blood on the wall, a knife sticking out of the deceased’s back, or gunshot wounds riddling the dead guy’s chest.

But what if the signs of death are more subtle? What if someone really must pay attention to details? Little hints that may have been left that tell us this death is not natural or expected.

Everyone generally thinks the cop just grabs the radio and calls for investigators to come and take over. Do you think homicide units roll out on every dead body call? You would be wrong if you answered affirmative to that last question. Heads will roll if these hard-working investigators are called out to deaths that turn out to be natural.

So who makes these decisions?

Write this key shotcaller into your story and your next scene offers more opportunities to make characters and readers squirm unmercifully. Here is where the pressure comes in. If your character makes the wrong decision, one of several things might happen. Worst-case scenario—case against the killer goes out the window. Best case—made a wrong choice and tick off everyone up the chain of command, making you the laughingstock of the entire department because everyone else knew how to handle this. Even worse case scenario—killer comes after someone the officer/sergeant loves because evidence was over looked.

All agencies handle these calls a little differently. Any law enforcement agency, however, will have buried somewhere in their policies and procedural manuals exactly how these calls should be handled. The problem lies in the fact that someone must  make the right judgment call. And humans make mistakes, particularly when policies and procedures read like the fine print in an insurance claim. Any smart patrol officer will always make sure these questionable decisions fall on a field supervisor’s broad shoulders.

Once at the scene, officers must proceed with caution. One cardinal rule on dead body calls is that no one—not even the Chief himself— disturbs the body until the corner responds or gives permission to move the body. I remember one death-by-hanging case in which the officer was crucified by the coroner, the field supervisor, and by investigators eventually called out to investigate.  This kind-hearted officer did not want family members to see their loved one—a young teenager— hanging by a rope in the garage. The officer reached up and cut the deceased down to make the scene more presentable. He never made that mistake again.

But what if the coroner isn’t coming out? The officer has given all the facts over the telephone to the coroner's office. The coroner's office—based upon the officer’s statement—authorizes the body to be moved to a funeral home. What if the officer overlooked something? A key element that might change the classification from “natural” to something more sinister.

Some of the most challenging cases are those general called  “unattended deaths.” As far as anyone knows, the person may have appeared to die alone by natural causes or expected terminal illnesses. Or did they?

For example, an elderly person dies while in a care facility. The attending physician or caregiver might make the pronouncement, sign a death certificate, and arrange for the body to be taken to a funeral home. Say a family member, distraught over the death and circumstances leading up to the death, calls the police regarding their suspicions.  Police would most likely investigate.

In these circumstances, the patrol officer walks in with a mindset that this is a natural death. Those with medical training  have signed off on it, people who should know something about how this person died. Just a formality. Right?  As seasoned mystery readers and writers, you might see where such a case could suddenly explode if each death is not closely studied.

Take for example the case of the Donald Harvey, dubbed the “Angel of Death,” currently serving four consecutive life sentences at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility for more that fifteen murders. He claims to have killed eighty-seven victims, but the officials estimate Harvey killed somewhere between thirty-six  to fifty-seven victims while acting as a caregiver in several hospitals during his seventeen-years killing spree. Not once did police suspect that Harvey might be the culprit, even when he was arrested for burglary in 1971 only two years after he began killing patients and began babbling incoherently about his murders. Finally, in 1987 a faint scent of almonds—the tell tale sign of cyanide—emitting from the decease's body finally led investigators to focus on Harvey.

This case is not isolated. There have been a disturbing number of caregivers who turned out to have killed their patients for any number of reasons over the years. Some, like Harvey, got away with many killings.

Everything hangs on the shoulder of the first responders to a death investigation. Detection begins with the first officer on the scene, or the field supervisor called to determine how this case should be handled. This is not an article on how to conduct death investigations. Rather, to focus on the critical role the first officer on the scene plays in these investigations. This officerwho initially stride onto the scene full of confidencebuckles under the stress when people he respects land on him with both feet because of stupid mistakes. Stress that writers can skillfully use as a tool to make everyone squirm.

So, writers, here is a situation that begs for conflict. Use one tidbit of evidence or one statement from a witness from that scene, and have a rookie cop walk in to investigate. Is he going to call in his grumpy sergeant or is he going to take it upon himself to make the right call and demonstrate to his superiors that he can handle these situations without anyone’s help. Did he tread on the only piece  of evidence that might give a clue that this case is murder? Or the sergeant—distracted by his third wife’s divorce attorney waiting back at the station—overlooks something that even the rookie would have caught.

How many ways do you want your characters to suffer? The possibilities are endless.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Citizen's Police Academy

A Nurse Goes To Police Academy
By Jordyn Redwood
(Editor's Note: Hey, novelists, want to write about crime scenes and police work with authenticity? Today’s guest–registered nurse and suspense novelist Jordyn Redwood—did just that. She ventured out and joined other brave citizens to learn first-hand about police work. Welcome Jordyn to Hook’em and Book’em  as she tells us about her experiences.)

I’m a nurse and self proclaimed medical nerd. After all, I do read medical textbooks for fun. That’s why medical inaccuracies in novels irritate me as much as someone dragging their nails down a chalkboard. Writing a medical scene is more than just being able to describe how to do a particular medical procedure. It’s about capturing the culture of how medical professionals interact with each other.

I face this problem when I write a scene that deals with law enforcement. I can do hours of research at Google University but still miss the nuances, those little details, that would enrich the scene because I’m not involved in the culture of a law enforcement agency. How can a writer learn about these subtleties from a book? Really, you can’t. What the next best thing?

Check out your local police department and see if they offer a Citizen’s Police Academy (CPA). If there isn’t one locally, look to the next largest city.

The CPA I’m taking meets weekly for three hours for fourteen weeks. As part of the class, I’ve been able to ride-a-long with a patrol officer twice, seen the K-9 unit in action, and will be able to fire a weapon with the SWAT team. Some CPA’s may not have the same time commitment, so don’t let that dissuade you.

What are some of the finer details I’ve picked up? One interesting thing I never considered is where would a K-9 officer keep the dog’s leash when the dog is set free to search for or chase a suspect? It’s better if both of the officer’s hands are free versus having one holding the lead. They clip it around their waist. Now, both hands are free for work. I’m not sure that’s listed in many books that write about K-9 units. The dogs are working animals. They’re not allowed to cozy up with “dad”, as one K-9 officer referred to himself, at home in bed on a cold winter’s night. The dogs train on their key scents at least weekly. They also bite “the easiest available area."


Evidently in one K-9 unit, the dogs were trained to only bite someone’s arm. Criminals caught on to this method and when they were being pursued by the dog, they would run with their arms up in the air. The dogs wouldn’t bite. Training changed.

Writing is always more than translating a particular protocol onto the page. It’s about capturing the spirit, dedication, and culture of the professionals you’re fictionalizing. A CPA is one way to deepen your ability to write about law enforcement.

By the way, the CPA I was involved with did a background check. I wonder if they’ve ever arrested anyone who’s applied? 
Jordyn’s blog offers new readers a chance to win money by just signing up by October 30, 2010. Here is the link if you’d like to find more about her blog and this great opportunity. It is also a great site for those writers wanting to make their scenes medically believable.

Jordyn Redwood is a pediatric emergency nurse by day and suspense novelist by night. Redwood’s Medical Edge is her blog that deals with how to write medically accurate fiction for both historical and contemporary writers. Check it out at        

Monday, October 18, 2010

Making Of A Gangster

A Smile, A War, 
A Boy Named Bobby
By Mark Young
Caution: This is not an uplifting article. It is a story about a war I witnessed on the streets of California, a gang war in one small part of the Golden State that still rages today. A story of regret and sadness. A story of lost opportunities. I can’t possibly give readers a full perspective of that struggle—just a few sketches of one face and one battle. The cost—more than dollars and cents— is staggering.

Splotches of darkening blood marked a grisly trail into the hospital. A car—windows shattered, doors pox-marked with bullet holes—blocked the driveway leading into Kaiser Hospital’s emergency room in Santa Rosa, California. I followed the trail of blood inside the hospital and saw several young boys writhing in pain. Doctors labored over one teenager’s leg, a tibia bone shattered by a through-and-through AK47 round. Later, physicians wondered if the boy might ever use that leg again.

It was 1997. Thousands of gang members continued to wage a war that began years ago in California, a war handed down from father to son, from one generation to the next. Battlegrounds scarred this state, from streets of Los Angeles to the Central Valley of Northern California. The war broadened in scope to seep into every pour of our nation, from one ocean to the other.  Beginning in the early nineties, gangsters deemed illegal aliens were deported to their mother country only to return with international connections, bringing with them drugs, weapons, and human slaves.

I supervised Santa Rosa Police Department’s gang intelligence unit at the time, working with other officers to find a way to mange this chaos. We had to find a way to turn this tide. Our gang officers could not keep up with the violence, quickly reaching burn out. We took to the street, targeting gang problem areas and eliminating the influence of gang leaders by returning them to prison. We thought if we cut the head off this monster, the tentacles would dry up and die.

The shooting on this particular night led us to the doorstep of a young boy living in the midst of all this violence. I’ll call him  “Bobby”  in order to protect his true identity. Bobby’s smile made angels sit up and take notice, a smile that worked its way into the hearts of more than one gang officer. Bobby—on his tip-toes—may have been slightly higher than my gun belt. He seemed to admire police officers, although given his family history I could never figure out why.

Bobby’s natural father was history, and the current ‘man of the house’was a gang leader from Southern California, who migrated north to extend Surenos gang influence in our city among other goals. Nortenos—Northerners—felt they ruled everything north of the Tehachapi mountains. Bobby and his family—because his stepdad claimed Sureno allegiance—became natural targets for all Nortenos in Sonoma County. In retaliation, Bobby’s stepdad and other Surenos plotted to attack these Nortenos and the war escalated.

We began to untangle this shooting case, uncovering layer upon layer of lies, until we learned that a young girl smuggled the murder weapon right under the noses of a couple of officers patrolling a project earlier that night. She looked young and innocent, which is why Sureno gangsters had her smuggle the weapons to where they needed it. They ambushed a car coming out of a housing project, catching all four Norteno victims trapped inside at a stop sign. Miraculously, no one died.

This attack led to retribution and retaliation, over and over again. This war continued throughout  the summer, barely abating until I left law enforcement.

It continues today.

Each battle spilled out onto the street over the slightest provocation.  One youngster “mad dogging” another was sufficient reason to attack—even kill—another gang member. Damaged pride—“because he dissed me"—gave the injured party a legitimate excuse to fan more flames of violence. It became like the ocean driven by a major storm, each wave crashing on the shore with more force than the last.

We never had enough resources or manpower to handle this turmoil, let alone a little boy named “Bobby” caught up in the generational conflict between gangs. The department tried to muster up what we needed, but it never was enough. Changing priorities, changing budgets, and political infighting always seemed to stand in the way.

Looking back, I wished we could have made a difference in just that one boy’s life. It might have made everything else easier to stomach. Bobby seemed to lose the day I met him. We tried alerting school contacts, youth workers, and other groups to no avail. Everyone found themselves  in the same position we were in—trying to bail out a sinking ship.

Years slipped away. I ran into Bobby from time to time as he grew up. Frustrated, I watched as this boy was chased from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, because of family gang ties. The only protection he seemed to find was aligning himself with other gang members.

Meanwhile, the gang war took all our attention. The county in which we worked looked peaceful. Nestled amidst wine vineyards, pastureland, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean, Sonoma County looked the ideal place to live to tourists and visitors traveling through. And, for many people, it was a great place to live.

But if one looked closer, they’d see the footprints of trouble. Gang graffiti going up faster than workers could cover it up. Sirens howling thorough the night as patrol units knifed through the darkness to another gang call. Emergency rooms routinely filled with wounded as doctors and nurses tried to patch up  the wounded and dying.

In all this, I lost track of Bobby. The community tried to rally together, creating coalitions targeting the gang violence, trying to work at the root causes of the problem—dysfunctional families, unsafe neighborhoods, poor housing, rising living costs, and rising unemployment.

Meanwhile, the gang unit launched a successful operation, dubbed Operation Black Widow, to attack at least one side of the gang problem—Norteno gang leadership developing throughout Northern California. In a county like Sonoma—with a little less than a half million population—police indentified and targeted more than 1,500 certified gang members in our county alone. The problem became much worse in other areas of Northern California. And, of course, Southern California suffered under an even larger gang problem.

Operation Black Widow and other successful gang efforts brought a short reprieve to the violence, but I saw political interest wane towards gang enforcement as violence lessened. Resources began to trickle in more politically-correct directions.

I was reassigned to work patrol as a supervisor, following calls, helping officers when possible, and watching the gang problem worsen. It seemed unrelenting.

Gang violence returned with a vengeance.

Bobby’s picture floated across my desk just before I left the department, his face scarred from violence. I saw the hardened eyes of a gang leader looking back, a young man bound for prison, the next stop in a gangster’s higher education. The streets finally won. Another young man destined for a life in prison—or worse.

I look back on those years working gangs with a certain sense of loss. Early on we had the potential to make things right, to effectively target gang leadership, to bring a community together, to save some of these young people from the gangs. However, politics and the economy got in the way.The cost of that war sickens me. More than the money, we wasted opportunities to offer a future to these youth.

Most of all, I remember Bobby’s smile, lost somewhere along the road to adulthood.

Today, the best I can do is to weave Bobby’s story into a novel that tries to make sense of of this mess. To somehow make the characters come alive with the reality of Bobby’s world. To help others understand why something must to be done. Before more smiles are lost. Before more kids like Bobby are lost to the streets.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Interview: Mystery Novelist Camy Tang

Novel: Formula For Danger
By Mark Young
Skin cream can be a killer business in novelist Camy Tang’s world. This writer’s mystery novel—Formula For Danger just released this fall— ratchets up tension for dermatologist Rachel Grant in her research to create a scar-reducing cream in a ritzy Sonoma, California health spa. Danger ensues when someone seeks two things: Rachel killed and her skin cream formula seized at any cost.

In Camy’s second mystery thriller—a “love inspired suspense” published by Steeple Hill Books—we return to the Joy Luck Life spa run by Rachel and her family. In this inspirational suspense, Rachel races to launch a new venture before competitors steal her secrets. Break-ins, shots fired, and repeated attempts on Rachel’s life makes for a thrilling page turner.

Amidst this turmoil, a strained relationship with Rachel and her father only makes matters worse. Conflicts with her father force Rachel to define her own understanding of God. Does He care whether she lives or dies? Must she prove herself to Him to gain His love? Another man, Edward Villa, steps into Rachael’s life as a friend and business partner. However, as she draws closer to Edward, Rachel becomes confused as this man seems to grow colder as events unfold. Her world begins to topple.

Camy’s writing style—as her web sites advertises— is romance with a kick of wasabi.” What is wasabi? Camy answered this question when she appeared on this blog last April. She returns today to tell us a little more about her mystery-writing journey.

MARK: Camy, thanks for putting up with more of my questions. Something caught my attention even before I started reading your opening chapter. The dedication reads, “To Danica and Cheryl. I thought I could never find two people as sick and twisted as myself, but I have you two. Thanks for being my friends.” Is there a story behind this or should we just jump to the next question?

CAMY: Danica and Cheryl and I always tease each other that there’s something wrong with us, because every time we get together, we plot a character’s murder or disappearance or we figure out ways to create conflict and strife for a character. Then again, we’re writers—we’re not really “normal.” :)

MARK: Your first mystery novel, Deadly Intent, came out a little over a year ago. Last September, your second mystery, Formula For Danger, reached the bookshelves. Tell us what you’ve learned about the art of mystery writing now that you have two mysteries released? How much of a change has it been for you to switch from the earlier Chick Lit genre style of writing to these last two mystery novels?

CAMY: I’ve always been a huge fan of romantic suspense, so although I hadn’t written much suspense, I understood the genre very well. Writing romantic suspense has been a lot of fun because I can create more external conflict for the characters than I did for Chick Lit, where most of the conflict is internal or relational. I’ve learned more about red herrings and the different ways to introduce a villain.

MARK: Between the events of Deadly Intent, and your latest, Formula For Danger, I’m surprised the Joy Luck Life spa has any customers left—at least living. The Sonoma County resort spa seems to have its fair share of felonies. One more novel like this one and these spa employees will be collecting hazardous duty pay. Seriously, how do you manage to crunch so many dangerous circumstances into one tiny business?

CAMY: One of the reasons I picked Sonoma County as the setting for the spa is because although it’s a “small town,” it has a large amount of tourist traffic. The spa itself has a lot of people shifting in and out, which was the main reason the murder happened in the opening of Deadly Intent. Because Rachel’s research is in the spotlight due to the spa’s popularity, it became a target for greedy opportunists in Formula for Danger. In the world of fiction, the extreme publicity of the spa and the Grant family as well as the large amounts of people moving in and out of Sonoma is the “excuse” for the exceptional amount of crime the Grant family seems to attract, although I realize that Sonoma probably doesn’t have that much crime in real life. I’m working on another romantic suspense starring Monica, the third Grant sister, and I also hope to continue romantic suspense novels set in Sonoma County (although not at the spa), again because the tourist aspect of the area would enable me to create more mayhem.

MARK: Tell us a little about your main character, Dr. Rachel Grant. As we start this story, what are some of things going on inside this woman that makes her life so hard?

CAMY: Rachel is based off of several friends I have whose parents seem to never be satisfied with their accomplishments, no matter how hard they try. Rachel is constantly trying to please her father and make up for any “mistakes” she’s made in her job as dermatology researcher for the spa. The spiritual takeaway for this story is that we are magnificently loved by our Heavenly Father, no matter what the opinion of our earthly fathers, and our self esteem should be based on how God views us and loves us.

MARK: I always try to imagine connections between the creator (novelist) and the created (characters) as each story unfolds. I see a parallel between your own background and the main character’s. Similar to Rachel, you worked as a biologist researcher for a major pharmaceutical company and a biotech company before becoming a novelist. Are there other similarities between you and this main character?

CAMY: Rachel is a bit spacey at times, and so am I!

MARK: In the novel, Rachel reaches a point in her life where she must submit herself to God while walking by faith in very dangerous situations. Have you found this to be realistic in your own life? Have there been events you’ve faced in which you can look back and see God’s hand in those situations?

CAMY: I have to admit I haven’t been in many dangerous situations (thank God). But one of the key things I struggle with spiritually is constantly submitting to God in all different aspects of my life. I find myself coming back to this theme quite often in my novels. I can be a hard-headed chick and God is always teaching me new ways to submit my will, worries, and dreams to Him.

MARK: Bring us up to date on events since your interview with us last April. What have you been up to in the writing business?

CAMY: I recently spent a crazy and fun five days at the ACFW conference in Indianapolis in September. I taught a class on “Common Mistakes in the Genesis Contest” at the conference to help people avoid mistakes that could make them lose points in the Genesis contest (ACFW’s contest for unpublished writers) or really any other type of contest they wanted to enter. I also presented the 2010 Genesis contest award winners, which was a lot of fun. Right now since I have a couple book deadlines to meet, I’m not doing as much teaching and my schedule for my critiquing and book doctoring business, The Story Sensei, is booked until late March 2011.

MARK: Formula For Danger just launched last September. Earlier, you mentioned another mystery surrounding the Jo Luck Life spa. Where will this mystery takes us?

CAMY: I just turned in a proposal for another Sonoma spa book about Monica Grant. She becomes the target of a deadly stalker because of the high-class world the wealthy Grants move in. The book isn’t contracted (yet—fingers crossed) but if it is, I’m hoping it will release in late 2011 or early 2012. I also have a humorous romantic suspense releasing with Zondervan in October 2011 (untitled as yet) about an ex-Japanese mafia heroine who has found Jesus in jail and now wants to use her unique skill set to help people rather than breaking kneecaps.

MARK: Lastly, any thoughts about the publishing industry and changes you might anticipate on the horizon?

CAMY: I’ve read in some news reports that people are turning to fiction more than travel these days for their escape, which is good news for novelists! Also, as we see the exciting developments of the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other eBook readers, I think the publishing industry will subtly shift and change. I don’t think print books will go out of style anytime soon, but we’ll start to see innovative things in the eBook industry and the magazine industry as they take advantage of new technology.

Readers may find more information about Camy’s writing career at her web site or her blog, Camy’s Loft. She also provides writing services for writers. This information can be found at The Story Sensei, a fiction critique service she provides to help sharpen synopses and manuscripts at a reasonable price.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

EBooks: Time for unpublished novelists to change strategies?

A Revolution Blowin’ in the Wind
By Mark Young
Every unpublished novelist shares this dream: One day a publisher reaches out and taps them on the shoulder. Someone out there read the struggling writer’s pride-and-joy, their sweat-drenched manuscript. A letter arrives. The writer tears open the envelope and reads, “We are pleased to inform you that we have decided to publish …” or something to that effect.

Most unpublished novelists, however, often share this kind of letter: “Thank you for your query submission. After careful review, we have decided (insert name of novel) is not a good fit for us at this time.” Worse yet, the aspiring novelist never receives a response.

It’s a tough business—on the publisher and the writer. Publishers cannot spend precious time on concepts or ideas that that will never get traction in the market. Time is money. Unpublished authors—like their manuscripts—may find themselves at the bottom of a slush pile, slowly drowning. No one wants to gamble on the unknown.

As novelists, they’ve tried to prepare themselves in order to survive—even excel—in a highly competitive market. Spending years learning the craft, perfecting their writing, joining critique groups, and attending writing conferences. They may have subscribed to a plethora of writing magazines, attended university creative writing courses, read piles of how-to books, and painstakingly studied the craft of published and well-respected writers. Maybe they entered writing contests for short stories, novellas, or novels while writing articles on whatever subject might sell. Anything to get their name and writing out there.

One day they pluck up enough courage to start sending out those query letters and submissions—day after day, year after year, novel after novel. Each day they trek to the post office hoping for word that someone out there finally decided to take a chance. Letters of rejection start piling up, the writer beginning to recognize these rejections by weight and feel of the envelope—without ever slicing it open. Almost fatalistically, these rejections are tossed into a growing file. These rejections will be living proof someday—when dreams comes true—that this writer paid the price to become published.

Always tenacious, the writer trudges home from a day job, tiredly flopping down at the desk to begin another page, another story. Maybe this new novel will be something publishers simply can’t turn down.

This process is not unique to aspiring novelists. Through the years, now published authors fought this same fight, shared this same dream. You are not alone. For these novelists, the dream finally came true. They broke through and made it to the other side.

At some point, writers begin to toy with the idea of self-publishing. They compare costs, look at all the options, at the same time recognizing this self-published stigma might stifle their chances of traditional publishers ever picking up their work. Reluctantly, the unpublished novelist decides to wait, to be patient, to keep putting words and stories together.

Still no word comes. The words come harder and harder to write.

Meanwhile, the publishing market begins to shift—for the worse. As recession slowly grips everyone’s pocketbook, publishers begin to draw back, selecting fewer and fewer debut authors. Even multi-published authors begin to find contracts harder to win. Understandably, publishers need to invest their limited funds in projects that are most likely going to give a return. Publishers begin to hedge their bets, going for the sure thing, less and less inclined to gamble. After all, it’s all about survival. They—like writers and agents—are in business to make money. So, unpublished writers watch the market slowly dry up as fewer and fewer opportunities emerge.

Then a shift begins in the industry’s paradigm like a refreshing breeze. Technology—specifically eBooks and everything this digitalized revolution brings to the table—begins to rumble and shake the market. Everyone in the writing industry starts eyeing changing percentages as eBooks become more viable to cash-strapped consumers and a mobile society. Writers read where announced in July their eBooks are outselling their hardcovers, estimating that by 2011 eBooks will be outselling their paperbacks.

Authors –like Joe Konrath— start beating a drum that a new revolution is coming our way. They tell us that writers can economically step into the role traditionally held by mainstream publishers. That writers can begin to manage their own destiny, their own dreams. They can compete—granted, much like David and Goliath—in a digital market where consumers are more directly involved. Where readers are offered a wider variety of products at a lower cost. Where authors can make choices about price, title, and marketing of their novel.

Everyone watched as big-named publishers and started sparring in the ring like heavyweight champions struggling for the title. Publishers landed the first punch—not yet Round 1—with what they call the “agency model.” Under this plan, publishing houses will determine the price eBooks—generated from the publisher— will be sold in Amazon’s marketplace. As if to counter this blow, Amazon comes up with services for authors willing to sell directly to that company in both eBook and print form. Other companies—like Barnes and Noble—come out with self-publishing platforms for authors, offering generous royalties far and above those given by traditional publishers.

And so the war continues.

Hope begins to emerge. Writers begin to see a possibility that their novel just might reach more than test-group Beta readers or friends and family. That their writing might emerge into the light of the open market. Their dream just might survive.

So what do they do? Keep writing and trying to get their work recognized by traditional publishers and agents? Or, do they start changing strategy, venturing into this new world offered by the eBook revolution?

This new world will still require well-written, well-edited novels. However, this new world of consumers appear eager to sample new authors at a price affordable to almost everyone. The survival of the fittest still continues, but the playing field may have leveled just a little.

Here is the question that every unpublished author must start asking themselves in today’s market: Do they continue pursuing their dream down the same road they been traveling, or do they take the path not yet traveled?

A revolution may be Blowin’ in the Wind.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interview: Mystery Novelist Robin Burcell

Novel: The Bone Chamber 
By Mark Young
Author Robin Burcell’s main character, FBI forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick, returns in The Bone Chamber trying to hide from psychological wounds inflicted in the past. However, Sydney is dragged from her hiding place—an FBI academy classroom on the Quantico marine base where she teaches—to help in another baffling case filled with secrets, lies, and murder.

Readers: If you think Robin was tough on you in Face Of A Killer, wait until Sydney starts eluding the bad guys in this novel.

And readers better pack a bag. This time Sydney travels to exotic locations in Italy to find clues that only The Bone Chamber might reveal. The story begins with a skull, resting on a table in a closely-guarded room at an FBI facility at Quantico, where Sydney reluctantly performs her artistic magic. Her painstaking recreation only makes the case more dangerous as she unlocks facts that everyone fears.

Mysterious Special Agent Zachary Griffin manipulates Sydney’s life—thwarting her Thanksgiving holidays with family in San Francisco, for example— to get at the truth of this murder. Sydney soon realizes even Griffin—if that’s his real name—may want to uncover the murder, but everything else about his life is a lie. Who can she trust?

You’ll have to read The Bone Chamber to find out.

Robin joins us today to talk about this latest mystery novel and her writing career.

MARK: This second Sydney Fitzpatrick novel is packed with thrills, intrigue and conspiracies. Robin, I’ve tried to tell our readers a little about The Bone ChamberT without giving away too much. What did I miss that you think they need to know about this mystery?

ROBIN:  I think you’ve about covered it. Heck, you made me want to pick it up and read it! 

MARK: This international thriller starts at the FBI academy in Virginia and the nation’s capitol, finally traveling from San Francisco to Italy and back again. The story raises all kinds of conspiratorial theories that might even date back to biblical times. This must have been an interesting research project. Where did you travel for background and what sources of information did you glean for this story? Tell us a little about this journey.

ROBIN:  Originally I did most of my research at the library and on the internet. Especially concerning the historical aspects of the books.  But in order to bring that sense of actually being there, I came to the realization that someone was going to need to go to these locales and make sure my depictions were accurate. (And why not me?) Actually, it was my mother who pointed out that the book would be far better if I personally visited the places in the book. She’d lived there for several years, researching the ancient columbaria, and so I had depended on her to vet some of the scenes to get the flavor right and make sure they were accurate. But it seemed time and again, I’d have a scene written, and she’d tell me it couldn’t happen that way, because my vision (from internet tours) and the reality of the actual place were … very different. She suggested I travel there, and said she’d play tour guide (since she speaks Italian.)  It was a great setup. We traveled to each of the locations set in the book, and I was able to see where some scenes needed to be changed for accuracy, and how I could ramp up other scenes to make them better.  It was amazing how much it added to the tension in the story.

MARK: What was the best part of your research?

ROBIN:  Besides traveling to a foreign country in the name of research? The food!  It was fantastic! One restaurant, Hostaria Antica Roma, which was right up the street from one of the key scenes, was so memorable, that I rewrote my restaurant scene to include the meal and setting. The owner and I still correspond via e-mail and Facebook.  I’m telling you right now, if you go to Rome, visit that restaurant. You won’t be disappointed! 

MARK: At end of The Bone Chamber, you wrote a fascinating article titled “Fact or Fiction” regarding the Freemason's possible ties to the Templar Knights, and a politically-explosive conspiracy in Italy that piqued the public’s interest. What did you find most interesting about all this? And …. how much do you believe this is true?  

ROBIN:  By far, the most fascinating aspect is the history and scandal of the Italian Freemason lodge, Propaganda Due (also known as P-2). Granted this lodge was just one of many, many lodges throughout the world at the time, and by no means representative of what the Freemasons are or were about, but its history in the 1980s of how the men involved with this lodge nearly toppled the Italian government and banking system, even infiltrated the Vatican, due to such widespread corruption (with ripples felt around the world), well it was the perfect example of conspiracy theory.  It’s something that most people would say could never happen in today’s world.  And yet it did happen just a few decades ago.  It’s also a lesson learned that we hope won’t be repeated. My book continues on with the assumption that today a few key players from P-2 are still attempting to manipulate both the Italian government and the U.S. government. 

MARK: For our readers who’ve not had the pleasure of reading Face Of A Killer, give us a little back story on Sydney. What is she trying to recover from in the past? What is it that drives her to hide in an FBI classroom as an instructor?

ROBIN:  The story opens on the 20th anniversary of her father’s murder, with the killer about to be executed (finally) in ten days time.  Sydney, now a seasoned FBI agent, was 13 at the time, and the case always haunted her. It was, in fact, why she went into law enforcement. She decides to interview the killer before his execution, if nothing else to hear why he murdered her father. Even though her mother and everyone else is against this idea, it’s her way of getting on with her life. What she doesn’t expect is to leave that interview suddenly doubting the guilt of the man accused of murdering her father and setting the fire to cover up the crime—even though they have incontrovertible evidence.  His execution is in 10 days. That’s 10 days to prove his innocence or guilt. After all, if he did it, so be it. If he didn’t, the killer is out there still.  But the investigation takes a sudden twist when the government comes after Sydney trying to stop her from digging into something they’d hoped was dead and buried. 

It’s another case of conspiracy theory, based on some real pieces of history involving our government, this time in the U.S.

MARK: Is there a little bit of Sydney in you, Robin?

ROBIN:  Well, we’re both artists, and in law enforcement, and we have the same strong morals, so I’d have to say yes in that respect. But Sydney’s a lot more kick-ass than I ever was!  And, where Sydney doesn’t mind hopping on a plane, putting her job at risk, I like sitting in my nice safe living room over dealing with black op government agents (or anyone else) who are hell bent on trying to kill me. 

MARK: I understand that you may have inherited a desire to write from your grandfather. How did your writing career evolve? How did you manage this writing career while still holding down a very active law enforcement job?

ROBIN:  My grandfather was a very well-respected sports writer in his day, and so that gene of loving to write must have trickled its way down. I actually started off wanting to be a journalist, but never quite made it down that track. But the love of writing never left me, and I was forever penning stories on pads of paper (most not very good), a habit that didn’t leave even after I started in law enforcement.  In fact, driving around on patrol on those dark and lonely nights, sometimes I’d see or hear things that would set my mind spinning in interesting directions. This person would make a great character, or that story is too great not to write down. Imagine if this happened instead of that.  Finally I decided that I needed to stop thinking about writing, and get very serious about doing it. I bought a computer and started transcribing all those pads of paper.  Unfortunately, they were pretty bad attempts. So I began the process of learning the craft, joining writers organizations, networking, reading books on writing… and giving up TV. 

MARK: Beyond perfecting your writing craft, how did you break down the publishing barrier to get your first novel on the book shelves?

ROBIN:  At the time I was on a romance kick. I was in love with reading them, and decided I was going to write one—with the mistaken notion that a romance would be easier than other genres.  I joined Romance Writers of America, and entered the first couple books in a contest they had called the Golden Heart. The finalists of said contest landed on the desks of five editors of major publishing houses for the final judging.  This was a way to avoid the dreaded slush pile of hundreds of other manuscripts submitted.  An editor at HarperCollins was one those judges, and she asked if she could see the entire manuscript. She bought it as a result.  I’ve been with HarperCollins ever since, writing under their various imprints.

MARK: Is that first published novel still fresh in your mind? Did you have any time to celebrate or did you immediately focus on getting the next novel ready?

ROBIN:  I remember it well. I told my husband that I now had my foot in the door of the publishing world, and we could try for that second child. I ended up pregnant with twins, which sort of put a damper on writing anything, much less romance!  It was two years before I wrote again, and this time I decided that murder and mayhem was a better fit. My next book, which came out four years later, was a mystery.  I’ve been writing mysteries and thrillers ever since.

MARK: Your police background must provide a wealth of material to draw upon, including a variety of people you encountered on the job.  Did any people you worked with in the past emerge as models for your characters? Can you share your most memorable model from law enforcement or should we leave this well enough alone?

ROBIN:  (Cue in the evil laugh…)  Yeah, we’ll just say that sometimes I’ve thrown in a character or two who needed to be dealt with—and doing it fictionally seemed the wiser course of action.  But I have written friends in cameo roles, used their names when I’ve needed officers to populate scenes. Sometimes I’ll use the whole name, sometimes partial. It’s been fun.

MARK: What advice can you give aspiring novelists who struggle to write about crime fighting with some semblance of reality? Where should they go for research? Short of becoming a cop, how can they get this kind of exposure?

ROBIN:  Watch CSI.  Then make sure you don’t do anything they’re doing. There are actually a couple good and easy resources.  One, contact your local police department and ask if they have ride-along programs (though many have cut back because of budget issues). The FBI usually has a local citizen’s academy in which one can attend several classroom sessions to learn about what they do.  There are a number of good books out there, such as police officer Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure and Investigation, A Guide For Writers, and he has a blog in which he interviews experts (or discusses police work himself).  And there is also Yahoo Group’s Crimescenewriter, in which one can ask questions of the experts on the list, former CSI, cops, FBI, fire, ambulance and medical types. 

MARK: What does your writing schedule look like? Early writer, late writer, somewhere in between? And how much coffee do you require?

ROBIN:  While I was working fulltime, I would come home, turn on the computer and write for an hour or two each day, until I was so tired (breaking for dinner, etc.) that I was falling asleep at the desk. I also kept paper in my car to write during any down time. (Waiting in doctor’s offices, waiting to pick up kids at school, that sort of thing.)

Now that I’m writing fulltime, I drop the kids off at school, come home, write at least a page or two, then check e-mail. Then go back to writing. Pick up the kids, deal with after-school stuff, write until dinner, maybe watch TV unless I’m on deadline and then write some more.  I actually have a little TV at my desk, so I will often do e-mail and watch an evening show at the same time.  If I don’t get my work done, no TV for me, though!

One important note that has really changed my production schedule. I am now writing first before reading e-mail, or going on Facebook, or anything else. I have found that my most productive time is that first hour or two, which I used to spend answering e-mail. Now that I spend it writing, when I do break for e-mail and then go back, I have doubled my page count per day. (The same can be said for computer games. I pulled those off my computer years ago. I found that the I’ll-just-play-one-game-of solitaire really cut into my writing time). When you have only a good solid hour of writing time per day, even 15 minutes doing e-mail or games is a big, big time suck. 

MARK: Some writers believe you should write every day to perfect the craft. Do you find this to be true, or are there parts of the year you must put writing aside and focus on other matters—marketing, promotion, family?

ROBIN:  It’s definitely true. I sit down at the computer nearly every day.  If I’m not home, I have a notebook in my purse, or paper in my car. I pull it out and write by hand. (Sometimes when I’m stuck on a scene, changing how/where I write, really helps. So writing by hand, while slower, seems to free up my mind.)  While I was on book tour this year, I took a laptop, thinking I’d write on that. I found that I worked better writing by hand.  I wrote in the airport waiting for flights, on the plane, and if I wasn’t too beat, in the hotel at night.  What I’ve found is that writing is like running.  If you don’t do it all the time, you get out of shape, and it is much, much harder to keep a good pace—especially writing a novel with a complex story line. You end up having to go back and review the story so often that you lose too much forward momentum if you put it down for anything longer than a day or two.

MARK: I understand you are putting the finishing touches on another novel. What can you tell us about this new book to piqué our readers’ interest? When will it be released?

ROBIN: I’ve just finished the third FBI thriller in the series. It is, as of now, untitled. I’m hoping it will be out next year, but haven’t heard yet …

MARK: Lastly, what is the most important writing advice you ever received?

ROBIN: A page a day is all it takes, and you have a book done in (about) a year!  This is probably the best advice I ever received, because one of the most daunting things a new writer faces is the blank page. And how can one fill 85,000 words while working full time? A page a day…

Robin Burcell is the author of the Anthony Award winning SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels and the Sydney Fitzpatrick novels, an FBI agent who uses her forensic artist skills to unravel the most difficult murder scenes. You can find out more about Robin Burcell and her writing career at this author’s web site.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Terrorism: Interview with former counterterrorism agent and author Fred Burton—Part II

Book: GHOST—Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
By Mark Young
Mystery novels and international thrillers are built on danger, intrigue, and chaos. Readers are given an opportunity to enter a world where danger lurks everywhere and world security rests in the hands of a few heroic characters. It is a relatively safe world because readers never get hurt. They can simply close the book and walk away when the story is finished or the plot gets too scary. That’s entertainment.

But there exist a real world where people do get hurt. Where real-life heroes face life-threatening dangers of global proportions. Where the security of the U.S. and its allies rest in the hands of a few groups trying to make the world safer for all of us. Among these heroes are counterterrorism agents and private security specialists trying to make sense of an ever-changing violent world. Fred Burton has walked in both these worlds of government and private industry. Based upon his experiences, Fred wrote a book, Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent about his time spent in this Dark World.

Fred entered the private sector in 1998 after spending thirteen years as a counterterrorist agent for the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). He became vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor Global Intelligence, a unique company staffed by a worldwide community of intelligence professionals. Stratfor uses its own far-flung HUMIT (Human Intelligence) contacts as well as other sources of information to provide governments and businesses up-to-date analysis of political, economic and military developments around the world.

In our last interview, Fred shared with us his work and experiences with DSS leading up to his departure in 1998. Today, we will delve into world events since that time, including 9/11 and the current status of worldwide terrorism. Fred tracked terrorists since his early days at DSS, and he continues this effort in his current position with Statfor, monitoring current world events, tracking down leads and information in this dangerous world of espionage and shifting world power. He still treks through the Dark World.

MARK: Tell us about your job with Stratfor, Fred. What kind of work are you involved with as vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security?

FRED:  We are a private intelligence company that provides analysis on geo-politics, economics, terrorism and security.   Many of our products are free and your readers can sign up for our materials at

MARK: What do you see as pressing security issues today? What are some of the countries or groups posing the greatest threat to our national security?

FRED:   Placing the global threat in perspective and making sense of conducting business in places like Mexico, India, Russia and China.   

MARK: Which events in the last few years do you view as indicative of these trends?

FRED:  Clearly, the soft target threat with a real concern towards mass transportation on subways and rail, primarily in the DC to NYC corridor. 

MARK: Since 9/11, more money and resources have been thrown at this war on terror then at any time in our country’s history. Is it working? Are we doing a better job of winning this war, or have we created more of a bureaucratic maze for our counterterrorist agents to navigate?

FRED:  Yes and no.  The greatest challenge facing the CT (counterterrorism) community today is making sense of the volumes of information collected, i.e., finding that needle in the haystack. 

MARK: In GHOST, you discuss some of the bureaucratic hurdles agents must climb over to obtain their objectives. How politically-motivated policies sometimes results in sensitive information being leaked to the wrong folks, or worse, bad guys escaping and sources getting killed.

One example in your book really helped clarify what agents are up against. Information came in about where to find a terrorist Ramzi Youself— a terrorist with a $2 million bounty on his head. You give us the inside story as to how his capture was orchestrated.

Let me briefly summarize this without giving way the drama and highlights of your manhunt: GHOST outlines how Yousef orchestrated the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and Philippine Air Flight 434 in 1994. Police narrowly shut down another major terrorism campaign Youself set in motion. Your book tells how he planned to assassinate the pope as a diversionary event to help in a much broader goal—simultaneous bombings of eleven airlines while still airborne. This terrorist already escaped several times before because agents followed bureaucratic reporting procedures, slowing effective reaction and allowing information be leaked.  Finally, quick and effective action by your team resulted in the capture of this terrorist.

I found it incredible to learn that the State Department’s inspector general and the Department of Justice IG office opened investigations against you instead of awarding you a well-deserved commendation. I can only image how this must have affected morale in DSS and other agencies as well as stress in your own life, even after they cleared you. Near the end of GHOST, you  wrote, “Coordination between agencies remains touch and go, even during crisis. Politics infuses everything, especially after the WMD fiasco in Iraq.”

 Is it these kinds of problems—notifying every agency and nation in the alphabet before initiating action on intelligence information—that makes counterterrorism work so frustrating and challenging?

FRED:   I never expected to be praised for my efforts.  Frankly, I was doing my job.  I found it disheartening to struggle to get our agents recognized for their efforts, after learning cash bonuses were paid to many others “for their efforts in bringing Ramzi Yousef to justice.”   Having said that, nothing would have surprised me at this point.  In many ways, our job was never one set up for success.  

I don’t encourage anyone to get into the CT business especially today. 

MARK: How many agencies are now linked in this fight against terror? Who are they and how are they blended together?

FRED:  The primary lead are the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, known as the JTTF’s.  However, there remains a tremendous amount of friction between the JTTF’s and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Fusion Centers. 

Which is why in many ways it’s much easier to work white collar crime or gang violence. 

MARK: Development of an effective network of human intelligence (HUMIT)—human sources placed in critical locations around the world—consistently emerges as a critical area of intelligence gathering still needing vast improvement. Has this improved? Or, are we relying too much on technology and not enough on boots-on-the-ground intelligence?

FRED:  One never has enough human assets.  Most CT failures occur due to a lack of HUMINT. 

MARK: One of this country’ great manhunts after 9/11 has been the search for Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of the infamous terrorist group al-Qaeda. Those of us who have not lived in this Dark World wonder how a suspect like bin Laden has never been captured. This inability to eliminate these kinds of threats seems to suggest a flaw in our capabilities. How do we hope to wage a successful war on terror if we cannot hunt down a man like this? What must we do to overcome these obstacles?

FRED:  We failed due to a lack of human intelligence – sources close enough to lead us to OBL.  Without human assets, you are blind. 

MARK: Going back to GHOST, you identified a problem that has plagued intelligence-gathering agencies whether they be local, state or federal—protecting the integrity of intelligence files and sources from public exposure. Those involved with intelligence gathering know it is critical to create a wall between intelligence-gathering efforts and criminal prosecutions. Once in court, a case against a defendant in U.S. courts calls for almost full discloser except under specific and articulable situations. The fear of any intelligence officer is that our courts will require intelligence files and information to be turned over to the defendant—terrorists, their associates and foreign powers that seek information against us. At the very least, those agents trying to exist as ghosts in this Dark World run the risk exposure.

One current case that caught my eye is the trial of accused bombing conspirator Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, scheduled for trial in the Southern District of New York. Ghailani will be the first Guantanamo detainee prosecuted in the civilian justice system. He is accused of participating in an al-Qaida conspiracy that resulted in 224 people killed when the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed on August 7, 1998. The political decision to move such trials from military tribunals to civilian courts seems ludicrous. Ghailani’s alleged acts were committed on foreign shores, the defendants are not U.S. citizens, and his actions should classify him as an enemy combatant.

There are many issues revolving around this political decision to bringing Gitmo detainees into our civilian courts for prosecution. As a former counterterrorism agent, what dangers do you foresee this poses to DSS agents—and other intelligence-gathering capabilities—when intelligence debriefings and interviews are turned over as discovery? What are we going to lose by allowing these civilian trials?

FRED:  On the security front, cities like NY are reluctant to hold the trials due to the soft target threat outside of the secure perimeter of the courtroom.  

The prosecution will be challenging. 

I think it’s feasible we may see some sort of hybrid.  Meaning prosecution by a civilian court on a military base where security can be assured. 

MARK: I understand you are working on a second book based upon the assassination of an Israeli fighter pilot, working as an attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washing D.C. at the time of his assassination. The victim was killed in your old neighborhood. Can you tell us a little about what you’ve learned about this case and when your book might be available?

FRED: In April 2011 my next book will be published. 

The book is about my thirty-year quest to solve a political assassination on U.S. soil.   I’m optimistic folks will find it an interesting read.   It has certainly taken a long time to solve, but I’m persistent! 

At least I can finally sleep…

Thank you for joining us, Fred. Readers can find out more about Fred’s company, Stratfor, by clicking on this link. His book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent Ghost is available through this Random House link.