Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing about an Unloved Era

by Kay Kendall

In the opinion of Alan Furst, he was a hack writer until he found his grand passion, and pursuing it made all the difference. Beginning in 1988 he wrote his way to becoming the now-acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of 13 spy novels.

Furst concentrates on the years 1934 to 1942, when Hitler and the Nazis looked unstoppable. Asked if he would ever show his reoccurring characters coping in the immediate post-war period, he scoffed. “Absolutely not,” he answered—since after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, the mood changed among the anti-Hitler forces. Victory became assured, seen only as a matter of time. Lives were no longer lived on the very edge of defeat. Furst has no interest in that.

Write where you find your sweet spot, he said, and do not waver.

People read endless thrillers about World Wars I and II and the Cold War. Bestselling authors John le CarrĂ©, Philip Kerr, and Jacqueline Winspear place their mysteries against backdrops of great turmoil and danger provided by these wars or their tortuous aftermath. They inspired me to find my own sweet spot in the decidedly unsweet years of the Vietnam War—fraught with political and social upheaval.

Because decades have passed since the war ended in 1975, I felt readers would be interested in seeing that period treated historically.

Thus motivated, I set my debut mystery Desolation Row in 1968 among the draft resister community in Toronto, Canada. I knew the subject of draft resistance was problematic, but I felt compelled to
explore it anyway, choosing the point of view of a young Texas bride who followed her husband into exile.

What has surprised me is how deep the antipathy is to the late sixties. Since my book was published last year, I’ve heard many sentiments like this—“Living through that ugly time was enough, and I never read about it.”

When I dropped into the Mysterious Bookstore in New York City during my first ThrillerFest in 2013, I talked to a longtime bookseller there. He nodded sadly and confirmed my opinion. “The Vietnam War era is a tough sell,” he said. (His attire pegged him as an aging hippie.)

Yet there are people still suffering the aftershocks of the war itself—the wounded warriors and their dear ones whose psyches and/or bodies are scarred by fighting in that war in Southeast Asia. Their injuries are so deep and often still so raw that I am reinvigorated to persist in writing about the era.

I don’t think you should glaze over history, try to forget about it, or pretend it never happened. That way lies real danger. I have discovered, however, that readers most directly traumatized are relieved to discuss it. For them it is necessary, therapeutic.

So I was heartened when I heard Alan Furst’s advice: it’s imperative to stick with the subject that “turns you on”—to use a term from the benighted 1960s. I will not forsake those years merely because they are vilified by some. I only wish it were not so.

Who knows? Perhaps a few more of my historic thrillers will succeed in showing readers how fascinating that time was. Rock on, everyone, rock on.

In 1968 a young bride from Texas uses her CIA-honed skills to catch the real killer when her husband lands in a Canadian jail for murdering the draft-resisting son of a United States senator. “Desolation Row hooked me on page one,” says thriller author Norb Vonnegut. “Kay Kendall is one author who knows how to burrow into your heart."

Kay Kendall is an international award-winning public relations executive who lives in Texas with her husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. Growing up during the Cold War, she gew excited when an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) was installed near her hometown in Kansas. A fan of historical mysteries and the brilliant spy novels of John le Carré, she set her debut mystery during the Vietnam War, a key conflict of last century not already overrun with novels.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Don’t Do This: The 3 Most Common Medical Mistakes Writers Make

by D. P. Lyle, MD

The Quick Death: No one dies instantly. Well, almost no one. Instant death can occur with heart attacks, strokes, extremely abnormal heart rhythms, and cyanide and other “metabolic” poisons. But trauma, such as gunshot wounds (GSWs) and blows to the head, rarely cause sudden death. Yet, how often has a single shot felled a villain? Bang, and he drops dead. In order for that to occur, the bullet would need to severely damage the brain, the heart, or the cervical (neck) portion of the spinal cord. A shot to the chest or abdomen leads to a lot of screaming and moaning, but death comes from bleeding and that takes a while.

The One-punch Knockout: You’ve seen and read this a million times. The hero socks the bad guy’s henchmen in the jaw. He goes down and is apparently written out of the script, since we never hear from him again. It’s always the henchmen, because the antagonist, like most people, requires a few solid blows to go down. Think about a boxing match. Two guys that are trained to inflict damage and they have trouble knocking each other out. And when they do, the one on his back is up in a couple of minutes, claiming the other guy caught him with a lucky punch. Listen to me. Only James Bond can knock someone out with a single blow. And maybe Mike Tyson. Your car-salesman-turned-amateur-sleuth cannot.

The Bleeding Dead: Your detective arrives at a murder scene a half hour after the deed. Blood oozes from the corpse’s mouth and from the GSW in his chest. Tilt! Dead folks don’t bleed. You see, when you die, your heart stops and the blood no longer circulates and then it clots. Stagnant or clotted blood does not move. It does not gush or ooze or gurgle or flow or trickle from the body.
Don’t make these mistakes in your manuscript. I know. It happens all the time, and often readers and viewers don’t notice. But some do. Some cringe. Some walk away from the story. Some will not purchase your next book. That’s never a good thing. So get it right. Your readers expect it.

ORIGINAL SIN—a new Samantha Cody thriller
Dr. Lucy Wagner was on top of her game. The only cardiac surgeon on staff, a new pediatric cardiac unit dedicated to her, and an impeccable reputation not only put her at the apex of the local medical
pyramid but also garnered a few powerful enemies. Such is the nature of jealousy and greed. Turf wars can get ugly. Still all was good until the day old John Scully, the spiritual founder and leader of a local snake-handling church, died on her operating table. Fainting spells, nightmarish dreams, and patient after patient succumbing to some violent psychosis followed, putting her career, and her life, in jeopardy. Aided by long time friend and ex-boxer, ex-cop Samantha Cody, Lucy must reach deeply into her family’s past and into her own soul to find the strength to confront old and very powerful forces she never knew existed.

D. P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of both non-fiction and fiction (the Samantha Cody and Dub Walker thriller series and the Royal Pains media tie-in series). Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has served as story consultant to many novelists and the screenwriters of shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars. He invites you to visit him at his website:; blog:; or Crime and Science Radio: 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Buddhism for Novelists

by John Burley

Around the time when I was finishing my first novel and embarking on the arduous road to publication, my wife began taking an interest in Buddhism. “It says here there are Four Noble Truths,” she advised me, offering some tidbit of impractical wisdom.

To be honest, I wasn’t paying attention. I was distracted, agonizing over how long it was taking to secure an agent, to edit the novel down to a reasonable length. I was submerged in the agony of decimating some of my favorite chapters and leaving them twitching in the dust, all for the sake of a more marketable product. “The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering,” Lorie quoted, but I was in my own private hell and not listening.

Eventually, I was lucky enough to find an agent who was enthusiastic about my work. But the pain didn’t stop. “The manuscript is still too long,” he told me. “You’ve got to cut out another fifty thousand words.” Impossible, I thought. It’ll destroy everything I’ve worked so hard to create. But I wanted the book to see the light of day, and so I picked up a machete and went to work on it, lopping off appendages and major organs until I barely recognized the massacred thing in front of me.

 “The Second Noble Truth is that suffering arises from attachment to desires,” my wife read to me one evening. I barely heard her as I sat there mourning my novel, knowing how altered it was from what I’d originally intended.

And so it went. We cut the length of the story almost in half, signed with a publisher, and the first thing the editors said was, “The pacing lags in the middle. The whole middle third of the book needs to be re-written.” I fumed in silence, continued to circle the drain of my creative demise.

“The Third Noble Truth is that suffering ends only when you let go of your desire,” Lorie reminded me, but I was too far gone for platitudes.

I re-wrote the middle section of the novel, did what my editors asked—not because I thought they were right, but because I was in too deep now and there was no other way. It was a dark and difficult crossing. And what I discovered on the other side was this: The story was much better because of it. My agent and editors had helped me make the novel stronger, not weaker. Despite my resistance, they’d saved me from getting swept away in the current of my obstinacy and inexperience.

“The Fourth Noble Truth is that freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path,” Lorie quoted that night as I climbed into bed. “It’s about changing the way you see things, changing the way you think. It’s not sufficient to simply believe. You’ve got to have enough faith in the process to walk the path.”

“Right,” I said, turning out the light. And, at last, I was at peace.

THE ABSENCE OF MERCY (William Morrow, 2013)
When a teenager is discovered brutally murdered in the woods of a small Ohio town, medical examiner Dr. Ben Stevenson becomes entangled in an investigation that will force him to uncover the dark secrets of his seemingly quiet community and ultimately to confront a truth that will haunt him forever. With its nerve-fraying plot twists and eerie portrait of suburban life, The Absence of Mercy is psychological suspense at its best.

John Burley grew up in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. He attended medical school in Chicago and completed his emergency medicine residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center and Shock Trauma in Baltimore. He currently works as an emergency medicine physician at an urban trauma center in the San Francisco Bay area. His debut novel, The Absence of Mercy, was honored with the National Black Ribbon Award in recognition of an author who brings a fresh voice to suspense writing. You may visit John at

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Rules of the Fire Swamp

by Thomas Sweterlitsch

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably just published or are about to publish your first novel: Congratulations!

My debut hasn’t hit the shelves quite yet—so while I can’t write about being a published writer, I can write what I’ve learned being an about to be published writer. In my case, I’ve been about to be published for about 18 months, from the moment I signed my contract to the moment when my debut novel will see daylight. The single most important thing I’ve been doing with that time has been to work on my second novel. And, yes, second novels are more difficult to write than first novels—but in addition to the specific struggles inherent with second novels, there are a few traps that the about to be published writer can easily fall into (I’ve fallen into all of these traps, by the way).

Here are my Rules of the Fire Swamp:

1.) Stop Googling yourself. Ask yourself “how many times did I Google the phrase ‘your name’ + ‘writer’ or ‘the title of your book’?” before your contract. Probably the answer is zero. That should be the approximate number of times you Google yourself now. Yes, you’ll gradually see your name resulting in more and more hits, and yes, it can make you giddy the first time you find someone writing about your book, but in the words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” Googling yourself can unwittingly become a significant part of your routine as you check the 20th search page, the 25th…the 35 th. Instead, take that time to write your second book.

2.) Don’t read early reviews. In fact, maybe don’t read any reviews. Some of my earliest reviews came from participants in programs that give away a free ARC in exchange for their honest review—while I understand the utility in this, especially for an unknown writer like me, this does mean that anyone can be among the first (and permanent) voices talking about your book on-line. Seeing those five star reviews can be thrilling. If you get a negative review, however, your day—and possibly your week, or month—is wrecked. Oftentimes, if you click on the negative reviewer’s profile, you’ll find that just before demolishing your book, they were ridiculing the packaging of Slim Jims or deriding the texture of paper towels. There’s nothing you can do about it. So just…stay away. Stay far, far away.

3.) Social media? Set limits. The first thing you’ll hear about promoting your work is to establish your social media platform. I do think it’s important to have an inviting web presence to welcome and interact with fans of your work—but try not to confuse being on social media with your job as a writer. (In fact, I just spent ten minutes reading an article about drunken Taylor Swift fans vandalizing her Rhode Island beach house…Ten Minutes. Why? Why did I do this???).

It is ten years since the attack that reduced Pittsburgh to ash. Today all that remains is the Archive: an interactive digital record of the city and its people. John Dominic Blaxton is a survivor, one of the 'lucky ones' who escaped the blast. Crippled by the loss of his wife and unborn daughter, he spends his days immersed in the Archive with the ghosts of yesterday. It is there he finds the digital record of a body: a woman, lying face down, half buried in mud. Who is she ... and why is someone hacking into the system and deleting the record of her seemingly unremarkable life? Dominic tracks the murder through a web of deceit that takes him from the darkest corners of the Archive to the city itself, leading him into the heart of a nightmare more horrific than anything he could have imagined.

Thomas Sweterlitsch lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow is his first novel. Visit him at or on Twitter: @LetterSwitch

Thursday, July 3, 2014

July Debuts

It's the first Thursday in July, which means debut releases. Please take a look and let’s celebrate their success!

M.P. Cooley - Ice Shear (William Morrow/HarperCollins) July 2014  

As a cop on the night shift in Hopewell Falls, New York, June Lyons drives drunks home and picks up the donuts. A former FBI agent, she ditched the Bureau when her husband died, and now she and her young daughter are back in upstate New York, living with her father, the town’s retired chief of police.

When June discovers a young woman’s body impaled on an ice shear in the frozen Mohawk River, news of the murder spreads fast; the dead girl was the daughter of a powerful local Congresswoman, and her troubled youth kept the gossips busy. Though June was born and raised in Hopewell Falls, the local police see her as an interloper—resentment that explodes in anger when the FBI arrive and deputize her to work on the murder investigation. But June may not find allies among the Feds. The agent heading the case is someone from her past—someone she isn’t sure she can trust.

As June digs deeper, an already fraught case turns red-hot when it leads to a notorious biker gang and a meth lab hidden in plain sight—and an unmistakable sign that the river murder won’t be the last.

Lori Rader Day -The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books) July 8, 2014

For Chicago sociology professor Amelia Emmet, violence was a research topic--until a student she'd never met shot her. 

He also shot himself. Now he's dead and she's back on campus, trying to keep up with her class schedule, a growing problem with painkillers, and a question she can't let go: Why?

All she wants is for life to get back to normal, but normal is looking hard to come by. She's thirty-eight and hobbles with a cane. Her first student interaction ends in tears (hers). Her fellow faculty members seem uncomfortable with her, and her ex--whom she may or may not still love--has moved on.

Enter Nathaniel Barber, a graduate student obsessed with Chicago's violent history. Nath is a serious scholar, but also a serious mess about his first heartbreak, his mother's death, and his father's disapproval.  Assigned as Amelia's teaching assistant, Nath also takes on the investigative legwork that Amelia can't do. And meanwhile, he's hoping she'll approve his dissertation topic, the reason he came to grad school in the first place: the student attack on Amelia Emmet. 

Together and at cross-purposes, Amelia and Nathaniel stumble toward a truth that will explain the attack and take them both through the darkest hours of their lives.

Teri Anne Stanley - Deadly Chemistry (Entangled Ignite) June, 23, 2014

Some chemical reactions generate too much heat…

Former undercover cop Mike Gibson has been lying low, working as a maintenance man to put his troubled younger brother through college. But when a beautiful scientist enlists Mike’s help to repair the damage done to her lab by a group of vandals, Mike finds that his, and his brother's pasts, are about to be brought to light.

Laura Kane was happy having a secret crush on the hot maintenance man at Tucker University, but when the drug she was studying is stolen, Laura has a chance to get to know Mike in person. The problem is, he seems to know more about what's going on than any maintenance man should. But then the drug turns up in the wrong hands, and Mike and Laura have to decide if their own chemistry will help, or hinder, the race to save innocent lives.

Thomas Sweterlitsch - Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Putnam Adult) July 10, 2014

"Simultaneously trippy and hardboiled, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a rich, absorbing, relentlessly inventive mindfuck, a smart, dark noir...Sweterlitsch's debut is a wild mashup of Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, and, like their work, utterly visionary." --Stewart O'Nan, author of "The Odds"

A decade has passed since the city of Pittsburgh was reduced to ash.  

While the rest of the world has moved on, losing itself in the noise of a media-glutted future, survivor John Dominic Blaxton remains obsessed with the past.  Grieving for his wife and unborn child who perished in the blast, Dominic relives his lost life by immersing in the Archive--a fully interactive digital reconstruction of Pittsburgh, accessible to anyone who wants to visit the places they remember and the people they loved.  

Dominic investigates deaths recorded in the Archive to help close cases long since grown cold, but when he discovers glitches in the code surrounding a crime scene--the body of a beautiful woman abandoned in a muddy park that he's convinced someone tried to delete from the Archive--his cycle of grief is shattered.

With nothing left to lose, Dominic tracks the murder through a web of deceit that takes him from the darkest corners of the Archive to the ruins of the city itself, leading him into the heart of a nightmare more horrific than anything he could have imagined.