Thursday, January 29, 2015

What’s In A Name?

by Susan Israel

As a writer of fiction, I make up a lot of ‘imaginary friends’ and quite a few villains. I find myself wishing they were real more often than not- not the villains, of course- and hope that my readers will feel my main characters, the “good guys,” remind them of people they know or want to know. So when it comes to naming them,  I try not to get too exotic, unless it’s warranted.  I avoid names of anyone I’ve ever known, though there are several names of people I’ve known in the past that I’d love to use. Sometimes I draw a blank. A literal blank, like this: _________. The progress of what I’m working on takes precedence. But then pages dotted with blanks become disconcerting. I use the times when I hit a snag and am waiting for some research questions to be answered to go back and fill in the blanks. Some of them, anyway.  By then, I’ve compiled some possible names and play matchy matchy.  And quite often those names get switched around.  If authors changed their children’s names as often as they change their character’s names, those kids would have serious identity issues. 

I used to get some names from municipal white pages. I wrote columns and columns of them in a composition book. White pages are harder if not impossible to come by now. When I asked for a particular one at a reference desk, I was told to use online white pages. How do you find a name online if you don’t know the name you’re looking for until you see it? My back-up became names on magazine mastheads. Names on mailboxes in apartment lobbies when I was visiting somebody else. Names generated by an iPhone app even. And then I googled the names, to at least verify that no such person exists or at least bore no resemblance to the characters in my story.  I wrote down the first name of a  murder victim I read about in the paper years ago to be used later and I immediately changed the surname of a minor character after someone with the same surname committed a notorious crime. I can say with conviction that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.  But I’ve had dreams about my characters; that’s imagination in overdrive.
Susan Israel's fiction has previously been published in Hawai'i Review, Other Voices and Vignette, and she has written for magazines and newspapers, including Glamour, Girls Life, Ladies Home Journal and The Washington Post. A graduate of Yale College, she lives in Connecticut with her beloved dog. You may contact her at   
Delilah is accustomed to people seeing her naked. As a nude model - a gig that keeps food on the table while her career as a sculptor takes off- it comes with the territory. But Delilah has never before felt this vulnerable. Because Delilah has an admirer. Someone who is paying a great deal of attention to her. And he just might love her to death.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Perilous Journey from Bureaucrat to Thriller Writer

by Sherry Knowlton
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write a novel, specifically a thriller.  But, I could never quite get past those first few chapters. Work, family, inertia – life in general - got in the way.  A few years ago, I scaled back to semi-retirement and decided it’s now or never.  Without the pressures of a 50+-hour workweek, I actually had time to tackle that novel.  So, I sat down to write Dead of Autumn 

Constructing the story came easily. But, despite reading thousands of books in my lifetime, I’d never fully appreciated the painstaking work involved in: plotting; creating, naming and keeping track of characters; maintaining a coherent timeline; fact checking; and much more.  With perseverance, I worked though those aspects of novel writing, assisted by the eagle eye of a wonderful editor during pre-publication. What turned out to be my hardest task was re-learning how to write.  

I’ve cranked out a lot of written words in my lifetime.  I penned my elementary school’s first newsletter.  As a reporter for my high school and college newspapers, I wrote daily news articles. During my state government career, writing was a fundamental part of every job I held as worked my way up the ladder.  I wrote regulations, policy memos, legislation, testimony to legislative committees and more.  

After state government, I moved to the insurance industry. Even as an executive, I remained knee deep in writing proposals and other technical documents.  Today, in the “semi” part of my retirement, I do consulting work that relies largely on – you guessed it –my writing skills.

But expertise in professional writing does not guarantee an easy transition to thriller writing.  In government, a concept that takes twenty words to explain usually needs two thousand more to be memorialized in regulation.  When it comes to wordiness, insurance companies that contract with government operate in a similar environment.  I once worked on a bid for a state procurement that needed twelve three-ring binders to respond to the questions posed.  That’s right, four feet of narrative and supporting information. 

My intent is not to criticize government.  The nuances of public policy and decisions about billions in public spending often require massive amounts of explanation and detail.  But, the canyon between the conventions of a government document and the art of a suspense novel yawns deep and wide.

In trying to leap that canyon, my path toward an engrossing suspense novel introduced me to new challenges.  Choose compelling verbs.  Use action, not explanation.  Ditch the passive voice. Let dialog move the story. Rely on metaphor. Set the scene through sensory descriptors. Let readers draw their own conclusions.  Seasoned novelists use countless techniques to construct a taut thriller. 

I’m still a neophyte with so much more to learn.  But, with Dead of Autumn and its upcoming sequel, I’ve cleared the canyon and traveled well down the trail from recovering bureaucrat toward journeywoman novelist. 

Sherry Knowlton was born and raised in Southcentral Pennsylvania, where she developed a lifelong passion for books. She was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. Now retired from executive positions in state government and the health insurance industry, Knowlton runs her own healthcare consulting business. Her first novel, Dead of Autumn, will be followed by sequel to be released later in 2015.  When not traveling around the world, Knowlton and her husband, Mike, live in the mountains near Carlisle, PA, only a short distance from the Babes in the Woods memorial that figures prominently in Dead of Autumn.  They have one son, Josh, a craft brewer in upstate New York. You may contact Sherry at @SKnowltonBooks,, or

Walking her English Mastiff in a Pennsylvania forest, Alexa Williams discovers the body of an ethereal blonde. The girl’s death bears an eerie resemblance to a crime from an earlier era, the infamous Babes in the Woods case. From that fateful day, the young attorney’s carefully ordered life begins to unravel. One of her mentors, an abortion clinic doctor, falls victim to a sniper’s bullet. Her relationship with a sexy weekend boyfriend flares out of control.  She’s almost raped, then ambushed by religious zealots who try to convert her. Against a backdrop of anti-abortion protests and escalating violence, Alexa and handsome forest ranger, Reese Michaels, become entangled in a web of extremism and bloodshed. Too late, Alexa discovers that danger lies closer to home than she could ever have imagined.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Joys and Pitfalls of Co-Authoring a Thriller, or Why I Made My Partner Root for the Cubs

By Dennis Hetzel

Probably the hardest part of co-authoring a book with my friend Rick Robinson was getting Rick to sympathize with the Chicago Cubs instead of relishing their curses and defeats.

Dennis Hetzel and Rick Robinson
Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Crestview Hills, Kentucky
Rick is a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, so he couldn’t quite bring himself to pose as a Cubs fan in our author photo on the back page of Killing the Curse, our sports-political thriller. “Curse” imagines the Cubs, perhaps the most iconic symbols of failure in sports, playing in the World Series – a place they haven’t been since 1945 or won since 1908. It also involves a crazed fan who will do anything to ensure they win, an egotistical sports-radio talk show host and the host’s boyhood friend from the Chicago suburbs, a passionate Cubs fan who happens to be President of the United States.

For several reasons, Rick gets credit as a “with” author on the cover. First, he helped me hatch the idea and pitched it to his publisher, Cathy Teets of Headline Books. Cathy trusts Rick’s judgment, so I had a publisher. Every author can appreciate how much that helps.

I also had a selfish reason for wanting Rick’s name on the cover. He already has an audience that includes several thousand fans and contacts. Why wouldn’t I want to leverage that?

Most importantly, because Rick has written successful political thrillers, he knows the drill. He offered invaluable perspective on structure, dialogue, plot development and characters. He wrote the prologue and important sections of early chapters. One of the key characters, the daughter of our talk-radio host, is based on an actual bartender Rick meant – a smart, sexy woman who can hold her own with the guys when it comes to arguing sports and politics.

Once I got rolling, he functioned more as an editor and critic reviewing fresh drafts. I worked as a reporter or editor for decades, and I think I know how to write. However, every smart writer knows that good editors make writers better. Such editors also have an alarming habit of being correct.

For example, Rick reminded me several times that journalistic writing is different than literary writing. In most journalism, quotes are like spices sprinkled sparingly onto the main course. Only the best quotes that add the most value pass muster. Reporters keep stories as short as possible, using paraphrases and summary paragraphs as dominant techniques. In fiction, you need great dialogue. Stories can’t be ponderous, of course, but they can breathe. Characters come to life at differing paces.

Since novels usually are singular efforts, I’m often asked whether it was difficult to have a collaborator, and it honestly wasn’t. I can’t recall a serious disagreement, though I resisted a few times before surrendering. (For example, Rick, his wife and my wife were right: You have to break up back stories into smaller pieces.)

Here are three other tips for successful collaboration that might help others:
  1. Have compatible styles. Rick and I have differences. Arguably, I’m a little more interested in character development; he pays more heed to physical descriptions. But, if you read his books and then go to “Curse,” I think you’ll find a lot of similarities.
  2. Have compatible interests. Rick and I both love sports, especially baseball, and we’re political junkies. He knows the political world from the perspective of a former candidate and campaign manager. I offer the perspective of years in the news media. We’re both registered lobbyists in our current lives.
  3. Have a friendship that can survive a for-profit project. So far, so good. We’re grownups. It’s not like my high-school rock band days when we’d get mad at each other in massive “creative disputes.” We have an agreement on how to distribute the proceeds of “Curse.” The book is off to a good start, so here’s hoping “Curse” will generate enough income so that’s a meaningful discussion.
Rick has changed, too. I know it wasn’t easy, but he even wears a Cubs hat now when he helps to promote the book. Just don’t tell too many of his friends in Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky.
I also think the Cubs will finish ahead of the Reds in 2015 and are building a team that could win the World Series. Hey, it could happen.

Killing the Curse is Dennis Hetzel’s first published fiction. He can be reached at

The Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series for more than 100 years or even played in one since 1945. Now they're positioned to win the Series for the first time since 1908--if only curses and bad luck don't haunt them as usual. Then a swarm of gnats helps the Boston Red Sox tie the Series at three games each. No one wants the Cubs to win more than Luke Murphy, President of the United States and lifelong fan. Leading the chorus of disbelievers is Murphy's boyhood friend, Bob Walters, a sports radio talk-show host who built ratings by being “the man Cub fans love to hate.” The Cubs have someone else on their side--a brilliant, crazed fan who will do anything to make sure they win. It starts with an attack on the father of Boston's best pitcher and grows into an escalating threat that could destroy Murphy's career, expose childhood secrets, and kill hundreds of innocent people. Everything comes to a head as Game Seven unfolds--a game the Cubs must win no matter what.

Dennis Hetzel has been a reporter, editor and media executive at newspapers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio. He has won awards for writing, industry leadership and community service, and taught journalism at Penn State and Temple universities. Since 2010, he has been executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association in Columbus, Ohio, and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. A native of Chicago, he has a degree in political science and a minor in journalism from Western Illinois University, where he met his wife, Cheryl. They have three grown children, a dog, a cat and a home they love in Holden Beach, North Carolina.

Rick Robinson, the 2013 Independent Author of the Year, has 30 years experience in politics and law, including a stint on Capitol Hill as Legislative Director/Chief Counsel to then-Congressman Jim Bunning, R-Ky. He has authored four award-winning political thrillers. His recent book, Writ of Mandamus, was grand prize winner at the London Book Festival. His contemporary fiction novel, Alligator Alley, won the grand prize at the Great Southeast Book Festival in 2013. His new novel, The Advance Man, will be published by Headline Books in 2015. He commutes between Fort Mitchell, Ky., and Washington D.C. He and his wife, Linda, have three children.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

New Year, New Genre

by Erica Wright

Around ten years ago, a friend suggested that I submit to a flash fiction anthology looking for writers.
I’m embarrassed to admit my reaction now, but I laughed. I had just scraped my way through a novella class in my MFA program for poetry, relieved that the instructor neglected to return comments on the 8,000-word (I tried to make it longer, I swear) concoction I submitted as my final. Fiction? Not for me.

When I completed my first poetry collection, though, something unexpected happened: I didn’t like any of my new poems. My drafts resembled mazes with so many backtracks and dead-ends that not only was it impossible to find the ending, there was no hope of finding the beginning either. I was stuck. It took awhile to admit my situation, but it was clear that I had used up all of my poetic energy and needed to recharge. Since not writing is a one-way path to crazy town for me, I started experimenting again with narrative. The result was a rambling, pseudo-mystery about a woman who considered her photographic memory to be a disability. That is to say, the result was a failed novel to befriend my failed novella.

In the meantime, my first poetry collection had found a publisher, and I was writing poems with beginnings and endings again. Turns out, I need both the magic of poetry and the discipline of prose. I started work on what would become my first published novel, The Red Chameleon.
I know I’m not alone in genre hopping, having recently started poet Monica Ferrell’s novel The Answer Is Always Yes and interviewed thriller titan David Baldacci about his fantasy YA novel The Finisher. Both Roxane Gay’s collection of essays Bad Feminist and her novel An Untamed State are in my to-be-read pile. If your New Year’s resolutions include tackling a different format, here’s what I learned from my first attempts:

Know Your Landmarks
Even in genres as different as poetry and mysteries, there is overlap. Think about what skills you already have and whether those can be applied to your new project. My favorite craft essay is Richard Hugo’s “Writing Off the Subject.” It’s targeted to poets, but when writing fiction, I can hear his advice: “In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.”

Ask for Directions
There will be plenty that you don’t know, and it’s okay to seek help. I found Alice LaPlante’s book Method and Madness to be particularly useful. There are also a lot of free resources online.

You’ll Get There When You Get There
This was the hardest advice for me to embrace, but wrong turns are inevitable. When I finished the disaster of a first novel I mentioned above, I knew a lot more about plotting than when I started. I closed that file and opened a new one.

Erica Wright's debut crime novel The Red Chameleon (Pegasus Books) was one of O , The Oprah Magazine's Best Books of Summer 2014 and was called "riveting" by Publishers Weekly. She is also the author of the poetry collection Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and the chapbook Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, From the Fishouse, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, Spinning Jenny, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor and a senior editor at Guernica Magazine as well as an editorial board member for Alice James Books. She has taught creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College and New York University's continuing studies program. She grew up in Wartrace, TN and received her B.A. from New York University and her M.F.A. from Columbia University.

As a PI, Kathleen Stone relies on her ability to blend into the background. Aided by her street-smart drag queen friend and the best wigmaker in New York City, she feelsead under suspicious circumstances, she fears that someone she angered in her past job—busting gangs and drug dealers as an undercover cop—has seen through her disguises. Now she must work with her former colleagues in the NYPD to solve the case before she’s the next victim.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

January Debut Releases

Happy New Year! A new year and new debut releases! 

It's the first Thursday in January. Please take a look and let’s celebrate their success!

Susannah Hardy - Feta Attraction (Berkley Prime Crime) January 6, 2015

Georgie Nikolopatos manages the Bonaparte House, a Greek restaurant and historic landmark in beautiful upstate New York rumored to possess ghosts and hidden treasure. But when her husband disappears and her main competitor is found dead, it’s up to Georgie to solve a big fat Greek murder.

With her husband, Spiro, inexplicably gone for days, Georgie has her hands full running the restaurant and dealing with the crew of the TV show Ghost Squad, called in by Spiro to inspect the house for haunting. So when she has a chance to take a boating excursion on the St. Lawrence River with her friend Keith Morgan, she jumps on it. But their idyll is quickly ruined when they discover the body of rival restaurant owner Domenic “Big Dom” DiTomasso floating in the water.

When the police start asking questions, it doesn’t help that Spiro can’t be found—and with Georgie on their suspect list, it’s up to her to find her missing husband and find out who killed Big Dom before someone else’s order is up.

Includes delicious Greek recipes!

Susan Philpott - Blown Red (Simon and Schuster, Canada) January 6, 2015

Like a runaway train, Signy Shepherd has been blowing through danger signals all her life. 
Recruited to the Line, a shadowy underground railroad dedicated to helping women in peril, Signy has no idea that her first solo case will set her on a collision course with a renowned photographer concealing a murderous past, a relentless tracker with an explosive secret, and her own violent demons. 

Set during the height of a brutal heat wave, the pressure mounts as Signy and her young passenger race across the country toward a sanctuary that proves to be a deadly illusion.