Posts Tagged ‘Novels’

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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Strong Female Characters

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Some days it’s like slogging through cold molasses, a struggle every step of the way. Other days, the words flow like a river, effortless.

Today the words are trickling out.

Better than molasses.

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“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid and stable business.”


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I previously posted the first chapter of “Don’t Get Dead.” Since then I’ve done a major revision of the entire book, including the first chapter. It’s interesting to compare the two versions. Hopefully I’m not the only one to see how much better the revised chapter is.


The body hung upside down in the truck, suspended by the seatbelt, sun-bleached hair hanging down to skim the roof of the cab.

The stark white light from Gracie’s LED headlamp merged with that of Ralph Hunter’s mag flashlight to illuminate the interior of the pick-truck up that lay upside down at oblique angles amid a jumble of rocks and vegetation.  The two rescuers crouched side-by-side atop a granite boulder, looking down into the truck through the shattered window of the passenger door.

“Good thing he was wearing his seatbelt,” Gracie said. “At least this time he’s in one piece.”

Ralph grunted his agreement.

“I can handle ‘in one piece,’” she said, then added under her breath, “I hope.” The first signs of anxiety tightened her stomach. She dug into a zippered side pocket of her fleece vest for a piece of strawberry bubble gum and popped it into her mouth.

Ralph glanced over at her, then back down at the pick-up.

Gracie peered into the heavily shadowed truck interior. The victim appeared to male and young, possibly in his teens. There was little blood inside the cab or on the body itself. “He didn’t bleed out,” she said as she tugged open her radio chest pack and picked out a pair of purple latex gloves.

“Blunt force trauma probably knocked him out,” Ralph said. “Hanging upside down in the seatbelt probably killed him. Traumatic asphyxia.”

Gracie snapped on the gloves. “First time I’ve seen someone actually die from wearing a seat belt.”

“Dead for sure without it.” Ralph swung the beam of his flashlight toward Gracie and looked at her over the top of his glasses. His gravelly voice softened. “You sure you’re okay with this, Gracie girl?”

“I better be, dammit,” Gracie said. “Or I need to find something else to do with my stupid ass life.”

“Okay then,” Ralph said, his voice still soft. “Let’s open it up.” He slipped his heavy flashlight through a loop on his pants belt and pulled on his own pair of latex gloves. Then he slid off the boulder onto a wide triangle of dirt next to the truck and tugged on the passenger door handle. The door didn’t budge. He planted a dusty boot on the truck’s side panel and hauled with both hands. “Nope,” he said finally. “Not gonna happen.” He pulled out his flashlight again and used it to knock out the rest of the window glass. Then he stretched in through the opening to place two fingers on the carotid artery of the young man’s neck.

Gracie counted off the seconds to herself until her teammate said in a low voice, “Nothing.”

Ralph grunted as he heaved himself even farther inside the cab.

“Careful, Ralphie,” Gracie whispered.

A muttered curse and another grunt later, Ralph wormed his way back out the window. “ID,” he said and tossed a thin leather wallet up to Gracie who snatched it out of the air.

Ralph leaned back in through the window and sifted through papers and trash scattered throughout the cab.

Gracie stepped down from the boulder onto level ground.

Muffled voices and bursts of laughter filtered through the forest of Joshua trees straight ahead of her—the rest of the recovery team hefting in the Junkin litter, the heavy plastic basket with which to transport the body.

Gracie opened the wallet and zeroed the beam of her headlamp onto the California driver’s license inside. A bright young face smiled back at her.


She snapped the wallet closed and shoved it into a side vest pocket.

Gracie stared up at the sky, breathing in the pungent pine and sage perfume of the high Mojave. The sky, a deep rose in the west, dissolved to teal overhead, then indigo in the east, where one-by-one, stars, bright and unwinking, unveiled themselves for the night watch.

She closed her eyes and forced herself to take in slow, even breaths. “Don’t you dare crap out, Kinkaid,” she whispered. “Just keep breathing and get the job done.” She opened her eyes and looked back over toward the truck. A smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “Besides, you barf all over Ralphie’s boots again and your ass is grass.”

Gracie blew out a noisy breath and watched her teammates approach, headlamps bobbing like tiny Chinese lanterns in the near darkness. “Ralph,” she called over her shoulder. “Litter.”

The litter team crunched into full view and Gracie recognized one of the newcomers as Steve Cashman mainly because he was the only man not wearing a helmet in direct violation of team rules. “Happy happy, joy joy,” Gracie muttered.

Someone counted, “One, two, three,” and the litter team bent as a single unit to lay their burden in the sandy dirt a few feet from the upended truck.

Ralph stepped down from the boulder, and joined Gracie and the men who were unclipping from the litter and sipping from water bottles and hydration packs.

“Howdy’s” and “Hey’s” rumbled throughout the group.

Ralph brought the litter team up to speed. For reasons that weren’t immediately obvious and which might never be determined, a pick-up truck had shot off the winding gravel Forest Service road above their heads, cartwheeled down more than three hundred feet, and finally come to rest upside down with the sole occupant still inside. Deceased.

“Who is it? Do you…we know?” asked Billy Somebody, burly, pink-cheeked, barely twenty-one and so new to the team Gracie didn’t even know his last name. His voice was incongruously high and understandably timid. It was one of his first SAR missions and his first body recovery.

“Uh, that would be my cue,” she said and pulled the wallet from her vest pocket. She focused again on the driver’s license, keeping her thumb firmly pressed over the face. “Bradford, Joshua D.,” she read. “Local. DOB…” Then the birth date. “He would have been seventeen…” She counted off the days. “…next Monday. Shit.”

Silence enveloped the group as all descended into their own morose thoughts of how in a matter of seconds, a young life can be snuffed out by an error in judgment or too many beers.

Steve Cashman broke the mood by sauntering over to the battered pick-up. He climbed up onto the boulder and held his mag flashlight shoulder high, focusing the sterile beam down into the cab. “Waitin’ for the Coroner?”

The rest of the group climbed up to stand in a semi-circle on top of the line of boulders, necks craning and flashlights converging on the pick-up.

“Negative,” Ralph answered. “Coroner’s still a couple of hours out. We’ll litter the body out to the road. She’ll pronounce him there.”

“We can do a litter raise,” Cashman said, sweeping the rocky hillside with the beam of his flashlight.

“We have to get him out of the truck first,” Gracie pointed out to no one in particular.

Kurt, wearing gold-rimmed glasses and long sandy hair pulled back into a pony tail, stood on Gracie’s left. He leaned toward her and said in a low voice, “That’s gonna be a sonofabitch.”

“Yup,” Gracie said.

Cashman persisted.  “Haul ‘im up to the road.”

“Risk outweighs any advantage,” Ralph answered in a steady voice.

“We brought in some of the ropes shit. It’s in the–”

“Negative, Steve. Decision’s already been made. We’re littering the body out.”

Cashman swung around toward Ralph. “Who made the decision? You and Gracie?”

“Watch Commander.”

“That’s it then, right?” Billy cut in, his face a shade paler than before. “‘Cuz if the Watch–”

“Come on, Hunter,” Cashman pushed with a smile on his face. “Don’t be such a…”

Gracie could see the word “pussy” forming on his lips.

Cashman glanced across at her, then back down at the truck. “…spoil sport,” he finished.

“Cashman, shut the fuck up while you’re ahead,” Kurt muttered softly enough so only Gracie could hear.

Ralph lowered his voice an octave. “Decision’s been made, Cashman.”

Gracie took a deep breath and jumped into the fray. “Like I said before,” she said, “we need to figure out how to extricate the body.”

“What about through the door?” Billy asked.

“No, the…” Gracie began.

Cashman jumped from the rock down next to the truck and tugged unsuccessfully on the passenger door handle.

“…door is dented closed, and–”

“How ‘bout through the window?”

“We can cut the door off,” Cashman suggested.

“That would require–” Gracie tried again.

“Take too long for extrication equipment to get here,” Warren, the fourth member of the litter team, said. The older man was so stolid and quiet, half the time Gracie forgot he was there.

“How about through the windshield?” Billy asked, hopping down to crouch next to the hood of the upended truck.

Gracie tried again. “That’s too–“

“It’s all smashed down.”


“Too narrow.”

“We could build a 3-to-1 z-rig and hoist the truck up.” Cashman.

“Truck looks kinda teetery.” Billy. “Can we rock it onto its side so it’s more level?”

“Why don’t two of us stand on either side of the window, reach in and just lift him out?”

“He’d be–” The rest of Gracie’s sentence, “–too heavy,” was drowned out by Kurt’s, “Might work.”

Ralph–Mission Team Leader, therefore final decision-maker–stood several feet away from the rest of the group, remaining silent, letting all present have their say.

Gracie shook her head, half-smiling to herself. She should have known better than to try and get a word in edgewise. She had learned a long time ago that it took a lot less energy to stand back and listen, to speak up only when she felt a pressing need to step in and be heard, usually when someone’s safety–especially her own–was at stake.

Not to mention that her legs had already annoyingly morphed into wobbling stalks of wilted celery which happened every time she spoke more than monosyllables in front of a group.

Gracie stepped from boulder to boulder around to the opposite side of the truck and stood looking at it from that angle. For ten minutes she concentrated on how large a strawberry bubble she could blow, shining her flashlight at and around the truck, as she listened to the alpha males jockey for dominance in the pack hierarchy under the guise of volleying extrication ideas back and forth.

It shouldn’t really have mattered how long it took for them to decide what to do. They weren’t, after all, in a tearing hurry.

Except Gracie had shed her heavy fleece jacket for the half-hour drive out from the town of Timber Creek, then left it behind in the SAR unit when she and Ralph had slipped and slid down the steep hill to the truck. All she wore was a 100-weight black fleece vest over a neon-orange cotton shirt and a pair of army-surplus desert camo pants. A pair of short, black gaiters were velcroed over the tops of her hiking boots to keep out the dirt. Hastily braided hair was mashed up beneath a black ball cap with the word, “Sheriff,” embroidered in bright orange on the front.

Carrying the litter out would generate body heat and warm her up. But now, standing around, she felt the chill of a late November evening at sixty-five hundred feet elevation. Goosebumps tickled up her arms and legs, soon to be followed by chattering teeth and shivering.

If you don’t get moving, Kinkaid, the body the team hoofs outta here is gonna be yours.

The discussion on the other side of the truck had deteriorated into the telling of morbid jokes.

Gracie shifted her weight to the other long leg and cracked her gum like a rifle shot, not caring how obnoxious it was.

No one took the hint. The current joke Cashman was telling continued unabated.

Gracie’s patience circled the drain. She flicked away her gum. “All right, listen the hell up!” she barked across the truck.

Dead silence.

Gracie’s legs began to tremble again. “This is what we’re going to do. First. We’re going to stabilize the truck with rocks and logs so, if it settles at all in the soft dirt, nobody gets squished to death. Then. Someone–Cashman–is going to crawl beneath the bed on this side. There’s enough room.” She retraced her steps boulder-to-boulder around to the other side of the truck. “Someone else–Kurt–is going to crawl beneath on this side. And Billy…” She pointed a gloved finger at him.

The young man took a step backward.

“…is going to climb in through the passenger door window which, by the way, would be too small to get the body through since rigor has most likely set in and we’re dealing with a stiff in the true sense of the word.” She softened her voice. “Billy, you’re going to cut the seatbelt with your knife.” She raised her voice again. “And the three of you–Cashman, Kurt and Billy–are going to take the body out through the rear cab window–it’ll be big enough–and hand him off to me, Ralph and Warren who will put him into the litter. Then all six of us are going to lift him up onto this big flat rock.” She stomped her foot. “We’re going to put him in the body bag and package him in the litter. Then we’re all gonna hoof him back out to the road and wait for the Coroner to get here. Any questions?”

Four men gawked at her.

She drew in a deep breath to try to steady her legs and turned toward Ralph who looked back at her, eyes crinkling with amusement. “You all heard the plan,” he said. “Let’s get moving.”

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Even among “experts,” there seems to be quite a bit of confusion (mostly on my part) about what a thriller is. And how does a thriller differ from a mystery?

I’ve heard several definitions, some contradictory.

I heard one definition at a writers’ conference: Mysteries are more cerebral with a puzzle (usually a murder) to solve; thrillers are more action-oriented.

Donald Maass in his great book, “Writing the Breakout Novel,” says that the plot events in thrillers have to accomplish 2 things: they need to be utterly believable and utterly incredible. High stakes are required whether they’re personal or global.

“Writers Market FAQ” by Peter Rubie explains that in Thrillers (and Suspense novels), the protagonist is constantly in danger.

I recently read that it’s a matter of the “stakes.” Is it a global story involving espionage, the fate of thousands if not millions of people, etc.?  Then it’s a thriller. If it’s smaller, more intimate, a more confined setting, it’s a mystery.

In “Don’t Get Dead,” my protagonist, Gracie Kinkaid, faces obstacles on three fronts. Two are physical: the elements (she gets stranded in a blizzard high in the mountains and must keep Rob Christian alive with very limited resources) and an unknown killer stalking her and Rob for unknown reasons. The third is emotional/psychological–she must battle her own self-doubts. The stakes are constantly raised, then raised again throughout until the final confrontation.

Which still doesn’t solve the problem: Is “Don’t Get Dead” a thriller or mystery?

My conclusion: Pick one. It’s whatever the person you’re dealing with (agent, editor, publisher) says it is. If they want to label it a mystery, that’s what it is. If they say it’s a thriller, then that’s what it is.

So, for the moment anyway, I’m plugging “Don’t Get Dead” as a mystery.

Any ideas? Suggestions? Opinions?

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