Saturday, March 31, 2018

So, You Want to Be a Killer? By Charles Salzberg

I never set out to be a killer. Nor did I set out to write about murder.

I’ve had six crime novels published, seven counting Second Story Man, out this month. Not bad for someone who had no inkling he’d be writing about people who break the law.

As a child, I was a voracious reader. I loved the classic detective novels. Dead body. Suspects. Brilliant detective. It doesn’t get much better than that.

While I was enjoying Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald, my literary heroes were “serious” authors like Bellow, Malamud, Nabokov and Roth. I was an English major in college and started my first novel, right after my only year of law school (I won’t count the roman a clef that I wrote at the age of 12). My intention was to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, but somewhere along the way I got “lost,” and wound up writing about crime.

After reading my first novel, a teacher at the Columbia MFA program, a minor novelist, asked, “Do you know what a story is?” Of course, I knew what a story was. I was an English major, dammit. I’d been reading stories since I was three-years old. What the hell was he talking about? “You write that Philip Roth, Dostoevsky crap. Have you ever read Chekhov?”

Yeah, I’ve read Chekhov, asshole, but rather than answer I bathed in his un-meant compliment, comparing me to Roth and Doestoevsky. I mean, really!

He probably meant I was stronger on character than on plot. Okay, Mr. Do-You-Know-What-a-Story-Is? I’ll show you. I’ll write you a damn story, just to prove you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Oh, and I quit the class and the MFA program.

The most tightly plotted stories were detective novels. So, that’s what I’d write. In preparation, I read Hammett, Chandler, Nero Wolf, Ross MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, as well as pulp writers Big Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Once I “got it,” meaning the basic structure of a detective novel, I was off and running.

I began with the classic set-up. Down and out skip tracer, Henry Swann, working out of his dingy Spanish Harlem office, is visited by a gorgeous, wealthy woman who hires him to find her husband. Simple, right? But I couldn’t help twisting the traditional detective novel by having Swann find within a day that Harry Janus had been killed in a sleazy Times Square hotel. The next day, he’s hired to find the killer.

Only there was a problem. I just couldn’t adhere to the general formula. As Swann tries to solve the crime, he finds the victim led more than one life. He was a dealer in antiquities. A rock star. A spy. Swann winds up searching for the victim instead of the killer. In the end, I broke a cardinal rule of detective fiction: Swann does not solve the crime. A friend said, “You’ve written an existential crime novel.” Yeah, like Sartre, right?

Unfortunately, publishers did not see the brilliance in this, and after praising the writing, the characters, the story which ambles across the continent, into Mexico, then over to Berlin, before ending back in New York City, they turned me down.

Twenty years passed. I resurrected the manuscript, sent it out, and when an editor said he’d buy it if I changed the ending, I did just that (if you’re interested in the original ending, you can find it in the paperback and e-book editions, both are included.)

Swann was meant to be a one-off—hence, his last song—then I’d return to writing that Roth/Doestoevsky “crap.”

Only life rarely turns out how you think it will. Swann’s Last Song was nominated for a Shamus Award—I didn’t even know what that was. That’s when my life changed (or at least my writing life.) Not because I won but because I lost. Pissed (okay, so I’m competitive), I said to myself, “I’m going to keep writing these damned things until I win something.”

Now three Swanns later, I’m still writing about crime, not because I have to but because I love to. But I wouldn’t love to if I had to write solely about murder. That would mean a lifetime sentence of boredom—no offense to other writers who so brilliantly do deal with the ultimate crime. So, I decided early-on my crime novels would rarely be just about murder.

Take Devil in the Hole, based on a true crime. Man murders his three kids, wife, mother, and the family dog. The murder takes place before the book begins, the police know exactly who did it, so does the reader, and there’s never another murder. It’s not a whodunit; it’s a “whydunit,” as well as a study of how murder affects everyone around it.

Same thing with the Swann novels. None are about murder. That’s because I figure most of us will never be murdered, nor will we be touched by murder. Besides, aren’t there enough murders on TV, like twenty or thirty a week? There are so many more interesting crimes to write about: theft, fraud, kidnapping, arson, embezzlement, not to mention crimes of the heart.
Take Swann Dives In. You’re not sure what the crime is until halfway through the book, and by the end of the book, you’re not even sure a crime has been committed.

My latest, Second Story Man, is about a master burglar, and the two lawmen who chase after him.
You will find a couple of murders, but they appear off the page. Although important, they’re not integral to the plot. So, face it, I’m a fraud. I’m just not one of those writers who kill.

Charles Salzberg is the author of the Shamus Award-nominated Swann’s Last Song and its sequels Swann Dives In and Swann’s Lake of Despair. He is also author of Devil in the Hole, which was chosen as one of the Best Crime Novels of 2013 by Suspense Magazine. He lives in New York City and teaches writing at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is proud to be a Founding Member.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie: A Review by Warren Bull

Image of Ely S. Parker from

Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie: A Review by Warren Bull

Alexie uses the form of a mystery/thriller to write about the issues of identity and racism. A serial murderer in Seattle terrorizes the city by hunting and killing white people. The crimes set off waves of hatred and violence directed at Native Americans.

The characters in the book include John Smith, a Native American raised by white parents who knows very little about his heritage, Jack Wilson, an ex-cop and novelist who wants so much to be Native American that he imagines a heritage in the group, Dr. Clarence Mather who teaches classes about Native Americans and thinks he knows more about them than his Native American students.

Also present are Truck Smith, a radio show host who vents bigoted rants against Native Americans that keep adding pressure to the community and Marie Polatkin, a Native American activist who struggles against the prejudices and ignorance of those in power.

Alexie writes clearly and vigorously giving readers a grim, realistic picture of being a minority in a predominately white society. He shows how racism and ignorance affect both majority and minority people.

That this book is written like a mystery is not important. What matters is what Alexie writes about. For a greater understanding of what Native Americans face in our society, I recommend this highly.

Thursday, March 29, 2018


I chose to write my Catherine Jewell Mystery series in a fictional town called Portage Falls in northeast Ohio where I’ve lived all my life. The town is a composite of the small towns in my area and my imagination.

Conservatory in Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia

My main character Catherine Jewell is younger than I am and is a botanist who works part time in a large public garden. She also has her own garden center where she sells plants. So how is she anything like me? Well, I love gardening so it seemed like the way my character should be, too. I’m not into cooking so I wouldn’t have a food series. On the many vacations I’ve taken over the years with my siblings, we always make a point to visit large gardens like Longwood Gardens. I’ve been their twice now. So that’s how I’m able to describe Elmwood Gardens where Catherine works part time. Am I a botanist? No, but I have a sister who is and who helped me out sometimes in the beginning. What else do Catherine and I share? She lost her husband and only child, a daughter in an accident ten years before the book started. I lost my first born son John to cancer, and I know the pain of losing a child never quite goes away. I also lost my husband but not to death.
What about the other characters in my books? The other main character is John MacDougal the police chief in this small town who has never had to deal with a murder before in the first book. What do I know about a policeman’s job? Only from the hundreds of mysteries I’ve read over the years. He, of course, will eventually be Catherine’s boyfriend.

My brother who died 7 years ago. I miss him.

Then there’s Ed Flavian, who is based on my brother although my brother never worked in a public garden, he was an avid gardener who even propagated hostas of his own, and had many, many rhododendrons and other plants around his beautiful farm.

In my second book Bruce Twohill an environmentalist comes to town to try to stop a huge freeway from going through a wetlands. When staying in the bed and breakfast run by the police chief’s mother, Martha MacDougal, he ends up talking her into going on a backpacking trip with him on the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah Valley National Park. She tells Catherine all about it in the next book.

Here I am backpacking on one of my trips.

I’ve always been interested in saving the land, but what do I know about backpacking? When I was sixty years old after reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, My sister, Elaine thought we should do that so we bought backpacking equipment; back packs, small stoves, water purifier, backpacking tents, etc. and with three of her teenage children we drove down to Shenandoah National Park and hit the AT that went through there. At first her son had to put my pack on, but in a few days I could do it myself. We covered about thirty miles in the five days we hiked.                                                                                                     

A year when brother Phil, Cathi & her husband Bill joined us.

The next year my sister Elaine with only her son that year, our younger brother Phil, with his two teenage sons, and my Washington state sister Catherine, with her teenage son went back down to hike more of the AT that year.

 From then on my sister Elaine and I continued the AT trail with her son, and sometimes we backpacked some Pennsylvania trails, too. After Elaine had a heart attack, we stopped the back packing. She survived and is just fine, but cell phone service in the mountains is unreliable so that ended our back packing although one of my brother’s sons did the whole AT a few years after we stopped. Would I like to go back packing again? Yes, but I don’t know anyone who would go with me, and I’ll admit I wouldn’t be able to go as fast and as long as I could before.

One thing that I have in every book is the breakfast meetings with elderly men in the local restaurant. It’s one of the things I noticed if on our camping trips we decided to go to the nearest restaurant instead of cooking breakfast in the campground before we headed out on a hike or on to another place.

 In my third book,Ladies of the Garden Club  I have three members of the Garden Club poisoned. (Thank you Luci, the Poison Lady).  I do have four books on poisons, and I am quite aware of what plants are poisonous that I grow, too. I pull up the deadly nightshade that grows by my barn and get rid of it in case it spreads into the pasture where my ponies graze.

In the fourth book, The Body in the Goldenrod, I haven’t been to a Civil War reenactment, but I have been to Gettysburg, and a woman in our writers group writes only Civil War books and stories. She and her husband are re-enactors.

In the fifth book Murder in the Corn Maze I made a point of going to walk in one since it had been a long time since I had gone to one.

In the rest of the books it’s been mostly my imagination except for Catherine’s grandfather going into a nursing home. My father was in one and so were several cousins.

And now we get to the tenth book I’m working on, Daffodils in March. The newspaper is full of the opioid problem so I’m bringing that into this book as it just came to Portage Falls.
This is not near my house.
Also, I decided it’s time to bring a few Amish families to the area around Portage Falls because I have Amish families in my township. Horse and buggies go down my road, and the blacksmith who trims my ponies’ hooves lives a few miles from me. I have to drive there to pick him up. Once he was busy mowing the field behind his house so his wife invited me in. When she heard I wrote books, she was interested and said she loved to read so I gave her the first book in my series.

P.S. My collie Maggie barks at them from the living room or beside the house. I think she doesn’t believe horses should be on the road. At least she doesn’t go near the road.  
This is an Amish nursery my sisters and I visit every spring.

                                                                                                                                                                         What do you feel comfortable writing about in your books?
. .

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Debra Sennefelder Interview by E. B. Davis

Leaving behind a failed career as a magazine editor and an embarrassing stint on a reality baking show, newly divorced lifestyle entrepreneur Hope Early thought things were finally on the upswing–until she comes face-to-face with a murderer . . .

Hope’s schedule is already jam packed with recipe testing and shameless plugs for her food blog as she rushes off to attend a spring garden tour in the charming town of Jefferson, Connecticut. Unfortunately, it isn’t the perfectly arranged potted plants that grab her attention–it’s the bloody body of reviled real estate agent Peaches McCoy . . .

One of the tour guests committed murder, and all eyes are on Hope’s younger sister, Claire Dixon–who, at best, saw Peaches as a professional rival. And suspicions really heat up when another murder occurs the following night. Now, with two messy murders shaking Jefferson and all evidence pointing to Claire, Hope must set aside her burgeoning brand to prove her sister’s innocence. But the closer she gets to the truth, the closer she gets to a killer intent on making sure her life goes permanently out of style . . .
The Writers Who Kill blog started eight years ago. Our original intention was to blog about the craft of writing, our development as writers (many of whom were not yet published), and to promote not
only our own works, but those of other up and coming writers. I hope we have fulfilled those goals, but every now and then a writer appears who provides the opportunity to showcase the writing/publishing process and fulfill the goals of the blog. This is the case of Debra Sennefelder, who recently joined WWK and whose debut book, The Uninvited Corpse, will be released on March 27th.

Debra’s main character, Hope Early, is a food blogger who works from her home. After a series of professional and personal failures, she moves from Manhattan to her small hometown in Connecticut. Unfortunately, she is constantly reminded of those days due to people recognizing her from a reality bake-off TV show, which she lost to another contestant. Clearly, her fifteen minutes of fame smacks now and then, but she’s also learned to use it to her advantage—when investigating.                                          E. B. Davis

How long did take you to write the rough draft and then revise the manuscript? I’m not sure of how long it took to write the first draft or how long the revisions took. During that time, I was working full-time so I was writing evenings and weekends. It was a full year between when I began writing The Uninvited Corpse and submitted it an agent for possible representation.

Did you work with a critique group? Was that a beneficial experience? Were they your beta readers or did you put it out to a larger group to obtain them? I work with a critique partner, author Ellie Ashe. We’ve been critiquing for several years, and she has been invaluable to me. Working with her has definitely made me a better writer.

How many queries did you submit before getting an agent? I was offered representation by the first agent I queried, and I accepted the offer.

Are you contracted for one book or did you get a three-book deal? The offer from Kensington was a
three-book deal.

How were the editors at Kensington to work with? Did they require additional rewrites? My editor at Kensington is wonderful to work with. He’s very organized, which I love! There were no additional rewrites for The Uninvited Corpse other than copy edits.

Were you involved in the cover art selection? I was asked to submit three to four ideas for the cover and the art department took it from there. I think they did a wonderful job.

Why did your main character, Hope Early, decide to move back to her Connecticut hometown, Jefferson? After her appearance on the reality baking show and the divorce, she had to make a decision about what to do next. The city kind of lost its luster for her and going back home to start the next chapter in her life seemed like the right thing to do.

Is there a National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day? Yes, there is. It’s a wonderful day! This year it’s on October 28th.

What is a keeping room?  They originated in colonial times. They were a multi-use room for attached to the kitchen which was usually the only room in the house with heat. The cooking, living and sometimes sleeping were done in that space. I think of them as early-concept great rooms that we love today in our homes and that’s the space in Hope’s house.

Although Hope grew up in Jefferson, she and her sister don’t seem particularly country oriented. Hope lived most of her adult life in NYC, but she has a barn, in which houses her brood of chickens. Why chickens? When I moved to Connecticut from New York City after I married, we raised ducks. I didn’t necessarily want fresh chicken eggs, but Hope wanted fresh eggs for her baking, and the chickens are great for insect control.

Hope grew up in Jefferson, and she’s known most of the characters since she was a child. That’s a good and bad thing. What’s with frenemy, Meg Griffith? She seems excessively mean? Hope and Meg have a lot of history.  Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the past. With Hope now living back in Jefferson, they’ll have time to work out their differences.

Jane Merrifield is a lovely character. Why did she stop writing mysteries? Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed Jane. She’s so much fun to write. I know when I’m going to write a scene with Jane, I’m going to have a good time. Jane stopped writing when she married and began a family. The Merrifield family has a long history in Jefferson, and she took on many community roles. She just couldn’t do it all. But, maybe one day she’ll get back to writing.

Will possible beau Police Chief Ethan have competition from lawyer and former detective, Matthew? Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t give any spoilers.

What’s next for Hope? In book two, The Hidden Corpse, Hope is taking a food photography class with fellow bloggers and gets tangled up in a case involving a missing woman.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Learning the Tricks of Other People's Trades

Write what you know, they say. So I decided to write about a woman who inherits a gun shop that caters to Civil War reenactors. And I decided that her partner in both romance and crime solving should be a former SWAT sniper who lives in a Buckhead high-rise and drives a Ferrari.

In other words, things I know nothing about.

It might not have been the smartest decision writer-wise, but it did require me to get very good at research very quickly. And I discovered that unlike the research I accomplished using books and the internet, to truly understand my protagonists, I needed to get out of my office.

In other words, right out of my comfort zone and into the fire.

To write someone familiar with a variety of firearms, I had to get myself to the gun range. As it turns out, I’m a pretty good shot—I passed my basic handgun safety course with flying colors. My experience in the Firearms Training Simulator, however, was a different story. I signed up for a session through the Writers Police Academy, a three-day immersive experience at an actual police training facility. My instructor explained very well what was going to happen—the lights would dim, and a scenario would be projected on the screen in front of me. I would be playing the role of a police officer responding to the call, and my Bluetooth-rigged pneumatic firearm would track where I “shot.”

Simple enough, right? So I thought. Sixty seconds later, my trigger-happy, over-adrenalized self had shot up a virtual airport terminal trying to subdue one active shooter. I “killed” the bad guy…and a TSA agent, a businessman, and a honeymoon couple. I learned that this is typical, that people untrained in managing the endocrine overload of such a high-stress situation lose their targeting ability. Their hands shake, and their vision tunnels. It even happens to good shots like me, and it meant that in a real-world situation, I would have been a menace, not a hero. Being a “good guy with a gun” takes an immense amount of regular, hands-on training. I am grateful to the law enforcement officers and other professionals who take on that task.

I performed better in the Academy’s mock SWAT raid. My profile photo here at Writers Who Kill was taken right before my workshop on dynamic entries—that’s me over there on the left in my all-black running outfit and my bright orange plastic rifle. We learned how to clear rooms in a building using two-person teams, breaking off from the stack, working corner to corner to minimize blind spots. I was doing pretty well too…but then I turned my back on what I thought was a neutralized threat, and I ended up dead. Doornail dead.

(Side note: this is the incident that inspired the opening scene of Necessary Ends, my latest book in the Tai Randolph series—you can read that first chapter here). 

In other workshops, I practiced proper handcuffing techniques, wore a fully tricked-out duty belt, and watched a fire and rescue team work a simulated car crash with multiple casualties. I learned about mantracking, underwater crime scene evidence recovery, and canine units. Not only have I come away smarter, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the first responders whose job it is to run toward danger. I heard one police chief say of making such calls, “We’re meeting people on what is probably the worst day of their lives. But for us, it’s just another Wednesday.”

I remember this every time I sit down to the page, that one of our duties as mystery writers is to be true to the real world. It’s why we research, so that our fictional prose rings with authenticity. But our stories should also illuminate the real-life stories of the people who live those Wednesdays, in all their mundanity and horror and complexity. Our fiction may not always be factual, but it should always be true. And so…. back to the research I go.

*     *     * 
Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The sixth book in this Atlanta-based series—Necessary Ends—is scheduled for release April 3rd. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories: