Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Who Watches the Missing? by Martha Reed

If I had to put a finger on the point in time when I became interested in crime reporting and specifically missing persons, it would be July 7, 1974. I had just turned 17, and on that day, a 13-year-old girl named Lizabeth Wilson from the nearby neighborhood of Prairie Village, Kansas disappeared while walking home from the community pool.

Our community was shocked. It was the ‘Seventies, and this kind of thing didn’t happen in our town. In the days before social media, I’m sure the gossip buzzed along the cocktail time grapevine, but the adults certainly weren’t sharing any details with us kids. We gleaned our information from hushed conversations in the high school cafeteria, locker rooms, hallways, and the smoker’s bathrooms on Level 2.

I can recall a feeling of present danger, but it came more from the fact that the adults were shielding us from the event rather than from the suggestion that someone dangerous was walking around our neighborhoods and homes. But the adults shielded us from many topics that nowadays seem almost ridiculously naïve. Those were the days when people still apologized if they were overheard cursing in public, or if a girl’s bra strap showed outside her short-sleeved blouse she practically needed to switch schools to outrun the scandal.

So why did Lizabeth Wilson’s disappearance capture my attention so completely that I still remember it almost 50 years later? At seventeen, I was getting ready to graduate from Shawnee Mission East High School and to tackle individual, college-age independence. I know I was fortunate in my upbringing, but Lizabeth Wilson's disappearance was the first time the outside world broke through my sheltering bubble. It came to me when the crime literally appeared on my doorstep.

At seventeen, I knew I wanted to write, but I hadn’t become a writer yet. At that young age I didn’t have anything to say. But even so, I planted Lizabeth Wilson’s name in my brain because I promised myself that I would keep my eye on her case and follow it until its conclusion.

How did I end up using this? When I wrote “The Nature of the Grave,” my Nantucket Mystery #2, the genesis question was: What happens when you say “see you later” to a family member, and they disappear?

What triggered this blog topic? A more recent case that has continued to grip my attention is that of missing British toddler Madeleine McCann, who disappeared while on a family holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal on May 3, 2007.

In 2020, German police named convicted child abuser Christian Brueckner as a suspect in Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. But this week, Julia Faustyna, AKA Julia Wendlet, a Polish 21-year-old aspiring musician and model posted her claim on Instagram and TikTok that she is the missing Madeleine McCann. DNA testing is pending.

My heartfelt sympathy goes out to anyone who is missing a family member. I can’t begin to imagine the uncertainty, the not knowing. But I am a crime fiction writer and considering “what if” is what I do.

To close, was Lizabeth Wilson’s disappearance ever resolved? Yes. It took 40 years, but in 2001, police detective Kyle Shipps reexamined the case. Teaming up with an agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the police arrested John Henry Horton, a Shawnee Mission East High School janitor, who was charged with first-degree murder. It took two trials before Horton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I do recall that at the time the community suspected him.

For the answer to Madeleine McCann’s case, I’ll continue to patiently wait.

Has a crime ever caught your attention so that you needed to incorporate it in your fictional work?

Monday, February 27, 2023

Drifting Through the Landscape of My Mind by Nancy L. Eady

As I cope with that elegant Southern disease known as “the crud” – basically a vicious head cold with symptoms that verge towards but don’t quite reach bronchitis and a life span of about 14 days whether you like it or not – I have been doing a lot of sleeping. Pretty much whenever I can. When I’m not at work, I’m taking at least two naps a day, which is highly unusual for me. 

So today, after persistent noises from the 21-year-old reminded my husband and I that grocery shopping had risen up the list of chores from recommended to necessary, a trip to Publix left me heading to the house ready to crash yet again. Apparently, walking up and down the aisles at Publix trying to remember what we needed was too much for me. 

This time though, my mind refused to fold into sleep. My eyes closed, my body relaxed into the covers in the cool room, but my consciousness refused to dive into a sleep state. Instead, I drifted gently over the landscape of my mind. Odd thoughts and places floated up and back down – I visited some scenes from The Hunger Games, times when Katniss has a snatch of peace and quiet, and Carol Perry’s Salem, Massachusetts (I’m on book 12 of her Witch City Mystery series), drifted by the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Key West and Disney World, floated over a few scenes from some other books I’ve read recently and then ended up back in my bed with a feeling that it was time to get back up and do something. 

I’m hoping my subconscious corralled all those images so I can blend them together into something coherent in my active imagination and bring a story out of it. At a minimum, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to write about a hot air balloon soon. 


Sunday, February 26, 2023

Journal Hoarding by Annette Dashofy

Every so often, I go on a de-cluttering binge. I sort through my clothes and make piles to donate. A few ancient T-shirts and pairs of jeans that are too threadbare or full of holes go into the trash. 

My office received the de-clutter treatment a couple of weeks ago. I went through stacks of papers. Filed some. Ran others through the shredder. I still have a pile or two that need to be organized. But there’s one cubby in my office shelving unit that I can’t de-clutter. In that cubby, I keep my journals. 

I have been an avid journaler for ages. In high school, I kept one of those small bound diaries with a lock. I have no idea where that one went.

But I again started putting down my thoughts on a mostly daily basis three decades ago. At first, I used spiral-bound, college-ruled notebooks. Nothing frilly. At some point, someone gifted me with a beautiful notebook designed for the very purpose of journaling. It had a cat on the cover. From then on, no more notebooks purchased from the back-to-school sales for me. 

On a whim, I dug through my stacks of hoarded journals and found one dating back to August of 1992. I have a feeling there are earlier ones somewhere in this house, but opening this one and reading a few entries was enough to transport me to a different time in my life. 

Sunday, August 30, 1992

The remains of Hurricane Andrew had squelched our plans to go camping Friday, and we decided to scrap the whole weekend’s camping trip, figuring the trails at Beaver Creek had to be a muddy mess at best. 

(Beaver Creek is an Ohio state park where we used to take our horses and ride the trails.) 

Reading on, I revisited a time when we rented movies (VHS, I bet) and cleaned stalls. There are mentions of friends who have passed on and a few who are still in our lives. I wrote about a favorite restaurant and shop, both of which are now shuttered. I was baking zucchini bread, brewing sun tea, and handmaking Christmas gifts. 

I was still riding my beloved old mare, Jenny, and attending the long-gone Hickory Auction. Alexander was my house cat, while Barney lived in (no surprise) the barn, keeping the mouse population under control. 

And my mom and dad and father-in-law were all alive and well. 

For the most part, my journals are badly written and contain boring day-to-day stuff. Who came to visit. What I fixed for dinner. Mundane tasks. And yet, there is no way I would part with any of them. Opening a page is like striking a match to ignite the memories of my youth. 

Do you keep a journal? Have you ever done so? If you do, do you keep all of them? Feel free to share a few of your journaled memories. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Best Writing Advice by Kait Carson

Someone recently asked me for my best writing advice. The question gave me pause. Faced with a newbie writer looking for guidance, I felt a heavy responsibility. Whatever I said had to be both attainable and accurate. Thousands of quotes floated through my mind. Write what you know; butt in chair, fingers on keyboard; at that very moment Hemingway’s open a vein and bleed felt like the most honest suggestion! When the haze of possibilities lifted, I gently suggested that the best advice was different for everyone, but the advice that worked for me was get out of your way and write!


There is no easy way to write. Well, not for most of us. I do know some authors who sit down and write a book from start to end in a week. They are the exception, though. For the rest of us, it’s like square dancing. Two steps forward, two steps back, and a do-si -o or two before the curtsey.


The two steps forward are easy. Those are the words that flow. It’s the back steps that will kill you. That’s when you write those flowing words, and then read a blog that purports to have a better method, or a book about writing faster, or an article about a more efficient story structure, or a…. You get the idea. If you’re like me, you look at what you’ve written, and wonder if trying out xyz will make it better, or easier, or more commercial. That means those flowing words get a rewrite, or your process is revamped. In any event, you fall prey to do-si-do and instead of moving ahead, reinvent the wheel.


Here's my advice. STOP THAT! Get out of the way. Put those words on the page, sit, stay, write. There is no magic formula to writing. What works for you, works for you. It may not work for Stephen King or even Hemingway, but they’re not writing your story. You are. Keep learning, of course, use suggestions from others that complement your writing style, but trust yourself first.


Writers and readers, do you tend to stick with what works for you or are you always seeking a better way?

Like her protagonists, Kait is an accomplished SCUBA diver, hiker, and critter lover. She lives with her husband, four rescue cats and flock of conures in the Crown of Maine where long, dark, nights give birth to flights of fictional fantasies.

You can reach Kait and sign up for her newsletter at kait@kaitcarson.com

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Friday, February 24, 2023

Writing Better: A Blog by Warren Bull

 Writing Better: Tips from Successful Writers and Me Too. A Blog by Warren Bull

Image from Pixaby by Loveprintedvers


Lisa Cron

What grabs readers isn’t beautiful writing, a rip-roaring plot, or surface drama; what grabs readers is what gives those things their meaning and power: the story itself.

 Joe Bunting

The best way to fail at being a writer is to spend all your time proving you know what you’re doing rather than learning from the people and resources around you.

Randy Ingermanson  

You need to be told when your writing is bad and why it’s bad, because when you start writing, your work will be awful and you will imagine it’s brilliant. You also need to be told when your writing is brilliant, because by the time your writing is brilliant, you will have been told so many times that your writing is bad that you’ll imagine you are the worst writer who ever lived.

Philip Yancey

“Do not attempt this act alone.”

Yes, writing is a solitary act, performed in isolation. But the editing process needs different sets of eyes to help clarify the writer’s vision and meaning.

The grouchiest curmudgeons make the best editors; praise feels good, but only criticism helps me improve.

Michele Cushatt

The writers who endure are those who can’t not write, the ones for whom contracts and publication are secondary rewards.

Rather than aiming at recognition, they chase understanding. They lean into the struggle, learn to marvel at the untangling of complexities and the transcendence of unforgettable stories.

Writing holds the power to transform you and the way you see the world in a way few other human experiences can. This is the real reward, the one that lasts long after the lights go out.

Julie Duffy

Don’t wait until you have something “important” to say. You are living now, and you’ll never be able to recapture the feeling of being 15, 22, 36…not really. The things that matter to you now, won’t matter in the same way when you’re older, and the things that matter to you when you’re older won’t necessarily be more important. You might know more, but that won’t make you more interesting or important. Write now.

Don’t wait, because when you do have something important to say, you won’t want your writing to be rusty. Your writing will change and evolve, and when you get stuck you will seek out the mentors and teachers you need to move you to the next stage.

Don’t wait, because the best ideas come when you’re writing. You will never, never run out of ideas, as long as you keep writing.

Don’t wait for anyone to tell you to write. Whether or not anyone ever pays you to write, or asks you to contribute, or gives you permission to sneak off and steal an hour or two to tell stories on paper, writing is a part of you. You are more fully yourself when you accept and embrace that. You’re easier to live with when you’re writing, so claim the time you need, and don’t wait. Make it a priority to do the writing, rather than to worry about whether you’ll ever make a career of it. 

Warren Bull

I have a number of rules of thumb that I find helpful in critiquing work that I apply to my own writing. 

I am a member of a critique group, which cues me about my own bad habits. A careful reading of other people’s work is a way to practice careful reading. 

!s sound like people shouting inside my head. They can be helpful if used judiciously, and rarely.

Punctuation is no substitute for writing well. It is a sloppy, ineffective substitute for the real work of writing.

If you don’t have the writing chops to pull off what you want in a story, save the story and leave it alone for as long as it takes. You can practice and improve your skills until you acquire the skills to do justice to the concept. I have postponed story ideas for years on end before putting them out for consumption. 

Before I put that soapbox away, presenting work that is not yet ready for prime time is like starting a sailboat race by heaving the anchor over the side of the boat. Readers judge you on what you give them. That half-baked story will float around forever. Readers will, understandably, think the level of skill shown is the maximum level you have achieved. There are writers who I avoid because of what I have been shown. I don’t react as if offended, but because life is too short to waste time reading under-written material. 

Note: I have found some writing that offended me and I avoid those authors too. They are few in number. 

If you don’t have the knowledge to write about something, take the time to acquire the information you need. Then return to the story.

Read your work aloud. After a number of revisions, I only see what I wanted to write, not what I did write.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Help! I'm Moderating a Panel by Connie Berry

For the first time in my writing career, I’ve been asked to moderate a panel at Left Coast Crime 2023 in Tucson, Arizona. Not only that. My panel features four best-selling, multi-published authors who’ve won tons of awards and sold lots of books. I’m familiar with one of the writers because I’ve followed her writing for years. The others I don’t know at all, not because they’re not well-known (they are), but because they write in a genre I generally don’t read.

I’m excited and a little daunted.

How do you prepare to moderate a panel? The first thing, I imagine, is to understand the theme of the panel. I was a panelist not long ago in which the moderator, a lovely woman, misunderstood the theme and thought we were there to talk about romantic suspense. None of us wrote romantic suspense. Things went downhill from there.

To avoid that mistake, I’m doing my due diligence. The first thing I’ve done is read, or rather listen to, each of the author’s latest books. That’s been fun. I’ve also stalked them on social media and studied their websites. We’re meeting briefly the morning of the panel, which I hope will help everyone feel more comfortable (“everyone” meaning me). The best thing will be for the panelists to have fun and interact with each other and the audience. My job now is to come up with questions that will bring out their unique personalities and writing styles and satisfy what is sure to be a large audience.

That’s where I am, nineteen days out and counting.

What words of wisdom do you have for me?
Have you been on a panel that worked? How about one that didn’t?

I need all the advice I can get. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023


The first time I heard about the author’s contract with their reader was when I was working on my MFA at Seton Hill University. It was a new idea, but it was a concept that resonated with me. What contract you ask? Rather than a physical contract signed by two parties, the author contract is a commitment to meet readers’ expectations. Want to know more? Well, read on.

The author/reader contract is best described as a commitment between authors and readers of genre fiction to deliver what’s promised. In essence, authors are committing to adhere to the basics of the genre. If a book is a romance, then the reader has every reason to expect that there will be some kind of romantic elements. If the book is fantasy, then the reader is expecting magic elements. If the book is crime fiction, then…guess what? There should be a crime. Sounds simple, right? Things get complicated when there isn’t a clear definition of what genre or subgenre the book falls into and what the “rules” are for it.

I write cozy mysteries. Cozies are a subgenre of crime fiction. The basic elements that most people agree on (most of the time) are that cozies almost always feature an amateur sleuth—usually female. There’s no graphic violence or explicit sex, and no bad words (well, not many). Most cozies happen in a small town or close-knit community, and they tend to focus more on whodunit than on how it was done.

In a cozy, you will not get all the gory details about a murder. In fact, the actual murder almost always happens off screen (e.g., Jessica Fletcher stumbles across a dead body). For that reason, cozies are often considered “clean mysteries.” Those are the basics that MOST people agree on, but there are a lot of elements that people don’t agree on. Cozies are often humorous and lighthearted and often include themes, such as crafts, cooking, pets, or hobbies. If you go to a bookstore or Google cozy mystery, you’ll see covers that include cats, dogs, birds, knitting, quilting, and a plethora of culinary or food related themes.

So, what’s the contract that the cozy mystery author is making to the reader? In short, a cozy author is committing to deliver a mystery without explicit sex, graphic violence, or bad words (not many). Readers should be able to go to the cozy mystery shelf and pick up any book and know exactly what they’re going to get. And just like every other contract, the agreement between the author and the reader is a two-way street. That means the reader has a responsibility, too. Choosing a cozy means the reader is agreeing to “suspend disbelief” and accept that a small town baker/bookshop owner/librarian/quilter can outsmart trained law enforcement personnel and solve crimes, that an amateur sleuth can run a business, and still manage to track down a killer, and that sometimes animals really can talk.


While visiting the land of Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, bookstore owner and amateur sleuth
Samantha Washington finds herself on a tragical mystery tour . . .

Sam joins Nana Jo and her Shady Acres Retirement Village friends Irma, Dorothy, and Ruby Mae on a weeklong trip to London, England, to experience the Peabody Mystery Lovers Tour. The chance to see the sights and walk the streets that inspired Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is a dream come true for Sam—and a perfect way to celebrate her new publishing contract as a mystery author.

But between visits to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel district and 221B Baker Street, Major Horace Peabody is found dead, supposedly of natural causes. Despite his employer’s unfortunate demise, the tour guide insists on keeping calm and carrying on—until another tourist on their trip also dies under mysterious circumstances. Now it’s up to Sam and the Shady Acres ladies to mix and mingle among their fellow mystery lovers, find a motive, and turn up a murderer . . .

Buy Links: Amazon, Apple, BAM, Bookshop.org, Google Play, Hudson, IndieBound, Kobo, Nook

About the author

V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International, and Sisters in Crime. V.M. Burns is the author of the Dog Club Mystery series, the RJ Franklin Mystery series, and the Agatha Award nominated author of Mystery Bookshop Mystery series. Valerie is a mentor in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program for writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. She currently resides in East Tennessee with her two poodles. Readers can keep up with new releases by following her on social media.

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/v-m-burns

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vmburnsbooks/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/vmburnsbooks/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/vmburns

Website: vmburns.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

An Author Collective

by Paula Gail Benson

Last November, Sarah E. Burr posted about her “Character Collective,” featuring an interview with the protagonists of her three series. Her message made me think about the groups that have had a significant impact upon my writing this past year.

As a person whose main work is short stories, I’m always looking for places to submit. By reviving its anthology series, the Malice Domestic organization has offered a venue for new and experienced authors. This year’s volume, Mystery Most Diabolical, contains stories by Leah Bailey, M. A. Blum, Michael Bracken, Susan Breen, Marco Carocari, Mary Dutta, Christine Eskilson, Nancy Gardner, Barb Goffman, Alexia Gordon, B. J. Graf, Maurissa Guibord, Victoria Hamilton, Kerry Hammond, Peter W. J. Hayes, Smita Harish Jain, Cynthia Kuhn, Margaret Lucke, Sharon Lynn, Tim Maleeny, Lisa Q. Mathews, Adam Meyer, Alan Orloff, Keenan Powell, Graham Powell, Lori Robbins, Cynthia Sabelhaus, Nancy Cole Silverman, Shawn Reilly Simmons, C. J. Verburg, and Andrea Wells. It was a true honor to have my “Reputation or Soul” included with these many fine writers. In addition, it was a great pleasure to have Shawn Reilly Simmons as the wonderful editor. During this year’s Malice Domestic conference, we had a signing for all the attending authors. I sat next to Lori Robbins and got to know more about her novels.

Since 2012, I’ve been submitting stories to the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. An online journal of the Bethlehem Writers Group based in Pennsylvania, the Roundtable has gone from monthly non-paying market to a quarterly publication that has increased its maximum story word count from 2000 to 2500 words and pays $50 for featured stories, $20 for other stories, and $10 for poems. In addition, it holds an annual short story contest, which will be judged this year by Barb Goffman.

I’ve been fortunate to place in the short story contest on two occasions and have been delighted to have my stories in the online publication as well as reprinted in a collected volume. Over the years, I met Carol L. Wright and Marianne H. Donley at Malice Domestic and Killer Nashville. I always told them I would like to attend a meeting of the Bethlehem Writers Group. Then, during the pandemic in 2020, the Group offered a digital membership and I was asked to join. I did so eagerly and have learned so much from having my stories read and critiqued by the Group.

During the first eighteen days of this month, blogging partners at Writers Who Kill published a serial novella for which we each had written a chapter. Having the opportunity to work in conjunction with a diverse group of authors helped me to appreciate more about their craft and to work on my own ability to develop a seamless transition from one point in the story to the next.

Similarly, the members of the Bethlehem Writers Group are co-writing a story where each of us develop a specific character. It has increased my awareness of the benefits of different writing styles and insight into how an idea that seemed to be going in one direction could quickly morph into something altogether different.

Additionally, I’m grateful my time travel story “Sense Memory” appears in the Bethlehem Writers Group’s most recent anthology An Element of Mystery: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales of Intrigue. The other authors who are included in the book are: Courtney Annicchiarico, Jeff Baird, Peter J Barbour, A. E. Decker, Marianne H. Donley, Debra H. Goldstein, Ralph Hieb, DT Krippene, Jerry McFadden, Emily P. W. Murphy, Christopher D. Ochs, Dianna Sinovic, Kidd Wadsworth, Paul Weidknecht, and Carol L. Wright as well as two short story contest winners, Trey Dowell and Eleanor Ingbretson.

I joined the Romance Writers of America and the Lowcountry Romance Writers (LRWA) Chapter many years ago, before we had Sisters in Crime chapters in my state. I’ve always appreciated the craft presentations and learning about marketing. Romance writers truly have learned how to effectively sell their fiction! In addition, LRWA has many successful independently published authors who are very savvy about editing and cover design.

Two years ago, the chapter offered all members the opportunity to be published in Love in the Lowcountry, an anthology of stories that took place in Charleston over the winter holidays (Thanksgiving to New Years). Each story that was accepted had to go through a vigorous beta reading process as well as developing promos to be used in social media. It was like boot camp, but it was tremendously successful. This year, the chapter decided to create Love in the Lowcountry, Volume Two. Like the first volume, it included experienced authors along with newbies and it expanded the holiday season (from Halloween to Valentine’s Day) and the territory (anywhere in South Carolina). The eleven authors with stories included are: Linda Joyce, Suzie Webster, HM Thomas, J. Lynn Rowan, Addie Bealer, Robin Hillyer Miles, Victoria Houseman, Elaine Reed, Victoria Benson, Danielle Gadow, and myself. 

I remain grateful to Malice Domestic, Writers Who Kill, the Bethlehem Writers Group, and LRWA for supporting and fostering authors. They certainly have helped me to become a better writer.

The profits from all the books I’ve mentioned in this message go to keep these groups functioning. If you are looking for some excellent reading or need to buy gifts for readers, please consider these works. You’ll be benefiting the readers, writers, and organizations.

What are you reading this month?

Monday, February 20, 2023


Family by Debra H. Goldstein

Family. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “family”as being: a group of one or more parents and their children living together as a unit; all the descendants of a common ancestor; or a group of related things. I beg to differ with the dictionary’s definition. The basis for my argument is clear if, during the past eighteen days, you read the Writers Who Kill’s group short story, Broken Hearted Killers.


The twists and turns, which I won’t reveal here, demonstrated the interaction that can be attributed to parents and children, but in a way that went beyond living together as a unit. The story showed how blood relationships and interpersonal relationships create different types of families. It also demonstrated the shades of grey, greed, and misunderstandings that can muddy whether the descendants of a common ancestor truly are family.


More importantly, Broken Hearted Killers, highlighted another type of family that the people behind Merriam Webster’s offerings never considered. It is the family of writers – a group of humans not related things – who came together behind the scenes to offer their talents, wisdom, criticism, and humor to fashion what you had the opportunity to read. Most of us have never met in person. We don’t break bread or regularly have a drink. What we normally do in terms of our writing is done in isolation. Yet, through the Writers Who Kill blog, we share thoughts and ideas with you and encourage each other. Writing the story, we put aside our differences and worked to the goal of producing a coherent piece of work.


It was fun. We threw in red herrings, drove our editors nuts by veering in various conflicting directions, and offered our own interpretation of what family meant in Broken Hearted Killers. We proved what has often been said about writers in general – that we are a supportive family even if we don’t meet any standard definition. Do you have “family” versions in your life that don’t meet the Merriam Webster dictionary’s definitions or is yours a model “family?”

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Bringing It All Together by Sarah E. Burr

I hope you all enjoyed reading our serial novella, Broken Hearted Killers. This was the first time I’d ever participated in such an endeavor, and it was a thrill to write alongside so many distinguished authors. Seeing how our characters evolved in the hands of others was a treat, leaving me in suspense as the story went on. Once we had finished writing Broken Hearted Killers, I took on the additional challenge of creating a cover image that tied everything together.

Luckily, this wasn’t my first time with cover creation. I design and create the covers for my Glenmyre Whim Mysteries, so I was excited to take on a project with a much different tone. Where my paranormal cozy mystery series is whimsical and light-hearted, the mystery central to Broken Hearted Killers weaves a more twisting, ominous picture. Helen Hornsby may be an amateur sleuth, but this story leans toward the more traditional mystery than the cozy atmosphere I’m used to writing and designing covers for. So, when it came time to tie everything together and showcase it in an image, I really had to think. What were the significant elements at play? What themes or objects were referred to by the sixteen authors who participated in the project?

As I was brainstorming, the first item that came to mind was the toy train found at the crime scene. I knew right away the cover needed to feature the toy train in some way, but how? A cover displaying the toy train next to a dead body felt too gruesome; Broken Hearted Killers had many light-hearted moments, and I didn’t want those erased or ignored.

Enter the red envelope, another element frequently referred to throughout Helen’s investigation. The image of the red envelope and the train blended together fairly quickly, and I knew I had my central point of focus. When designing a cover, there’s always a risk of things being “busy.” Sometimes busy works, but in this case, I decided that less would be more. With just the envelope and train featured front-and-center, it would straddle the line between traditional crime and cozy. Add in the broken-heart sticker as a little *wink wink* (this is a Valentine’s Day treat for our readers, after all), and I had my foreground all set.

Now, it may sound silly, but the most time-consuming part of this cover project was choosing the title font. It often is when I’m designing graphics. Why? The right font can make a cover; the wrong font can completely confuse your reader. For example, choosing a font more aligned with a fantasy tone could attract an unsuspecting reader. I’ve read reader reviews along the lines of, “I thought this book looked like a sci-fi novel, but it ended up being about a small-town romance. Disappointed.” Despite the saying, many people do judge books by their covers and nothing else, so it’s important to have your cover authentically convey what your book is about.

So, with all that in mind, I had to consider what—or whom—Broken Hearted Killers was really about. Naturally, my musings turned to Helen, a retired schoolteacher. The teachers I had when I was growing up always had the most beautiful handwriting when they wrote our assignments on a chalkboard (yes, I am old enough to have lived through chalkboards being used in school). I recalled their elegant letters and knew Helen would have the same enviable handwriting. Since Helen was our fearless protagonist and this was her story, I searched high and low for a font symbolic of her stylish script. It took a lot of trial and error, but eventually, I found a font that looked like Helen had scribbled down the title herself.

Bringing all the elements of Broken Hearted Killers together was such a fun way for me to culminate my time working with Writers Who Kill on this novella. A lovely bow on a truly memorable experience!


Saturday, February 18, 2023

"Broken Hearted Killers" - Epilogue

By Connie Berry


From: helenhornsby@hotmail.com

To: melody.smart@alikelystory.com, charles.fairweather@fairweatherlegal.com,     

      foxylady@ashleyahlgren.com, pseaforth@choochoopharm.net 

Subject: Page Turners

Three days have passed since the killings began. This has been a difficult time for us all. We’ve given our separate statements to the police, but certain questions remain unanswered. I suggest we meet at A Likely Story to talk through the events that have taken place these past days. Melody has graciously agreed to host us, and I’ve asked Detective Torres to drop by if he can. Will today at 4:00 p.m. be convenient? Please let me know. Your friend, Helen Hornsby

Helen read through her email one last time and pushed send.

#  #  #

The late afternoon sun slanted through the picture window of A Likely Story, highlighting the pan of brownies Helen had baked that morning. The large coffee urn was almost finished percolating. Melody had set out paper plates, cups, and napkins.

Everyone was there, except Ashley. No one knew how to begin.

“Help yourself to a brownie,” Helen said. When no one made a move, she added, “I’m hoping Detective Torres will join us—and Ashley. She’s apparently been at police headquarters all day, giving evidence in the murder of her ex-husband.”

As there was no response, Helen continued. “Melody said it two days ago—there are too many unanswered questions in this case. MacGuffins, she called them.”

“That’s the literary term.” Melody was filling paper cups with coffee. "I was an English major, you know. It means something that seems important but turns out to be irrelevant.” She handed Helen a cup. “Of course, the unanswered questions could also be red herrings—details that lead you in the wrong direction.”

Melody’s voice was flat, and Helen couldn’t help noticing that her usual brisk manner had vanished. Her skin had taken on a gray cast, and the lines on her forehead and around her mouth had deepened.

“Each of us holds a piece of the puzzle,” Helen said. “If we pool what we know, we may begin to understand what really happened.”

“I agree,” Charles said. “One of the false clues was that red envelope found in Iris’s apartment the day she was murdered.”

“And those little toy trains,” Melody added. “They turned up everywhere.”

Helen turned to Philip. “Perhaps you can explain.”

“The murders had nothing to do with me.” Philip’s Adam’s apple bounced in excitement. “The red envelope contained the bill of sale for the last lot of the Lionel train collection.” He blinked. “Although that must have been what triggered the attack on you, Charles. I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean?” Helen asked.

“I’d added a note of personal congratulations to the receipt. Iris told me about her fiancé, and I scrawled something like Congratulations on your forthcoming wedding.

“Yes, I see,” Helen said, nodding slowly. “Renee denied looking inside the red envelope, but I knew she was lying. She must have read your note, Philip, and believing Charles was Iris’s secret fiancé, dashed over to his office to confront him.”

Charles’s hand went to the bandage on his head. “Just so you know, I never promised Renee I would marry her. I do regret not considering her feelings.” He rubbed his nose. “Actually, it was you who triggered her jealousy, Helen. You told Renee that Iris and I had a date Saturday night.”

“I thought you did.”

“Wait a minute.” Melody put her hands on her hips as if she were accusing Charles of stealing cookies from the cookie jar. “So, you and Iris really were planning to marry?”

“No!” Charles’s head whipped around. “It wasn’t me. I told Renee my relationship with Iris was professional. She didn’t believe me, but it was true.”

“Then Iris’s fiancé must have been you.” Melody pointed her finger at Philip. “There aren’t that many older men with full heads of silver hair around here.”

“That’s preposterous.” Philip wrinkled his beaky nose. “Not that I wouldn’t have been interested—at least at one time. After Lionel died, I asked her out. She laughed at me. She actually laughed.” His pale face turned pink.

Helen could believe that of Iris. She remembered how Iris had mocked Philip and his choice of All Aboard! My Life in Model Railroading. And how cruel she could be.

“Well, then, the only remaining candidate is poor Gus,” Melody said. “I’d never have believed it.”

“You shouldn’t,” Helen said. “I asked Gus straight out. He denied it—and I know he was telling the truth.”

“So, who was her fiancé?” Charles asked. “Or was it just a fantasy?”

“You should know,” Helen said. “Weren’t you the one who drew up the contract for the purchase of that villa?”

“Yes, but the contract was in Iris’s name alone. I did ask her who the lucky man was. She just winked and told me I’d have to wait to find out.”

“Maybe Detective Torres knows,” Melody said. “If he comes tonight, we’ll ask him.”

“Let’s get back to this MacGuffin thing,” Charles said. “If you weren’t involved, Philip, why all those miniature trains at the crime scenes?”

“I didn’t know they were crime scenes, did I? They’re just cheap things—I buy them by the lot, give them out to everyone. Advertising for Choo Choo Pharmacy.”

“You left one in Iris’s apartment along with the receipt in the red envelope,” Helen said. “But I found one in the freight elevator.”

“Must have dropped it.”

“How about the one in Charles’s office?” Melody asked.

I can explain that,” Charles said. “Philip left my office just before Renee arrived. He’d dropped off an official accounting of the money Iris received for the sale of the Lionel trains. I was handling her purchase of the Harris-designed villa. Since she’d offered them cash, they required proof that the money was in the bank. Philip left a model train. I didn’t know he did that all the time.”

Helen cut the sheet of brownies into generous squares and transferred them to paper plates. “Someone has to eat these.”

Melody took two. “Speaking of food reminds me of that book on toxic wildflowers. I must admit that when I first heard Iris was dead, I assumed someone had poisoned her. What was the big deal with that book anyway? I’ve never had so many orders for the same book.”

“The book is about wildflowers in general,” Helen said. “Not just toxic ones. If you’d been listening in on the garden club committee meeting, you’d know that this year’s gardening contest is a wildflower garden. It seems to have captured everyone’s imagination—including mine.”

“All this is interesting,” Philip said, rolling his hand impatiently. “But the real question is who killed Jared Ahlgren? We know Betty August’s death was an accident. Gus’s death was a heart attack, probably triggered by witnessing the murder of Jared Ahlgren.”

Helen felt a stab of grief. She’d always had a crush on Gus, and the time they’d spent together after Iris’s death had rekindled her admiration.

 Philip was still talking. “We know the attack on Charles was triggered by jealousy. Renee’s obsession with Charles got the better of her. And Nella killed Iris—she’s admitted it. But who stole Helen’s letter opener and thrust it into Jared’s heart?”

Melody Smart, who’d been quiet during this discussion, burst into tears.

Helen leapt to her feet. “Quick, someone bring her a glass of water.”

“I don’t need a glass of water.” Melody waved away Helen’s ministrations. “I know I wasn’t a good mother. I gave up my twins and look what happened to them.” A fresh stream of tears rolled down her cheeks. “Nella will spend the best part of her life in jail, and Jared is dead.”

“None of that was your fault,” Charles said. “You did what you thought was in their best interests. You were young. Their father had vanished.”

“Do you think we should we try to locate their father?” Philip asked. “I’m sure there are military records.”

“What good would that do?” Melody blew her nose. “Charles told me he died a long time ago.” Melody blew out a long breath. “I never guessed the identity of my twins, although I did wonder for a time if Ashley was my daughter. I’ve always cared about her, the poor thing—raised in such a bad environment. We bonded over books, and I loved those twins of hers.” Melody’s forehead creased. “By the way, I found the note Ashley left, telling me she’d picked up the twins. It must have been swept under a bookcase when Betty fell.”

“Makes sense,” Helen said without thinking. Her thoughts were with her own child, her daughter, the one she was told had died because it was “deemed best.” Had her baby been adopted by a loving family? Was she now married herself? If she was, Helen might even have grandchildren. I can’t think about that now. She refocused on the conversation, which had turned to Iris’s will.

“Who will inherit all that Vermillion money?” Philip asked. “With the sale of the Lionel trains, Iris had a fortune.”

Melody started to say something, but Charles cut her off. “I can answer that as well. You probably know I drew up the wills for both Iris and Lionel Vermillion. We know Iris promised a quarter million to Nella and then reneged in favor of Ashley and her twins. The problem is, Iris actually owned nothing in her own right. All the money was Lionel’s, put in a trust for Iris during her lifetime. Now that Iris is dead, his entire fortune—including the proceeds from the Lionel train collection—will go to Lionel’s next of kin.”

“But Lionel and Iris never had children.” Helen shook her head in confusion. “Was that why Iris pretended to be Nella’s mother? A way to control the estate, even after her death?”

“What you have to understand,” Charles said, “is that Iris lived much of her life in the realm of fantasy. As her lawyer, I was sworn to secrecy, but now that Iris is dead, it doesn’t matter. Early on in their marriage, Iris had a series of false pregnancies. The medical term is pseudocyesis. She would actually develop symptoms—nausea, fatigue, swelling of the belly—but there was no conception and no fetus. After the last episode, Lionel had her hospitalized. I think that’s why Iris got involved in the adoption business. Maybe she hoped to adopt one of the babies and pass it off as her own. Lionel’s death ended that. Or maybe Iris really convinced herself that Nella was her daughter. Magical thinking—if she said it enough, it would become true.”

“But then she turned to Ashley,” Helen said. “Why?”

“That’s something I can’t explain,” Charles said. “When you lose your grip on reality, anything can happen.”

The bell on the shop door jingled. Everyone looked up as Ashley Ahlgren entered the room with Detective Torres.

Charles Fairweather scooted his chair over to make room for the newcomers at the table.

Detective Torres pulled out a chair for Ashley and took a seat “I have news. We know who stole Ms. Hornsby’s letter opener and used it to kill Jared Ahlgren. I thought you deserved to know.”

Helen, who’d always known the answer in her heart, moved closer to Melody and took her hand.

“Nella Williams killed Jared. She denied it, of course, but when we showed her the footage from Ms. Hornsby’s electronic doorbell, she confessed. “Ironic. She was the one who insisted Helen install the thing.”

“But why?” wailed Melody. “Why did Jared have to die?”

Ashley jumped up and threw her arms around the older woman. “Jared might not have been the best husband in the world, but he was the twins’ father. He didn’t deserve to die like that.”

As Ashley and Melody hugged, Detective Torres said, “When Iris told Nella she was changing her will in favor of Ashley and the twins, she also told her she’d found copies of Nella’s and Ashley’s birth records in one of Lionel’s safe deposit boxes, and she’d decided to give the quarter million dollars to Jared Ahlgren—so he could leave his life of crime, support his twins, and possibly get back together with Ashley.”

Ashley huffed. “That was never going to happen. I’m sorry, Melody, but Jared and I were never going to be a family again. He was a good father, but he was never a good husband.” She squared her shoulders.

“So, Nella decided to eliminate her rivals,” Philip said “It was all about money with Nella, wasn’t it? If she hadn’t been caught, you would have been next, Ashley.”

Melody stroked Ashley’s hair. “I believe it. After all, she didn’t hesitate to kill her own brother, her twin. Nella was a monster.” She sobbed once and dabbed her eyes. Then, looking up, her brows drew together. “Ashley, do you mind if I ask you about Philip? You two have been spending time together. We all thought you were involved romantically.”

Of course not,” Philip hooted. “Hunhk, hunhk. I’m old enough to be Ashley’s father.” He held up one hand. “I’m not her father, in case you’re wondering, but I could be.” His face softened. “Like you, Melody, I’ve known Ashley since she was a girl. She and Jared used to help me build my train layouts. That’s how they met. Of course, it ended for Jared when his boss at the hobby shop caught him stealing cash. That’s why he went to jail. Ashley came to me because she needed a reason for Jared to leave her alone.”

“I guess I was looking for a father,” Ashley said. “I needed his advice.”

“Here’s a question we’re all asking,” Melody said. “Who was Iris planning to marry? Was she lying?”

“She wasn’t lying,” Detective Torres said. “The day after Iris’s murder, an older gentleman stopped in the police station. He said he was Iris’s fiancé. His name was James Turner.”

Helen clapped her hand over her heart. “He’s the head of the Garden Committee.” She turned to the others. “You know--the one who handed Iris the trophy at the banquet.”

“Yes, of course,” Melody said. “I never considered him.”

“Not surprising.” Detective Torres made a face. “The poor man said the whole thing was Iris’s idea. He didn’t know how to tell her no. While he was sad about her death, I got the distinct impression he was also relieved.”

Everyone was silent for a moment, taking this in.

“You haven’t said anything about Renee.” Charles looked at Detective Torres. “I told you I’m not going to press charges. It was as much my fault as hers.”

Detective Torres tilted his head and shrugged. “Unfortunately, the law doesn’t see it that way, Charles. She assaulted you. You might have died. She will have to face a judge, although I believe the prosecutor has agreed to ask for a suspended sentence. Maybe community service.”

“She can volunteer for the community garden committee,” Helen said, still feeling guilty for telling Renee that Iris and Charles had a date.

“Well, the whole thing is just sad, isn’t it?” Charles said. “Nella was a good friend to Helen, and she had so much potential. Think of all the good she did for children with psychological problems.”

 “It is sad,” Helen agreed. “A tragedy on all counts.” She covered her face with her hands. “There was a side to Nella I never saw.” 

“There’s one last unanswered question,” Philip said. “Why did Iris tell Renee that if anything happened to her, the police should look to Helen first?”

“That’s a question that may never be answered,” Detective Torres said. “Iris isn’t here to tell us. At any rate, we’re satisfied that Ms. Hornsby had nothing to do with her death.”

“I must say, I’m relieved,” Helen said, but she couldn’t help noticing that Charles was looking at her with an odd look on his face. Did he still suspect her?

“I think it’s time to do what we came for,” Melody said. “I’ll be right back.” She dashed out of the conference room and returned with a bottle of brandy. “Let’s raise a toast to our missing club members.” She poured a small amount of the amber liquid into paper cups and passed them around.

Charles stood, and everyone joined him. “To Gus O’Boyle—a good friend. Once a cop, always a cop. He died as he lived, trying to right a wrong.”

Everyone raised their glasses. “To Gus.”

Helen’s eyes filled with tears. She brushed them away before anyone noticed.

“And to Iris Vermillion,” Charles said in his lawyerly voice. “A lover of fiction—in books and in life.”

“To Iris.”

They’d started to sit down when Ashley stopped them. “And to Jared Ahlgren.” She lifted her chin. “He lived a troubled life, but he loved his kids—and he didn’t deserve to die like that.”

Everyone mumbled their agreement. “To Jared Ahlgren.”

As they took their seats, Melody said, “Ashley and I have some news as well, and we’d like you to be the first to know.” She reached over and took Ashley’s hand. “Would you like to tell them, dear?”

Ashley nodded. “This has all been a bit difficult to process, but the papers Lionel Vermillion kept hidden in the safe deposit box—the ones Iris found—revealed that he was my biological father.”

Helen’s heart jumped to her throat. “Who was your mother?”

“The records didn’t say. Iris gave me a name, but it can’t be true. Actually, she said you were my mother, Helen, but she was just making it up—playing God as usual.”

“Anyway,” Melody said. “That means Ashley is Lionel Vermillion’s heir, and she can prove it. It will take time to process through the courts, but Ashley will inherit the Vermillion fortune.”

Ashley patted her heart. “The twins will never have to wonder where their next meal is coming from.” She smiled at Melody. “And I’ve decided to make something of my life, put that money to good use. I’m going to be a partner in the bookstore, A Likely Story.” She laughed. “Appropriate, I’d say. Truth is always stranger than fiction. We’ll make a go of it together—Melody’s expertise and my money.”

Everyone clapped.

“To celebrate,” Melody said, “Ashley and I have decided to offer Howard’s End to the members of the Page Turners at a twenty-five percent discount. Now, who would like to order a copy?”

Every hand shot up.

Excited conversation followed as the members of the club took turns congratulating Ashley and Melody. Helen was still thinking about those hidden papers. She stared at Ashley, searching for a resemblance to dear Lionel.

And to herself.

As everyone pulled on their jackets, Charles Fairweather surreptitiously handed her an envelope. “I hope this will right an old wrong,” he whispered. “You were told your daughter died at birth. It wasn’t true. What you do with the information is your call. My lips are sealed.”

#  #  #

Later, back in her small condo, Helen held the envelope with trembling fingers.

Slowly, she opened the flap, pulled out the single sheet of paper inside, and read the words three times.

Ashley had been so angry. Would she ever be able to understand? It was all so long ago, and Ashley was happy now. She had Melody and Philip to support her and the twins emotionally. She had her father’s money to provide security. And Helen couldn’t help noticing the way Detective Torres had looked at Ashley. Was a romance brewing there?

Helen took in a ragged breath. All’s well that ends well, Shakespeare had said. Yet, there was a hole in her heart.

Maybe she would tell Ashley the truth one day. Not yet.

Helen reached for her glass of red wine and clicked on the final episode of As Time Goes By.

The End