Friday, July 29, 2011

Can Reader Engagement Go Too Far?

Posted by L.J. Sellers, mystery/suspense novelist
Being a middle child, a nice person, and a workaholic, I’ve spent my life trying to do the right thing and make people happy. As a member of a dysfunctional family, I’ve given up the goal, but as novelist, I’m still trying to satisfy my current readers while reaching out to new ones. Some days though, I’m not sure what I should be doing.

The new catch phrases in marketing are content and engagement. Content seems easy: Just keep writing stories that people want to read. But the experts say that’s not enough. They say I need to pen informative blogs, write short stories to give away, and create entertaining videos. So I’m doing all that.

Engaging readers is a less-concrete concept and I’m starting to think the idea is more hype than practicality. For example, a well-read blog recently advised authors to do the following:
  • Listen—Create ways to listen to your readers and collect data about what you hear; use focus groups and surveys to support regular listening mechanisms.
  • Customer knowledge—Find out why people buy your products (or not), why they recommend you to others (or not), why they are repeat buyers. Understand what else they buy.
  • Conversations—Find unique ways of connecting with readers, ways that will enhance your brand as an author, ways that enable dialogue, not one-way broadcast.
  • Collaborate—Go beyond listening and conversation to collaborate with your readers, perhaps testing your products in advance of a full launch or soliciting ideas for additional content.
  • Community—Build a community of your readers. Facilitate mechanisms for readers to interact with one another as part of this community and to broaden the reach to additional readers.
Some of this is intuitive and I’m already doing it. But focus groups and surveys? Does this seem over the top? As a consumer, I hate surveys, and I’m not likely to ever clutter my readers’ in-boxes with a questionnaire that makes them feel like a cash cow. Collaborate? Meaning, ask readers where they’d like me to take the series or characters? I’d get as many different answers as there are readers.

In fact, that’s the biggest problem with engagement. Some readers like to interact with authors. They send e-mails, go to conferences, and participate in book discussions. Many readers, perhaps the majority, would rather not engage with the author. They simply want to read the books and move on. I’ve heard readers say they don’t even like seeing an author bio in a novel, because they enjoy the story more if they don’t know anything about the writer.

I understand and respect this. I also love readers and book clubs who contact me to talk about my stories. So I make myself as available as I can, while trying to find the middle ground and not waste time on activities that readers will ignore or find annoying.

Readers: How much and what kind of engagement with a novelist do you want? What are authors not doing that you'd like to see more of?
Writers: How far do you take reader engagement?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What I learned about print reviews

 By Judith Yates Borger, who never really lost faith in the power of newspapers

Because my emphasis is on epublishing, I hadn't paid a lot of attention to print reviews. That changed this week when my local newspaper, the StarTribune ran a Sunday review of my next book, Whose Hand? A Skeeter Hughes Mystery.

The reviewer, Steve Weinberg, a Columbus, Ohio journalist, said that Whose Hand? is "filled with places and events recognizable to Twin Cities residents."  He added that it's written by "a skilled stylist, and the plot unfolds without flaws of illogic. Far too many mysteries are bedeviled by illogical plot developments." Weinberg, who collects books about journalists, paired his review of Whose Hand? with a review of Killing Kate, by Julie Kramer, whose protagonist is also a reporter. It's unusual, he said, to have two books about two different female journalists released at the same time in the same city. He hailed both books as "first rate."

Whose Hand? is only available right now through Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble nook. It's in pre-order and will be published in paper in mid-August.  But apparently the review moved people who own ereaders to act. By Sunday late afternoon, Whose Hand?'s ranking on Amazon had zoomed up 175,000. My first book, Where's Billie? had gone up 200,000 ranks.  Both books were among the top 9,000 best sellers among Kindle's 750,000 ebooks. 

What's significant here is not so much the ranking but the huge swing in ranking caused by just one review. In a newspaper, no less.

By contrast, Publishers Weekly called Whose Hand?  a "diverting regional mystery with appeal to readers beyond the Twin Cities." I could not see any significant change in my Kindle sales after the Publisher's Weekly review.

I think there are two lessons here. It doesn't take a lot of sales to move an ebook way up the sales list. But more important, we have to pay attention to good, old newspaper coverage. It matters. 

Have you had a similar experience?  Tell us about it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hardboiled: An Interview With Kelli Stanley

by Marlyn Beebe.

The delightful Kelli Stanley was kind enough to do a short interview with me.

Welcome, Kelli!

MB:It’s apparent that you love noir. How did that start?

KS: I think I was born with it. I’ve always loved the period from the 20s through the 40s, and somehow was drawn to the narrative rituals of noir and hardboiled crime fiction. When I was in third grade, I wrote a play about a gangster who is betrayed by a French girlfriend and is gunned down while trying to save her from Nazis. A little unusual for an eight year old, so I can only assume it’s genetic!

I still love the era—and I enjoy many of the noir style conventions, particularly in film—lush, black and white photography of rainy streets with neon is absolutely beautiful to me. But what I’ve tried to do with CITY OF DRAGONS and the Miranda Corbie series is to subvert the misogynistic machismo inherent in so much of the genre, as well as portray the period as it was—rather than how we wish it had been.

THE CURSE-MAKER and the ‘Roman noir’ series is more of an affectionate homage, with a hero who is strong but also sardonic—and very aware of his own weaknesses.

MB: Arcturus is a physician from the Ancient Roman era. How did you decide on the historical setting?

KS: The only common wisdom I knew about the writing business was to “write what you know.” And after long years of study for my BA and MA, what I knew was Greek and Roman culture, history and language. I didn’t want to go on for a Ph.D., so I closed my eyes and took a big chance and wrote a book. That was NOX DORMIENDA.

At the same time, I was more interested about the affects of Rome as an influence, a conquering nation, rather than writing about the city itself. I’m fascinated by the intersection of cultures, and how they influence one another. And I’ve always loved England. So the idea of Roman Britain seemed natural, particularly since it’s one of the provinces we have at least some idea about, thanks to Tacitus. He wrote a monograph extolling the virtues of his father in law—Agricola—who was governor in the late first century. Agricola is Arcturus’ patron, so developing this actual historical figure into a character was a lot of fun.

MB: Could you describe your research process?

KS: Well, it varies with the series. For the Miranda series, I surround myself with old newspapers, ephemera from the past, find bits of history that intrigue me to work into the books. CITY OF SECRETS takes place partly in Calistoga, and a post card of a particular “sanitarium”—that’s what they were called—was very inspirational in the direction of the book. I also pay visits to libraries, and absolutely devour photographs. My most valuable asset is a 1940 San Francisco Yellow Pages!

For the Roman noir books, I spend more time at home—unless I can afford a trip to England. I felt like I lived in Rome for several years, and have an intuitive understanding of the culture. I also have an extensive classics library and research books, though at times I need to buy specialized texts. For THE CURSE-MAKER, I expanded my books on magic and curses, and I always keep an eye out for the most recent research, especially since new archaeological discoveries tend to upend previous conjectures.

MB: You are neither male, nor a physician, nor an ancient Roman, but you write from Arcturus’ point of view. How do you get inside his head?

KS: LOL! I’m interested in people—I like people—and psychology, and characters tend to develop themselves. Before I ultimately earned my degree in Classics, I was a Drama major, and I approach writing like an actress … I am both in my characters’ heads and outside of them, just as when you’re on the stage, you’re in character enough to cry or scream or whatever you need to do, but enough yourself to be mindful of your cues and your marks. I am a very empathetic person, which makes it easy for me to identify with most people.

MB: You seem to spend a lot of time on the road. Do you enjoy that or is it just part of the job?

KS: One of the privileges of being published is to get to meet the people who’ve read and enjoyed your book! J It’s an absolute honor. If I could afford it, I’d travel more than I do now—ideally, I’d like a cross-country tour by car for about six weeks out of the year.

Plus, people inspire me, as does traveling itself. New experiences open up new brain synapses, new channels for creativity. I always come back from tours or a conference tired—because I also hold a day job—but excited and inspired!

MB:Thank you so much for sharing with me and my readers, Kelli. What’s up next?

KS: Thank you, Marlyn, for the wonderful interview questions and for being one of the mystery community’s librarian heroes!

I’m currently working on the third Miranda Corbie book, CITY OF GHOSTS, as well as a contemporary stand-alone thriller set in Humboldt County. CITY OF SECRETS—set three months after CITY OF DRAGONS—releases on September 13th, and the CITY OF DRAGONS paperback hits stands on August 30th. So I’ve got another book release—and another tour—coming up later this year. I’m looking forward to traveling in the fall!

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name

What? You were expecting a picture of a rose? Only if I couldn't find a picture of a cute dog.

Sometimes I'm like a dog with a bone, and when I want to get answers, I chew. A lot.

One of my bones was this question: Why would someone chose to write using a pseudonym?

Here's what I've come up with so far:

  • Your real name is too difficult to pronounce. Something Norwegian with a lot of consonants with funny things over them, and no vowels;
  • Your real name is immanently forgettable. Jane Smith comes to mind;
  • You write in more than one genre, like Roberts-Robb;
  • You would be embarrassed if people knew you wrote that kind of book;
  • You're under the illusion you'll maintain some kind of privacy;
  • You want to know what people really think about your writing;
  • You want to suffer the pain of bad reviews in private;
  • You write in a genre where it seems those of your opposite sex find more success. Women romance writers or male horror writers.
  • Your name has already been taken by another writer;
  • Your name is well known, and not in a good way. Casey Anthony. Jim Jones.
  • You're at the top of your game in the corporate world, and if your peers or clients knew you were 'wasting your time' writing a fiction book, your business would suffer;
  • You're a surgeon who writes about a serial killer who dismembers his victims; or
  • You're a divorce lawyer who writes sweet romance.

I plan on using my own name for a couple of reasons:
  • ego;
  • sales. Some people will buy the book(s) because they know me. Why lose those sales?

If you used or use a pen name, why?

If you don't, why not?

As a reader, what goes through your mind when you learn that an author is using a pseudonym?

Peg Brantley is working toward publication, picking herself up from frequent stumbles. Metaphorically. Asking her to do that literally could be a bad thing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why the Decision to Kill off a Character can be Murder on an Author

By Andrew E. Kaufman

Somewhere during the course of my novels, someone has to die—actually, several people do. That’s just the nature of the beast. My stories revolve around evil-doers, and most will stop at nothing to get what they want. Even murder. And really, what’s a mystery without a body or three?

That’s not to say writing them is easy—it isn’t. For an author, killing off characters is a big responsibility and in some cases, risky business. After all, plotting a novel is one thing—plotting a murder is completely another. It has to make sense, has to fit in with the story, and most importantly, has to move things forward in a logical manner. Kill the wrong character and you could wind up with a real mess on your hands (so to speak). The effects can be catastrophic, throwing everything completely off-balance. I know this because on occasion it’s happened to me, and when it has I’ve had to chuck the entire story and start all over again. Trust me, folks, it's no fun: we're talking pull-your-hair-out-of your-head, gnash-your-teeth-to-powder sort of moments.

Then there’s the emotional side. Like readers, we get attached to our characters, too, probably even more so. For me, they’re like my children. I created them, and sometimes I hate to see them go. So when the story dictates that one of them must die, it can be troublesome, to say the least. I often don’t want to do it. I struggle. That’s when I have to step away from my feelings and remember that it’s all about the story. The good news is that hopefully, if I’m feeling the pain, the reader might, too. Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting it right. Or maybe it’s just a sign that I’ve lost my mind. Not sure which.

And there are other risks, implications which can occur off the page. Killing the wrong character can make readers really angry.

That’s what happened to Karin Slaughter (SPOILER ALERT) a few years back when she ended the life of one of her most beloved characters. It created a huge backlash. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. It got so bad in fact that Slaughter ended up having to post a letter on her website explaining her decision. Not sure whether it made a difference, but as an author I can understand what she went through.

So what about you? Readers: ever been really upset over the death of a character? And authors: What have your experiences been while offing one of your peeps?

Let's chat.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thrillers vs. Mysteries

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Thanks to the legacy of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes mysteries), the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, Murder She WroteColombo, and many other old favorites on-screen and in print, most of us are familiar with the mystery genre.

But what’s a thriller?

How are suspense-thrillers different from mysteries?

Both are fiction stories involving criminal activity, catching the bad guy(s), and at least one murder.

The main difference
seems to be in the delivery—how they are told. Mysteries are usually more cerebral, like solving a puzzle, whereas thrillers appeal more to the emotions and a quest for excitement and dangerous situations. A mystery, especially a “cozy” one, can unfold in a leisurely fashion, but thrillers need to be much more fast-paced and suspenseful.

James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, among other “damn good” books on writing, says, “In the United States, mysteries are not considered to be thrillers, though they share some common elements.” Frey describes the differences like this:

“In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.

In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil.”

Frey goes on to elaborate, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero into terrible trouble.”

According to International Thriller Writers (, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace. Thriller is a genre in which tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world. Part of the allure of thrillers comes from not only what their stories are about, but also how they are told. High stakes, nonstop action plot twists that both surprise and excite, settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.” (Source: James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller)

David Morrell, best known for his debut 1972 novel First Blood, which was the basis for the successful Rambo films, and author of 28 thrillers, most recently, Shimmer and The Naked Edge, posed the question several years ago, “What is a Thriller?” He decided to explain the difference between thrillers and mysteries because “some readers evidently have a porous view of who-done-its, crime stories, action stories, suspense stories, thrillers, etc, and group them all together as mysteries."

Morrell and the International Thriller Writers organization don’t consider thrillers mysteries. “What is a thriller?” asks Morrell. “It is an encompassing term into which many crime, action, and suspense stories can be grouped. It applies to a variety of types: the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action-adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the police thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, the religious thriller, the high-tech thriller, etc. New types are constantly being invented. What gives them their common ground is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration of excitement and breathlessness. By definition, if thrillers do not thrill, they aren’t doing their job. Sometimes, they build rhythmically to a rousing climax. Other times, they start at top speed and never ease off.”

So, asks Morrell, “…what’s the difference between mysteries and thrillers? According to him, “One crucial distinction is that traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt. It’s not that thrillers don’t have ideas. […] But in broad terms, the contrast is between emotion and logic, between an urgent pace and a calm one. True, the two genres can merge if the scavenger hunt of a thriller involves solving a puzzle. But in a thriller, the goal of solving the puzzle is to excite the reader as much as to satisfy curiosity.” (David Morrell,

Which do you prefer, mysteries or thrillers?

It probably depends on your mood, but personally, I much prefer the pure escapism and “pulse-pounding suspense” of thrillers.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary mystery writers?

How about your most-read thriller and romantic suspense writers?

Mine include Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline, Michael Connelly, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Allison Brennan, Robert Crais, Lisa Jackson, Janet Evanovich, David Morrell, and Lisa Gardner. Who am I missing? Any recommendations?
Then there are the fast-paced mysteries that seem to straddle both genres.

For suspense-mysteries, I love LJ Sellers' page-turning Detective Jackson series. And maybe I should put Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar stories and Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole stories into the hybrid category of suspense-mysteries, too. What do you think?  Any others you like that have elements of both?

What about your favorite thriller characters?

I love Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and the two men in her life — both hunks!

Do you have any other favorite crime fiction characters to recommend?

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback.
For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, July 15, 2011

When reseach becomes more than research

One of the bonuses of writing for a living is a flexible schedule. We writers can be working at midnight and swim or bike at 3 o'clock if we're so inclined. It's a great life, especially if it pays in dollars.

But even if the income is, shall we say, unpredictable, the writing life also can pay in other ways: the freedom to be part of the neighborhood. A couple years ago I volunteered to read to kids waiting to see their doctor at HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center) in downtown Minneapolis. On Thursday mornings I walked about 10 minutes, past the Mall of America Metrodome, to the center, grabbed a bag of books, and sat in the lobby reading to kids, or their siblings. Most of the kids loved hearing about Clifford's latest escapades, or searching for Waldo. I suspect their parents liked the respite. Then, as kids left their appointment they were allowed to choose a book to take home. The idea was to encourage literacy, and in a tiny way, I think it worked. But last spring I dropped the gig because it didn't give me a chance to get to know any of the kids. It felt like shift work. Plus, I was worried I'd get caught up in the latest measles epidemic.

Then, one day, I walked into the Somali Resource Center in Riverside Plaza (known to the University of Minnesota students who live nearby as Crack Towers)  and volunteered  as an aide to an English as a second language class one morning a week. It has turned into exactly the activity I wanted. I get to see the same people every week. Habiba. Dube. Hussein. Hua. I work with them in small groups as they struggle to learn English, which I've come to realize makes no sense. Most of the students are well over 60, and many never learned to read in Somali. Yet they keep working. I take two or three aside and help them read sentences such as "The shower is leaking. Call the manager."

I look forward to each Wednesday morning class for the chance to be with people, for the stimulation, for the change of scenery from my computer.   I'm also learning about customs, mannerisms, habits of Somali women, a community where I plan to set my next book in the Skeeter Hughes mystery series.

Have you ever turned a work or volunteer opportunity into a mystery?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fear Factor

Posted by L.J. Sellers, who used to think she was fearless

In my personal life I try to be optimistic, but in my fiction I write about my fears. It’s been true since I sat down to write my first novel. At the time, Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news and my greatest fear was that a sexual predator would kidnap and kill one of my three young boys. So I wrote a story about a woman who tracks down her son’s killer. The experience was cathartic, and I continued the practice in future novels, because as it turns out, many readers share the same fears.

Being kidnapped and held against my will is another dominant fear for me and millions of other women as well—because it happens!—so the theme occurs often in crime fiction novels, including two of mine (The Baby Thief, Secrets to Die For).

Most of my stories though have elements of fears that are very personal to me. For example, when I wrote The Sex Club, the first book in the Detective Jackson series, my son was in Iraq and I worried constantly that he would die. My sister had just succumbed to cancer and I grieved for her and worried for other members of my family. So Kera, my main female protagonist, was dealing with those elements. Right or wrong, I couldn’t separate those emotions from my writing and they ended up on the page.

Soon after that, my husband was diagnosed with retroperitoneal fibrosis, which triggered all kinds of fears for me. He faced a life of pain, multiple surgeries, and likely an early death. Without being consciously aware that I was doing it at first, my Jackson character started having pain and health issues. Eventually, he was diagnosed with RF, and in Thrilled to Death, he underwent a surgery, very similar to the one my husband experienced. Readers tell me they enjoy my characters, who are realistic, yet unique, so incorporating true-to-life, frightening details adds richness to my stories while helping me work through emotional challenges.

In late 2009 when I was writing Passions of the Dead, I was dealing with unemployment: mine, my husband’s, my brother’s, and dozens of other people I knew. I witnessed the devastating effect it can have on families. That fearful theme became dominant when I outlined the story. My Jackson novels of course are always about crime, murder in particular, and my main goal is tell a great story. But every fictitious crime needs a unique, complex, and compelling motive, and I look for those motives in the fear I’m experiencing.

Some of my fears are more social and universal. I fear that as a society we have wrongfully imprisoned hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people. Dozens of news stories about the release of prisoners wrongfully convicted continue to feed this fear, so that issue, which is often the result of coercion or intimidation, is part of the plot in Dying for Justice, the fifth Detective Jackson novel.

Right now I fear for the future of our country if the economy doesn’t improve. I also fear for our comfort and safety if the extreme weather patterns continue and grow worse. So I’m writing a futuristic thriller in which those fears come into play. Guilt and redemption are also prominent themes in The Arranger, which will release in early September. (If you're a book reviewer and would like a copy, please email me.)

Soon I’ll start work on the next Jackson book. I have a list of ideas, many culled from true crime cases found in the news. Regardless of what I decide in the beginning though, you can bet that as the plot develops, whatever fear is most prevalent on my mind will surface in the story.

What fears do you like to read about in fiction? Which fears are too intense for reading pleasure?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Not your typical Southern belles...

The Darling Dahlias and the Naked Ladies by Susan Wittig Albert.*

Reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

If you are a fan of Susan Wittig Albert's you'll know that she writes the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries whose protagonist is an ex-big-city lawyer turned small-town proprietor of an herb shop and The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter with the beloved children's author solving mysteries that occur near her home in England's Lake District, as well as a mystery series in collaboration with her husband Bill, and some non-fiction titles as well.

Last year Ms. Albert published the first in yet another series, about a women's gardening club located in the fictional town of Darling, Alabama who call themselves The Darling Dahlias. The Naked Ladies (released July 5) is the second in the series.

The reclusive Miss Hamer's house has a lovely bed of naked ladies in front of it. ("Naked lady" is the common term for lycoris squamigera, because the flowers appear after the leaves have withered and dropped.)

However, the flowers are not the only naked ladies at Miss Hamer's house. The old lady's niece Miss Nona Jean Jamison has moved in, and Verna Tidwell, the Dahlia's secretary, is certain that Nona Jean is really an ex-Ziegfield dancer called Lorelei LaMotte. Verna enlists her friends (the two other single young members of the group) Elizabeth Lacy and Myra May Mosswell to help her find out the real reason for Nona Jean's incognito visit.

The author has done an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of the American South in the early days of the Depression. As Ms. Albert notes in her foreword,

...the characters use the terms "colored", "colored folk", and "Negro" when they refer to African Americans, and the attitudes of white people toward their black fellow citizens reflect the conscious and unconscious racism of the times... I intend no offense.

Attitudes towards women were also very different in those times, and the three young members of the gardening club, (though Verna is a widow) unmarried women who live alone and work to support themselves are considered unconventional .

Included at the end of the volume are "old-fashioned" housecleaning tips, and some of the Dahlia's favorite recipes, which are definitely worth trying.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher, who sent me a copy of the book for review purposes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Casey Anthony—Her Family—And The Secrets Reflected in Their Handwriting

Peg Brantley here, turning over my time at the gate to someone who has some timely juice to share.

Please welcome Sheila Lowe to Crime Fiction Collective. Sheila is a forensic handwriting examiner (and an author), and she's taken a peek at some of the people surrounding the Casey Anthony murder trial. Read what she has to say about what their handwriting reveals.

(Sheila examined a sample of my handwriting awhile ago, and nothing horrendous must have shown up because we're still friends. Phew!)

The Anthony’s — The secrets in their handwriting

Casey Anthony has been judged Not Guilty by a jury of her peers. The reactions go from one end of the spectrum to another. The family is even receiving death threats.

It has been some time since a trial has created such intense public interest—maybe not since OJ Simpson, or Scott Peterson. Allegations of murder, sexual abuse, illicit romance created a veritable soap opera that could never be sold as fiction. It’s just too over the top to believe.

At the center of the circus is Casey Anthony, now 25, a young woman who has been proven to be an inveterate liar, accused of the most heinous crime—overdosing her 2 year old daughter with chloroform and leaving her body to rot in a wooded area where men go to relieve themselves and dump garbage.

Part of Casey’s defense has been that she was the victim of childhood sexual abuse by her father George and her brother Lee, which, her attorney claims, was covered up and taught her to live a lie. As a forensic handwriting examiner, I was interested to analyze samples of the major players in this drama, to see what could be revealed about their personalities.

Handwriting is not a crystal ball. It cannot determine whether Casey killed her young daughter, nor whether her father and/or her brother molested her. However, it does reveal a lot about behavior and motivations. If I had been unaware of the accusations, the signs of early sexual abuse were evident in her handwriting. That is, Casey’s handwriting is similar in many ways to the handwritings of other women who were the victims of childhood abuse.

The excessively large, overly rounded, crowded style are signs of a weak ego in someone who grew up believing that the world revolved around her. Never learning how to set proper boundaries gave her an unrealistic view of the way things work. There isn’t enough “air” in the writing, words are crammed up against each other, allowing for zero objectivity. There’s an inability to set boundaries between herself and others. As someone who sees only how things affect her, she fails to look at the big picture.

The lack of lower loops are an indicator for secrecy and denial, in that her desire and ability to look back at the past and learn from it are cut off. Her personal pronoun “I” is made like a stick figure, which is interesting in that the PPI represents the writer’s feelings about their parents. Generally speaking, we’re taught in school to make the I with an upper loop (feelings about mother) and a lower loop (feelings about father). When a writer cuts off the loops and makes a straight stroke, a bid for independence, pushing away the parents.

Casey’s handwriting has a very slight leftward slant and is “print-script,” a combination of printing and cursive. There’s a big conflict between her big emotions and her cool-heatedness, so she can be both highly impulsive and premeditated, depending on her mood of the moment—and because she doesn’t plan ahead, her life is lived in the moment. Her signature is illegible, another form of covering up. She crosses through her last name—her father’s name—which is a way of denying him.

Turning to George Anthony’s handwriting, he has two styles (only the cursive is shown here). As a former police officer, he sometimes uses block printing, but he also writes in cursive. His cursive style has a rather feminine appearance (gender is not conclusively revealed in handwriting), and the writing is very regular, with strong rhythm. Handwriting analysts look at contraction and release, which indicates how balanced the writer is in the way they express emotion and control emotion. George’s writing is strongly contracted, meaning that he holds everything inside, where it builds up until it explodes (which we have seen on the witness stand). This type of writing also say that image is extremely important to him. For anyone to see him as less than perfect and totally competent produces feelings of intense humiliation. People with this type of handwriting are usually willing to go to some lengths to keep up appearances.

Casey’s brother, Lee Anthony’s, handwriting slants in a variety of directions. The baseline, even though he’s writing on lined paper, bounces up and down, too. And the size of writing fluctuates. All this variability points to tremendous inner conflict, emotional torment—and of course, with good reason in this case. It’s more than that, though. People who write like Lee tend to feel as if they didn’t get the nurturing they needed early in life. He’s very sensitive, quite different from his sister, who is about as sensitive as a rock. He may feel as if he never quite fit in, that he’s missing something that everyone else seems to have. He’s also impatient and can be quite critical and sharp-tongued—notice the i dots that look like dashes. Because he feels emotionally isolated, it’s probably hard for him to relate to others on their level, but of these three people, I would tend to believe what Lee says more than any of the others.

What about Jesse Grund, a former boyfriend of Casey’s? Surprisingly, perhaps, Jesse’s handwriting shows a reasonable overall balance. There are no big red flags that stand out—maybe that’s why they broke up. He looks like a nice guy, and she needed someone who would feed her insatiable need for approval and attention that bordered on worship, but also someone who would abuse her, speaking to her inner fear that she’s not loveable.

Finally, let’s take a peek at Casey’s mother, Cindy Anthony. Cindy’s handwriting says she’s what we might call a “good girl.” She wants to do the right thing, to keep things orderly and take care of the people she loves. After all, she’s the one who got this ball rolling by calling 911 and reporting little Caylee missing. Underneath the good girl, though, is a rebel that defiantly pops out every now and then—we see this in letters that suddenly grow large, such as the “k” in “know,” and the “s” at the end of “always.” Her signature is particularly interesting, with its little bow tie on the top of the “o” in “Mom.” Because of the area in which it appears, it could be interpreted as symbolically locking her lips and keeping her own secrets. And keeping secrets is something at which this family seems to excel.

Sheila Lowe is a forensic handwriting examiner who testifies in cases involving handwriting. She is the author of the Forensic Handwriting Mysteries ( and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis. Sheila also helped to produce the Handwriting Analyzer software—try it out free at For more information about handwriting analysis, visit her website:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is it Time for a Men's Liberation Movement?

By Andrew E. Kaufman

A while back, I sent a friend request to someone on Goodreads. Her response was polite, but it surprised me a little. No, wait. That's not exactly true. It suprised me a lot. She started out saying:

You do realize in my description, I don't read male authors, right?


Actually, I’d missed that. The only thing I’d really noticed was that she seemed to enjoy paranormal fiction, much like I do. Which was why I’d asked her to be my friend. She went on:

I'm still game to accept you as a friend if you are okay with the fact that I probably won't read your books . . . I might try it only because you asked to be a friend.

I hadn’t sent the request because I necessarily wanted her to read my book—although, in the current climate of frenzied author self-promotion, I certainly understood how she might have perceived it that way. But being an inquisitive type, I had to ask why she would limit herself to just same-sex authors (her genres of interest, by the way, were not particularly female-oriented).

I got two answers. First she said, semi-jokingly (I hope):

I'm a sexist, and my strong femi-nazi male hating phase isn't over, even though I married a truly wonderful man.

Then she gave a more logical explanation. It was detailed and lengthy, so I'll summarize: she said that her experience has been that most male authors tend to characterize women as being dumb and helpless, that they’re always waiting for a white knight—either that, or they’re injected into the story simply because it fits the formula. She also added that male authors often portray women as being shallow and two-dimensional.

Really? Most male authors do this?

Stieg Larson's Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) immediately came to mind (who, incidentally, was based on how he imagined Pippi Longstocking might have been as an adult; another uber-strong female literary character). Lisbeth is definitely not shallow, far from two-dimensional, and not dumb. Or helpless. And if she fits into a formula, I've never seen it.

That's just one example of a strong male-generated female character, but I'm sure I could go on listing others; we all know they exist.

This wasn't the first time I'd seen male authors—or males in general—being painted with the same brush, and it kind of bothered me. Not because I'm necessarily gender-proud, but because I've never seen the world as being that black and white. I'm more a shades-of-gray kind of guy.

Just recently, my esteemed colleague, Peg Brantley, brought up a similar topic here on Crime Fiction Collective. In one of their discussion threads, the Sisters in Crime group (incidentally, of which I happen to be a member) was debating author gender bias. What it boiled down to was this (she summarized):

Men, because they pretty much know they are dogs and capable of doing horrible things, write about a human who seeks redemption.

Women, on the other hand, consider themselves underdogs and write about a human who seeks affirmation and worthiness.

Capable of doing horrible things?

Now, since I’m the only male on this blog, and knowing that about 75-percent of my readers are female, I’m going to tread lightly here. Don’t want to upset either (Mamma didn't raise no fool). But I do have to ask:

Females: Does an author’s gender much matter to you? Do any of the above comments ring true?

And dudes: What’s your take on all this? Is it time for a Men’s Liberation Movement?

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

And we have a winner!

The winner of Clare O'Donohue's Missing Persons is Theresa de Valence.

Congratulations, Theresa! I'll be emailing you for your snail-mail address.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pricing Your Way to New Fans

by Allan Leverone

I’d like to thank my friend and editor extraordinaire Jodie Renner for her gracious—and utterly irresponsible—invitation to me to guest-post at Crime Fiction Collective today while she’s en route to Manhattan for Thrillerfest. I’m men’s size medium, by the way, Jodie, in case you want to bring me back a Lee Child t-shirt. Although good luck getting it off him.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about promotion. I’m going to start with the assumption that genre authors want to sell books. I know I do. It would be nice to be so pure of motive that sales meant nothing, that the process of writing was reward enough in itself, but can we agree that’s a load of bunk? Can we agree that’s a sentiment best left to the “literary” authors, who write books where nothing much happens and it’s all very introspective and ethereal?

Because I sure hope I’m not alone in wanting people to buy and read my work. I love to write, but if I wanted to write for myself I could just keep a journal.

So as a thriller/horror author you’ve probably never heard of, promoting my work is almost as high a priority for me as ensuring the quality of that work. That’s where reasonably-priced e-books come in. When I say “reasonably priced,” I’m talking about e-books priced lower than what you would pay for a mass-market paperback, preferably a lot lower.

Obviously, authors contracted with large traditional publishers have no say in the pricing of their work, but if Indie authors, those working with small presses or releasing their work on their own through rights reversion, price their work low enough, a book that defies easy genre classification can potentially gain a wide audience, introducing people who may never have sampled an author’s work to that author.

I’ll use as an example Dave Zeltserman. Fans of noir/crime fiction are probably familiar with his work. But what about readers in other genres? What motivation would, say, a fan of paranormal fiction or urban fantasy have to try Dave Zeltserman’s work? Until recently, none.

But with the rise of reasonably-priced e-books, a fan of urban fantasy might look at Zeltserman’s BLOOD CRIMES (it’s a vampire novel, sort of), priced electronically at a very reasonable $3.99 at Amazon, as a worthwhile gamble. That fan might read the book and discover she loves it, and what will she do if that happens? First, she’ll tell her urban fantasy-reading friends about this great book she just read from this cool author, and then she’ll go out and try another Zeltserman book, maybe a book that’s not strictly, or even partly, urban fantasy.

My point here is not to pump Dave Zeltserman’s tires—although if I don’t sell more books I may end up pumping his gas—my point is to demonstrate how reasonable e-book pricing can potentially earn an author more fans and, consequently, more sales and more money, in the long run than that author might have expected to earn. Books that may have been rejected in the past by what we consider “traditional” publishing houses because they don’t fit neatly inside narrowly-defined genre labels, have a chance at gaining an audience and exposing that audience to the author’s other work as well.

And if the books are good enough, it becomes a win-win for everybody.

Allan Leverone is a three-time Derringer Award finalist as well as a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. His debut thriller, Final Vector, was released in February by Medallion Press. A follow-up, The Lonely Mile, is coming this summer from StoneHouse Ink, and his horror novella, Darkness Falls, will be released in September as part of Delirium Books acclaimed collectible horror novella series.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer Special: Detective Jackson ebooks $.99 in July!

As a thank you to readers who’ve supported me and made it possible for me to write full time—and in celebration of my birthday—I’m offering all five Detective Jackson books on Kindle and Nook for $.99 for the month of July. (I just posted the price change to Nook, so it may take a day or so.)

All five stories for the price of a tall latte! If you’ve already bought my series, thank you! Please tell your friends and family about this great offer. Here’s a link to all five on Amazon. And here are brief blurbs for each book. They’re standalone stories and can be read in any order….with an average 4.5-star rating on Amazon.

The Sex Club:
A dead girl, a ticking bomb, a Bible study that’s not what it appears to be, and a detective who won’t give up.

Secrets to Die For: A brutal murder, a suspect with a strange story, a missing woman with secrets to hide—can Jackson discover the truth in time to save her?

Thrilled to Death:
Two missing women with nothing in common, a dead body, and a suspect who hasn’t left his house in a year—Jackson’s most puzzling cast yet.

Passions of the Dead:
A murdered family, two high-octane suspects, and a deadly home invasion lead Jackson on the most disturbing case of his career.

Dying for Justice: Two unsolved murders from the past, a corrupt cop, and dying man’s confession—Can Jackson find the link and stop the rampage?

Happy July!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Can Too Much Forensic Science Smother Your Fiction?

By guest blogger D.P. Lyle, author, doctor, and forensics expert (The Writer's Forensics Blog)

If you write crime fiction in any genre—hard boiled, cozy, thriller, romantic, literary—you must have some knowledge of forensic science. Even if your story doesn’t include DNA or fingerprints or toxicology or autopsies or any of the other forensic techniques, you have to know what’s out there. Failure to do so can sink your story.

You might not directly use any of these techniques in your yarn but you must acknowledge that they exist or risk losing the reader. You see, readers are smart. Especially readers of crime fiction. They know how crimes should be investigated and recoil when simple, common sense things are avoided. For example, if your killer breaks and enters and commits a murder, your investigator must consider such things as fingerprints, shoe prints, hair and fiber, tire tracks, DNA, and many other types of evidence. Okay, so maybe your little old blue-haired sleuth doesn’t use these procedures herself but she must be aware of them if she is to be clever enough to solve the confusing crime you have created for her. And the police that are also investigating the crime definitely should. Avoiding at the very least a passing mention of these techniques will cause your reader to lose confidence in you as a storyteller.

Delving into these techniques in any detail isn’t necessary but letting the results of these tests impact your characters is essential. It’s not the science that pushes the story forward but rather the effect the science has on your characters that’s the driving force.

What about the other end of the spectrum? Can too much science kill the story? If you stop for lengthy scientific explanations will the forward momentum of your story die?


Remember, the story is not about the science, it’s about the characters. The science is not important per se, it’s the effect of the science on the characters that drives the story. The methods of DNA analysis are boring. The details of toxicological testing will flat out put you to sleep. But if the DNA points a finger at your innocent protagonist or the toxicology results suggest that the old man died of poisoning and not a heart attack, tension and conflict follow. And that’s what drives a story.

In my latest Dub Walker novel, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, there are many forensic science techniques in play. Autopsy findings, traumatic wound analysis, ballistics, toxicology, and time of death determination to name a few. But none of these are the story. These techniques might solve one problem but inevitable generate more questions. When one thing is figured out four more possibilities emerge. And each of these apply pressure to Dub as he tries to uncover the person, or persons, responsible for a series of bizarre murders perpetrated by someone with incredible surgical skills and state of the art toys.

Even my other new book, Royal Pains, First Do No Harm, which is a comedy/drama tied to the popular TV series and not necessarily crime fiction, contains forensic science. The testing itself is never discussed but the results, at first confusing, ultimately allow Dr. Hank Lawson to zero in on the bad guys.

Character and conflict. That’s what’s important in storytelling. Science merely adds to the conflict and ramps up the pressure. Never lose sight of the fact that it’s a character under pressure that makes readers turn pages and your stories will carry those readers into the world you’ve created.

How much forensic science detail do you like in your crime fiction?