Monthly Archives: November 2011

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

If you want your thriller or other crime fiction to be a compelling page-turner, make sure you’ve included most or all of these elements:

1–A protagonist who’s both ordinary and heroic. Rather than having a “Superman” invincible-type hero, it’s more satisfying to the readers if you use a regular person who’s thrown into stressful, then increasingly harrowing situations, and must summon all of his courage, strength and inner resources to overcome the odds, save himself and other innocent people, and defeat evil.

2–A likeable, sympathetic protagonist. The readers need to be able to warm up to your main character quickly, to start identifying with her; otherwise they won’t really care what happens to her. So no cold, selfish, arrogant characters for heroes or heroines!

3–A worthy adversary for the protagonist. Your antagonist needs to be as clever, strong, resourceful and determined as your protagonist, but also truly nasty, immoral and frightening.

4–An interesting setting. Readers like to find out about places they haven’t been, whether it’s the seedy side of Chicago, glitzy Hollywood, rural Kentucky, the mountains of Colorado, or the bayous of Louisiana — or more distant, exotic locations. And milk your setting for all it’s worth.

5–A story that fits the protagonist and vice-versa. If it doesn’t, change your protagonist — or your story line. You can always use your present one in another novel.

6–An inciting incident. What happens to the main character to set the story events in action? Make it tense and compelling.

7–A great plot, with ongoing conflict and tension. You need a big story question and plenty of intrigue. And every scene should contain tension and conflict of some kind. If it doesn’t, delete it.

8–Lots of suspense. Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. See my blog post at

9–Multiple viewpoints. Narrating the story from various points of view, including that of the villain, will add interest, complexity and suspense to your novel. But don’t head-hop within a scene! Wait for a new scene or chapter to change viewpoints.

10–A tight, generally fast-paced writing style. Streamline your writing to improve flow and pacing. Go through and take out all unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs, and any repetitive phrases, events or ideas. Thrillers are not the genre to wax eloquent.

11–Increasing danger. Keep putting your hero in deeper and deeper trouble, to stretch his courage, determination, physical abilities and inner resources to the maximum — and increase the reader’s admiration and emotional investment in him!

12–Troubles that hit home. Endanger the protagonist or someone close to her, to add a personal dimension and more stress to the threats and conflicts.

13–Internal struggling of the protagonist — Give her a moral dilemma; show his inner conflict. Make them complex and fascinating; never perfect, complacent, or overly confident.

14–Lots of emotions. Bring your characters to life by showing their fear, trepidation, panic, pain, determination, courage, satisfaction, relief, joy, excitement, elation and other emotions.

15–Vivid sensory descriptions. Put the reader right there in the scene by using all five senses wherever possible, plus emotion. Show what the character is hearing, smelling, feeling, touching and tasting, not only what they’re seeing.

16–Critical turning points. Present your hero with life-or-death decisions and show his anxiety, tension, and indecision.

17–Obstacles in the way. Your heroine runs out of gas on a lonely road; your hero’s weapon falls into the river far below; he is wounded and can’t run; her cell phone battery is dead; whatever can go wrong does, and more.

18–Enough clues. Be fair. Use foreshadowing and layer in clues and info as you go along, to slowly reveal the plot points and character backstory and motivation to the reader.

19–Twists and surprises. Write in a few unexpected plot twists, but make sure that, in retrospect, they make sense to the readers.

20–A compelling climax. Put the protagonist at a disadvantage in the final conflict with the antagonist, to heighten the stakes. Pile on the adversity the hero has to overcome at the end.

21–A satisfying ending. Leave the unhappy or unresolved endings for literary fiction. Let the good guy overcome the bad guy — by a hair.

22–Psychological growth and change in the hero/heroine. Adversity has made him or her stronger, braver, wiser, a better person.

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.



Posted by on November 27, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Guest Blogger: Elaine Hirsch: Doing Your Research

Doing Your Research


The story and characters are arguably the most important parts of a novel. However, research is just as important. Getting indisputable facts wrong can jolt readers from the narrative, no matter how well written.


Initially, your approach should be similar to writing a research paper. Decide what you want to write about and what you need to know to write about it. The big difference is that when you write a novel you may need to do more than one research project, depending on where you’re going with the story. Historical novels are in some ways the most challenging. You don’t want to inform your readers that George Washington invented the light bulb. Careful research is required to make sure references you make for a particular time period are accurate.

Writing a mystery or crime novel requires a slightly different approach to research. When you get into crime-related or forensics topics, research is especially important. Even those who only occasionally glance at some of the seemingly endless forensic dramas on TV will know you can’t get DNA from fingerprints. This doesn’t mean you need to acquire an online PhD in forensics, but especially careful fact-checking is called for. Many community colleges offer basic introductory classes that will give you enough information to write about criminology and forensics in any reasonable depth. For most writers, a basic knowledge and some background reading should do just fine.


Information available online isn’t always totally solid, of course, and it may show in your writing if you rely too heavily on internet materials. Online research should not be discounted, but it should not be all an author does to prepare for writing a novel. Some real-life forensic experts will be willing to entertain questions. Their insights will not only provide you better information, but might even help you fill out your characters’ authenticity as well.


For a better perspective on specific locations, visit travel websites and read descriptions and comments. Some of the little details travelers add to their accounts may come in handy in your writing. When recent visitors mention out-of-the-way restaurants, distinctive markets, or little-known scenic spots, you can mention or even make them settings to give your novel more specific and realistic depth.


Alternatively, there is a simpler way to approach doing research: pretty much the other way around That is, write your story first. Don’t do any research. Make note of places where you need to know something in detail, and the questions you need answered. When you are finished writing, go back and research the questions you wrote down. This way you’ll only do research directly relevant to what you’ve written.


Of course, this strategy has major downsides. Most basically, leaving the research till after the writing means you’ll probably face heavy-duty revisions to incorporate what you learn and fix whatever may need touching up in light of your fact-checking. On a more subtle level, if you don’t begin with research you may write without realizing you don’t know something or are misinformed. If you don’t know to make note of questions about something as you write it, you may well not even discover your error later. Writing first and asking questions later is really only suitable for when you already have a fair grasp of your subject matter.


It’s tempting to jump right into the writing process, but getting facts about setting, location, time period, or techniques used in your characters’ professions incorrect can quickly distract readers and detracts from the quality of your work. Think of solid research as the icing on the cake. A well-researched, well-written novel can transport readers into another world with characters and settings so real they come to life in the reader’s mind.


Posted by on November 20, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Q and A: How Would an Overdose of Codeine Be Treated?

Q:    My heroine has been given Tylenol with codeine by the bad guy, ingested unknowingly in a cup of coffee. She has an adverse reaction to codeine. Would the ER doctors give her any drugs to counteract this, and if so, which ones?  Or would they simply let her sleep it off and monitor her?


Poppy Field

A:    Codeine is an opiate narcotic, which means it is in the opium family. In fact, it and morphine are the two principle substances obtained from the opium poppy. As with all narcotics, it depresses many bodily functions in the user. The symptoms of codeine ingestion are giddiness, sleepiness, loss of balance and coordination, coma, and death. The drug depresses the respiratory center of the brain so that if too much is taken the victim lapses into a coma, stops breathing, and dies from asphyxia.

However, these effects would not be considered “adverse” reactions since they are predictable and consistent. An adverse reaction would be such things as an allergic reaction. And an allergy to codeine is not an uncommon occurrence. So, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “adverse” reaction.”

If you mean an allergic reaction, the victim would develop hives, redness to the skin, wheezing and difficulty breathing (like an asthmatic attack), low blood pressure, and could slip into anaphylactic (allergic) shock and die. The treatment is to give an intravenous (IV) or subcutaneous (Sub-Q) injection of Epinephrine, IV steroids (such as Decadron or Solu-Medrol), and IV Benadryl. This should rapidly reverse the allergic effects. Each of these drugs might have to be given again, if the symptoms and signs of the allergic reaction reappear. The reaction should subside and after about 12 to 24 hours would be unlikely to recur.

If you mean that the person reacts to the codeine in the more predictable manner, then the treatment is directed toward breathing for the victim and reversing the effect of the narcotic. Breathing for the victim could be done two ways. An Ambu bag attached to a face mask would be easy and immediately available in any hospital. The paramedics also carry them. An ambu bag is football-shaped, made of rubber or some synthetic material, and works like a bellows. It is attached to a face mask and each squeeze of the bag forces air through the mask, which when held tightly against the victim’s face, forces air into the lungs. The second method is to place an endotracheal (ET) tube. This is a plastic tube that is passed thought the victim’s mouth or nose and into the trachea (wind pipe). Either an Ambu bag or a mechanical ventilator is then attached to the ET tube and air is rhythmically forced into the lungs. This must continue until the drug wears off.

To hasten this process, Narcan is given IV. This is a drug that blocks the effect of the Codeine. It works in about a minute. Again, the drug might have to be given several times over the first hour or so if the victim begins to slide back into a coma. Once the effects of the drugs wear off the victim would be essentially normal. Unless brain damage occurred during the time he wasn’t breathing, that is.


Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


Guest Blogger: Dr. Fred Strobl: Reflex Epilepsy

I welcome back Dr. Frederick Strobl to discuss the odd syndrome of Reflex Epilepsy.


Reflex Epilepsy


Epileptic attacks or seizures can have many causes and triggers. Most forms of epilepsy (recurrent  seizures) are idiopathic, meaning that there is no identifiable cause. At times, the case involves a genetic predisposition to epilepsy.


Identifiable causes include brain tumors, strokes, head injuries, encephalitis, and various chemical abnormalities. The identifiable cause is often simple, provoked, and harmless–like the college student who doesn’t sleep for 72 hours studying for finals and then celebrates with alcohol.


One of the more fascinating and rare forms is reflex epilepsy. My first case involved a young boy who would sit at the kitchen table and periodically throw his fork with his right hand at his mother when eating. This was interpreted as defiance until one day the young man experienced a full-blown tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure and was referred to the University of Minnesota. I supervised his EEG, which was normal. To the dismay of the technicians, however, I insisted that we keep him hooked up to the machine while I got him a sandwich. After a few seconds of chewing, the boy threw the sandwich with his right hand and then went on to have a tonic-clonic seizure.


My second case was even stranger. A young woman came in and explained that if she stepped on her left foot in a certain way she would have uncontrollable jerking. When examining her, I noticed that if I touched various points around her foot, she would jerk. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I repeated this while doing an EEG–she did, in fact, have reflex epilepsy. Even more bizarre, she would jerk even when she thought I was going to touch her foot!


At the time, we knew that certain stimuli could cause seizures. Photic (light) stimulation via a stroboscope was routinely done because it could trigger seizures in some and was highly frequency-dependent. I had never seen this outside of the lab until one day a Go-Go dancer was brought into the hospital after a strobe light hit her sensitive frequency while she was in a suspended cage and set off a seizure. (This was certainly the most unusual Workers’ Compensation case I had ever had!).


A few years later, I was doing some advanced EEG training at Mayo Clinic. One young patient experienced seizures when he visited his divorced father. His father would wear frequently wear ties with thin stripes that were tilted at thirty-degree angles. His son would have an epileptic seizure only when seeing that pattern with the stripes at that angle.


Since that time, many similar cases have been reported, including one patient who would seizure when simply thinking about specific mathematical equations. In such cases, patients have an area of the brain that is like a “bad chip”–when the neurons connect to it, the system crashes.


Overall, reflex epilepsy is a mysterious disease that explains some very strange behaviors.



Frederick (Fritz) Strobl, MD is a neurologist and a Director of the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, one of the largest private clinics in the world devoted entirely to neurology. His Dr. Jack Stevens series of medical thrillers includes Presidential Migraines and Greek Flu. His next book, Cyber Death, is due to be released in April 2012.

Visit Fritz’s website at:


Posted by on November 13, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Medical Issues


Vampires Walk Among Us

No really they do.  Well, I only know of one but I’m sure there are others.

It seems that Josephine Smith believes she is a vampire, which lead her to attack Mr. Milton Ellis. Apparently seeing him as a food item, she jumped her meal in front of a vacant Hooters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Had Hooters been open for business she might have opted for the hot wings but since it was closed she went after Mr. Ellis. What’s a hungry vampire to do? She bit his face and arms, apparently ripping away chunks of flesh in the process. And of course shouting, “I’m a vampire, I am going to eat you.”


The punchline? Josephine told the police that she had been studying “dental assisting” in Pensacola where she lives. Yet another reason to avoid dentists.


Maybe she’d been watching too much of Charlaine Harris’ True Blood. I never miss an episode but I’ve somehow resisted the urge to bite people. Too bad Josephine didn’t resist that urge. I think I can safely say that she’s no Sookie Stackhouse.

You just can’t make this stuff up.


Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Cool & Odd-Mostly Odd, Trauma


Guest Blogger: Leslie Budewitz: When Can a Very Young Child Testify in Court?

When can a very young child testify in court?

A tragic triple murder on the Crow Reservation in southeast Montana raises a question far too common in both civil and criminal law: When can a very young child testify?

Sheldon Chase, 22, is charged with the murder of his grandmother, cousin, and cousin’s boyfriend. The cousin and her boyfriend were the parents of two boys, ages 2 and 3. According to an account in the Billings Gazette, the older boy told FBI investigators that Chase and his father fought outside the grandmother’s home, and Chase shot his father, then shot the two women inside the home.

Young children may testify at trial, if they are first found competent to testify. In Idaho, Joseph Duncan was set to stand trial for murdering a woman, her boyfriend, and her teenage son, and kidnaping her two younger children for sex; he later killed the younger boy but was captured in Montana with the girl. Idaho law requires a judge to interview privately any child under ten to determine competency. Days before trial, the judge found the girl, then nine, competent to testify.

Some states establish competency review requirements by statute, while others rely on case law. Most states require that witnesses under ten be interviewed to determine their competency, either before trial or during trial but outside the presence of the jury. Older children’s competency may also be challenged, if the lawyer opposing the testimony files a motion asking the court to determine competency. In the Duncan case, the nine year old was the only living witness to a triple homicide; the judge determined her competency before trial because of the potential effect on plea discussions and trial if she were unable to testify.

Competency determinations depend on whether the minor witness has the ability to:

1) understand the obligation to tell the truth, and

2) accurately relate events seen, heard, or experienced.

The same rules apply to adult witnesses whose mental capacity is in question. The criteria are broken down further into these elements:

• Capacity to observe.

• Sufficient intelligence.

• Adequate memory.

• Ability to communicate.

• Awareness of the difference between truth and falsehood.

• Appreciation of the obligation to tell the truth in court. Judges are trained to use age-appropriate terms and measures. A young child may say that if she lies she’ll be punished, or if he doesn’t tell the truth, God won’t love him any more. In most cases, that’s enough.

In Washington State, a three year old was allowed to testify about abuse that occurred when she was two, because she met the basic criteria for competence as to the subject of her testimony. Obviously, she could not be asked more complex questions that a seven or ten year old could understand and respond to, but she demonstrated her understanding of the difference between the truth and a lie, and the importance of telling the truth. The judge concluded that she had the necessary ability to observe and communicate what had happened to her. However, it’s entirely possible that another three year old or even an older child might not be found competent.

When a child is unable to testify, their prior statements to parents, counselors, doctors, or law enforcement may be admissible at trial in some situations. Many state legislatures passed laws in recent decades allowing such statements, particularly in sex abuse cases, because of the need for the testimony and the difficulty of obtaining it, if the circumstances indicate that it is likely to be reliable.

As a direct result of the Idaho court’s competency decision in Duncan’s case, Duncan pled guilty on the day jury selection was to begin to three charges of first degree homicide and three charges of first degree kidnaping. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He also pled guilty to federal charges of kidnaping and homicide for taking the two younger children to Montana, saying he wanted to spare the family and community any more pain. It’s unlikely that he would have pled guilty without the finding that the nine year old could testify.

What about this little boy? His competence will be evaluated by the criteria set out above. If he understands what it means to tell the truth, and demonstrates the ability to accurately relate other events, he too may be found competent to testify to what he heard and saw. The more consistent his testimony is with other evidence, the more weight it will carry. We don’t know yet what else he told investigators, what other testimony there may be, or what the physical evidence shows. No prosecutor wants to put a child on the stand if it can be avoided. Children can be unpredictable witnesses. The experience may add more trauma to an already-traumatized life.

This boy’s testimony may turn out not to be necessary. Chase may confess. News accounts say he suffers from mental illness; he may not be competent to stand trial. The physical evidence at the scene may be enough to convict him.

But children’s testimony can be powerful. Its availability is one more important tool.

Leslie Budewitz is the author of Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books). She is a practicing lawyer and a mystery writer, and lives in Montana. Read an excerpt and more articles for writers, or send her a question, at


Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Police Procedure


The Man Who Swallowed the Diamond

So you’re sitting in an airport lounge waiting for your plane, having a drink and biding your time. Then you notice your purse is missing. Fortunately security tracks the creep down and recovers the purse. Money? Check. Cell phone? Check. $16,000 diamond pendant? No check. A search of the guy doesn’t turn it up. Where could it be?


Enter old Dr. Wilhelm Konrad Roentgens invention. You know, the x-ray that he invented almost by accident on a cold November evening in 1895. The thief was subjected to an x-ray examination and “Surprise, surprise, Sargent Carter” there it was.


The ovoid shadows in the above x-ray are the drug-filled balloons.


But diamond thieves aren’t the only ones that swallow stolen items and contraband. Drug traffickers do, too. Not something I would recommend. The mules will take heroin or cocaine, compact it in small balloons or condoms, and swallow a bunch of them, thinking they can sneak across the border and then later collect their booty from their booty. Doesn’t always work out that way. Stomach acids and digestive enzymes simply won’t cooperate. Let one of those little time-bomb balloons leak and you have a dead trafficker on your hands.


This was removed from one mule.

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