Tag Archives: Fiction

Prompt Writing


I  used to believe writing prompts would only serve as one more distraction from whatever project I was working on.

When I took a creative writing class in college, however, I discovered that one of the best ways for me to shake off writer’s block was to stop what I was doing and spend about five minutes working on a writing prompt.

Prompts are to the writing world what a starting gun is to a sprinter. And it is a sprint. The goal is not distance, quantity, or energy conservation, it is to get something down as quickly as possible regardless of how coherent, silly, or irreverent it may be.


How I GotLit! :

Writing prompts also illuminate how many ways there are to look at a single subject. At Inland Northwest Writers’ Guild meetings, we often do a writing prompt or two, and even if we all have exactly the same starting point, the differences in the directions our thoughts take us is striking.

This was also the case at a panel I went to during the GetLit! Festival. Four professional writers were given a prompt: Red Eye, and asked to write something that could be read in about ten minutes. The person who came up with the prompt had been thinking of airplanes and red-eye flights, but that’s not how any of the authors interpreted it.


Kim Barnes, a professor at the University of Idaho and the author of In the Kingdom of Men, wrote a nonfiction piece involving her family history (Which was filled with scandal and made for a great story.) and the Red-Eye Gravy her grandmother made. It brought to life the complicated family dynamics involved with several generations of relatives, and the self discovery that comes from bringing who you are together with where you come from.

Shann Ray, author of American Masculine and professor of leadership studies at Gonzaga University, wrote a fictional story about a professional ballerina who marries a lumberjack. The connection to the prompt was a scuffle between the husband and wife, which he starts, but she ends by nearly putting his eye out. It sounds violent, but it had an emotional depth and a flow reminiscent of well-written poetry. By the end, I felt as if the characters were old friends, and was rooting for them to patch things up.


Nance Van Winckel, a Spokane poet, read a piece about a young child’s tragic accidental death, and the after math for the child’s parents and their friends. Everyone’s eyes were red from crying. It was so powerful partly because she had the courage to ask the question I can never bring myself to ask when I hear about something like this on the news: [Please note, I am paraphrasing, these were not her words. I could never hope repeat her exact phrasing here, but I tried to capture the sentiment because I found it so incredibly moving. My apologies if I fail to do so.]

This was an accident caused not by malice, but by a simple lapse of memory. He forgot. I forget things all the time. Little things mostly, but where is the line between and a careless moment that leads to inconvenience and one that leads to disaster?


Jim Lynch, author of Truth Like the Sun, ended the panel on a lighter note. His story was a spoof of old Noir detective stories (which faithful readers will know I love.) It was titled Spokane Envy, and involved a blues-music-obsessed son of a rich Seattle woman running away to Spokane. I never would have guessed I’d laugh so hard at anything so soon after contemplating death and culpability and whether good intentions mean anything. But as soon as Jim Lynch started reading, I was so caught up in the story of this socially inept, bumbling private eye who was running around Washinton State looking for a missing rich kid, trying to interrogate a girl who works in a fruit stand by the side of the road, posing as a waiter in the Peacock Room at the Davenport, and meeting a rooster named Red Eye, it was impossible not to laugh.

I found the spectrum of emotions and styles, all evoked by the same two words staggering. It was like some insane literary Rorschach test. But that’s the great thing about prompts, everyone comes up with something different. It’s also easier to venture outside your comfort zone because you don’t give yourself time to over think things.


My Own Prompt Response:

Annette Drake asked me to include my own response to the prompt given at the last Writers’ Guild meeting in this post. The prompt was GetLit! You could take it any way you wanted. We were told shorter sentences were preferable because that had been a style we were discussing at the meeting. Anyone who had anything at the end of five minutes was asked to read if they felt comfortable doing so. I did. It’s good practice for reading my more polished work, and you won’t find a friendlier audience. I came up with this:

Patches don’t do a damn thing for me.

Gum don’t work worth shit.

What I need is a cigarette:

The glow of an ember.

Smell of tobacco.

Warmth of smoke in my lungs.

But the bitch took my lighter when she left this morning.

The unlit cylinder hangs from my lips:



No fire hazard here.

[Please note, I am not and never have been a smoker. I have no idea what inspired this, but that’s often how prompt writing goes. Things seem to come out of nowhere.]

I liked that I’d found a rhythm different from what I usually do, but my feelings about the piece as a whole were lukewarm until I heard the response (laughter like you hope for in a comedy club) and Annette encouraged me to share it with all of you online. I highly doubt I would have even thought of anything like this, without a prompt, let alone written it down or shared it with anyone.

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5 Infectiously Good Books: Fiction

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel that has to do with an epidemic. (Those of you who don’t know, go read https://theoccasionalmeatcleaver.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/my-novel-giving-an-old-disease-new-life/)

That being the case, I thought I’d share some books on the subject of infectious disease that I found inspiring:


1.) Blindness by Jose Saramago

This is one of my favorite books of all time. His characters hardly ever have names, there are no dialogue attributions… Truth be told, his novels look like Gertrude Stein’s poetry, but that is said with affection because I love them both. If I tried to mimic their style, it would look like something written by a not-too-bright second grader. When they do it, somehow it’s brilliant. Still, it can be disorienting, so if you don’t feel up to the book, there is a movie version.


 In my opinion, both are modern classics and not to be missed.


[Be advised, both are very graphic, and not to be watched or read with children. And, really, that goes for everything on this post.]


2.) The Stand by Stephen King

Apocalypse by government engineered flu virus, and that’s not a spoiler. That’s the first chapter. Does it get any better? This book is regarded by many as Stephen King’s best work. I’d certainly call it one of his best, but I find it difficult to play favorites with his books. This one is also a movie, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen it yet.


3.) Contagion by Robin Cook

Robin Cook’s mind is so twisted, his books make me shudder. Ah, how I envy him his disturbing imagination. Envy aside, this book will have you reading late into the night and avoiding hospitals. I guess that goes for all of his books, but this one in particular involves the 1918 flu, so it was of special interest to me.


The reader should note that the movie Contagion has nothing to do with this book, and is a completely different story.


4.) The First Horseman by John Case

I can’t stress enough how much I like this guy’s style. No frills, no self indulging tangents, just pure, edge-of-your-seat story. I love all of his books, but this one involved a cult trying to start a Spanish Flu epidemic, so it was good market research for me as well as a good read.


5.) The Cobra Event by Richard Preston

Interesting villain? Check. Terrifying biological terrorism? Check. Images you wish you could get rid of, but can’t? Sooo many, but that’s part of a successful horror/thriller book. You know it’s good because it kinda makes you sick. Great, suspense-filled book.


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Another Little Piece of my Novel


{FYI: This post is not suitable for children. That will probably be the case for the whole book.}

This scene takes place 3 months after the last scene.

Hailey couldn’t help noticing the security camera. She felt so aware of them. Logically, she knew they were a good thing. Necessary even. They kept people safe, herself included. None of that changed her constant feeling of being watched. Her run-in with the late Frank Moore had affected her more than she cared to admit.

            Before the attack, she had thought of herself as capable and safety-conscious. It had been a wake up call. Now, she knew the mace in her pocket and being a decent runner wouldn’t do a thing for her unless she stayed alert enought to use them before it was too late. She’d since enrolled herself in every self defense class she could find. She learned kicks, strikes, observation techniques, a decent ammount of kick boxing, some tei-kwon-do, weapons take-aways. She’d amassed a mini library of combat books, her favorite being, Fight Like a Girl… and Win.

            After all that, she was finally starting to feel safe again. Still, she had some lingering psychological issues. She didn’t trust people. She was jumpy a lot of the time, and she found herself worrying about inherently non-threatening things like security cameras at the hospital where she worked as a janitor.

            Although, as her best friend Dahlia would say, “Just ’cause you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get ya.” She pushed her cleaning cart in the elevator and pressed the button for the main floor

                        *                      *                      *                      *

            Deacon was in the security booth watching the screens. This was definitely not his dream job, but it was the closest he could get for now. Some day soon, he would be a detective working high profile cases: putting together patterns no one else could see, finding evidence no one else had thought to look for. It was what he was born to do. His calling. For now, he sat in a concrete box and stared at security monitors.

            Still, he found it strangely thrilling to watch people who didn’t realize they were being watched. He guessed most people knew on some level that most of the hospital was being monitored, but he constantly saw people adjust their underwear and pick their noses. It just went to show how talented people were at ignoring the obvious. Sheep, that’s what they were, he thought. He watched in disgust as a copious woman in an enourmous, neon pink dress bought five Snickers bars from a vending machine in the maternity ward.

            He turned his attention to the screen showing the parking garage near the trash compactor and the freight entrance. The pretty blond cleaning girl was there. Her back was to the camera, which was how he liked to see her. She had such a sweet ass. You could tell even in scrubs. Her hair was in a ponytail today. He liked that better than when she wore it in a bun, but he wished she’d wear it down sometimes. Some of the other cleaning girls wore their hair down. She was throwing big bags of trash in the compactor. The way she moved was graceful, like a dancer. She finished loading the compactor and started toward the control panel to turn it on. On the way, she dropped the key. When she bent to pick it up, he got a great view of her backside and her v-neck scrubs top fell forward, giving him a glimpse of her bra. His body’s response was instant, tight, uncomfortable. He looked away and thought of the woman in the pink dress, before what was happening in his pants could become noticeable to Shantelle, the other guard in the security booth. He glanced back at the blond girl as she put the key in the slot and started the compactor. For no apparent reason, the girl stopped what she was doing, looking up at the security camera. Deacon broke out in a cold sweat. You can see her, but she can’t see you, you idiot! He told himself, taking a breath and letting it out slowly. Yet it seemed, for a minute, that she could see him. She stared at the camera, faint lines forming between her eyebrows, as though she was looking at him through the camera, wondering what he might be up to. She finished her work and left. He shook off the feeling of being discovered. That was just assinine. She didn’t know he was watching anymore than the rest of them did. As though to illustrate his point, a portly gentleman on the third floor screen looked around, and, seeing no one, scratched himself like a monkey with fleas.

security monitor3


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My Novel; Giving an Old Disease New Life

I haven’t put any of my own writing in this blog yet, so here’s the introduction to my novel in progress, Isolation. Tell me what you think. Would you keep reading? Please Comment.

Found during the 2012 renovation of Shady Hills Mental Hospital:

January, 8th, 1918

Dear Abelard,

            I beg your forgiveness for my lapse in our correspondence. Rest assured it indicates no waning of my fondness for you, rather an overwhelming increase in my duties as a physician, here in Shady Hills.

            I fear I may have erred in hoping for a quiet country life out West. The Spanish Flu, as I’m sure you know, (your own hospital having been ravaged by it not long ago,) is a formidable foe indeed.

            Of late, I fear there may be a still more sinister illness making its way through my little town. The main trouble is, I am, as of yet, unable to find any consistency in the symptoms or presentation. Whether it is all one virus or many, I cannot say with any confidence. It has been like an epidemic of madness. I’m certain you’ll think me overly dramatic, but I tell you it is so.

            Several patients of mine have, without warning, gone comatose. They sleep for days, weeks, months, and nothing can rouse them. Some have died in this condition. And yet, these are unlike comas I have seen in the past. The patients are unconscious, of this there is no doubt, but they stir, occasionally, or mutter things. They have been known to respond to music, or the voices of loved ones. They will sometimes squeeze one’s hand or move their hands and feet when prompted. To look at them, one would think they were merely napping, and could wake at any moment.

            No head injury, nor known illness can be found in any of them. Stranger still, There have been, mixed in with the occurrences of these strange comas, cases of extreme insomnia, hyperactivity, and even violent mood changes. Dyskenesia is also common, as are headaches (of the migraine variety, I believe), and occulogyric and facial tics.

            Everything indicates some malfunction of the central nervous system. I would be tempted to liken it to a burst of shrapnel to the brain, but my patients are civilians, without history of trauma, serious disease, or a congenital mental illness. I am at a loss as to what this could be, or how to proceed with treatment. Needless to say, this has everyone in town, myself included, on edge. I fear panic may ensue, if I remain unable to stem the spread of this infirmity, whatever it is. I pray, with your experience, you may be able to provide me some insight.

            Give my best to Elizabeth and the girls.

            Your Friend,

            Stewart Milhone

Shady Hills Gazette  May 2, 2012

Due in part to a renewed interest in public health following the Bird and Swine Flu epidemics, the mayor has decided to renovate the old Shady Hills Mental Institute. The Institue was built during the Flu Epidemic of 1918, and was originally intended to help house patients who needed to be quarantined. After the flu epidemic subsided, the town voted to keep the building open, but convert it to a long-term care facility that housed WWI veterans, people disabled by complication of the flu, and so on until the building lost it’s government funding in the 1960s. Current plans are to convert the building to a museum celebrating the town’s history and heritage. It is hoped that this will foster a sense of pride among residents and promote tourism. The renovations, beginning later this year, will be done by independent local contractor Frank Moore, the same man who renovated the high school gym so nicely.

*                       *                       *                       *

Chapter One

            Before the headaches, Frank used to sleep soundly. Kyra used to joke that a marching band couldn’t wake him. Now, he was plagued by headaches that made colors flash before his eyes in time with the pounding in his head. Headaches so intense he sometimes prayed for death during them so he’d be free of the pain. Nothing blunted the pain. The only thing worse than the pain was the insomnia. He couldn’t sleep and he couldn’t shake the disturbing ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere, invading his brain.

            He’d seen his doctor for the insomnia and headaches, but hadn’t mentioned the violent thoughts. The doctor dismissed both as products of stress and gave him sedatives to help him sleep. They hadn’t worked. He’d been awake for days now. He knew he was in bad shape. He was starting to see things.

            He was walking in the park now, well after midnight. He’d gotten in the habit of going out at night even though he knew it worried Kyra. Staying still would be like ceasing to breathe- he’d smother. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. It was a… what do you call it? A compulsion. He was like those guys who wash their hands thirty times a day and turn the lights on and off over and over. Recognizing it for what it was didn’t make it easier to stop. His marriage was starting to crumble. People he cared about were starting to think he was crazy, an asshole, or some combination thereof.

            The usual night crowd inhabited the park: teenagers drinking, druggies searching for a fix, and all two of the known hookers in town looking for customers. Lately, even they avoided him.

            He broke out in a cold sweat as a searing pain flashed inside his head, leaving as quickly as it came. He stifled screamed, not because of the headache, but because he saw a man up ahead on the path pull out a switch blade and stab an old woman in the chest. Shock and horror registered on her face as bright arterial blood spurted from the wound. With a throaty gurgling, she crumpled to the ground. The scream caught in his throat as he realized no one else was screaming. The teenagers swilled their beers and wine coolers, the druggies continued their hand offs, and the hookers trolled for lonely men.

            He looked again. The man was a Douglas fir growing beside the path. The old woman, a lilac bush. He wasn’t phased by how vivid it had been. Using the reactions of the people around him to determine what was real was all that still allowed him the appearance of sanity.

            He wandered downtown, following the river, to the old grocery store to buy a stale turkey sandwich or a candy bar. Not because he was hungry, more to pass the time.

            In the parking lot, he saw a blond girl carrying brown paper grocery bags. Before he was aware he’d changed course, he found himself following her. He hadn’t decided to, he just did. An uneasiness took root in his stomach as he followed her down the dark, deserted sidewalk. He was closing the distance between them. She was unaware of him, looking ahead at nothing in particular, humming something. He tried to stop, or turn around. He seemed disconnected from his body. Then he was behind her, wrapping her in a bear hug, knocking the grocery bags from her arms. He lifted her off her feet, carrying  her off the sidewalk.

        *                       *                       *                       *

            Hailey tried to scream, but the man’s hold was too tight for her to take a deep breath. She kicked wildly, flailing, hitting nothing. The man stumbled as she threw her weight around, but remained upright and kept moving, maintaining his hold on her.

            He dragged her to the alley. She swung her elbow into the side of his head. He dropped her. She landed hard, putting out her hands to catch herself. Pain shot through her left forearm. She scrambled to her feet, and turned to face him. Blood. He was bleeding. His forehead had split where she elbowed him, but his expression registered no pain. His face was slack, mask-like. His motions had an odd, spastic, mechanical quality.  He reached out, grabbing her right arm above the elbow. She kicked at his groin, but he blocked the blow. She hit him in the ear as hard as she could with her left fist, ignoring the pain lingering in that arm. A wave of pain so intense she almost passed out shot up her arm and through her entire body. It seemed to phase him, but he didn’t let go. With a cry of desperation, she kicked the sole of her left boot into the man’s stomach with all her remaining strength. He grunted, his face still blank, and lost his grip on her as the force of the kick pushed them apart.

            She turned and sprinted, glancing over her shoulder. The man was on the ground, making no move to get up. He shouted something, his head in his hands, his voice muffled. She could have sworn she heard him yell, “Run!”

            *                       *                       *                       *

            Frank sat in the grimy gravel of the alleyway. He couldn’t believe what just happened. He knew something was wrong with him, but nothing that explained this. He’d blacked out a couple of times, and sure, he had hallucinated, but he had never tried to hurt anyone. In the morning he’d call his doctor about all his symptoms. He’d get a second opinion, see a specialist if necessary. This had to stop. Now. The familiar ache started behind his eyes. As it grew in intensity, he couldn’t keep a conscious train of thought.

                        *                       *                      *                      *

            Frank opened his eyes, and saw his front yard. He sat on the porch, slumped against the front of his house. He was cold, covered with dew. How long had he been here? How did he get home? He tried to remember, but couldn’t. His head throbbed, a vague, distant pain meaning this episode was almost over. He rubbed his temples. Wet. Why was his face wet? He looked  at his hand, fighting to see through the fading pain. Blood. His hand was covered with blood. Not just his fingers where he’d touched his head. His whole hand. Soaked. He looked down at his sprawled, unresponsive body and found the same to be true of his clothes. Was he bleeding? If all this was his, it seemed like he should be dead. He took inventory of himself, as he began feeling sensations besides the all-encompassing ache in his head. Legs were sore. Maybe he’d picked a fight and had to run. Face and arms hurt. Why? It felt like someone etched random lines on his skin with a hot poker. He peeled off his jacket. His hands and his forearms were covered in scratches. Cat? Too wide and deep. Thorns? That didn’t seem right either. Nails. Fingernails. He was panicked, nauseous. This didn’t look like a fight. It looked like he attacked someone. Not many men had fingernails long enough to lay someone’s arm open.

            He jumped to his feet. He had to get away from the house. Away from Kyra and Justin and the girls. Away from the people he loved. He didn’t know when the next blackout would come. He remembered his earlier thought that no one should be able to lose so much blood and live. Oh, God, no. What had he done? No memories remained, not even fragments.

            He started running. At the park, he stopped, bent over from a stitch in his side, and started laughing. Not because anything was remotely funny, but because he remembered thinking the tree by the path stabbed the lilac bush last night. Of course! Why hadn’t he seen it before? He wasn’t really covered in someone else’s blood. This wasn’t real either. It couldn’t be.

            He stopped laughing and sat on a park bench, still panting from the jog over. He was finally catching his breath when two men with matted beards and paper bags holding their bottles of breakfast, weaved his way. One stopped, looking at him, elbowing the other. Both did double takes.

            “You two okay?” Frank asked, wondering if they’d ask him for money or just mug him.

            “I’s ’bout tuh ask you that same queshion,” Said the bum who noticed him first. The bum blinked, squinted, and stared hard at him, “That your blood, or the other guy’s?”

            “What? Look, I don’t want any trouble…” This man was obviously drunk. It was a complete coincidence that this guy shared his earlier hallucination. Coincidence. That’s all.

            “Look, pal, it’s o’vious you got into it with somebody. I’s jus’ wonderin’ do you need help… Hey, an’ how come yer face an’ arms is scratched up like that? Whud you do? Knife fight a bob cat?” Whiskey scented laughter drifted his way.

            Frank looked down. He was still covered in blood. His tee-shirt becoming stiff and brown as it began to dry. It was under his fingernails. The scratches on his hands and arms were starting to scab over. This was real. This was very real.

            He took off running again as the drunks continued laughing. He could not- he would not go on like this. He was dangerous, not in control of himself. The time to try to fix this had come and gone. He wouldn’t put his family or anyone else in danger any longer. He knew what he had to do while he still had even a little free will left.

            As he ran toward the freeway, it started to rain. By the time he got to the side of the road, it was pouring. He was completely soaked. As if sent by fate, a red semi truck came into view just as he stepped on to the sidewalk. As it got closer, he had nothing in his head but pounding blood and adrenaline. He didn’t let himself contemplate what he was about to do for fear he’d change his mind at the last second. As the truck approached, he had little flashes of family memories. Dancing with Kyra on their wedding day. Alicia helping him refinish the kitchen cabinets. Justin learning to ride a bike. Daisee taking her first steps. He timed it just right. When he stepped off the sidewalk, the driver had no time to react. And, for the first time in a long time, there was no pain. There was only darkness.

            By the time Kyra awoke, and went outside to get the paper, all traces of blood on the front porch had been washed away.

*                       *                       *                       *

            Hailey rolled out of bed and staggered to her tiny kitchenette. She heard the coffee pot kick on automatically, picked up her mug to fill it, and yelped in surprise. Burning! Her hand, her arm were on fire! She dropped the mug back on the counter as though it had bitten her. Last night! How do you forget something like that? Maybe she didn’t want coffee afterall. She went to the living room switched on the TV, trying not to think about the lingering smolder of pain. The face of the man who attacked her the night before flashed on the screen, startling her. What was that bastard doing on her TV?

            The anchor said the man, Frank Moore from the caption, died instantly after jumping in front of a semi truck early that morning. It was almost certainly suicide.

            She turned off the TV, pulled her hair back and dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. She drove to the hospital, signing herself in at urgent care. As she sat in the waiting room, she decided she wouldn’t tell anyone he attacked her. What would be the point? The man was dead. He couldn’t hurt her or anyone else ever again. His family had enough to deal with. The nurse called her back to the exam room. She changed, relieved the short sleeves of the exam gown covered the finger-shaped bruises on her arm. The paper on the exam table crinkled beneath her every time she moved. Her mouth felt dry, cottony. She jumped when he doctor knocked, but kept her voice calm as she told him to come in. The doctor seemed rushed, and looked at her chart more than he looked at her. Today, that was what she preferred.

            “So, tell me what happened.” He still didn’t look at her, continuing to type on his laptop.

            “Oh, I fell. Not much to tell, I guess.”

            “Did this happen while you were on duty, or on hospital property?”


            “Looks like you were lucky.” He told her, after a short series of tests.

            Yeah, sure, she thought, Lucky. She nearly burst into hysterical laughter.

            “Your wrist is sprained, but nothing’s broken.”

            She nodded, trying to think of an appropriate response, but he didn’t wait for one.

            “The nurse will be back to give you a brace, and some information to take home. All common sense stuff. Don’t forget to ice it, take something to help with the inflammation. That sort of thing.”

            Pulling out of the hospital parking lot, her face felt hot. How could this happen? How could she have let this happen? Without warning, tears filled her eyes. They flowed in salty streams, filling her vision, forcing her to pull over. She screamed at the top of her lungs. She punched the steering wheel with her good hand. Then she saw her face in the rearview mirror. Puffy. Red. Defeated. No! She wiped her eyes. Dried her face. Continued driving, but she was no longer headed home. She pulled into the parking lot of the local YMCA.

            Behind the front desk, the teenage girl didn’t look up from her magazine. Hailey cleared her throat. The girl sighed, setting aside her Cosmo. She gave Hailey an insincere, customer service grin.

            “Hi! How can I help you?”

            “I want to sign up for kick boxing classes.”


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It’s Criminal Part 1: Death & Destruction in the Pacific Northwest

[Author’s Note]

I had so many mystery/thrillers I wanted to discuss, I’m breaking this post into sections. Today: Death and Destruction in the Pacific Northwest. Why? Because I live here. And it has become a popular setting for this kind of story. For example:

Spokane, Washington was supposed to be where the remake of Red Dawn took place,

Red Dawn 2012

(Although most of it was actually filmed in Michigan. Same thing, right?)

Idaho and Spokane have both been used as settings for episodes of Criminal Minds,

Criminal Minds

and the mystery books set in this area are many and varied, but read the actual post for more on that. So, to sum up my post today: Local authors, local settings, great reads.

Again, please comment. I am always looking for new books for my reading list, and if you disagree with my assessments, I’d like to know why. Questions? Comments? Concerns about my mental health? If you’re thinking it, post it!


The River City Books by Frank Zafiro- He’s from right here in Spokane, Washington, and he writes the most authentic crime fiction you will ever read. Mix that gritty realism with a diverse cast of believeable characters, brilliant dialogue, a good dose of humor (dark and otherwise), and you have a recipe for success. Bloody, sometimes tragic, can’t-put-it-down success. [BTW, if you take the time to pick out the landmarks in the stories, you’ll notice that the setting is local as well. 😉 You didn’t hear that from me.]


Heartsick (and sequels) by Chelsea Cain- This series is set in Portland, Oregon, and written by an author who lives there. She ranks second only to Frank Zafiro for authenticity. You need a strong stomach to read these books, let alone enjoy them. You’ve been warned. But, her characters are addictive, and she actually keeps me guessing, which isn’t easy to do.


The Fat Detective by John Soennichsen- Technically, this is a spoof, but it’s one of my favorite spoofs, and it was written by another Spokanite, which is always fun for me. Whether you’re a fan of old noir detective stories or a fan of making fun of noir, or you just want something funny, this one’s great.


The Sheriff Bo Tully Mysteries by Patrick F. McManus- We can’t forget Idaho! Patrick McManus is a favorite author of mine, and has been for years. I was thrilled to learn he’d started writing fictional mysteries in addition to his tall tales about hunting and camping, which never fail to crack me up.


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When in Doubt, Light it on Fire or Blow it Up!


My brother and I love watching horror movies. We have our own movie marathons each Halloween because we think the ones on TV suck. We don’t want to see a bunch of crappy CGI or cutesy Casper movies. We want to see psychos in hockey masks with machetes chasing characters we’re actually rooting for so we can yell at the screen, “Don’t go in there! He’s behind the door!”


Cliche? Maybe, but it’s what we do. We kind of bonded over it because no one else in our family can stand horror movies. When I was in high school, we even wrote a horror movie survival guide called When in Doubt, Light it on Fire or Blow it Up! That was our catch-all advice for when our more specific strategies failed to help our hypothetical reader. Very few monsters can withstand fire or explosives without at least giving you some time to escape. It is advice that has carried over into my writing life when I feel a story is getting stale or going nowhere. It reminds me that it’s okay to shake things up and go for broke.

Hell, it’s more than okay, it’s necessary. Not every book or short story needs a literal explosion, but they do all need that energy. That element of the unexpected. If you lose that, you’re not doing yourself or anyone else any good. Before you know it, you’re on page three hundred and even you are so bored you can’t remember why you thought this book was a good idea.

Here are some ideas to help you shake things up and get going again if you get stuck:

1.) Introduce a new character. When Stephen Hunter started working on Point of Impact, he wasn’t happy with the way it was progressing when along came Nick Memphis. Hunter didn’t know why Nick was in the book at that point or where he’d come from, but he went with it and got the book back on track. (This informaton came from The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler, an anthology of crime fiction writers explaining how their characters came to be. I highly recommend it.)

2.) Kill off an existing character.  This one is difficult for me. I get very attached to my characters, but they say in writing you have to kill your darlings, and sometimes that’s what is needed for the good of the book as a whole.

3.) Damage your protagonist. This will build tension faster than almost anything. Remember when Annie Wilkes breaks Paul’s legs in Misery? Or when Bob Lee Swagger ends up with an artificial hip? The damage doesn’t have to be physical damage, either. Alex Cross’s wife dying is a necessary catalyst to the action of his story.

4.) Have a change of heart. Give your character  an epiphany or a moral dilemma. Let them experience some mental or spiritual growth or decline and do something they wouldn’t have done at the beginning of the book. This gives your character more depth, and what has happened to them more meaning.

5.) Literally blow something up. When Stephen King got about half way through writing The Stand, he had tons of characters and tons of plot lines, (All masterfully handled. I’m still in awe of this book.) and society started to bounce back from the epidemic more quickly than he’d hoped. So, he decided to have a bomb go off in Boulder, Colorado to restart the action and refocus the story where he wanted it. Extreme? Yes. Effective? Hell yes. (I believe I got this story from the introduction of The Stand, but it may have been in Danse Macabre. I looked through both and couldn’t find it at a glance, but I know I read it somewhere, damn it.)



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Vampires: The Good, The Bad, & The Sparkly


About ten years ago, I made my first serious attempt at a novel, (at least it seemed serious at the time). It was about teenage vampires. I was fourteen and didn’t know any better. I am happy to report that, unlike some authors, I had the decency to scrap it before it could see the light of day.

I love vampires. When they’re done well, I find them very entertaining, but I want to stress that you can’t just slap together a story, throw in vampiric stock characters and expect me to buy it and sing your praises. Not gonna happen.

Reading vampire books is probably the closest thing I’ve done to speed dating. Every now and then, you find a gem that will remain a favorite. More often, you find shallow characters, contrived plots, and dialogue that makes you wonder whether the author was smoking an illegal substance, or if they’d recently sustained a serious head injury. I’m willing to save all you lucky readers a step and tell you which of them are worth your time and the purchase price.

Please comment. Did I miss one of your favorites? Disagree with how I categorized some of the books? Think I’m totally off my rocker? I want to know!


The Good:


1. Dracula by Bram Stoker- The ultimate vampire classic. One of my favorite things about this book is that the vampires are beautiful, but not romanticized. If you fall for one, you will not have a happy ending. I find that refreshing.


2. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King-  As always, interesting characters, a plot that will keep you up at night, and an original villain who will have you looking over your shoulder for at least a week.


3. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice – I know this will probably be a more controversial choice for this list. People tend to either love this book or hate it.  I enjoy it for its seemless blend of philosophical and moral dilemmas, complex characters, vivid historical settings, and healthy doses of gore and terror. Not everyone likes her characters, but here’s the good news: you don’t have to. Another thing I like about her books is that there are almost never clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The characters don’t read that way. They read like actual people with strengths and flaws, which is a depressingly rare quality to find in a book.


4. I am Legend by Richard Matheson- A modern take on the vampire. It doesn’t ignore the old vampire myths, rather it uses modern science and technology to explain the unexplainable. Plus, it will keep you guessing right up ’til the end.


5. Rulers of Darkness by Steven Spruill- Okay, so this one’s a little goofy, and not my favorite, but it’s got good bones. I found the characters engaging and, although I had seen many aspects of this story before, (Vampiric police detective, Vampire who doesn’t feed on humans hunting down other vampires, Doctor seeks to cure vampires of their condition, Vampire father hunts down his vampire son when he gets completely out of control, etc.), I’d never seen them in this combination or blended this well. I still think it’s a fun read.


6. Necroscope by Brian Lumley-  How many vampire novels also have a soviet spy organization and a high school kid whose math tutor is a dead guy? I only know of this one. Heard about this one from a family friend, and loved it. It ranks among the Stephen King and Anne Rice books for that feeling you get when you finish it. You know the one I mean, “Okay, that was fun, but can anyone give me the name of a good therapist? What? No, I’m fine. Really.”


7. The Vampyre by John William Polidori- This is the grandfather of all vampire books, the work that brought these creatures of the night out of folk tales and into the literary world. It was written around the same time as Frankenstein, and if you enjoy Victorian literature you should definitely check this one out.

The Bad:

I tried to stay away from YA and Romance novels because I felt like the people reading those probably have different criteria for what’s good and what isn’t. Books from those categories were only included if the author had problems writing on a basic level.


1. Sunshine by Robin McKinley- The premise is interesting enough, although it’s one I’ve heard before. (Human society is surprised to find that vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. are real. Chaos and tension ensue as society attempts to regulate their activity, and/or exterminate them.)  I enjoyed the style. I liked the world the story was set in.

The problem lies in the author’s addiction to narration and exposition. A lot could have been gained by revealing more information through dialog or action. I kept getting lost in the main character’s thoughts. Very distracting. With better editing and some brevity it could have had a feel of Ray Bradbury meets Janet Evanovich’s Lizzie and Diesel novels, but the main character’s inner monologue is unending.  Combine that with long and strangely structured sentences, and you lose my attention. If the narrative and exposition  had been broken up, pared down, and interlaced with action for better flow, I would have liked this book. Also, I suggest the author read Elements of Style by Strunk and White, specifically the section titled “Omit Needless Words.” As it stands, I can’t recommend it.


2. The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman- I could be wrong about this one. If I am, will someone with a superior attention span please let me know? I wanted to like this book. It has tons of historical detail, a classic representation of Dracula, and Mycroft Holms (Sherlock’s  brother) is in the Diogenes Club, fighting The Terror. (Whatever that means. It sounds badass, but I was so confused by the number of characters and plot lines, that I gave up before I could figure it out.)

50 pages into the book, I was still unclear about who was fighting whom and why. It had something to do with Dracula, of course, and maybe WWI? And the Allies? And a war committee of vampires? And… Huns? Edgar Allen Poe makes an appearance, so do Franz Kafka and Winston Churchill. I’d like to give this one another try when I have more time to keep track of everything going on in this book. Maybe make a chart…


3. The Vampire Files Series by P.N. Elrod- Every vampire cliché, and every private investigator cliché rolled into one. Pass.


4.Thirst by Christopher Pike- I accidentally picked up the second book in this series, so I suspected I might have some issues catching up with who the characters were, what they were doing and why. I didn’t think I’d care so little. The opening scene, the big hook to draw the reader in, was a snobby vampire’s birthday party. (WTF? Who knew vampires even celebrated birthdays?) That may sound boring, but wait! There’s more. The snobby vampire’s friends have no taste! The main character is forced to open tacky gift after tacky gift and respond politely! Now, can’t you just feel the tension? The drama? The suspense? Me neither.

The Sparkly:


1. (and only) The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer- This series is only part of this post because it’s such a phenomenon that everyone would be asking me why I excluded it if it wasn’t here. Why would I be tempted to exclude it? Because I don’t count these books as vampire novels! I have read the books. My friends loved them. I read them with the sincere hope that I would like them too. I don’t.

My biggest problem with these books is that I didn’t care about the plot at all because I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to the characters. The Cullen vampires were the only characters who seemed to have back stories at all, and even theirs were sparse at best. I trudged my way through the first book and started the second because Twilight seemed to hint that perhaps Bella did have a personality, and we just weren’t seeing much of it right now. It gave me hope that I would get to know her and the other characters more. I chalked the delay up to it being the author’s first novel and decided to give her another chance.

After starting New Moon, I was about to give up hope. All Bella did was talk and think about Edward. All Edward did was sulk. Then Edward took off and I thought, “Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel. Now Bella can experience some personal growth. We can find out who she is apart from her love interest! Learn about her family, her past, her likes, dislikes, thoughts, hopes!” I turned the page… nothing happens in September… nothing happens in October… are you kidding me?  Okay, I remind myself, this guy has been everything to her for a year. Maybe she just needs some time… A motorcycle? That’s different. Seems like a start… Wait. Who’s selling her the motorcycle? Jacob? The runner-up hot dude? YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! I put the book down. I stopped myself from throwing it only because it was borrowed from a friend. I felt as though Stephanie Meyer was laughing at me, pointing and saying, “Gotcha!” Like I’d been hit in the face with a pie. I was almost hoping Ashton Kutcher would jump out and tell me I’d been punked. At that point, I was done with this series forever.

I like my vampires frightening, mysterious, and complete with personality and back story.  If an author strays from tradition, I’m fine with that- as long as the changes make the end result better. Otherwise you might as well forget the vampire idea and just call it something else. I don’t view sparkly skin, melodrama, teenage angst, tiny or non-existent fangs (depending on whether you’re going by the book or the movie*), a recreational baseball league, or trading in black Harleys and Ferraris for a silver Volvo as improvements. Call me crazy, but I’m sticking to that.

Ultimately, all that is beside the point. This book is not well written. It is clumsy, pandering, and two-dimensional. Not only is Stephanie Meyer an unskilled author, she shows no signs of wanting to improve. Why should she, really, when she keeps ending up on the bestseller list?

*Yes, I saw the first movie with my previously mentioned friends. My therapist and I are hopeful about my recovery.


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