“The Invited Guest” – A Short Story

It’s that time of year again. Author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. In years past he’s put a 100-word requirement (not a limit, a requirement) on the stories, but this year he didn’t put any shackles. You can read my entries from the past two years here and here. I set out to write something about 1000 words.

Enjoy – “The Invited Guest”

“How could this happen?” Sarah Jane said, head in hands.  She was sitting in a high backed chair next to the fire. Across from her, on the love seat, was the Devil.

He looked like a man of nondescript middle age, with a perfectly tailored black suit. Only his tie contained the faintest hint of red. She knew something was up because of his walking stick, black with an ever shifting pattern of flames. Then he removed his hat, a black fedora. The small horns were a dead giveaway.

Sarah Jane slumped back in her chair. “Why? How?”

“Could have something to do with that,” the Devil said, pointing to the crumpled paper bag next to Sarah Jane’s chair.

“My sandwich?” She’d just finished a supreme club sub from Tony’s down the street.

He nodded, eyes twinkling. “Did you, by chance, toss a portion of it in the fire?”

“Yeah, just the heel,” she said, then paused. “Wait a second.”

The Devil’s eyebrows rose.

She dug through her memories, deep into her youth. “My grandmother.”

“Was she was from the ‘old country’?” The Devil made air quotes.

Sarah Jane nodded. “When I was really young she would always hand out this crazy advice. ‘It’s bad luck if you spill salt and then don’t throw it over your shoulder. You’ll have good luck if you eat grapes after midnight.’ That kind of thing.” She thought some more, then started nodding. “And she said something about throwing bread into the fire.”

The Devil clapped his hands together. “There you have it.”

“But I didn’t want to summon you.”

“Makes no difference,” the Devil said. “I did not make the rules, believe it or not.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time. You can go now.”

A slow, slippery grin stretched across the Devil’s face. “That is not how this works.”

A sudden chill ran from Sarah Jane’s feet to her head and back again.

“You see, once I have been summoned, there is only one way to make me leave.”

“Which is?” she asked, slowly enunciating each word.

“We need to come to an arrangement,” the Devil said, sounding very reasonable.


“Yes.” He flicked some dust of his hat with his fingers. “Typically when someone summons me they want something big, bold, possibly dangerous. For that they are willing to trade their soul.”

“Whoa, back up, Scratch,” she said, hands raised. “I like my life as it is. I certainly don’t want something so much as to trade you my soul for it.”

The Devil raised a hand, palm open. “Like I said, I did not make the rules. I have to get something from you.”

“But I don’t want anything.”

“Yes you do.” The Devil sat back in his chair and examined his nails.

Sarah Jane chose her words carefully, “I need to pay you to go away?”

The Devil nodded.

“That’s insane! You can’t just show up in someone’s home and then not leave until they give you something!”

He raised a finger. “I did not just show up, woman. I was summoned. That it was without intent is irrelevant. If you want me to leave, you will pay.”

Sarah Jane wracked her brain. “But it shouldn’t cost me much, right?”

“What?” The Devil was caught by surprise.

“I mean, all I want is you gone and, let’s face it, you’re going to need to be somewhere else sooner or later.”

“I suppose that’s right, but . . .” he started.

Sarah Jane ignored him and kept going. “So it’s not really fair to take my entire soul just to get you to do something you’re going to do anyway.”

The Devil sat, mouth open for a moment. “I can play this game longer than you. You’ve got a boyfriend? What will you do if he comes over?”

She shrugged, not concerned that the Devil knew that. “I think Phil would enjoy this. He’s seen all the almost every movie about you, even Crossroads.”

The Devil rolled his eyes, then leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Look, you’ve got to give me something. A part of your soul, just a small bit.”

“Like what?” Sarah Jane asked. “Ten minutes ago if somebody had told me I had a soul I’d have said they were full of shit, but I’d have said the same thing about you, too. No offense.”

“None taken.” He leaned back and looked at the ceiling, deep in thought for a few seconds. Finally, he said, “do you like movies as much as Phil?”

“Sure,” she said, lying just a bit. This was the Devil, after all. “I’m more of a book girl, but I like movies.”

“Very well,” the Devil said. He rose and suddenly was twice as tall, glowering down at her. “I take from your soul the ability to react emotionally to motion pictures,” his voice deepened, “for the rest of your life!” The last phrase boomed around the room.

“Does that mean you’ll go away?” she asked.

The Devil shrank back to regular size. “I keep my bargains.”

“All right, then,” she said, standing and shooing him away with her hands. “Off with you, then.”

The Devil turned and began walking back into the next room. “You think this is a joke. It’s not,” he said over his shoulder.

“Whatever,” she said as she watched him disappear into the darkness.


They walked out into the chill evening. The marquee above them glowed in slow, shallow pulses.

Phil was sniffling. “How can you not be crying? It’s so sad! The way their village was destroyed? How the twins got separated, but only the girl found her mother in the end?”

“It’s just a movie,” Sarah Jane said. She cursed the Devil in her mind.”

“Just a movie,” Phil said, looking at her through bleary eyes. “What are you, some kind of soulless monster?”

“Something like that,” she said, looking up the block. “Let’s go get a sub.”

And remember, any invited guest is better than the other kind:

Be sure to check out Eric’s website for links to all the other stories.

Happy Halloween!



Come See Me – Twice!

The next couple of weekends I’ll be out and about, taking part in a couple of events in the Charleston area.

First up, this weekend, is the third year (after its revival) of the West Virginia Book Festival.


In addition to a terrific list of speakers (including R.L. Stine and Joe Hill) and workshops, there will be an entire marketplace full of writers hawking their wares – including me! It runs Friday and Saturday (October 27 & 28) at the Civic Center in Charleston, with the marketplace open 11-7 on Friday and 9-5 on Saturday (admission is free). Also, don’t miss out on the Kanawha County Public Library’s annual sale – it’s always full of neat finds!

Then next weekend, I’ll be taking part (for the first time) in the Mountain State Pop Expo.


The Expo is a celebration of all things pop culture and looks like it should have something that appeals to just about everybody – including fans of fantasy fiction. The Expo is Saturday and Sunday (November 4 & 5), from 10 to 6 at the Holiday Inns & Suites in South Charleston (admission $10 – all proceeds go to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia).


Come to either, come to both – but be sure to stop by and say hi!

Author Interview – Timothy Ellis

For this interview we go (back) down under to talk with space opera writer Timothy Ellis.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

Timothy Ellis. I live on the Gold Coast, in Queensland, Australia. I write Space Opera, with a spiritual underscore, a love of cats, and dabbling mix of other genres.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My current project is the A.I. Destiny series, which is a spin off from The Hunter Legacy series. Book 3 was Snark’s Quest, co-authored with Elspeth Anders. Snark is a centaur like Cat, in my Gaia galaxy, introduced in the previous book Queen Jane. While the series is called AI Destiny, Snark takes on a journey through a galaxy coming to grips with humans suddenly appearing, and being the strongest species around. Book 4 is Destiny Stone, continuing the quest. Book 5, Talisman of Tomorrow is currently in editing as I write this. All 3 are co-authored.

The series is a reversal for most Space Opera where humans are the underdog, and must save the universe. Here, humans, unknowingly led by AI’s have what everyone else wants, and Snark’s Quest begins a 3 book arc about the consequences of being top dog, instead of underdog. Especially on a cat world.

Snarks Quest 2nd cover-400

 In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Space Opera is my first love. I didn’t actually choose what to write. It had been haunting my mind for twenty years before I first sat down and attempted to extract it. The first few books wrote themselves.

Spirituality, (without religion) has become my way of life, and so I decided to mix Space Opera with a spiritual main character. This introduces an aspect missing from many space military stories, where mine has a main character struggling to cope with a death toll he can’t avoid, and doesn’t want to be part of.

I also added in cats in space, since I love cats. Some of my funniest moments are cats doing in space what cats do naturally.

The last aspect of my writing is the Artificial Intelligence, and what happens when one is side kick to an eccentric human, and a group who accept who she without any need to justify anything. I took this is another level in the spin off series, where the AI goes from side kick to Queen.

In your mind, what sets space opera apart from other science fiction that’s set in space? Later on you mention a “spectrum” of space opera – what is that?

To my way of thinking, Space Opera is about people. It’s character driven, and is about them being put into situations, somewhere in space. Military science fiction on the other hand tends to be event driven story, populated by people doing things. Characters who get thrust into events, verses events where people have to deal with them. You can still have military based Space Opera, but the characters come first. In Military Sci-Fi, the events come first. For example, in Space Opera you meet Joe Bloggs having an ordinary day on his ship, and things go pear shaped. In Military Sci-Fi, your star system is invaded, and Joe Bloggs is the nearest who/whatever to deal with it. It may sound like the same thing, but remember, you’re in my mind here, a most dangerous place to be I assure you, and just about everyone has a different perspective on the distinction.

On one end of the Space Opera spectrum is pure life in space. There are no galaxy wide problems, no save the universe as we know it situations, and definitely no hero to the rescue. It’s about living in space, and the day to day events which make up real life. The best of this end can still be compelling reading, even if nothing actually blows up.

On the other end is the more traditional expectation of Space Opera. The system/political entity/galaxy/universe has been invaded or is about to end, and some hero type has to save everyone. The stakes are big, the problems seem insurmountable, and there is a great deal of handwavium, and pulling rabbits out of orifices at the last second. The movies get made at this end of the spectrum because of all the high stakes jeopardy for the characters, and everything going boom.

In the middle are series like my own, where life in space is the core, but there is a steady building, ebb and flow, and rebuilding towards the end of humanity situation. I have gone with the hero theme, but my hero has a daily life, and it’s not always about saving anything or anyone. He goes shopping, eats dinner in restaurants, throws up in the bathroom, gets drunk, showers, and goes naked in the spa. Sometimes alone, sometimes not. Most of my books cover somewhere between one and three weeks in time, and you live those weeks with the main character. The Christmas story for example, is one day in space, where the main character is losing his grip on the day, while everyone else thinks it’s all his doing. It could be anywhere, but it’s on a ship, and things happen which can only happen on a ship. This is Space Opera at its best for me. Life in Space. It’s not about where they’re going. It’s about what happens on the journey.


Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

 I’m a ‘pantser’, so I start with an idea, usually knowing where the end is, and simply begin. The characters talk to me as we go, and I write about what they want to say, where they want to go, and what they want to do.

In some books I’ve need to meticulously plot time against multiple actions, so everything happens in the right order.

I edit what I write the day before first, and continue on writing.

Once complete, aiming for 85k words, I do a reading pass on the computer looking for anything wrong, and tidying things up. I usually add more than I delete.

Once the story is there, I throw it to my Kindle app, and start reading it as if it was someone else’s book, editing as I go. Rinse and repeat until I can’t find any errors.

Blurbs tend to write themselves during the editing process, and the cover is defined, commissioned, and completed by the time the editing process is complete.

I release as soon as I consider the book is polished well enough.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Jane is my first AI character. She starts out as a ship computer AI, gains a robot body, uses tech to appear human, and learns how to be so human, no-one can tell she’s not. She’s a fiercely protective side-kick, but has a sense of humour which produces some very funny dialog. She’s done disco dancing, fleet control, bait for a serial killer, killed the bad guy when the main character decided not to, and eventually becomes a Queen of her own Kingdom.

Admiral Jane cover-400

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

 Dismembering a corpse, within a combat suit, in the vacuum of a space hulk, using something resembling a Japanese Katana sword.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

As distasteful as getting editors to cover your first novel in red is, it’s really necessary. I’ve seen too many authors release their first book with so much ego involved, having not had a good editor, or even a proof-reader look at it. They crash and burn, and that first book haunts them ever after.

All first time authors have blinkers on as far as their writing is concerned. Successful authors fall into 2 groups. Those who had their first books edited and learned how to do it themselves to a higher level, and those who still get their books edited by professionals. No matter how good you are, your first book needs a professional editor, and multiple proofreading passes, in order to polish it to a good enough standard to be acceptable to readers.

The process is hard to go through, since an editor will most likely gut what you think is your ‘voice’. But that is what they’re supposed to do. The first book is a learning journey on a steep slope. But it is necessary.

The other part of this is letting go of ego. Too many first time authors think they are the second coming, and their work is perfect as it is. They fail to listen to experienced authors trying to help them improve the book, blurb, and cover before they launch it, and crash and burn spectacularly. Help is out there on author forums and groups, and the authors who utilize the experience of successful authors who help new ones, do a lot better out of the gate.

The first launch is a matter of parking your ego, getting the best advise you can, using professional services to polish your story as much as you can, and producing the best possible story, presented in the best possible way, before you present it to readers. What happens then depends on how well people like the story, not on what was wrong with the presentation.

You mention the need for a professional editor for a first book, which implies you’ve moved past using one. What did you learn from initially using an editor that you’re able to use now and avoid going that route?

The first thing everyone learns is to hate the red which comes back. It’s a good motivator for learning how to edit yourself. What I did was looked hard at what the red was about, and I set down on paper all the common corrections. When my editor wasn’t available for book 3, I methodically used the find function in word, to check a long list of things I usually had wrong. These included two words where a contracted word is better, a list of words I over used badly and could easily be replaced by a better one with just a little thought, and typical spelling mistakes I make all the time, which the spell checker won’t pick up because they are real words.

There are two parts to editing. Looking at the story itself, and proofreading the words used. I tend to write fairly clean first drafts, so I don’t rewrite very much on the first editing pass. If anything, I add in new ideas, and clarification. While writing, I keep notes on what needs to be covered later on, so I rarely miss anything important, and pick these up on the first full read pass.

Proofreading is where most authors fail, as far as the final product is concerned. But learning to proofread is first a matter of learning about yourself. What do you always do wrong? Where are your blind spots? These are where editors and proofreaders will show you what you need to concentrate on when self-editing.

One of the tricks to proofreading is putting it on your reading device, and reading it like it’s someone else’s book. So much becomes obvious this way, which you never saw on the PC, no matter how many times you read there. I do most of my editing from my device, reading like a reader, and changing on the PC version as I go.

It’s a skill. You will either learn it or not. Editing and proofreading are separate skills, but they can be combined with writing. You just need to change hats a lot.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

Not much. 1 Mill isn’t all that much these days in the scheme of things. It won’t buy me a decent sized apartment on the beach, which is where I’d like to be living.

It would allow me to travel without needing to worry about those months where you don’t release, and so your income drops like a stone. I’d do the American Comic-con circuit for a while.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

 The two authors I wait impatiently for the next book are Nathan Lowell and Glynn Stewart. Both have series on the go where the end of each book is always way too soon. Both write Space Opera, but on opposite ends of the spectrum.

I can’t say I’ve discovered a new author in recent times. One of the disadvantages of being in editing mode so often, is reading other people’s books is difficult, because you also edit them as you read. Hence, I only go looking for something really new, between releasing a book, and beginning writing the next one. Sometimes there is no gap, so I don’t even look.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I have 4 on the go at the moment.

Editing the next A.I.Destiny/Snark based book is the primary focus right now. The fifth is in editing for release in the second week of October. The series finale is in planning.

I’m also developing a sequel to my original series, setting it up to be a core for more books in the original galaxy.

I’ve already begun something completely new as well. Crossing genres much more than I already have. For now, I’m not sure if it’s a standalone book, or the first of a new trilogy.

As well, with a co-author on the current project, I’m working towards co-authoring in my universe with other authors. I’ll soon have a universe with 2 galaxies, and separate characters and species, sharing technology with Humans and AI’s at the center of them. A second co-author is currently working on a backstory to one of my characters.

How do you keep track of your many ongoing projects? Do you try and prioritize one at a time or do you just work on whatever strikes your fancy on a given day?

I’m a fairly methodical person, so I work mainly on one thing at a time. Ideas come and go, I take time out to make notes, but I keep going on what the current book is. This doesn’t stop my head from going off track, but deadlines help keep you focused. Once a book in a series is released, you need to focus on 4 to 6 weeks later being the release date for the work in progress. You can deviate a bit, but too much makes your release date slip.

I do allocate some time each day to working on other projects, but come writing time, you work on only the current book.


Weekly Read: The Hike

There’s a long tradition of stories were a regular person is thrown into some weird alternate world, one where the rules of real life don’t apply. The person has to battle through this world without understanding what’s really going on until, hopefully, they find their way out again. A problem with this evergreen template is that, eventually, the storyteller has to explain what’s going on. Rarely do the explanations match what happened along the way.

The Hike falls into that trap. It plunges its main character head first into a bizarre, alien, and frightening world that throws challenges at him apparently at random. It’s no spoiler to say that we eventually find out who’s doing this, but not really why. It’s an awfully soft landing after such a long journey.

But, oh, what a journey it is.

Ben is a businessman of some kind (it’s not really important) on a business trip. He checks into a third-rate hotel in the Pennsylvania wilderness and, with some time to kill before a meeting, decides to take a hike. From there things get – interesting. Almost immediately there’s a dead girl and killers chasing Ben while weaning the torn off faces of Rottweilers. Ben evades them, but finds he can’t get back to anything that looks familiar. With that, the saga is on.

It’s hard to describe what follows, and the surprise of it is part of the joy, so I won’t bother. Safe to say that Ben faces a series of trials that play out like an early role playing video game – success at each “level” is often dependent on figuring out what to do with objects that mysteriously appear when necessary. The struggles get harder as the journey goes along, while Ben occasionally has to deal with frightening episodes from his past.

Ben goes at this mostly alone, although he meets a wide variety of beings as he progresses along his path. At times he gets some companionship, in the form of a talking crab (who refuses to give his name and addresses Ben as “Shithead”) and a 15th-century Spanish explorer (who hates anybody who isn’t Spanish, particularly the English). That these relationships actually pays off in ways beyond being purely entertaining (the crab is really funny) is a testament to how good The Hike is.

Which is not to say it’s perfect. The book falls foul of the regular problem with stories of this sort in that the explanation of this weird world doesn’t hold a candle to the world itself. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense, it’s just not very satisfying (admittedly, I’m not sure what would be). Also, while the final twist gives a little bit of sting to the tale, I don’t buy the reading that so many people have that Ben learned a great lesson through all this. He never really got into the world as an escape from real life, was never seduced by the promise of something different and exciting. He always wanted to go home to his wife and kids.

Then again, doesn’t everybody (well, maybe not the kids part)?. Which is why it’s hard to fault The Hike for not wowing you at the end, given all the wow you get out of the journey.


Speculative Fiction and the “Real” World

A little while back I reviewed The Spaceship Next Door and while I enjoyed it there was something about it that bothered me. It kept picking at my writer brain until I finally figured it out. It’s a small thing and nothing at all to change my earlier recommendation (TLDR – go read it), but it’s still something worth pondering.

Spaceship . . . was released at the end of 2015. It’s safe to say it was written sometime in the year or two before that. At the very least, we’re not talking about a book that sat in a trunk for decades before it saw the light of day. By all indications, it takes place in the time in which it was written, which is to say pretty much right now. There are smart phones, ubiquitous wi-fi, and other trappings of second decade of the 21st Century. And we’re clearly talking about 21st Century America, as the book is set in Massachusetts (albeit in a fictional town).

The book also has a considerable military presence, as one might imagine for a story where a spaceship suddenly lands in the countryside and then sits around for a bit. There’s more than one soldier who is a minor character and other characters interact with even more Army folks.

This is where something started bugging me. If we’re dealing with military matters in a world that’s otherwise our own – why is there almost no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan?

I’m not saying that any book set in modern America has to comment on our never-ending military adventures (full disclosure – Moore Hollow doesn’t). Nor do I expect a domestically set sci-fi tale to dive deeply into the matter. Still, it’s a little weird that, aside from one brief mention late in the book, they never come up. There’s at least one scene where one of the soldiers (maybe the general – I can’t remember) is talking about what a good posting this is. A quick “beats dodging IEDs in Baghdad” or something similar would have worked.

This is the risk that comes from writing fiction set in the “real” world, but I can’t put my finger on why this particular aspect of it irked me. It didn’t bother me that the president (who shows up near the end) isn’t Obama (or any other actual US president), so why does the military thing? I can’t say. Maybe, for this kind of thing, this is my flying snowman moment, even if it’s not so serious as to destroy my suspension of disbelief.

There’s probably no wrong way or right way for a writer to handle a situation like this. But at the very least, writers should be aware of the issue and give it some consideration – is there something in your not-quite-real world that’s going to make people cock their heads and bit and wonder, “huh?” We want our stories to be immersive, not confusing, after all.

Or maybe I’m just a moron.


Author Interview – J. David Core

From one JD to another . . . and from next door in Ohio, to boot.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

 I’m a fifty-five year-old grandfather from small-town Ohio. I’ve worked as a traveling photographer, a newspaper photog, a freelance writer, a cook, and a whole lot of retail. I write mysteries and crime thrillers mostly. I set most of my stories in the tri-state region of the upper-Ohio valley which is the stomping ground I call home.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My most recent release is called On the Side of the Angel. It’s intended as part of a multi-author project. I contacted several writers and together we brainstormed a character and back story with the intention of each using the character in a shared capacity in our assorted projects. The stories would have no other connection except that the same character would feature prominently in each. When we began the project we had no idea who or what the character would be. Eventually we settled on a young, multi-racial woman who has been forced to fake her own death and is working as a fixer for the mafia in an effort to farm information for her vendetta against the person who murdered her family and forced her into this new life.

The character uses a different assumed identity in each iteration of her freelance career, and as she cleans the messes she’s tasked to clean, she curries favors to call in as needed. Because of this habit she is known in the underground only as the Bartering Angel.

My story is set early in her career just after she has faked her death. She shows up in Pittsburgh and is asked to help the son of a local drug dealer to escape the country after he and his girlfriend accidentally killed a store clerk in a botched thrill robbery. The Angel devises a scheme to misdirect the FBI with a dupe who is trying to cash several dozen winning lottery tickets without paying any taxes.


I’m really intrigued by the project that led to the Bartering Angel. How did you get involved in that? How many authors were involved? How do you ensure that all the different stories don’t take the character in conflicting directions?

I was listening to Simon Whistler’s podcast, and he was interviewing a romance author who mentioned that she was involved with a multi-author project with a shared character. In their case, it was a matchmaker. I thought it was a great way to cross-promote, and wondered if a group of thriller and mystery writers could do something similar, so I wrote a bunch of writers I have had previous dealings with and composed a post about the idea on a popular writers’ forum. To be honest, I doubted many writers would be interested, and one suggested that the idea of keeping all of the writers interested would be like herding cats, but I was tenacious. Eventually we wound up with a core group of around seven authors, and two of us besides me have already outlined and partly written their own stories. The others in the group are waiting until those stories are all released to begin working on their own stories. My story is set in 2005. The third story will be present day.  And a second story falls somewhere in the middle of that timeline. Once they are all released, I’ll create a wiki which we can use as a sort of story bible to keep consistency.

Meanwhile we are all working on the prequel story, so we are all familiar with the origin story. Beyond that, none of us is writing from her POV directly, so even if the stories have different voices, the character’s voice can be kept ambiguous enough. In a sense, it’s the same as when multiple authors write in – say – the Star Wars universe. Or when different directors make a Spiderman movie. We all know who the character is, and we all have our own spin on her, but the reader will still recognize her as the Angel just like they recognize Han Solo or Peter Parker.

Are there things about the Bartering Angel that would have changed if she was only “yours”? Might those things find their way into a future work of yours?

Frankly, I would never have thought to give her a fatal flaw. That was a suggestion by one of our writers, HN Wake. Then as a group we decided to give her agoraphobia, which she is struggling to overcome but which sometimes gets the best of her. So if she was just mine, she’d be less interesting in that regard. Also, I had originally suggested calling the character Betty Barter. Sometimes committee decisions are better.

As for whether I’d ever work my vision of the character into my own story; in my story about the angel set in 2005, On the Side of the Angel, I introduced a middle aged, gay, fixer with a stoic personality called “the painter” who gets involved on the case temporarily. He was how I envisioned the character before we began development. So in a way, I guess I did work my vision for the character into my story.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Most of my stories involve crime. Some are thrillers. Others are mysteries. I have also written a handful of time travel stories which also involve crime as a central focus. I have no idea why I am so drawn to crime stories. I’m the most honest, milquetoast dude I know. There must be a dark corner in my psyche that wishes I could seek vengeance and embrace anarchy and sociopathology.

What’s the difference between “mysteries” and “thrillers”? Isn’t there a mystery at the heart of any good thriller?

I think a thriller certainly can have a mystery at its heart, but so can a romance or a science fiction novel. And a mystery is thrilling, but so is a horror story. Genre lines are vague in some ways, but like Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, when it comes to the distinction between mystery and thriller, I know it when I see it.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I get ideas for stories every day. Sometimes I have completely forgotten them by day’s end. If I haven’t forgotten an idea by the next morning, it begins to stick with me and I know I have a hold of something with a life of its own. I tend to let the idea fester and marinate for a while. Finally I’ll sit down and write out a rough synopsis. I then turn this into an outline, and then I flesh that out into beats.

By this time, I’m ready to write, so I draw in the chapter breaks and do whatever research the story requires, and they all require some research. Then I start writing. A 50,000 word novel usually takes about a month. A novella takes around a week. Then I let it sit for a month or so before going back in for rewrites. I like that break to give it freshness when I return to it. I find if I try to edit or rewrite just after I finish that I’m too close to what I’ve written. A month later though and I can read it like it’s something I’ve never seen, and it’s a lot less precious.

After the rewrites, I send it to my beta team. When I get it back, I make my corrections or rewrites. Then I’ll get one or two people who haven’t seen it yet to give the latest draft a read, then I do a final polish after they give their feedback. That’s it. I hit publish.


Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I’m pretty impressed with the Bartering Angel. She was raised in Alaska on a secluded homestead by her parents who homeschooled her and taught her survivalism until they were murdered. After that she lived with her scientist aunt in Anchorage who taught her chemistry before she joined the military where she learned spec ops techniques until a bout of agoraphobia (brought on by unresolved issues resulting from the murder of her parents) forced her to leave the military. She sought therapy and joined the police academy as she tried working through her issues, but when her aunt took ill she left the force and studied forensics and computer science on her own from home. Then, when her aunt passed and she learned that she was going to be charged as the killer when poison is found in her system, she fakes her death and goes underground.

All of this gave her all the necessary tools to be the perfect fixer for the mob, a job she never wanted, but was forced into due to circumstances. It’s such a rich and perfect back story. But…

The problem is I didn’t develop all of this by myself. As I said earlier, she was created as part of a group project.

Then there’s Lupa Schwartz, a genius detective who loathes religion and loves classic cars and women and good food, and came to America from the Balkans as a Jewish refugee after the fall of the Soviet Union. He’s a rich and interesting character too, wearing only green shirts and black pants, insisting on releasing the air from the tires of parking violators so they can’t flee before the police have a chance to ticket them, vigorously denouncing the beliefs of others while holding to what some would consider ludicrous conspiracy theories involving shadow governments and corporate conglomerates. But…

If I’m being honest, most of that came about because the character is pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. I just took existing tropes and twisted them into something recognizable and new but fully formed and informed by what came before.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

One of my characters is a pedophile being brought to justice by a bounty hunter. On the trip they have a conversation, and I decided the child molester would try to make excuses for his behavior. I had to research countries with no age of consent or a very young one that he could use in his argument. I researched the history of consent in our country. It was a weird rabbit hole with a lot of very disturbing facts. And it left me with a very ugly Google cache I’m sure.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

That’s a good question. I’d say I probably wasted way too much time trying to get an agent to shop my mystery series to traditional publishing houses. Of course this was long before the kindle revolution, but even so. Back in those days, an agent would ask for a query with a synopsis. If they liked that they’d ask for a manuscript. For this whole process they wanted non-simultaneous submissions, aka exclusivity on spec. This tied up the project for months and almost always ended in a rejection and they never even sent back the manuscript even though I sent a SASE. It was a giant time and money suck for no return.

Even today there are those who are still playing that game. Do not get sucked in. Even if you are one of the lucky chosen few, they own your labor’s fruit lock-stock-and-barrel. They decide after a month to pull it from shelves and take it out of print and it’s basically gone forever. You don’t own it anymore.

Be an indie publisher.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

Well, for one thing, I’d invest it in a start-up ebook retailer idea I have to compete with the likes of Kobo, Nook, and Amazon. I’d take a smaller cut on each sale letting authors pocket 80%, set sales or free days as they see fit, and run a discovery tool similar to the Netflix model. “Based on your like of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, we recommend these indie authors.” Something like that.

Other than that, my own writing would be unaffected. I already write what I want when I want the way I want.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I really enjoyed The Coelho Medallion by Kevin Tumlinson and Revelation by Carter Wilson. They are two very different kinds of stories by very different authors, but each was enthralling and smart and fantastically researched.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I have an idea for a science fiction series that I’m hoping to treat in a way similar to the Bartering Angel series in that it will involve several different authors writing in the same universe. I don’t have a name for the concept yet, but it involves an alternate version of our world where scientists in the 80s discovered a way to inject nanobots into our spinal columns that would create artificial stem cells that would replace all of our cells with improved robotic cells. What kind of world would we have today, 30 years later? There’d be luddites who refuse the operation, maybe some of them even working in an underground opposition. Some of the perfected people would figure out ways to use the technology to commit crimes. Each story would explore the universe from a different perspective. Some small and personal in scope, others more epic.

I’m working out the fine points before opening it to other writers.

Meanwhile I have a few more Lupa Schwartz mysteries to write and I’m putting out an audiobook of a noir collection I published last year.

Get in touch with Dave on the Web, Facebook, or Twitter and check out his podcast.

Not Exactly The Thomas Crown Affair, Is It?

Art heists are great fodder for movies and books. The stakes are usually pretty high, involving unique, priceless works of art. Daring do is often required to pull them off. And it provides a good opportunity for suave characters to behave suavely.

This isn’t one of those stories.

In February 1965, Salvador Dalí painted a version of Christ on the cross – in an hour and a  quarter – and donated to Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex. Dalí was supposed to meet with some inmate artists, but wasn’t feeling well, so he sent the painting instead. It was hung in the cafeteria, where it proceeded to collect stains from various jailhouse food fights. In 1981, somebody realized what it was (and had it appraised for $250,000) and took it down.

After a short tour around the country and some time in storage, the painting was hung up again at Rikers – but not where the inmates could actually see it. Instead, it was put up in a lobby where jail employees went in and out. In 2003, a group of those employees (four guards) decided to steal it.

The plan was to create a couple of distractions and allow the leader of the scheme to take the Dalí while replacing it with a fake. It didn’t go well:

It was noticeably smaller than the original, an instant tip-off, but the reproduction was also one that, based on descriptions, not even a child would have wanted to claim. Plus, the reproduction of the cafeteria stains were an entirely different color. It was bad.

Then, of course, there was the painting’s presentation. Yes, the glass case had been locked back up with the copy safely inside. But where the original had been displayed in its gold frame, the fake was simply stapled to the back of the box, sans frame.

The whole plan was amateurish at best, but when you factor in the location—a prison teeming with law enforcement officials who spent their days gazing at that exact painting (there were two guard booths in direct view of the Dalí)—it was stupidity at its finest.

The very next day, several guards reported that there was something wrong with the Dalí.

They all got caught, of course, although the ringleader managed to get a not guilty verdict at trial (the others were convicted).  As for the Dalí itself? One of the thieves says that the ringleader got nervous and destroyed it.

On second thought, maybe there is a great story here, in the tradition of a Coen Brothers “heist gone wrong” kind of thing. I’d watch it. I’ll even suggest a theme song:


100 Books – Only 99 Cents Each – This Weekend Only

If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy and are looking for your next favorite read, head right on over here:


That’s right, 100 books, just 99 cents each. Many (including The Water Road) are available across multiple platforms, including Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. There’s something for every taste, from space opera and steampunk to epic fantasy and horror. There’s even a collection of sci-fi and fantasy for younger readers.

This deal only lasts until the end of this weekend – so get over there and get clicking!

Aliens For the Defense!

The first novel-length project I finished (which shall molder in box in my close forevermore) grew out of the fact that criminal defense attorneys routinely have their clients try and tell them whopper stories about “what really happened.” My personal favorite is a colleague’s client who explained that he tested positive for cocaine because he was helping a buddy move a couch and when he picked it up a cloud of white powder erupted and flew up his nose. My book took that phenomenon and aliened it up a bit (it involves the Flatwoods Monster).

Now, in my wife’s home state of Wyoming, somebody is trying to sell something similar, but I doubt any court (or defense attorney) is going to be buying. The defendant was arrested for being drunk in public, but he had a good reason:

Police say a central Wyoming man they arrested for public intoxication claimed he had traveled back in time to warn of an alien invasion.

* * *

The man told police he was only able to time travel because aliens filled his body with alcohol. He noted that he was supposed to be transported to the year 2018, not this year.

I suppose time travel isn’t an exact science, even for aliens But don’t worry, the invasion isn’t until 2048, so we’ve got time to prepare.

In the meantime, might I suggest an expert witness should this gentleman decide to go to trial?