Kate Flora

Former attorney Kate Flora is the author of ten books. Her dynamic character, Thea Kozak, returns in 2008 in Stalking Death, from Jim Huang’s Crum Creek Press/The Mystery Company. Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine, co-written with a career police officer, was a 2007 Edgar nominee. The story was filmed for Court TV and Psychic Investigators. She has gone in a new direction with Playing God and the upcoming The Angel of Knowlton Park, gritty police procedurals from Five Star. She is currently researching a new true crime and plotting a light-hearted series. Flora’s stories have appeared in the Level Best anthologies, in Sisters on The Case, an anthology edited by Sara Paretsky, and in Per Se, an anthology of fiction. Flora teaches writing for Grub Street in Boston.

Writing Cops Right: Some basics for mystery writers

When it comes to police procedure, mystery readers are a sophisticated bunch. Meeting their expectations means we can’t just make it up. We have to do research. My own efforts to “get cops right” led me to the Portland, Maine police department, where my relationship with my “go to guy,” Deputy Chief Joe Loughlin, led to a 2 ½ year collaboration writing the true story of one of his murder cases, Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine.

The Maine Game Wardens who helped find Amy’s body sent me to talk with another police department about another body they found, and now I’m nose-deep in another true crime.

Along the way, my research into law enforcement has led me into some interesting situations. I took my local department’s RAD course. I learned to shoot a handgun in the basement of a police department, with bullets in my ears for protection because all the ear protectors were missing. I flagged down an unsuspecting police sergeant at my local gym to ask some questions, which led to a citizen’s police academy in another city. I took an interview and interrogation course along with a bunch of local cops and store security officers. And once, because I wanted to make my character’s experience feel really authentic, I asked my local police chief to arrest me. He did it by the book. So much so that later he e-mailed to ask if I was okay. I was. Shaken but okay. And I got nine pages of notes from the experience.

I’m probably the only suburban housewife on my block with her own bullet-proof vest and handcuffs. And likely the only one with a police officer’s hat hanging on a hook in the entry. I’m sure I’m the only person in the whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts with her own toy replica of a Miramichi, New Brunswick police car.

It’s always a learning process, and it can be daunting. But I try to get it right for my readers.

Here are some of the ways I’ve educated myself about writing cops.

Read. Read. Read.

Read Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure & Investigation.

Read Connie Fletcher’s books, What Cops Know and Breaking and Entering: Women Cops Talk about Life in the Ultimate Men’s Club.


Read Lt. Albert Joseph’s book, We Get Confessions.

Read David Simon’s Homicide. Cops read it. Cops like it. Cops quote it.

If you can stomach it, read, Practical Homicide Investigation.

Get yourself a criminalistics textbook.

Even though civilians love the stuff, don’t get your forensics or your procedure from CSI.

Hang Around with Cops


You can read books ‘til the cows come home, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. If you’re going to write cops, you’ll want to know how they talk to each other, how they pick real information out of what sounds like radio squawk to you. What kind of guns they carry and what all the rest of that stuff on their belt is and what it’s for. What they’re looking at that made them conduct a traffic stop and what they’re looking for once that car is stopped. And an observant writer is always looking for the small details. What kind of stuff is on the desk? The Three Stooges. What’s on the office bulletin boards? Pictures of cute puppies. What do they have in the trunk? Everything.

Take a Citizen’s Police Academy. You’ll get real cops telling you the rules they work by–criminal and Constitutional Law, the “use of force continuum,” when you can stop someone, search someone, search a car, etc. Learn how 911 works. The incredible dangers of traffic stops. You may even get to shoot a gun. You’ll also establish police contacts to answer your questions. If your department doesn’t offer one, find another which does, explain your interest, and ask if you can attend.

Go on a ride-along. Many police departments will allow citizens to ride with their officers on patrol. This is a wonderful opportunity to see their world from the inside and to ask your questions. Don’t be a pest. Don’t be a bore. Take your cues from the officer you’re riding with. Often the person you’re riding with considers it a burden to have you along. But if you show interest, most cops are pleased to have someone genuinely curious about what they do and are great at answering questions. You may find yourself seeing your town or city in a completely different light as you learn the history of the buildings on your route-as one officer told me, “that’s where we found the guy hanging in the basement, and over there is where the guy shot his girlfriend and then ran down that alley and shot himself.” And the people you pass on corners and stoops may also come with a history. You never know what you’ll encounter. Once I got to go on a stake-out and actually spotted the bad guys.

Develop your own police source. Ask friends, relatives and co-workers if they know any police officers who will to talk to you. If this doesn’t work, try calling the information officer at your local police department. Sometimes you may meet resistance, but usually, if you explain who you are and that you’re just trying to “get it right,” they are very helpful. And one contact usually leads to another, so you can find the detective, drug investigator, ballistician or computer forensics expert you need.

Jessa Nicholson

Jessa Nicholson is a private bar criminal defense attorney in Madison, Wisconsin. She runs a two attorney firm, Frederick/Nicholson, LLC, with her business partner, Terry Frederick. Jessa attended the University of Michigan for her undergraduate studies and the University of Wisconsin law school. She is a member of the Wisconsin Bar, the Dane County Bar Association, and the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. Frederick/Nicholson, LLC provides all types of criminal defense both state and federal, including felonies, misdemeanors, and OWI/traffic offenses. Jessa has successfully litigated a number of criminal cases both at the pre-trial stage and through jury trials, winning dismissals and acquittals for clients in both felony and misdemeanor matters. In her spare time, Jessa enjoys art, books, strong ale, good music, and not being in a suit.

I Love A Jury:

Second only to jokes about lawyers are the jokes about juries. You’ve heard them before. Juries are composed “twelve people so dumb they can’t get out of jury duty”. But, while most jokes about lawyers are somewhat (ok, almost entirely) justified, the cracks about jurors, in my humble opinion, are more or less completely out of line.

I love a jury. Love them. I cannot stress this enough. I fell in love with the jury twenty minutes into jury selection of my very first trial, when I got up to introduce myself. The attorney for the government had stood up and, very formally, professionally, and properly stated his full name and title and rattled off the names of his colleagues at the district attorney’s office.

I, on the other hand, so full of coffee and nerves that I could barely hold myself up from the knees, waved enthusiastically and half-spoke, half-yelled “Hey, everybody! I’m Jessa!!” The whole room shouted back, “Hi, Jessa!!” Some even waved.

Right then, before I had so much as asked any of them a question, I was hooked. I love a jury.

Some might tell you I’m in the minority there. For starters, the fear of public speaking currently ranks higher than death in most polls, so statistics show that your average individual would quite literally sooner shoot himself in the head than have to talk for days on end in front of a group of twelve strangers.

Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that trial attorneys have somehow overcome this fear (though I’m of the belief that every good lawyer gets a tiny bit nervous before beginning a trial—not so much that it affects his performance in any way, but just enough that it makes him at the top of his game), I can say that I’ve got a lot of friends in my profession, and their opinions of juries are all across the map. Some of them hate a jury, believing that jurors feel a duty to convict regardless of the evidence. Some believe that juries are unpredictable. Some have the utmost respect for the (admittedly inconvenient) task that jurors undertake. It varies. Again-and I cannot stress this enough—me? I love a jury.

Why? Let me start off by saying that, contrary to the jokes, I don’t believe for a minute that my juries are stupid. Where I practice, it’s quite the contrary—almost all of my jurors have college degrees; many of them hold master’s degrees or higher. Now, obviously, this has something to do with my local demographic, but it’s worth noting. Additionally, I find my jurors are attentive, inquisitive, and, by and large, very concerned with being fair. Regardless of the verdict, I have never had the experience of believing that my jury did anything but its job-carefully considered (and often took pages of notes on) the evidence, deliberated over the elements of the crime, and reached a conclusion.

The other thing that’s great about a jury is the process of jury selection. This is often overlooked in fictionalized portrayals of the court room for sexier things like cross-examination and closing argument. However, the composition of your jury is just as important as anything that happens in the trial. It gives the lawyers the opportunity to play armchair psychiatrist, trying to analyze every blink and sigh that a person exhibits during the selection process. I myself, I strike “lurkers”. People that sit quietly in the back row, not volunteering much information-lurkers make me nervous.

I like to know what they’re thinking. Some attorneys are more prone to strike the talkers, because of concerns that one talker might overpower or convince more quietly-tempered jurors to switch sides and vote the other way. I don’t know that either decision is right or wrong, but making the call makes you feel like you’re honing in on your craft, that you’re developing something special in picking your jurors with care.

Plus, jury selection is one of the rare occasions that, as a lawyer, I get to really talk to the people who are making the decision, rather than just talking at them. I get to ask questions, get a sense of who these people are, what they believe in, and what they do. I had some of the most honest conversations of my life about racial relations in this country with a group of prospective jurors, after one individual was struck for cause and happened to be the only person of color in my jury pool. (Unfortunately, all white juries are a regular occurrence here.)

The prospective juror that was struck had, prior to leaving the pool, stated that he didn’t believe any black man could get a fair trial from an all white jury. After he was dismissed, I had the opportunity to ask the other jurors about their feelings regarding the man’s statements, and the forthright, thoughtful answers that followed were way beyond any argument I could have made about race in my closing. I couldn’t have written anything more powerful than the dialogue these people started in the jury box.

While the jury process is certainly not without its flaws (see above, where I mention that all white juries are a common occurrence here), I can’t think of a better, more interesting, more delightful process than the system of trial by jury. I’d never joke about that.

Lawyers, on the other hand, are a totally different story.

Golden Pen

Each year, students in some California schools are given the opportunity to enter a special creative writing contest. The winner receives the Golden Pen Award. This year’s assignment was presented to the contestants in the form of this question:

‘Raise your hand if you’ve seen the movie “Pay It Forward.”
For those of you who have not seen the movie, a teacher asks his class “What did you ever do to change the world?” One young boy takes this question to heart and sets out to make a difference in the world by doing three good deeds for three different and unsuspecting people. Once the good deed is done, the young boy asks the recipient to do the same thing and do three good deeds for three other people, thus paying it forward.

For your writing assignment I want you to tell what you’ve done to change the world or what you plan to do.’

I was given the honor of being the judge for this year’s contest, and I had the opportunity to read several wonderful stories written by equally wonderful kids. After wading through the entries, one particular tale quickly rose to the top. The winner was clear, so please join me in congratulating Eleanor Cummings for winning the 2008 Golden Pen Award. Her compelling true story about people in need of housing and what she’s already doing to help out was heartwarming. But Eleanor didn’t stop there. She’s already set a plan in motion to help cancer patients.

Eleanor is an amazing young woman. She gives me hope that the future of our world is in good hands.

* Due to the age of the contest winner we’ve elected not to post the name and location of her school. For the same reason, I’ve also decided not to post her award winning entry. Take my word for it, it was good!

Hallie Ephron

Hallie Ephron is the author of the forthcoming psychological suspense novel “Never Tell a Lie” (Wm. Morrow/HarperCollins, 2/09); crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe; author of an Edgar-nominated how to write book; and author of the brand new “1001 Books for Every Mood.” She can be reached through her web site: www.hallieephron.com

Giving true crime its due respect

True crime-I admire anyone who can write about it. Early on in my writing career, I tried. The book was my first, and it concerned the murder of the brother of a dear friend. I’ll call her Marilyn, him Frank.

It happened one morning when Marilyn missed a meeting with a client because she was late getting to the office (she had to take her son to the doctor.) Frank met with the client instead, filling in for Marilyn as they often did for one another.

The man was unhappy with and insurance settlement that Marilyn had brokered for him. He became angry during the meeting, pulled out a gun and shot Frank. When he was finished, he calmly walked out of the office and drove off. He fled the country and wasn’t arrested until months later when he tried to return.

Grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, Marilyn suffered panic attacks in the wake of the murder and was housebound. She felt the murder was her fault. After all, the killer had been her client. She should have been there. She was in agony over the misery she felt she’d brought down upon her family,and especially on Frank’s wife and his three young daughters.

Six months later she met me at a restaurant. Over dinner she remembered the day of the murder. How she’d arrived at work to find the office building ringed with emergency vehicles, never imagining her brother had been killed until she greeted a reporter whom she knew and saw the horror on his face when she asked him what had happened. She remembered the trivial kitchen fire and the settlement that the killer felt she’d mishandled. The funeral, and how the mourners that hot summer afternoon at the cemetery had filled the grave with dirt themselves. How angry her father, always a difficult man, had become in the aftermath of his oldest son’s death.

I wept when she told me how she’d finally gotten up the courage to return Frank’s office. How she’d touched the places in the wall behind his desk where the police had gouged out bullets, probing the holes like empty sockets where a tooth has been removed. “Only the victim gets the death penalty,” she told me, quoting a poster she’d seen when she went to a meeting for families of victims of homicide. “The rest of us are sentenced to purgatory.” What made it even worse, she told me, was much the media coverage focused on the killer and how little there was about Frank.

We left the restaurant, and as we said our good-byes and Marilyn got into her car, she seemed lighter-as if the burden she carried had shifted. And we decided to meet regularly. I’d bring a tape recorder and together we’d try to write the story of the real havoc that murder wreaks.

Months later, I had transcriptions of hours and hours of unburdening. Marilyn read each chapter as I wrote it, and in the reading, as in the telling, it seemed to unburden her.

We finished the book, but ultimately I tucked it away in a drawer. Even after fictionalizing the characters and the setting, publishing it seemed an obscenity, an invasion of privacy, one more indignity to inflict upon Frank’s loved ones.

After that, I determined to write crime as fiction–no “real” victims, no aftermath, no pain to be harvested. As I moved on to write the five Dr. Peter Zak mysteries by “G. H. Ephron,” I carried a lesson with me, and that is always to respect crime and its victims.

Never, even in fiction, take murder lightly.

Steven D. Rogers

Stephen D. Rogers is a published writer of fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, personal essays, romance, and science fiction. A participant in the Fairfield University Writer’s Institute of 1989, the Bread Loaf conference of 1994, and Robert McKee’s STORY seminar, Stephen is the director of the non-profit literacy organization Literature Is For Everybody, Incorporated. He lives with his wife and daughter in Massachusetts, USA.

Over five hundred of Stephen’s stories and poems have been selected to appear in more than two hundred publications, earning among other honors two “Best of Soft SF” winners, a Derringer (and five additional nominations), two “Notable Online Stories” from storySouth’s Million Writers Award, honorable mention in “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror,” mention in “The Best American Mystery Stories,” and numerous Readers’ Choice awards.

Stephen is a proud member of the Mystery Writers of America, the Private Eye Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Other memberships include Mensa, the National SCRABBLE® Association, and the South Shore Writers Group.

Stephen D. Rogers:


When I tell people I’m a civilian employee at a municipal police department, they usually say that must be great for the writing.

Well, yes … and no.


Working within a police department (and I’ve worked in two), I’ve gained some level of admittance to a closed culture. I’ve seen how officers act both while they’re doing their jobs and when they’re unwinding after the shift is complete.

The thing is, thanks to training and on-the-job experience, police officers always scan for threats.

The person with the busted taillight might actually be fleeing the site of an armed robbery. The helpless victim might suddenly attack the officer trying to restrain the alleged offender. The concerned citizen might have an agenda.

Most of the people they talk to lie. Most of the people they encounter are, shall we say, not on their best behavior.

Who’s to say the civilian computer guy is any different? Is he another wannabe cop? Is he using them and their experiences for creative fodder? Is he going to make them look bad?

The questions are valid and understandable.

One way I address the issue is to not be a writer at work. I’m being paid to maintain and improve the station’s hardware and software infrastructures, and that’s what I do.

In the three years I’ve been at my current position, I’ve only “conducted research” once, asking a detective how they interfaced with state police on homicides. I was upfront at the time, telling him why I was asking, and even did so in a stairwell to further separate the discussion from our normal duties.

Which brings up a very important point. When talking with police officers, don’t lie. Not only will you probably fail to fool them, you’ll destroy any possibility of trust.


I’ll start with the subject of my lone research project, how the local department works with state police on homicides. For the most part, they work together well. As they do with the ATF, DEA, FBI, and other local departments. After all, they’re on the same team.

I don’t even sense any frustration with the court system, with the judges, juries, and defense attorneys who sometimes undo the officer’s best efforts.

Which segues into professionalism. Police officers don’t allow themselves to be swayed by sob stories because to do so would open the door to being unprofessional. Police officers follow standard operating procedures in order to provide fair and dispassionate service. Police officers are there to do a job.

This is why I say working at a police department doesn’t help me all that much with my writing. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the tension? The reality seems to be that police officers are simply highly trained professionals doing a job that just might turn life threatening at any moment.

Another point that’s become obvious over time is that most of the people brought into the station with hands cuffed behind their backs are not criminal masterminds. They either broke laws in order to take a shortcut or they live a fringe existence. They’re not trading quips as much as they’re crying or trying to grasp the idea that they didn’t get away with it.

If my door is open when I’m standing at the network servers, I can reach out and touch the person cuffed to the bench. The cells are only a dozen feet beyond that. When people yell or wail or weep, the sound cuts right through my closed door. And let’s not even mention the drunken singing.

My desk – it’s a crime.

From my doorway, you can see the cuffs on the right, breathalyzer rear left, and cells beyond.


While anyone who’s worked in business will tell you that sales never talks to marketing never talks to manufacturing, and anyone who’s worked in education will tell you that administration never talks to faculty never talks to staff, anyone who’s worked in law enforcement might wonder what those people are complaining about since lack of information on the streets can directly impact officer safety.

And yet it continues. Our department is very lucky. The software we use allows sharing of information among a group of local departments, and the Chiefs in those departments support that sharing of information. There’s a nearby group of communities where none of the Chiefs want anybody else to have access to their information.

My suggestion to the people trying to address that issue was to remind their Chiefs that criminals no longer stay within town boundaries, that everything changed when they invented the horse.

I’m not sure that helped.


I honestly don’t know why anybody would want to be a police officer.

I haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that police officers aren’t held in higher regard.

I can’t believe neither of the police stations where I worked boasted coffee makers, coffee vending machines, or coffee shops. Don’t these people watch television and movies?


A police department is a 24-7 operation. Any time that I schedule backups is inconvenient because it slows network response time.

The modem that allows the vehicles laptops to reach the station.

Nights and weekends are not the usual obvious windows for system maintenance because things can even be hotter during those periods. I’ve come in at 3am and then waited an hour for dispatch to slow enough that I could reboot a server.

The best tool around, bar none.

While configuring a laptop, it is not unusual to see an officer running towards the vehicle and — no — the officer can’t wait for the next two steps and a reboot.

Software that adds ten seconds to bootup may not be critically significant in an office setting, but it can be in an emergency situation. A slower workstation equals more time spent entering reports and thus either less time on patrol or hits against the overtime budget.

Technology is wonderful when it works, and frustrating when it doesn’t. In law enforcement, a technical glitch can be enough to let the bad guy get away.

Buy a USB drive and backup your files.

The line separating what can be done and what will be done is a matter of money, the budget determined by people who may have no appreciation of the singular needs of law enforcement.


I generate the public logs, which means I see them seconds before I post them to the internet.

You can’t buy that kind of access.

Sheila Lowe


Sheila Lowe is a forensic handwriting expert with more forty years of experience in the field. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and is the author of several published books including Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, as well as Sheila Lowe’s Handwriting Analyzer software. Her first mystery novel, Poison Pen, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and introduces forensic handwriting expert, Claudia Rose, who uses her handwriting analysis skills to help solve crimes. Www.sheilalowe.com for information about handwriting analysis. Www.claudiaroseseries.com to read a sample chapter and view a book trailer. Www.superceu.com continuing education for marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers. Sheila@sheilalowe.com

Can Handwriting Reveal a Serial Killer?

He was handsome, charismatic, captivating. He was convicted of the rape and murder of ten women in Florida. He’d probably raped at least fifty.

As with other violent crimes, serial murder is on the increase. Between 1900-1950, an average of 1.2 cases a year were recorded. In 1960 there were 12 cases. By the 1980s this offense had jumped to an average of two cases a month. Since 1977 more than two hundred serial killers have been convicted, with well over a thousand victims between them. More than 80% of all serial murders have occurred in less than 30 years.

Like others of his ilk, serial murderer Robert Joseph Long managed to elude capture over a lengthy period–how? Because he was able to look and act pretty much like the average guy. He knew how to fit into society and appear like the rest of us. But his handwriting held clues that pointed to pathological behavior.

Most people agree that the way a person walks says a lot about him. Someone who swaggers into a room, for example, has a very different personality from one who diffidently creeps along, hugging the wall. Researchers tell us that facial expressions are interpreted the same way the world over, and one’s tone of voice indicates his mood. Similarly, handwriting is a projective behavior akin to body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, and it reveals a important information about motivation and personality, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Having said that, let me be very clear that there is no such thing as a “criminal handwriting.” In an attempt to identify patterns of similarity in the handwritings of serial killers, I examined the handwritings of a number of notorious murderers. What I discovered was, there was no direct “this-means-that” correlation of a personality trait to a handwriting characteristic; it was far more subtle than that.

It would have been handy if we could neatly package up a syndrome of traits and instantly identify a serial killer or any other type of criminal, but what actually manifests in handwriting are red flags for certain types of pathological behavior, or the potential for it. Because what we see written on a sheet of paper is like a photograph of the past, the handwriting professional can make some extrapolations, but cannot absolutely predict future behavior.

With the exception of Wesley Allan Dodd, the handwritings available for my examination were written after incarceration, when these men and women were forced to toe the mark and curb their deadly appetites. The restraint they had to practice–the need to follow strict prison rules–had an effect on their handwriting, making it appear far more rigid and controlled than in the time leading up to a kill, when their murderous rage was building to a breaking point.

Robert Joseph Long, mentioned in the introduction to this article, has been described as “shockingly brutal.” He beat, raped, and strangled his victims. Long’s handwriting is rigid to an extreme, seen in the tight, angular forms, which indicates a lack of emotional release. Positive emotional release would be seen in a balance of rounded and angular forms. Note the extremely long t-crosses. This straight horizontal movement, combined with the rigidity, reveals his need to dominate and control others.


Wesley Allan Dodd, executed at his own request by hanging in 1993, kept a diary during the time he was killing little boys. His handwriting during the time leading up to a killing is far more “released” (though not in a positive way) and expansive than the second sample, written after he was convicted. You don’t have to be a handwriting expert to see the difference in the two samples. The second one is reminiscent of Bob Long’s, highly controlled and rigid, while the first is out of control.

Serial murder is not confined to male perpetrators. Aileen Wuornos, the subject of the movie, Monster, was executed in 2002 for the deaths of seven men. Christine Slaughter Falling (talk about an appropriate name!), whose handwriting appears below, is a very different personality type, but just as deadly. She was accused of killing at least six infants and toddlers she babysat, and was convicted of three counts of murder in 1982, receiving a life sentence that made her eligible for parole in 25 years. In an interview for CNN in 1992, Falling was asked what she would do if released. Her answer: she would like to babysit again, because, “I love kids to death.” She was denied parole in 2006.

Her handwriting sample, written after 10 years of incarceration, is the polar opposite of Dodd’s and Long’s. The extreme roundedness of the writing and the large size, suggest an egocentric person who was constantly seeking love and approval (though clearly, not in healthy ways). The letters “M” on “Me” and “R” on “really” are made in such a way that they look like an X. Such forms are often made by people with a death consciousness, sometimes by one who has experienced a death close to them, or perhaps have received a serious diagnosis of physical illness. In Falling’s case, perhaps her responsibility for the deaths of several young children was on her mind–though not her conscience. This handwriting specimen wasn’t made by someone with a conscience.

Another fairly rare characteristic in Falling’s handwriting is seen in some of the upper loops, such as the “l” on “letter,” which are made in the shape of a candle flame. The flame-shaped upper loop is often seen in one who has sustained a blow to the head. It’s known that when Christine was 8 years old, her mother (who was a 16 year-old-prostitute when Christine was born), hit her in the head with a two-by-four, after which she began having seizures. These flame-shaped loops are often created by those who tend to see the world quite differently than most of us do.

Most, if not all, serial killers came from childhoods where they were abused and/or neglected. Yet, comparatively few abused children grow up to be killers or engage in other types of crime. Many factors, both nature and nurture come into play. Genetics, environment, and the individual’s personal responses to a variety of experiences blend together to determine the outcome.

Handwriting, like personality, is made up of thousands of variables. In order to make any kind of objective assessment, it is important to study the whole picture, not just bits and pieces. The characteristics described above were viewed within the context of larger samples of writing, and are intended only as an teaser to what kinds of information is revealed. Handwriting cannot tell everything about the writer, but it can open a window into the mind, both of the criminal and the “normal” person. Some psychologists find it helps them to get a rapid grasp on what makes a person tick–whether the writer is motivated by the need for power, the need for security, the need to be loved, etc. Especially when used in conjunction with other personality assessment instruments, handwriting analysis can be an important tool for understanding the human psyche.

* * *

< * Any typos are all mine (Lee). I posted this last night in a hotel lobby at midnight. Sorry, Sheila.

Nathan Bransford

Nathan Bransford is an agent in the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd., a New York-based agency that has been representing authors since 1914. He represents a wide range of genres and is particularly interested in literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, mystery, science fiction, business, sports, politics and popular culture. Nathan was born and raised in Colusa, California, where he learned a thing or two about rice farming, and graduated from Stanford University with a degree in English.

1) Dave – Do most agents read query letters, or are most queries first read by an agent’s assitant, thus filtering outmany of the letters?

Nathan – This varies from agent to agent. Some agents have an assistant or intern do an initial screen, but some agents, even some very well-established agents, still read their own queries. Personally I read every query that comes to me, and I try to respond within a day or two.

2) Joann – Do you or your firm accept either mail or email letters of inquiry with sample pages?

Nathan – The standard submission procedure for Curtis Brown is to send a query letter in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you would like to include some sample pages that is fine (but nothing excessive). However, I accept e-queries and actually prefer that people e-mail me rather than send their query in the mail. If you’d like to include sample pages please paste them in the body of the e-mail. Like most agents who accept e-queries, I don’t open unsolicited attachments. I’d say five pages is a good rule of thumb unless the agent specifically asks for more in their submission guidelines.

Joann – Do you recommend a different way to reach and obtain an agent?

Nathan – The query letter process is but one of many routes to representation. Another effective way is to reach out to your personal network and try to get a referral. I don’t recommend selecting agented authors at random and asking them for a referral, but connect with a writer’s group, reach out to authors online, truly invest in people and you might find that they return the favor. There are more possibilities for this than ever before – just by reading this blog you’re on the right track. It’s also possible to meet agents at conferences, which is a great opportunity to meet agents and speak with them personally.

3) Lynda – What’s your all-time favorite pitch?

Nathan – All of the queries from my clients that resulted in representation are equally vivid for me – I remember being excited even at the query stage, and my excitement grew as I read the partials and manuscripts. In each of these instances, their writing ability just shined through, and they had brilliant ideas to match.

4) Raymond – Do you have any in-person pitch horror stories you can share? So we can avoid the same mistakes.

Nathan – ’d hate to single someone out, but for some reason most of the strangest pitches I’ve received involved people wanting to recount their affairs with famous people. Go figure. But just when I thought I’d heard it all something new comes along.

5) Erin – Can you describe your dream client?

Nathan – My dream client is someone who is a wonderfully talented writer and a pleasure to work with, but is also just as committed to learning how the publishing industry operates and how they can promote their books. With the direction the publishing industry is moving and with all the competition from books and other media, it’s just not enough anymore to write a great book; an author also has to be committed to helping that book find new audiences. It helps if they are a joy to work with so that people at their publishing house will want to work hard on their behalf. Luckily all of my clients meet this description.

Erin – How far into a manuscript do you decide you want the author as your client?

Nathan – I usually have a feeling about a manuscript by the time I finish the partial, but I really never know for sure until I’m completely finished – the ending is extremely important.

Sheila Stephens


Sheila L. Stephens was the first female Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) special agent in the state of Alabama – one of the first in the nation.  Recruited by ATF while a police officer in Mountain Brook, Alabama, she has a unique platform from which to write and speak about the people and issues of law enforcement.

Stephens is a graduate of The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Alabama State Trooper Academy and the University of Alabama, holding degrees in Deaf Education and in Criminal Justice.  In September 2007, she graduated from Boston University with a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice.   She is presently enrolled in a Clinical Psychology PhD program and will specialize in Forensic Psychology.

While a special agent with ATF, she was a member of the National Response Team, a select group of first responders to arson and explosives scenes.   Also chosen as a representative to the multi-agency, multi-state offensive against a deadly white supremacy group in Arkansas, she participated as a member of the entry team, the search team and the select interview team.

She holds certificates in the areas of Education, Interviewing/Interrogation, Hypnosis, and Street Survival.  She has taught at the Birmingham Police Academy, and is the owner and operator of a security and private investigative agency specializing in hidden camera technology for police departments, businesses, and the monitoring of care-givers.  She is presently an Adjunct Criminal Justice Professor at, the online, Andrew Jackson University.  In September 2008, she will begin her adjunct teaching position at Boston University’s online Criminal Justice program.

While on injury leave from ATF, she was poisoned with arsenic and mercury.   Although not expected to recover, she continued to write and study.  As she recovered, she began speaking, sharing the same information on law enforcement issues that she presents at organizations and conferences around the country today.  She recently presented The “CSI Effect” on Crime Labs at the New England School of Law, and wrote an article that appears in their Law Review.  As to her books, in August 2008, The Everything Private Investigation Book will be released, and The Book of Weapons, Technology and Surveillance is scheduled to be released by Writer’s Digest Books in 2009.

Prevented from returning to ATF by her injury, Stephens has incorporated her private investigation/security business and is working on a non-profit division.  A popular speaker on literacy, and an advocate for mandatory heavy metals testing at yearly physicals and in emergency rooms, she is also Associate Editor of The Agent, the newsletter of the National Association of Federal Agents (NAFA).  Finally, she is a member of the National Association of Investigative Specialists (NAIS), Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and the author’s and speakers’ association, The Crime Lab Project.

Sheila Stephens:

Technology changes every day.  One area used by law enforcement and P.I.s alike is the covert, or hidden, camera.  Covert cameras have become smaller and are hidden in more inventive items than ever before. Prices have also been lowered. You can purchase a covert camera in almost anything – clocks, VCRs, air purifiers, sprinklers, exits signs, speakers, books, plants, and much more. Cameras in pens, eyeglasses, hats, briefcases, and the like can be carried on your person. Many companies will install cameras in anything you wish. The best improvement in decades is the availability of cameras and recorders, with batteries to power them, all contained in one unit.

In the past, investigators were forced to be very creative when installing stationary covert cameras because of the problem of hiding and powering a recording device. Now, many recorders power themselves and the camera to which they’re attached, so there are no wires to camouflage. Because of this, these cameras can be moved around easily.

Wireless Versus Wired

You might ask about wireless cameras, thinking they have the same capabilities as wired cameras. They do, but there have always been drawbacks to wireless transmission. Some of these follow:

  • Other wireless devices can and do interfere with wireless transmission. Devices such as portable phones, some cable connections, microwaves, and other items can render wireless cameras almost useless.
  • Wireless transmission depends, usually, on line of sight
  • Transmission is limited to a fixed distance between transmitter and camera receiver. Usually, the distance is very short. Only law enforcement personnel are allowed to use wireless transmission that extends far enough for a backup team to be inconspicuous.

Covert cameras can be placed in hospital rooms to monitor nursing personnel and in nurseries and other locations for checking on nannies and babysitters. They can also be used to prove spousal abuse. One woman contracted with my PI service to help prove that her husband had abused her.  The man’s behavior escalated and the client was afraid that the next beating would kill her. Worse, she was terrified that her children would be hurt. My investigators installed a covert camera inside a speaker in her living room where most of the incidents took place. Two days after, the man arrived home intoxicated and beat his wife with both fists until she passed out. She was admitted to the hospital, this time with internal bleeding, while an investigator retrieved the recording and delivered it to police. Because of evidence on the covert camera, the husband is in prison today. The client has returned to school and she and her children are in counseling.  This kind of case is so difficult to prove in court. For without video evidence it becomes a “he said/she said” situation which, unfortunately, can come down to who has the best attorney or court connections – it can come down to the makeup of the jury.

Mobile Covert Cameras

Only a few years ago, if investigators wanted to wear a covert body camera, it entailed finding a way to conceal a not-so-small video recorder on his person and inconspicuously run wires to a camera, such as a pen, pager, or glasses case, in the PI’s pocket. Because of this, every shirt, jacket, and pair of jeans or slacks contained a hole for threading a line to the covert camera. Things are different today; it’s much easier and less conspicuous to wear covert technology.  I still have a scar from wearing a “wire” in the late eighties when I was with ATF.  The wire malfunctioned and burned through to my skin.  I made the case but, before backup could arrive, everyone in the room sniffed around and made faces trying to find that unusual smell. That smell was me – roasting – plus the smell of the malfunctioning wire.

Covert body cameras can be used to check someone’s mate and in mystery shopping, but there are other uses for these cameras. PIs who investigate childcare or eldercare facilities and treatment centers use them when interviewing. The camera records exactly what is in front of it. It can’t be accused of overstating the truth or omitting facts. The PI walks around filming, checking the cleanliness of the child’s or elder’s room, common areas, restrooms, and kitchens. The camera is unemotional when watching for the response of personnel – or lack of response – to a child’s or elder’s needs and requests. As in the case of the abused wife, recorded evidence in cases such as these are rarely challenged.  Stationary covert cameras can be left in the room to film what hapens long after the investigator is gone.

Covert Vs Visible Cameras

Many camera purchasers, and even investigators, believe that visible cameras are superior to hidden cameras. This may have been true in the past, but not any more. Visible cameras serve a purpose, but only when they are used correctly and in conjunction with covert cameras. Some security experts believe that because visible cameras are so prevalent, most people forget about them. However, the person who enters an office or retail store with the intention of stealing is keenly aware of these cameras. Potential shoplifters scope them out to ascertain location, distance apart, and possible blind spots between them. In the very misinformed businesses where the owner or operator displays the camera view to the public on a monitor or TV, he’s helping the thief locate those blind spots within which he can operate.

An example of the use of blind spots occurred in a parking garage at dusk. A young woman, Anne, walked through the dim garage toward her car, feeling safe because of visible security cameras spaced equal distances apart on concrete pillars. She waved at one of them. Suddenly, she was pulled into a corner of the deck and brutally raped. After crawling into the main area of the parking garage, Anne was rescued by a distraught security guard. When she was interviewed in the hospital, she reported looking up at all those cameras and wondering why no one came to her assistance. She’d been dragged into a blind spot where she and her attacker weren’t visible to even one of the cameras. The attacker had obviously scoped out the area ahead of time, knowing just where to commit his crime.

Owners and managers often purchase cameras thinking they will deter theft. Cameras may deter the basically honest soul who experiences a momentary temptation, but nothing really deters the serious criminal. Hidden cameras are the alternative for this person. If covert cameras were to be placed strategically among the visible ones, even if a sign were posted alerting the public of this fact, criminals may be deterred, not knowing where their actions could be documented. I prefer covert cameras alone, however. Hidden cameras catch people in the act of a crime, preventing loss from habitual shoplifters as well as employees.

There are laws governing how and where these cameras can be used – but that’s another blog!  Short story is that they cannot be used any where someone would have a LEGAL expectation of privacy.

You can visit Sheila at Website: www.SaferSecurityinc.com

Email Sheila at slstephens@mindspring.com

Lucienne Diver


Lucienne Diver has been an agent with Spectrum Literary Agency for over fifteen years, representing all kinds of commercial fiction, including fantasy, romance, mystery/suspense, science fiction, some mainstream and young adult.  Her authors include Marjorie M. Liu, Susan Krinard, Rachel Caine, P.N. Elrod, Roberta Gellis and many others.  A complete list can be seen on the website: www.spectrumliteraryagency.com.


She also maintains her own blog of agently, authorial and personal ramblings at http://varkat.livejournal.com.  (Since she’s often asked: “varkat” is short for “various Katherines” – Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, Kit from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, etc. – some of her favorite characters from literature.)

It’s all about the Buzz

One of the most constantly asked questions out there is “What can I do to promote my books?”  No one seems to have the magical answer, though there are a ton of ideas out there, some of which I’ll get into here.  The truth is that the biggest seller of books continues to be word of mouth, so the very most important thing an author can do is write a kick-butt book that will have everyone raving – to their friends, on-line, in reviews on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com.


Of course, before you can get people raving, you have to get them to pick up the book.   There’s a whole lot that the publisher can do for you, like arrange coop advertising, which is basically the publisher paying for placement, whether on shelves or in special display stands in the front of stores.  A publisher may also arrange for book tours, radio and television interviews, magazine, newspaper and banner ads to get the word out.  Except for the coop advertising, these are things an author can do on his or her own, especially with the help of a publicist, though they can be very costly and must still be coordinated with the publisher to avoid stepping on any toes.


So, how can you get the most bang out of your marketing dollar? It’s pretty commonly accepted that a new author will put the advance for his or her first book back into promotion.  It makes sense; it’s an investment in the future.  Many established writers also put a lot of time and resources into publicity.  One of the most effective means of promotion is the web.  However, just having a site isn’t enough these days.  It’s great if people already know you and just want to check when your next book is coming out, but to draw readers in, you need good and changing content – contests, a blog, maybe helpful articles and links, book trailers, snippets of fiction or non-fiction free to your readers that they can’t find anywhere else.  Invite in guest bloggers.  The key is to give something, not just expect to get something with a “Hey, buy my book.”  It also helps to reach out rather than wait for folks to come to you.  Sites like MySpace, Facebook, Shelfari, Bebo (I could go on all day with the list) will introduce you to other readers and writers.  They can be fantastic networking tools, but can also be highly addictive, so be sure not to use the time you should spend writing!  The trick is that you get out of these sites what you put into them.  Interaction is key.


Another great and relatively inexpensive way to go is to kind of create your own celebrity status.  Humbly and informatively (no bragging allowed), let your college, high school or local paper know about your upcoming release or your recent award nomination.  Even before your book comes out, you should be working on a list of contacts – places, people, communities to which you have ties and some local or other cachet.  Prep your pitch, press release or postcards to go out to these venues.  Local book stores, libraries – sure, put them on the mailing list and make sure that it goes out early enough (a few months before publication with maybe a second mailing just as the book hits shelves) for them to place orders.  At the very least, it’s not a terribly expensive way to get the word out.  At the most, you’ll generate more orders and interest.


Do you go to conventions?  Can you think of something beyond the standard bookmarks and postcards to put on the take-tables that people will keep and think of you with each use?  Have you come up with an intriguing tagline or catch-phrase?  Maybe you can even send your novelty item out with your mailings.


Signings – the trick with signings is that it really helps if you have a) a really strong following or b) a gimmick to bring people over to the table.  Otherwise, it might look a lot like that book signing at the beginning of the recent movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  Maybe give a talk or reading to go along with the signing.  Have a friend along, maybe, who’s standing, approachable and shilling (pleasantly and chattily), have a candy dish out and a poster or something else outsized to draw the eye.  Try to make it an event rather than just you with the barrier of a table separating you from your target audience.  Offer to sign stock of whatever doesn’t sell so the store can put your books up front with “Autographed” stickers attached.  In fact, whenever you step into a bookstore and find your books, offer to sign stock.  Some bookstores are, surprisingly, less open to this than others, but persevere.


Always, but always, have your business cards with you.  You never know when a networking opportunity will arise.  I was just on a pub crawl in London and ended up “selling” my books to everyone in sight.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a single card on hand to help folks remember.


In summary – write the best darned book you can and then get the word out.  If someone lets you know how much they enjoy your book, ask them to share the excitement.  Get a buzz going and then keep up the momentum by writing your next great work!


Tomorrow –  Author/former ATF Special Agent Sheila Stephens talks about hidden cameras

Martha Alderson



Martha Alderson, M.A. is an international plot consultant for writers. Her clients include best-selling authors, screenwriters, writing teachers and fiction editors. Her own fiction writing has won attention in several literary writing contests, including a finalist in the Heekin Foundation Prize and a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Writing Contest.

Five years ago, Alderson began teaching plot workshops incorporating sensory feedback for full discovery and ease in learning. With the help of this communications leader, children and adult writers of all skill levels now grasp the elusive concept of plot and are able to use it effectively in their own works of fiction. She takes readers and writers alike beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

As the founder of Blockbuster Plots for Writers, Alderson created a unique line of plot tools for writers, including the Mystery Writers Plot Planner Workshop DVD. She teaches scene development and plot workshops privately and at writing conferences.

Martha Alderson:

I’m thrilled at this opportunity to share the page with so many outstanding resources and creative people. This new offering of yours, Lee, inviting all of us to post on your blog is such a reflection of you and your generous spirit. You are an amazing person. Thank you so much. If you’d ever like a free plot consultation, just say the word. My pleasure…….

Recently, I produced the first plot workshop DVD for a two-DVD set for mystery writers. The mystery novel I used as an example was Folly, by Laurie R. King. I chose this book not only because of all the mystery subplots involved in the story, but also because it’s a fine example of a character-driven (as opposed to action-driven and/or theme-driven) story.

Folly involves two major characters – Rae and Desmond. As the book jacket describes:

At fifty-two, Rae Newborn is a woman on the edge: on the edge of sanity, on the edge of tragedy, and now on the edge of the world. A celebrated artist, she has moved to an island at the far reaches of the continent into the house she inherited form her mysterious great-uncle. Isolated from the outside world, Rae will finally come face-to-face with the feelings that have long torments her-panic, melancholy, and the haunting sense that someone is watching her. Before she came to Folly Island. Rae believed most of things she heard existed only her in mind. Now, as she rebuilds her life as well as the house, she finds her story and that of her dead uncle beginning to intertwine.

The mystery plot lines in this example are many: who killed Rae’s great-uncle, who is on the island with her, who raped her, and who killed her husband and daughter. The character development plot line starts with a woman on the edge of sanity and, because of everything she experiences throughout the book, ends with a woman transformed at depth.

Mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels usually rely more heavily on action-driven plot rather than character-driven. Yet, the definition of any truly great story involves, at its core, character transformation.

Folly has several plotlines beyond the character emotional development plot lines for Rae and for her great-uncle, each of which creates an exciting character study with lots of mystery and suspense, conflict and tension. The two major mystery subplots keep the reader guessing. Because of the deaths that take place in Folly, the protagonist often interacts with the police.

Sam Escobar is the sheriff back home in Santa Cruz. Jerry Carmichael is the San Juan County sheriff Rae deals with on her great-uncle’s island in the Pacific Northwest. Both of these characters employ police procedures, which at the times of my first, second, and third readings of the book read flawlessly. Not having any experience with police procedures, police firearms, police reports, police lineups, and the like, I now wonder how King came up with the authentic details she used in her book, many of which provided essential plot points throughout the story. If she were writing the story now, she could turn to Lee’s amazing blog. But, the book was written six years ago and leads me to believe she must have had to rely on her imagination and/or lots of research.

My passion is to help writers with plot. I have analyzed the plot and structure of countless books, ranging from children’s picture books, to young adult novels, memoirs, mysteries, romance novels, suspense and thrillers, mainstream, and the classics. With such a narrow focus and obsession, I am known by my students as the plot queen and, in the blogisphere, as the plot whisperer. By plot, I mean a series of scenes that are deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, suspense and/or curiosity, to further the character emotional development and provide thematic significance.

Mystery writers have an advantage over other writers in that conflict, tension, suspense, and curiosity are inherent in the genre. Writing mystery has another advantage. The overall story goal is a given to solve the mystery. Classic right-brained writers are often “spoken to by the muse” through the character development. Right-brained learners can struggle creating concrete goals for the character. Goal setting for classic dramatic action writers, on the other hand, is a breeze.

Most writers have a preference for one style of writing over another. Some writers are more adept at developing complex, interesting, and quirky characters. Others excel at page-turning action. The lucky writers are good at creating both the Character Emotional Development plotline and the Dramatic Action plotline. Become aware of your strengths and learn to address your weaknesses, and you, too, can become one of the lucky ones.


Broadly speaking, writers who prefer writing action-driven stories focus on logical thinking, rational analysis, and accuracy. Action-driven writers tend to rely more on the left side of their brain. These writers approach writing as a linear function and see the story in its parts. Action-driven writers like structure. They usually pre-plot or create an outline before writing. Action-driven writers have little trouble expressing themselves in words.


Writers who write character-driven stories tend to focus on aesthetics and feelings, creativity and imagination. These writers access the right side of their brains and enjoy playing with the beauty of language. They are intuitive, and like to work things out on the page. Character-driven writers are holistic and subjective. They can synthesize new information, but are somewhat (or more) disorganized and random. They see the story as the whole. Right brain writers may know what they mean, but often have trouble finding the right words.

The Test

Take the test to see whether you are stronger at developing Character Emotional Development plot lines or Dramatic Action plot lines.

Fill in the Character Emotional Development Plot Profile below for your protagonist (the character who is most changed by the dramatic action), any other major viewpoint characters and, if there is one, the character who represents the major human antagonist for the protagonist:

1)  Protagonist’s overall story goal (this goal often changes because of the event that triggers the End of the Beginning-around the ¼ mark of the overall page count-and catapults the protagonist into the heart of the story world itself – The Middle. If so, list both story goals and answer #2 & 3 for each goal):

2)  What stands in his/her way of achieving this goal:

3)  What does he/she stand to lose, if not successful:

4)  Flaw or greatest fault:

5)  Greatest strength:

6)  Hates:

7)  Loves:

8)  Fear:

9)  Secret:

10) Dream:


A) Writers who filled out 1-3 with ease often prefer writing Dramatic Action.

B) Writers who filled in 4- 10 with ease often prefer Character Emotional Development.

C) Writers who filled in everything with ease are often adept at creating both the Dramatic Action and the Character Emotional Development plot lines.


Without a firm understanding of points 1-3, you have no front story. The Dramatic Action plotline is what gets the reader to turn the pages. Without dramatic action there is no excitement on the page. Most mystery writers fall into this category.

Without a firm understanding of points 4-10, you are more likely to line up the action pieces of your story, arrange them in a logical order and then draw conclusions. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, this presentation lacks the human element. Such an omission could increase your chances of losing your audience’s interest.

Yes, at the heart of every good mystery is a protagonist strong enough to stand in the midst of chaos and death, fear and uncertainty, and stay with the case until the mystery has been solved. Still, the more a character is moved and changed, at the least, or transformed, at the most, by the dramatic action, the stronger the readers’ identification with the story.

For more plot tips, go to http://www.blockbusterplots.com/. My blog: http://www.plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/ has not only my plot tips, but other writers’ comments lend an added benefit for more well rounded input and advice. Happy plotting.


For more plot tips, visit her website at: www.blockbusterplots.com and her blog at: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com. Sign up for her free monthly Plot Tips eZine, at: http://www.blockbusterplots.com/contact.html