There’s the devil you know and the devil within
—when the two collide; no one is safe.
James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his award-winning novel, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. Black Label earned the Silver Falchion for Best Book by an Attending Author at Killer Nashville, and he was nominated for The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. Dead Drop garnered a Lefty and Anthony Award and Silver Falchion nomination. Devil Within is his most recent novel. Look for Face of Greed, coming in 2023.
Hundreds go missing each year, making the dangerous crossing over the border. What if you were one of them?
That’s the back cover copy from DEAD DROP, my novel, which looks at border violence, border politics, and who is really caught in the middle of that struggle.
The impetus for the series came several years ago when I worked in the California prison system. I was leading an audit at a prison near San Diego when a very odd set of circumstances revealed themselves. The prison is near the border, and you can see “The Wall” from the yard. Undocumented migrants use the trails around the prison’s hills to make their way north.
The type of audit I was conducting was a stressful event for the administration at the prison. They want to make sure everything is running smoothly and got to great effort to make sure The Guys From Sacramento don’t find any security issues. When I arrived, the warden’s office was frantic for the most basic reason—they could not clear their count. That meant the official number of inmates the prison was supposed to have didn’t match the official records.
As you can imagine—this is a bad thing, and the warden had visions of his career crashing on the rocks.
They soon isolated the problem to the minimum facility, a smaller 250-bed unit housing low-risk inmates outside the main prison fence. After several more counts, they found they had one more person than they were supposed to have. Finally, they discovered the reason for the bad count. An undocumented migrant was so cold and so hungry he broke into prison for a warm place to spend the night.
How difficult was the crossing that breaking into prison was his best option?
That stuck in my mind as I wrote DEAD DROP. I don’t pretend to portray the migrant experience—that’s not my story to tell. But I can reflect on the desperation and hardship I witnessed for those leaving everything familiar to come to a strange new land.
That’s where DEAD DROP begins when Detective Nathan Parker discovers a series of undocumented migrants buried in the desert. The forces behind the murders might not be who you’d expect. We learn early on that Detective Parker’s partner was murdered by a coyote smuggling the undocumented over the border, and as you can imagine, that colors his perspective of the immigration issue. He follows the evidence to find his partner’s killer, only to become trapped on the other side of the border. He needs to rely on the undocumented to get him safely back home.
This first book in the Detective Nathan Parker series garnered a Lefty Award nomination for Best Mystery Novel of the Year, an Anthony Award nomination for Best Paperback Original Novel, A Silver Falchion Award nomination for Best Investigator Novel, and the Public Safety Writers Association awarded Dead Drop with the Marilyn Meredith Award of Literary Excellence as the best-published novel.
The sequel, DEVIL WITHIN, was released on July 18th. It takes the story further when Detective Parker finds a connection between a series of shooting victims—each of them held a role in an organization founded to help undocumented migrants make the crossing. Where there are vulnerable people, isolated from their own culture, predators line their pockets, offering hollow promises of jobs, housing, and hope—all at the expense of the most helpless. Parker soon discovers no one is exactly who they seem.
You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com
Wendy Whitman has a unique background through her decades-long work as an executive and producer for Court TV and HLN, covering almost every major high-profile murder case in America. Through her knowledge of the most detailed aspects of the crimes, Ms. Whitman has become an expert on the subject of murder in America. Before attending Boston University School of Law, Whitman worked for comedians Lily Tomlin and George Carlin. After graduating from law school, the author embarked on what turned out to be a twenty-year career in television covering crime. She spent fifteen years at Court TV and another several at HLN for the Nancy Grace show, where she appeared on air as a producer/reporter covering high-profile cases. Whitman received three Telly Awards and two GLAAD nominations during her tenure at Court TV. Her debut crime thriller novel, Premonition, was released last year. The sequel, Retribution, will be out this July.
RETRIBUTION: After the shattering conclusion of Cary’s quest for justice for the victims of a suspected serial killer in Premonition, Retribution picks up with her cohorts continuing their investigation to hunt down the person responsible for the heinous murders. Who will be next? More importantly, who will come out on top in this deadly game of vengeance?
What brought you to writing? My passion for murder victims and what they have gone through drove me in large part to begin writing. After Court TV and then on Nancy Grace’s show at HLN covering high-profile murder cases, I always felt I had a book in me. I wanted to share my knowledge of the legal system with the public. Although I initially thought I’d write a non-fiction book, I realized I could do everything I wanted in a fictional novel. So one night, I sat down and didn’t stop writing until the early morning hours of the following day. My first crime thriller, Premonition, was a labor of love. I incorporated twenty-plus true cases throughout the book, which I think is unique for a crime thriller, and gave it that extra touch of realism. My second novel, Retribution, picks up where the first one left off. Since I began my writing journey, I have found ideas popping into my head all the time. I am already working on my third novel.
Tell us about your writing process: I didn’t have a plan when I began writing Premonition. The words just flowed out of me. But as the first draft progressed, I knew I had to make a daily schedule in order to complete the book in a reasonable amount of time. So I decided every day, no matter what came up, I would write a certain number of pages; usually, that was twenty or so. Often when I was out and about running errands, an idea would pop into my head, and I would pull over if I was driving and make a note of it. Then when I got home, I would continue to write until I reached my goal for the day. They say, “write what you know.” That thought guided me throughout each writing session. This technique worked well for me, and I completed the first draft in under four months.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? This can be a tricky question to answer. I think one of the most common questions an author gets asked is: “Am I in your book?” As I wrote my novels, I found that I automatically drew upon my experiences; my life. So in that regard, you could say every character has some basis in reality. However, none of my characters were based on one single person. They were either composites or, in some cases, completely made up. Although some situations in the book may be loosely based on actual events, the characters in those situations are not necessarily actual people. When writing fiction, it is especially important to distinguish your characters from the real people in your life: they are not one and the same.
What kind of research do you do? Generally speaking, when an author is writing a fictional novel, there is less research to do than if they were to write a non-fiction book. However, in the case of Premonition and Retribution, since I included references to many true cases in both novels, I had to be careful to get the facts straight. I chose certain murders to highlight in each book for different reasons. Some cases I chose had been neglected by the media; others because the protagonist or killer in the novels was fixated on them. I looked up each case to ensure I remembered the crimes’ details correctly so the books would be as accurate as possible.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? The answer to this is both. Again “write what you know” is a good guideline for any author. The best way to maintain true authenticity throughout a novel is to write about something you have firsthand knowledge of. My novels are set in Connecticut, in the general area where I reside. Although in certain cases, I modified the name of a town or business. Each was based on an actual place. In certain instances, I used the real name because I thought it was important for the setting. So my books have both real locations and fictional ones inspired by real places.
Do you have any advice for new writers? The first piece of advice I would give a new writer is twofold: the overused but critically important “write what you know” and write about something you are passionate about. That combination is a winning formula. Part of the reason I think it was relatively easy for me to complete the first draft of my debut crime thriller, Premonition, in under four months was because I had so much knowledge bottled up inside of me about a topic, i.e., murder. Readers can distinguish between an author who knows what they are writing about and one who does not. Trying to pen a novel about a topic you don’t have a handle on will go nowhere. You can’t fake it; write from the heart, and nothing can stop you. One last piece of advice: when writing, don’t stress about whether you will find an agent or a publisher. How will you promote the book? These are distractions that need to be put on the back burner until you have finished the actual task of writing. Take pride and pleasure in your creation; most of all, have fun with it.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and your books? Writing my first novel, Premonition, was therapeutic for me for several reasons. Having covered some of the most horrific murder cases for decades, I wanted to find a release from the horror of it all. Writing turned out to be the outlet I needed. I wanted my debut crime thriller to pay homage to murder victims and their families. I think I accomplished that goal, and I believe that intention is what makes my novels distinctive from other thrillers. The tagline of my website is: Bringing True Crime Experience to Crime Thrillers. That is exactly what I tried to do with Premonition. The story continues with Retribution, and I am currently working on a third novel to complete the trilogy.
*Facebook: Renee’s Reading Club; A Novel Bee; Global Girls Online Book Club; Peace Love Books; Wild Sage Book Blog
*Sisters in Crime National and Sisters in Crime-CT
*ITW (International Thriller Writers)
*Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/3IEbXqs
Originally from London, James T. Bartlett is the author of Anthony Award-nominated The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, a true crime book reexamining a scandalous 1953 murder that began in Alaska and ended with a suicide in Hollywood.
As a travel and lifestyle journalist and historian, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Los Angeles Magazine, ALTA California, High Life, Hemispheres, Westways, Frommers, Crime Reads, American Way, Atlas Obscura, The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Real Crime, Variety, Whitechapel Journal, Sunday Life, History Ireland, and Bizarre, among others.
He also wrote the Gourmet Ghosts alternative guides to Los Angeles and has appeared on Ghost Adventures and The UnXplained, while his short story “Death Under the Stars” features in the recent Sisters in Crime Los Angeles anthology Entertainment To Die For.
The Alaskan Blonde: In October 1953, Alaskan businessman Cecil Wells was shot dead in what his badly-beaten wife Diane said was a home invasion turned deadly, but then the police got a tip she was having an affair with Black musician Johnny Warren, and the murder became a national sensation. Seventy years later, The Alaskan Blonde reexamines this unsolved cold case.
My main job is as a journalist covering travel and lifestyle, but I have managed to carve out a small niche in true crime, as it was initially a big part of the two alternative Gourmet Ghosts guides I wrote about Los Angeles in 2012 and 2016.
I have only written one mystery short story, but I get to live vicariously in that world through my wife, Wendall Thomas. She has just finished Cheap Trills, her fourth book in the Cyd Redondo Mysteries series, and I am in awe of people like her who can create fictional stories out of their imagination.
Working in true crime means there is usually no need to create a killing, a suspect, evidence, or the complex machinations of how it gets solved by the end of the book. Life is not that simple, but history is bursting with real examples of murder and mayhem, lots of them unsolved or unresolved.
Also, as I am sure many PSWA members know, things happen in actual criminal cases that you could never write as fiction because people would not believe it. I came across a number of those with my recent book The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story that Shocked America, so buy me a beer one day, and I will tell you about them!
What brought you to writing? My paternal grandfather Jim – who died before I was born – was a respected daily newspaperman in England, where I come from, and that may be where the seed of my being a journalist/writer began.
Otherwise, it comes from being naturally curious. I like to meet people and want to know how things work – the stranger or more obscure, the better. To that end, I always try to write like I talk, with enthusiasm, and I try to write about things I am interested in and would want to read about.
That curiosity certainly led me to The Alaskan Blonde, which reexamines a sensational murder case that happened in Fairbanks in 1953 and ended with a suicide in Hollywood six months later.
What kind of research do you do? For The Alaskan Blonde, I came across a brief article about the murder in the Los Angeles Times archives while I was writing Gourmet Ghosts 2, and had thought: “Well, what happened next?”.
When I couldn’t find anything more substantial about the investigation on Google, I was hooked, so I initially requested police/FBI/archive files as a jumping-off point and then tried to track down living family members to ask them what they remembered about the case.
Being a complete outsider – not family, not from Alaska, not from America, not even born when the murder happened –helped, believe it or not. My English accent did too, but after meeting initial skepticism about why I cared about something that happened so long ago, I was astonished to find out that no one I talked to really knew what happened in 1953. It was simply not talked about and had even been brushed aside as Alaska fought for statehood.
Assembling as many pieces of evidence as I could, I went down many rabbit holes on the internet and, as is necessary, became somewhat obsessed with it all, but by the final chapter of the book, I felt that I could write what I think happened on the night of the murder.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? For The Alaskan Blonde, the hardest thing was interviewing family members and friends and then deciding what was necessary to go in the book, which, after much structural re-arranging, I felt needed a chronological narrative.
Most of the interviewees had been children in the 1940s and 1950s, and almost without exception, the shock waves from the murder still affected them today and had affected their entire lives – and that of their children, too. As such, I often felt uncomfortable and wondered why I was bringing up something so many of them still found it difficult to talk about who I was.
How long did it take to get it published? It took five years of work before the book was ready for people to read. After publication, I was relieved and pleased to get several supportive emails from those family members, thanking me for what I had done: they felt they could finally talk about something that had been a black hole in their history.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? The everyday life of a journalist is about finding and researching ideas, then pitching them in a way that intrigues an editor. The research and writing are the fun part; getting a paying gig is a challenge!
I tend to write at home, as I don’t like to be too far from teabags, milk, and a kettle, but just as often, you’ll find me at the library. Sometimes I’ll listen to music, as it can give me an energy boost and make me write like a demon, but just as often, I’ll wear noise-canceling headphones so I can have silence. I don’t have a set schedule, but I like to work late when the mood takes me. My wife prefers to write in the early morning, and we often pass each other like ships at night.
What are you currently working on? Most recently, I published a Gourmet Ghosts (Pocket Guide) featuring some wild Los Angeles true crime stories about a Catalina Island pirate, a 1930s “Bonnie & Clyde,” and the rumor that Jack the Ripper was in the City of Angels before he bought death to London.
As for my next book project, it may be another Fairbanks story (a suspicious suicide from the 1970s), but that depends on whether my friend at Fairbanks PD finds anything on microfiche that was in cold storage – literally.
You can find out more at www.thealaskanblonde.com and www.gourmetghosts.com and email him at email@example.com
This last week was the Eighteenth Annual Public Safety Writers Association’s Conference. Among the many accomplished authors there, I spent time with three friends from afar. It is always great to put real-life faces on our Zoom contacts. All three have been generous with their friendship, not to mention being awesome guests on my blog.
Peg Roche – Vicki Weisfeld – George Cramer – Sally Handley
SALLY HANDLEY – South Carolina
My introduction to PSWA came about when George Cramer contacted me to learn how his book, Robbers and Cops, could be considered for our Upstate SC Sisters in Crime Mystery Book Club. I invited George to be our moderator for the second quarter of 2023. In addition to his book, he chose books by two other PSWA members, Donnell Bell, and Michael Black. As a result, many PSWA members attended our monthly book club that quarter. When I learned about their conference, I joined PSWA and registered to participate. I’m so glad I did. The panel discussions have been terrific, and I’ve met so many wonderful writers and public safety professionals. The conference was a great experience. – Sally Handley
Where to find Sally:
M.E. (Peg) ROCHE – Florida
I really enjoy and learn from George Cramer’s blog, and it wasn’t until I read his glowing report of the last PSWA conference that I learned of the Public Safety Writers Association. I immediately applied to join and registered for this year’s conference. Because my novels involve law enforcement characters, and my own experience is somewhat limited, I was thrilled to learn of this untapped resource. In addition, Mike Black wrote a wonderful welcome email to PSWA and encouraged my participation in the upcoming conference; I felt I’d possibly found my niche. This year’s conference has been a great experience, providing me with a wealth of information and the enjoyable opportunity to meet writers who share my goals. – M. E. Roche
Where to find Peg: www.meroche.com
VICKI WEISFELD – New Jersey
Vicki was a member of the conference panel about The Art of Revision. Here she shares some of the panel’s conclusions.
The discussion, moderated by Frank Zafiro, began with a discussion of “pantser” versus “plotter.” While this often comes across as a divide between two groups of authors, in truth, most of those on the panel seemed to adopt a more hybrid approach. The pantsers, who love the thrill of discovery and the spontaneity of their process, sometimes have to take stock of where they are in a story and proceed with a bit more of a plan. The plotters, no matter how detailed their outline or how many post-its and 3X5′ cards they have created, often are open to ideas and directions they could not initially anticipate. Suffice it to say, whatever the chosen approach, the author must work out a way forward through the thicket of fictional possibilities that best suits them.
Much the same goes for editing and revision. Reading the manuscript multiple times, on the screen or aloud, focusing on different aspects (dialog, flow, language), using a critique group or beta reader—whatever it takes to give a manuscript the attention it needs. My novel, Architect of Courage, had numerous readers of all or a portion, plus a review of the policing aspects by a New York City detective whose specialty was terrorism. All this input is essential to shaping the final product like any other research.
Vicki did not mention that her novel, Architect of Courage, was awarded second place in the stiff competition for the best-published novel.
Where to find Vicki: www.vweisfeld.com
The PSWA is an association of writers existing to support people involved in creating content about public safety:
People with public safety careers who write stories, poetry, or non-fiction about their incredible experiences.
Mystery, thriller, and other writers who write about public safety characters and situations.
Publishers, editors, and other professionals
If you wish to learn more about the Public Safety Writers Association, follow this link https://policewriter.com/
Author Christopher G. Jones, Ph.D./CPA, goes under the pseudonym Topper Jones for his detective novels featuring surfing crime-fighter Thaddeus Hanlon and his sassy partner Bri de la Guerra. All That Glisters—book one in the series—has a release date of September 20, 2023, and is being published by The Wild Rose Press in both print and e-book format.
Before devoting himself full-time to writing, Jones worked in public accounting and higher education, where he taught accounting, computer information systems, and business writing. To be close to his family, he makes his home in the southwestern desert rather than his native California, but every chance he gets; he treks the 450 miles to the Pacific Coast to get in a little “water therapy” and catch a few waves.
All That Glisters is an edgy contemporary whodunit involving financial skullduggery, high-level political intrigue, and a behind-the-scenes view of cyber sleuthing. Here’s the pitch:
When the facts don’t add up in his surf buddy’s bizarre death, forensic consultant (and daddy-to-be) Thaddeus Hanlon investigates, volunteering to go undercover to pick up where best friend Rafi Silva left off in a secret probe of the U.S. gold stockpile—every last bullion bar.
Rafi’s spunky fiancée, Bri de la Guerra, has suspicions of her own and soon joins Thad on the hunt for answers. Together, the two amateur sleuths delve deep, stumbling onto a financial a-stock-apse in the making, triggering a brutal manhunt along the Eastern seaboard meant to silence anyone looking to set the ledger straight.
How long did it take you to write your first book? All that Glisters was 45 years in the making. I got the initial idea for ATG in 1977 after reading Robin Cook’s medical thriller Coma. I thought: If a physician can write a bestseller, why can’t a certified public accountant? We were both professionals. All I needed was a preposterous premise.
Rather than have my protagonist discover [Spoiler Alert] human organs being illegally harvested for the black market as in Coma, I decided to have my main characters discover “something” equally chilling regarding the financial markets—a disturbing “something” that would upend everything. Total economic meltdown and the consequences! Banks failing, riots in the streets, and breadlines stretching from coast to coast.
A few years later, while working as a strategy consultant at Bain & Company, I penned the first draft of ATG on my morning commute into downtown Boston. Fortunately, that draft never found a home. The writing was amateurish and unschooled. So, I took classes in creative writing and kept plugging away at my craft.
When I retired from my day job some forty years later, I pulled out my abandoned proverbial “novel in the drawer.” With the help of a developmental editor specializing in mysteries, I rewrote the thing from scratch. All except the preposterous premise.
What’s the premise, you say?
You’ll have to read the book to find out. 😉
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Both! I’m a big fan of the late Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!® approach to story structure, so I tend to “beat out” the major plot points in my novels, complete with scene cards. Each card has a short scene description identifying the Hero/Heroine, Goal, Obstacles, and Stakes, along with notes on the emotional change from scene opening to scene close.
As I write the scene, magic sometimes happens, and the “players” don’t behave as expected. I end up channeling the characters, leading to surprises I never would have imagined during the outline phase of the project.
Listening to the Muse means trusting the “pantsing” side of my brain. When that happens, I’m more than happy to rewire the plot. So, for my writing process, it’s both plotting and pantsing. But, always plotting first.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? At the novel’s midpoint, halfway through the book. Up to then, in my mysteries, the protagonists usually have been navigating the down-a-rabbit-hole world of sleuthing without much success. We’ve seen them search for clues, learn who to trust, and eliminate some dead ends. But they need a breakthrough to solve the case.
For example, by the middle of All That Glisters, the protagonists have run into a wall in their investigation. The only way they can scale that impasse is by learning to “color outside the lines.” When the protagonists decide to go rogue to find the killer, the antagonist takes notice and doubles down to avoid exposure. Things get serious. The pace quickens. And more bodies drop.
What are you currently working on? Book Two in the Thad Hanlon & Bri de la Guerra Mystery Series has been workshopped, reviewed by beta readers, and is currently under revision. Here’s the logline: Newly licensed private investigator, Thad Hanlon, takes a break from catching waves along the California Central Coast to land his first client—a former exotic dancer from Bakersfield looking for her surf prodigy son who has gone missing in the wake of a string of ritualistic murders terrorizing Oceano Beach.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Workshop your work! Whatever it takes, get feedback from people interested in your success. And be open to what fellow writers have to say. They can tell when something isn’t working when characters behave out of character, and when your language isn’t capturing your intention. Listen and revise accordingly.
You can often find writing critique groups at your local library or through state and local writing organizations. I found my “writing safe space” through the Heritage Writers Guild, a local chapter of the League of Utah Writers. The Writers Improvement Group (WIG for short) meets each week to review what we wrote since the last session. Knowing I need to have “something for WIG” motivates me to get words on the page. The weekly goal: five pages double-spaced. In my case, my critique group functions as both a sounding board and an accountability group. Everyone needs a little encouragement. Especially writers!
Book Link: https://topperjones.com/product/all-that-glisters
Groups I belong to:
Mystery Writers of America
League of Utah Writers
Heritage Writers Guild
Utah Mystery Writers
International Thriller Writers