Frank Zafiro writes gritty crime fiction from both sides of the badge. He was a police officer from 1993 to 2013, holding many positions and ranks. He retired as a captain. He is the award-winning author of over forty novels, most of them crime fiction. You can find out more at http://frankzafiro.com
On October 4, 2023, my novel, All the Forgotten Yesterdays, the fourteenth installment of my popular River City series, will be released. When I wrote the first book in the series, Under a Raging Moon, back in 1995, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d still be writing about these characters almost three decades later.
But I’m glad I am.
River City is a police procedural series that follows an ensemble cast of officers, detectives, and even leaders as they face a different challenge each time out. To date, RCPD has encountered robbers, kidnappers, rapists, gangsters, a school shooting, a serial killer, a terrible chief of police, and more. Through it all, one of my intentions was to show these events in a realistic light. In fact, these books have been favorably compared to the works of Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain in that respect—high praise, if you ask me. One reader called them “a paperback ride-along, ” which also sums it up well.
In the beginning, I thought I’d be focusing mostly on a young patrol cop named Stefan Kopriva. But by the time I hit the second book, Kopriva’s fate on the department was already sealed (though he lives on in a spinoff series, the Stefan Kopriva mysteries). Another officer, Katie MacLeod, rose to the forefront. And while she was certainly first among equals, I spent considerable time with a half dozen other characters—the veteran Thomas Chisolm, partners Anthony Battaglia and Connor O’Sullivan, and police leader Lieutenant Robert Saylor, to name a few.
That’s not to mention a score of others that the reader gets to know less well but still interacts with. Then add in the fact I’ve written enough short stories in this setting to fill more than three collections, and the result is that the River City canvas is heavily painted upon. (The nice thing about the short stories is that it allows me to explore main characters more deeply at times, and at others, to explore characters who don’t get to be stars in the novels but do in their own short story).
The River City timeline starts in 1994 with the first novel. The newest book, All the Forgotten Yesterdays, is set in 2010. That’s sixteen in-universe years. A lot of things change in sixteen years (especially when it’s been twenty-eight years for me in our world!). I’ve made sure these changes are reflected in the series. New technologies and tactics emerge. There are marriages, retirements, and even deaths. No one is safe from the ravages of time.
Katie MacLeod was in the very first book, and by the third book, she had emerged as the core character of the series. Even so, she sometimes plays a minor role in certain books, such as her sole appearance, Chisolm’s Debt. In other outings, she is the POV for the entire book—this is true in The Worst Kind of Truth and again in All the Forgotten Yesterdays. She will retain her status as a major POV for the next couple, as well.
But time marches on. More than half of the officers prominently featured in the first book have either retired, been promoted, or are dead. It’s been difficult to say goodbye to them, whether that was due to their demise or simply because their new position meant I wasn’t going to be featuring them nearly as much. This is the pain I’m referring to in the title of this essay.
The steady march of time also requires rookies to join the department and graduate to veterans. As Katie’s role changes, new officers fill in her old roles—whether as a patrol officer or a detective. Getting to know these new officers and introducing them slowly over the course of several books, is one aspect of that joy I referred to in the title.
Does this require knowing where things are going for the next seven or eight books? If you’re not an outliner, this might sap the fun of creation for you. I’m not an extensive outliner myself—more of a note-taker—but I have to say I have found it at least as satisfying to view my series through the meta lens as through the micro.
In the micro, I’m right there on the street with the characters in each individual book, reveling in the details that make for good police procedurals. That experience is about moments.
In the macro, I get to see the long view of things and explore the journey and the ultimate fates of these fictional characters. That experience is about the years, even the decades.
Honestly, there is joy and pain in both elements. Here’s what I mean: I’ve only been moved to tears while writing a scene on two occasions. The first was in the fourth entry of the series, And Every Man Has to Die. As the title suggests, someone does die. Writing that scene—indeed, reading it back to my wife later on—choked me up and brought tears to my eyes. It was all pain.
The other instance was in The Worst Kind of Truth, which I wrote eleven years later. This time, the scene was a wedding. Now, I don’t normally cry at weddings. But this one was a long time coming. It tied directly back to that death in book four and represented a sort of healing without forgetting. Thus, it was both happy and bittersweet. Pain and joy, you see.
I think, in the end, what it comes down to is this: after spending almost three decades of my life with these characters and shepherding them through almost two decades of their own fictional lives, I’ve come to see them as being real. I know it’s a writer’s worst cliché, but it is absolutely true. And because their journey hasn’t been a static one, but has passed through time and events as well, there has been plenty of opportunity for both pain and joy to occur.
But, on balance, mostly… joy.
(Note: Even though this is #14 in the series, each volume stands alone, too. You can start anywhere in the series, but if you want to experience what I just wrote about, I suggest going back to number one).
email: email@example.com (or contact button on website)
Buy ALL THE FORGOTTEN ESTERDAYS: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BSB6HFPJ
Check out the whole River City series: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07PRDW2SN
I got the writing bug in second grade, after writing a poem that the teacher loved and asked me to read to the class. I still remember classmates’ encouraging comments on the playground afterward. Writing seemed pretty cool!
I majored in English in college and thought about becoming a novelist, but it seemed too uncertain a profession. Then I moved to Silicon Valley in the early days of the tech boom and became a technical writer. After over a decade of high tech, I traded in my steady paycheck to become a licensed therapist, which I love and still practice today.
While my love affair with writing never left, I wasn’t a very nurturing partner. Over the years, I started a few novels. I wrote the first few chapters of a couple of “self-help” books and the occasional magazine article when I was “in the mood.” Mostly, I didn’t write much – I was busy finding my place in the world. Besides, if I’m perfectly honest, writing wasn’t fun, and I was frustrated and depressed when I sat down to the page because I didn’t know how to finish writing a book. I could never figure out what came next in the story. The first chapters flowed, but I hit the wall and stopped writing. I expected it to be as easy as that first poem I wrote in second grade.
But sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t ignore that niggling voice in the back of your head that says “write.” Especially when you have a friend looking out for you.
This friend knew of my interest/frustration in writing, and she knew that I even had an idea for a novel in mind. So she encouraged me to go with her to a writing class at Stanford University. At the time, I was sixty years old. I had no plan to become a novelist. But it sounded like a fun thing to do on a Saturday, so I said Yes.
My first Stanford instructor wrote, “Your subconscious knows more than you do” on the whiteboard. As a psychotherapist, this completely resonated with me. What she was saying was that I didn’t have to know what came next, that I could leave that up to my subconscious and ultimately to my characters. I excitedly thought, “Maybe THAT’S how I’m going to finish a novel!”
I jumped into writing with both feet. Over the next couple of years, I took other classes at Stanford. I took seminars and did something I hadn’t done since I was a child – I went to camp – a five-day writer’s camp. I bunked with a stranger, who became a friend. I learned new things, and I wrote.
One “hallelujah!” moment was learning about plotters and pantsers and discovering that I’m a pantser! No wonder I never knew what happened next! I never would, and now I felt freed from the quicksand!
I took a “Novel in a Year” class and finished a book. I revised and rewrote it. I sent it to beta readers and incorporated their wise comments. Friends and family read it, and I sent it to two professional editors. Everyone loved it except the agents.
After thirty rejections, a few agents were kind enough to send encouraging ideas, but with the last really nasty rejection, which included “I don’t like your main character, and I don’t like your writing,” I gave up. I put the manuscript “in the drawer” and returned to quilting!
But unlike in decades past, I couldn’t stop thinking about writing. I guess that when you finally nurture something, the niggling voice becomes more persistent and more demanding. And it brought me a new idea for a story.
It took me well over a year to write the novel, but by then, I had a group of people who would help me when I was stuck, or something didn’t work. I rewrote, revised, sent it out again for critique to editors, and finally had something I thought MIGHT work.
By then, I was in my mid-sixties and wondered if I wanted to go through the rejection process. I wondered if Indie was the way to go. But only briefly. Instead, I set myself a goal of one hundred rejections and began the tedious task of preparing queries and looking at agents’ wish lists — preparing for the day I would send out my queries.
Then, I began to hear horror stories from writers about their experiences with agents and ultimately not getting a book deal.
Several of my Sisters-in-Crime buddies had great success going Indie. They encouraged me to try, and after looking into it, I hired a marketing coach and a cover designer. I was advised to enter the intimidating world of self-promotion. I didn’t want to be on social media, set up and manage a website, or learn formatting software. Whatever it was, I resisted. And I routinely asked myself if I was too old. But I persisted even when I didn’t think I could ever learn how.
And as I could see seventy approaching a few stops down the tracks, I became an Indie writer. Amazingly, my novel, The Herbarium, sold well, had tons of great reviews, and wonderful comments from readers asking for a sequel. And as a side thrill, Tantor Media acquired the rights to the audiobook version. I received an advance and now have an “entertainment attorney.” The second book in the series, The Stone of Time, has just been published, and I’m working on the third. And maybe I’ll open the drawer and dust off the first novel!
If you are on the fence, think you are too old, don’t have the skills, or aren’t sure how to finish a novel, be true to that writer’s voice, no matter how small or fragile. After all, you are never too old to learn new tricks!!
Website: Pamela Chartrand
Facebook: (1) Facebook
Links to novels:
The Herbarium (The Herbarium Chronicles)
The Stone of Time (The Herbarium Chronicles)
The first book in the Hector Miguel Navarro Series, New Liberty, is available from many sources. I’m taking this opportunity to share a teaser and Chapter 1.
Outside Phoenix, two gangs rule…
…and one police officer is caught in the middle.
How will he stop them?
Hector’s parents, wealthy east coast college professors, raised him to work towards making the world a better place. In New Liberty, Arizona, gangs have ravaged the city. As a young police officer who lost his mentor, he struggles with the question.
Why did his partner kill himself?
Across town, a small sickly-looking man approaching fifty is about to make a move. DeShawn “The Knife” Galloway has a reputation as a contract assassin who prefers to kill with the Japanese Tanto. And It’s time to take control.
The war will start on his terms.
In a world of human trafficking, drugs, and violence, two people’s lives are about to be intertwined in a way where only one can survive.
But this story isn’t all black and white.
This dark urban crime novel will grab you as it reveals far more than just greed and power. This one will keep you turning the pages.
A Hector Miguel Navarro Novel
And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and
Hades followed him. And they were given authority . . . to kill with sword
and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. Rev. 6:8
They were alive moments ago.
“I told you to use the GPS. Why’d you buy a Lexus if you aren’t going to use the gadgets?” The old woman chides her even older husband.
“The map program takes too long. Besides, the boy’s graduation isn’t until tomorrow.”
“I know, but we’re not even in Phoenix. We should have been there an hour ago. Admit it. We’re lost.”
“Okay. I’ll pull over and set the GPS. Will that make you happy?” The man was tired from the long drive. Even breaking the drive into two days from Oakland to the Arizona city was more than he should have undertaken at seventy. His wife had suggested they spend a few days in Los Angeles, maybe even visit Disneyland, but the old man had insisted. She had been right. I should have skipped poker with the boys this time.
“Now we’re lost, exhausted, and you finally agree with me. That doesn’t help much.” She was younger by a decade and had offered to help with the driving. The old man was always stubborn and refused to give up the wheel. “This neighborhood looks pretty sketchy. I don’t think we should stop here?”
“We’ll be fine. Besides, there’s no one around.”
A minute later, absorbed in entering the address in the GPS, it’s difficult for the old man with his arthritic hands and new trifocals. Hearing a banging on his side window, and without thinking, he hits the down switch.
“Hey, old brother, whatcha doing?” Standing next to the car door is a skinny kid, fifteen or sixteen. It’s hard to see his face. He’s wearing a dark hoodie with the front cinched down. His hands are jammed deep into the pockets.
“I’m checking my map. We’ll be going.”
“I don’t think so,” the kid says as his right hand appears. He’s holding a small pistol, barely visible in his large hand.
“He’s got a gun,” screams the woman.
“That’s right, Bro. You and the sister get out and walk away.”
The man may be in his seventies, but he’s not about to let a teenage punk rob him. Reaching to put the car in gear, he says, “No.”
The old man doesn’t hear the shot or feel the twenty-five-caliber bullet that passes through his skull and into his brain. The small lead slug comes to rest against the right side of his skull, ending his life. His wife screams as another teenager opens the passenger door and drags her out of the car. Drawing her head back exposes her neck. She sees the Ka-Bar. The blade, dull and heavy, is meant for work, not slicing throats. As the boy saws her neck open, cutting the carotid arteries, blood gurgles until she is dead.
“Don’t get blood on the seat,”
“That’s why I pulled her out. What about the old dude?”
“He didn’t bleed much.”
* * *
Now that they have killed the old couple, they aren’t sure whether to run or take the Lexus. Their problem worsens when three men emerge from Ernesto’s Pool Hall.
“What’re you doing?” demands Jerome. “Geronimo” Dixon. The easily recognized president of the 4-Aces. Even at fifty, he is an imposing figure towering over the men behind him. The man stands six feet five and carries three-hundred pounds—no fat—packed on a muscular frame.
The frightened shooter’s answer is a whisper, almost apologetic. “We jacked them for the Lexus. The old man gave us shit. We had to off him and the old lady.”
“Who the hell gave you permission to jack a car in 4-Aces territory?”
“No one, we didn’t. . .”
“Shut up and gimme the piece. What else you got?”
The boy hands over the small pistol and the other gives up the K-Bar, “All we got.”
Geronimo turns to one of the men standing behind him. “Get DeShawn.”
Within minutes, DeShawn “The Knife” Galloway is at his side—Geronimo motions for the young killers to stand behind the Lexus. Out of earshot, he hands their weapons to Galloway. “This’s going to bring a load of shit our way. Make the idiots disappear.”
“Forever.” The tone of Geronimo’s voice leaves no doubt.
“The old couple?”
“I ought to. If they weren’t innocent civilians, I would.” Geronimo lets out a sigh. “Leave them.
“Don’t nobody touch da bodies, nothing. No DNA to tie the Aces to this shit.”
Galloway calls the other men over and tells the first, “You drive. We gotta clean this up.” To the second, “Put the fools in my Escalade. You ride with me.”
Showing false bravado, the shooter speaks up. “Why?” Stepping close to Galloway, he looks down at the much older and shorter man and repeats, “Why?” adding, “I ain’t no fool, old man.”
Galloway raises his head and gazes into the face of the shooter. His expression is as lifeless as his eyes. The shooter does his best to maintain a defiant pose and succeeds for perhaps three seconds. His body begins to shake. The shivers betray the boy’s fear; without another word, he walks to the Escalade and death.
Here’s the link to the trailer created by Lisa Towles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvrdESP4jTI
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org