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
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/
Current Secretary and Past President of the Upstate SC Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Sally Handley is the author of the Holly and Ivy cozy mystery series and the stand-alone suspense novel, Stop the Threat. Additionally, she writes a series on the new Kindle Vella platform entitled The Adventures of Trixie, written from her faithful companion’s point of view. Finally, Sally writes an occasional blog entitled “On Writing, Reading and Retirement” at www.sallyhandley.com. Also a member of PSWA, she is currently busy writing the sixth book in her cozy series entitled The Toxic Blooms Mystery
On Genre – I consider myself primarily a cozy mystery writer. That is the genre I love to read, so it was just a natural choice for me when I started to write. But after I attended a local Citizens’ Police Academy, I was motivated to write a suspense novel based on a discussion we had with the School Resource Officer. The question of arming teachers came up. I asked myself, “What might really happen if we did that?” And that question led me to write my first suspense novel.
On Writing Process – So my writing process is not very complex. Once I get an idea, I mull it around in my head for a bit, but then I just sit down at my kitchen island and start typing. For me, the story evolves based on the things the characters say and do. When I get to a point where I’m unsure about what comes next, I take a legal pad and pen, and a big mug of coffee over to the couch and plot. I ask a bunch of what-ifs and consider where the story might go depending on the scenarios I consider. That usually gets me back to work. Admittedly, it sometimes takes more than one mug of coffee.
On Characters – Next to plotting, character development, to me, is really the key to engaging the reader. In writing a series, the challenge is creating characters your readers enjoy spending time with so they’ll want to continue reading the series. In Stop the Threat, I had a huge cast of characters ranging from School Board Members to teachers to students and their parents. The challenge there was creating a cast of intriguing characters with whom the reader could identify.
You ask if my characters ever disappoint me. Never. But they do surprise me. I’m better at writing dialogue than description, so oftentimes, my characters will say something, and how another character reacts can be rather unpredictable, taking the story in a whole new direction.
On Association Membership – When I moved to South Carolina, one of the first things I did was join the Upstate SC Chapter of Sisters in Crime. The first person I met was Judy Buch, another cozy mystery writer. We hit it off and formed our own critique group, which now includes fellow authors Wayne Cameron and Cindy Blackburn. They are my most trusted and treasured resource. Because writing is mostly a lonely endeavor, having like-minded partners to read and assess your work is invaluable. And, since all writers are subject to bouts of self-doubt, it’s great to have folks cheer you up and keep you from succumbing to the depths of discouragement. Also, I recently joined the Public Safety Writers Association and have already gotten answers to questions about how police would handle a certain situation from author Michael A. Black. My advice to any writer is join a writer’s group. You won’t regret it.
On Research – I’m not a traditional researcher, but I am frequently amazed at how the information I sometimes didn’t even know I needed just comes to me. My cozy mystery sleuths, Holly and Ivy, are look-alike sisters who like to garden. Their knowledge of plants helps them solve crimes. A few years ago, I took a day trip to an arboretum in North Carolina. Lo and behold, they had an exhibit entitled Wicked Plants, based on a book of the same title by Amy Stewart. That book helped me select the perfect poison in book 4 of my series.
My favorite research story happened very recently. I attended a wedding in New Jersey last November and stayed at a hotel in Morristown. They just happened to be hosting a Goth convention at the hotel the same weekend. Amazingly, in the book I’m currently writing, I have a Goth character. I can’t really say why I chose a Goth character. I just sort of pictured her when I was writing. Anyway, it occurred to me that I really didn’t know very much about Goth culture. So, I introduced myself to a guy on the elevator, explained what I was doing, and asked if he’d be willing to talk to me. Ever so graciously, he invited me to join him and some friends he was meeting in the lobby. I spent about an hour with them. I learned a lot. Talk about serendipity!
I have to say that Stop the Threat involved more research than my cozy mysteries require. I interviewed the School Resource Officer and did lots of online research about guns and gun training. I also read everything I could about schools who had armed their teachers. My critique group and my book club friends were wonderful in forwarding any articles they came across on the topic – another reason to be part of a group. (Wish I had known about PSWA back then.)
The book I’m working on now involves GMOs, and my working title is The Toxic Blooms Mystery. When I began writing this book, I realized, to my horror, that a basic idea that I had about GMOs was erroneous. I knew I had to step back and do some serious research. Then I remembered a young neighbor of mine, who once did some clerical work for me when I was a marketing consultant. She’s now a biology teacher, so I contacted her. We scheduled a Zoom call, and within an hour, she helped me develop a basic plotline for the book. She also agreed to be a beta reader when I’ve finished my first draft.
So, reflecting back on what I’ve written here, I realize there’s a well-known adage that ties it all together –“it’s not what you know, but who you know.” For me, associates, topic experts, and beta readers are the best resources a writer can have.
Where to find me:
• Website: www.sallyhandley.com
• Blog: https://www.sallyhandley.com/blog/
• Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sally.handley1/
• Linked-in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sallyhandleyinc/
• Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16850782.Sally_Handley
• Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/sally-handley
The heading is my life in a nutshell. It’s my birthday, so I’m taking a break from the usual routine to tell you a little bit about me and answer two questions posed by fellow authors—who tried to stump me—they failed.
If you don’t already know, I’m an enrolled descendant of the Karuk Tribe of California. Combining police, private investigator, and corporate experience, I have about forty years of investigative experience. Earning a BA – History from California State University – Hayward took me a dozen years of poor scholarship. Nearly four decades later, I returned to school at Las Positas College. I took a break to earn an MFA-Creative Writing Program from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, before finishing an AA in English from Las Positas.
I was fortunate to conduct and manage thousands of investigations throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia. After forced retirement, I kept my investigative skills honed by volunteering as an investigator at the San Leandro, California, Police Department.
I want to begin with a shout-out to an incredible mentor, Ramona Ausubel. Ramona was one of my mentors at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a fantastic author, and her latest novel THE LAST ANIMAL is the People Magazine Book of the Week. PRE-ORDER NOW!
Besides writing, my passion was long-distance motorcycle riding on my 2001 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic—my first scooter was a 1959 or 60 Honda 50 (I got stopped for drag racing on it). My sixty-year biker life ended last year when an accident left me with several broken bones—it wasn’t the first time.
Shelley Riley asks: What inspired you first to start telling tall tales? I’m not one of those who has been writing all their life. I was about to turn sixty-seven when the most incredible place I ever worked, PALM, was bought out, and the layoffs began. I ran security and investigations and got advance notice of pending layoffs. Near the end, my name came through.
Feeling strong and unprepared to retire, I began an unsuccessful job search. I learned all about age discrimination. I had sworn never to enter a Senior Center until a writing class was offered. I falsely believed it would help my stellar resume, so I signed up.
To my surprise, it was a fiction writing class. Amazingly, I fell in love with writing and gave up looking for any other type of work. I have two stand-alone novels, and Book One in the New Liberty – A Hector Miguel Navarro series comes out in a few weeks.
Michael A. Black asks: Your writing of dialogue in your books is fresh and realistic, yet it also moves the story along. What tips would you give to other writers for writing convincing and authentic dialogue? I learned early on that I had to leave out the normal jibber-jabber that occurs in our everyday conversations. However, dialogue has to seem natural and to the point, adding to the plot and character development. When I began writing, I included a lot of unnecessary chit-chat. With rewriting and the help of Critters, I started writing more explicit dialogue—there has to be a reason. I ask myself: Why am I writing this? I cut, reevaluate, and rewrite if the conversation is unclear or without purpose. Occasionally, the dialogue seems to wander. When this happens, I’m laying the groundwork for a future event or character development of someone not in the conversation.
I try to add a touch of humor at least once in each chapter, helping humanize my characters.
May will be busy as New Liberty is released, and I will be doing readings and book signings. I hope you can join me at one or more events.
1. 5/9/2023 – New Liberty release – available for pre-order
2. 5/10/2023 – I will moderate the Upstate South Carolin Sisters-in-Crime Mystery Book Club. Michael A. Black with be discussing Chimes at Midnight.
3. 5/13/2023 – Las Positas College Literary Festival – Book signing with local and indigenous authors. Tommy Orange is the keynote speaker. It’s FREE!
4. 5/18/2023 – Barnes & Noble, El Cerrito, 6:00 – 7:330 – Book signing with Lisa Towles
5. 5/20/2023 – NorCal Spring Author Showcase, Orinda Books, 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. – I will read and sign
6. 5/272023 Barnes & Noble, Dublin – 1:00 – 3:00 Book signing.
7. 5/28/2023 – Barnes & Nobel, Walnut Creek – 2:00 – 4:00 p.m Book signing
You can find me at:
California Writers Club – Mt. Diablo
Crime Writers of Color
Sisters-in-Crime – NorCal
Sisters-in-Crime – Colorado
Sisters-in-Crime – Coastal Cruisers
Mystery Writers of America – NorCal
If you can, pop over to Lois Winston’s blog. Her guest today has the initials: GDC.
Links for my books:
The Mona Lisa Sisters
Robbers and Cops
New Liberty -Book 1 in the Hector Miguel Navarro Series
I wonder how I would’ve ever gotten where I am today without mentors. This includes the mom down the street who took me under her wing when my mother struggled with her own demons. Early in my law enforcement career (as a meter maid), there was a motor officer who introduced me to the concept of “badge-heavy” and changed my adversarial attitude with the public while I issued tickets–I didn’t have to be a jerk. Later, Fred, a patrolman, was another crucial association. He invited me to testify to the county grand jury as part of an investigation of our police administration. Standing up for the integrity of the job was a beautiful burden. These people were life mentors who taught me valuable lessons that extend through my life today.
But let’s talk about mentors for writers.
Pat Tyler – In most other industries, colleagues could look upon newbies as potential competition. While I’ve found that all writing teachers aren’t necessarily mentors, I can say I have never seen professional acrimony toward another. My first true writing mentor, Pat Tyler, during her Jumpstart Writing class, encouraged me with provocative prompts. She provided a safe, non-judgmental place to read and hone my stories. Then, she pointed me toward Redwood Writers (a branch of the California Writers Club), where I found much more to learn. The motto of the club is “writers helping writers.” It made a significant impact in my writing career.
Sharon Hamilton – Sharon is a prolific romance writer I met through the Redwood Writers. Soon after I joined the club, the idea of signing your emails with your author name and including the links to your work. Sharon barely knew me but spent half a day helping me set this up. This little thing stayed with me. She’s a living example of “writers helping writers.”
Marilyn Meredith – Another invaluable mentor is Marilyn Meredith. She’s a board member of the Public Safety Writers Association, who I met in 2014 at the club’s annual conference. Marilyn is an experienced author who helped me navigate small press publishing and writing ethics. She’s a prolific author of over 40 books who gets up in the middle of the night (4 AM) to accomplish her myriad goals. Even with huge family demands, she writes and promotes almost every day. A lady in the most refined sense, she’s also a model of Christianity—not the clichéd version. She walks the walk. She’s unpretentious, accepts people the way they are, and believes in sharing her gifts—as she has with me. I’ll bet she never even considered herself a mentor. But she is. She continually inspires me to be better.
Recently, I was privileged to be offered a contract job for multiple books. I’d be paid a flat rate for each, and the publisher would reap the royalties. It was a dream come true. But the time frame was strenuous-three books in six months. Yikes. With the support of my family, friends, and colleagues, I signed the contract. The colleague who facilitated this offered me one piece of advice. Write the book, then go back and edit.
So, I did that. In all my years of writing, I’d always thought a thousand words a day was optimum. But with the timeline I had, I had to kick it up a notch. I wrote consistently and turned in 2500 words per day. With the aid of a flexible outline, I completed all three before the deadline. Even though I’d signed on the dotted line, I had no idea that I could do that much work. Until I did it.
That one simple piece of advice changed my work habits forever. I look upon that colleague as a mentor, although he’s too modest to agree with me.
How did mentors change your writing? Do you have one or many? Do you help new writers as they begin this arduous journey?
Even if you don’t consider yourself a mentor, I want to suggest why you should consider it.
- It could change someone’s life—really. Think about words of encouragement you heard that motivated you. Be that person. (see above)
- It will take you out of your own world—we create them in our heads, don’t we? Telling another person about your process attaches words to abstract thoughts. Sharing can enlarge thoughts if you listen. For both of you.
- You’ll be building a writers’ community based on the positive aspects we’re talking about here.
- The life you change may be your own. Sometimes, verbalizing the process gives us a clearer picture. Sharing and giving aren’t unique to humans, but we’ve refined it through evolution.
Let’s keep working and helping each other.
Thonie is the author of four police procedural mysteries set in the Sonoma Wine Country. While three of the books are on Amazon now, they will be re-edited, re-covered, and re-published by Rough Edges Press, an imprint of Wolfpack Press. The fifth book in this series will debut sometime in 2023.
Thonie’s website is www.thoniehevron.com
Author Facebook page: Thonie Hevron Author
By Force or Fear
Intent to Hold
With Malice Aforethought
Felony Murder Rule