Welcome to the Killer Nashville Blog!

Welcome to the Killer Nashville Blog, a meeting place for those who love mysteries, thrillers, suspense, and other crime literature. If you have ever attended, presented at, or volunteered for the Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference, or if you are just a reader or writer of any of the mystery/thriller/suspense writing genres, come join us for a Killer Conversation.

For more information on Killer Nashville: A Conference for Thriller, Suspense, Mystery Writers & Literature Lovers visit our website at http://www.killernashville.com.

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Rolling. Speed. Action. Cut! … Darn, Take Two! Rewriting and the Zen of Film / Author Daco Auffenorde

If the thing to remember when purchasing property is location, location, location, then the thing to remember when writing is…well…not writing at all.  It’s rewriting.

Citing examples from Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, Lisa Scottoline, Charlie Chaplin and others, author Daco Auffenorde examines the process of rewriting, the strong case for getting the idea down and then molding it, and how absolutely critical rewriting is to achieving artistic (if not financial) success.

(And just so you know, I rewrote this intro 7 times.)

Happy Reading! And may you never run out of extra paper.

Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

According to a 2010 CNN report, famed actor-director Charlie Chaplin demanded 342 takes just to get actress Virginia Cherrill to mouth the words “flower sir” in the silent film City Lights. Iconic director Stanley Kubrick reputedly reshot one or more scenes in The Shining over a hundred times.

Daco S. Auffenorde

Daco S. Auffenorde

Great film directors like Kubrick and Chaplin are often revered for their willingness to reshoot scenes. So why do writers believe their first draft is a perfect, one-take scene, or if they do recognize the need to rewrite, become paralyzed by the thought? I think it’s because rewriting is not only a blow to the ego, it’s also hard and time-consuming. Unlike a movie director, an author can’t call “Cut” and reshoot the scene immediately. Yet, rewriting is as critical to a good book as the retake is to a successful movie.

Stephen King told The Paris Review (Fall 2006), “Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, ‘This isn’t what I meant to write at all.’” In 1958, also speaking to The Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway revealed that he rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-seven times and the last page thirty-nine times. According to a mid-2012 article in the New York Times, Seán Hemingway discovered after studying the collected works of his grandfather that there were actually forty-seven endings to the novel. The Telegraph added that not only was the story rewritten multiple times, but that Hemingway also compiled a list of alternative titles before he decided on the final.

What this means is that the key time in the writing process—the time when the book takes shape—is in the rewriting. So, how does the reluctant rewriter make sure her book gets the rewrite it deserves?

Take 3 … and action.

Done. The end. I’d finished writing The Scorpio Affair, the sequel to my debut suspense novel, The Libra Affair. I’d proofed it over and over, corrected typos, tinkered with sentences, cut verbiage. It had to be ready to send out to the publisher. But books are meant to be read, so before submitting my manuscript, I shared it with a trusted beta reader, and he suggested that I yell, “Cut!” and reshoot some scenes. I didn’t take his word for it right away. Instead, I put the manuscript away for a while, and then later read it on my own. He was right.

The Libra Affair, DacoI knew how I wanted The Scorpio Affair to begin and end, and those parts of the book were fine. In between, I’d taken my heroine Jordan Jakes, a CIA covert operative, on a wild ride with lots of action and intrigue. But much of Scorpio was too episodic. Many chapters told exciting, self-contained stories, but didn’t move the plot forward quickly enough. There was only one thing to do—retake. And though at first I found myself frustrated at the daunting task of an entire rewrite, I remembered that most successful authors embrace the rewrite as a fundamental step in crafting a good story. For encouragement, I recalled the King and Hemingway examples, and also this wonderful quote from best-selling author Lisa Scottoline: “They say that great books aren’t written, they’re rewritten, and whoever said that was probably drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, because they’re right.” I bought a dozen doughnuts, brewed some coffee, and started to revise The Scorpio Affair.

But here are the first two lessons about rewriting. If the process doesn’t come naturally to you, first put the manuscript away for awhile. As Neil Gaiman said, “Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before.” It’s advice that you hear all the time, but it’s difficult to put your baby to bed even for a few weeks. And second, try to find that trusted beta reader, someone who’ll tell you candidly if there’s rewriting to be done.

There are other ways to foster the rewriting process. Writing groups can help immensely, both because you get feedback from an audience—that’s who we write for—and often because you can read your work aloud. I can’t tell you how many times words looked good on the page but have sounded slow and extraneous when read aloud. If you’re not in a writing group, you should still read aloud even if only to yourself. Your ears will tell you if your story has the right rhythm.

A final alternative—there are many good private editors/writing coaches out there. They can be expensive, so not everyone can afford them. But if you’re lucky enough to have some spare change lying around, they can be very helpful, especially in today’s publishing world, where the editorial staff expects ready-to-go manuscripts.

Take 4 … and quiet on the set.

To conclude, I’m going to advise something that might seem inconsistent with the above. In considering how much to rewrite, trust your gut. Don’t rewrite just because someone tells you it should be done. As the artist, only you can decide when your story is ready. The gaffer, grip, production designer, and cinematographer might all have good input, but you’re the director, and the final cut belongs to you.

And that’s a wrap!

If you would like to read more about Daco Auffenorde’s books please visit our website.

Born at the Naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland and raised in Wernher von Braun’s Rocket City of Huntsville, Alabama, Daco holds a B.A. and M.A.S. from The University of Alabama in Huntsville and a J.D. from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. When not practicing law, she’s encouraging her children to become rocket scientists and writing novels. Daco’s debut novel, The Libra Affair, an international spy thriller with romantic elements, released in April 2013, and was an Amazon #1 Bestseller of Suspense, Romantic Suspense, and Romance in September, 2013. Daco is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Romance Writers of America, Author’s Guild, and the Alabama State Bar. Visit her website at www.authordaco.com

Have an idea for our blog? Then share it with our Killer Nashville family. With over 24,000 visits monthly to the Killer Nashville website, over 300,000 reached through social media, and a potential outreach of over 22 million per press release, Killer Nashville provides another way for you to reach more people with your message. Send a query to contact@killernashville.com or call us at 615-599-4032. We’d love to hear from you. And, as always, thanks to author Tom Wood for his volunteer assistance in coordinating our weekly blogs.

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Adding Depth to Your Story / Guest Blogger Philip Cioffari

The bottom line for writing fiction (and I would also say nonfiction) is telling a good story. While Samuel Goldwyn’s advice of “if you’ve got a message, send a telegram” might be true, it defies a long tradition of creating context in crime and thriller fiction. In this week’s blog, author Philip Cioffari outlines his own path for creating relevance of premise in his latest novel Dark Road, Dead End. Using his technique, any story can be taken to a new level of pertinence and—as a result—can resonate to a larger audience, as well as educate and entertain.

Here’s long-time Killer Nashville attendee and instructor, Philip Cioffari.

Happy Reading!

Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

As writers of fiction, our first (and arguably, our only) obligation is to tell a good story, this notion is an extension of the art-for-art’s-sake view of creative expression. In other words, art needs no justification beyond itself. It isn’t required to serve any purpose other than the pleasure it brings. That being said, I’d like to examine for a moment the ways in which good crime fiction can tell a captivating story at the same time it engages the social issues of the time in which it is written.

Philip Cioffari

Philip Cioffari

One might argue that all fiction, including crime fiction engages—in one way or another—the social order of its time. Most visibly, perhaps, it does this by reflecting moral and philosophical values via a character’s thoughts and actions, the choices a character makes to survive in a world which is almost always—in the case of crime fiction—depicted as harsh, fearsome and unforgiving. So man’s conscience is almost inevitably put to the test in any given story. But there is a strain in crime fiction that engages social issues to an even greater degree. I think, for example, of Jaden Terrell’s new novel, River of Glass, with its concern with the horrors of human trafficking, and Stacy Allen’s new novel, Expedition Indigo, which addresses the need for preserving historic artifacts in the public domain rather than for private gain.

In my own case, I’ve long been a supporter of mankind’s conscientious stewardship of our planet and its resources. I wanted to address that issue in my writing and, because I’m a novelist and not an essayist, I wanted to meld my commitment to being a good storyteller with my concern for the environment. My frequent trips over the years to the Florida Everglades provided me with the setting to accomplish that end.

I was appalled to learn that the trade in exotic and endangered species of wildlife is a multi-billion dollar industry. It stands as the world’s third largest organized crime—after narcotics, and arms running. In the state of Florida, it is second only to the illicit trade in narcotics. Despite an international ban on such trafficking, there are many “rogue” nations that do not enforce the ban and that turn a blind eye towards those who violate it. And to be sure, worldwide, there is no shortage of those willing to engage in wildlife poaching and smuggling. One reason for this is the lucrative rewards for such activities—as one U.S. Customs agent put it, “Pound for pound, there is more profit for smugglers in exotic birds [and other wildlife] than there is in cocaine.” Another appeal to the criminal mind is the low risk of being apprehended. This is a consequence of the fact that most customs agencies are understaffed and over-worked and must turn their attention to higher-profile crimes, like the trade in narcotics and guns.

The way the black market system works is this: animals are poached from all over the world, smuggled illegally out of their respective countries, then shipped thousands of miles via land and sea, and ultimately smuggled into the country of destination. The U.S. and China are the two largest consumers of such contraband. But Southeast Asia and Europe are not far behind.

I wanted to shed light on this situation, to call attention to it and—because I’m a writer of fiction—do so in as entertaining a way as possible, hence the noir suspense/thriller format of my new novel, Dark Road, Dead End. My main character is a U.S. Customs Agent in South Florida, investigating a wildlife smuggling operation based in the Everglades, a nefarious network so large it supplies endangered species to pet stores, individual collectors, and roadside zoos across the country, as well as to “reputable” municipal zoos willing to close their eyes to the illegal source of the animals they wish to exhibit. The danger he faces comes, ironically, from both sides of the law.

The more we know about such illegal operations, the more of a part, however small, we each can play in resisting them: for example, by verifying the legitimacy of the origins of the pets we buy. And the more current issues we include in our fiction, the more relevant it becomes to the readers.

If you would like to read more about Philip Cioffari’s books, please visit our website.

Philip Cioffari is the author of the noir thriller, Dark Road, Dead End. His previous three books of fiction are: the novel, Jesusville the novel, Catholic Boys; and the short story collection, A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, Love in the Age of Dion, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University. Visit his website at www.philipcioffari.com

Have an idea for our blog? Then share it with our Killer Nashville family. With over 24,000 visits monthly to the Killer Nashville website, over 300,000 reached through social media, and a potential outreach of over 22 million per press release, Killer Nashville provides another way for you to reach more people with your message. Send a query to contact@killernashville.com or call us at 615-599-4032. We’d love to hear from you. And, as always, thanks to author Tom Wood for his volunteer assistance in coordinating our weekly blogs.

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Collaborations Can Be As Easy as 1-2-3 / Author Steven Womack

Writing with someone else is tricky. Most writers have their own toys, their own ideas, and they like to write in their own way. How do you keep the other person from being an intrusion rather than a partner? How do you find another person to write with at all? As a kick-off to a panel Edgar-winning author Steven Womack and Wayne McDaniel will be leading on “Collaboration” at Killer Nashville this year, Steve tells his story of working with a collaborator, how the process came to be, and what he learned from the experience. It’s excellent advice and couldn’t be timelier. Several of you have told me you are thinking of working with someone else and I’m about to start a detective series with another author myself. I love Steve Womack. I’ve known him for almost 20 years. He’s one of the best writers on the planet. He’s bright with a strong dry wit and, when I’m old with Alzheimer’s, I’ll still be remembering Steve’s wonderful fictional Private Investigator Harry James Denton until the day I die. I’ve just started his new book Resurrection Bay; the first page hooked me. You’ll definitely see a review in our Killer Nashville Book of the Day series.

So, let’s get started. Here’s Steve. Happy Reading! And best of luck to you in your collaborations.




Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

The writing life is a lonely life. Writers sit in a room alone, stare at a blank screen, and

Steven Womack

Steven Womack

live inside their heads while they try to create a world and characters that don’t exist and yet will feel completely real.

No wonder we’re all bats#!+ crazy…

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Almost by chance, I’ve found a way to combat the solitary aspects of this process. Before I go into detail, though, I need to deliver a little of what is known in the screenwriting trade as backstory.

About three years ago, I found myself at a bit of a crossroads. I was between books, teaching full-time and Chairing a department, saddled with whopping child support payments and health insurance premiums and was, frankly, tired and discouraged. Nothing was really ringing my bell, and while I knew I’d never completely give up writing, I was definitely in a trough.

Then an email arrived in my inbox from my former agent Nancy Yost. She had a friend who knew a guy who was trying to write a novel, was having some struggles with it, and was looking for a collaborator. She had no financial interest in the deal, she added. She was just trying to do someone a favor.

Was I interested?

For a moment, I almost said, “no.” I’d collaborated on a novel about ten years ago and while it was a good experience, it was a hell of a lot of work and the book never sold. Then, almost on a lark, I said “Sure, put us together.”

Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay

So Nancy introduced me to Wayne McDaniel, a screenwriter in New York City. Wayne explained that he’d written a spec screenplay called Resurrection Bay, which was loosely based on and inspired by Robert Hansen, Alaska’s most famous serial killer. The script had been optioned by Lawrence Bender, an A-list producer with a long list of credits, including a few movies directed by that handsome young feller Quentin Tarantino.

As Wayne related the story, the project was moving forward. He’d gotten notes and was in rewrites when, out of the blue, a package arrived in Bender’s office. It was the script to Inglourious Basterds.

“There went my movie,” Wayne said. The script to Resurrection Bay, like so many others in this business, disappeared into the black hole of development hell.

Wayne’s agent recommended he write a novelization of the screenplay and sell that, thereby putting the script back in play. Not a bad strategy, except, as Wayne explained to me, he’d never written a novel and was finding it a challenge.

We talked, made nice, and he sent me the script and what he had of the novel. The script was dynamite; the partial novel manuscript was good, but I could see where it could use some help. Plus, it needed to be finished…

To cut to the chase, we made a deal (Wayne very generously brought me into the project as a full partner), went to work, and a year-and-a-half later, took the manuscript to market. Resurrection Bay was sold to Midnight Ink and will be published in June 2014. The experience of working with Wayne on this book was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had professionally. In fact, we’ve become friends and are already considering another collaboration.

So what did I learn from this? How do you make a literary collaboration work? Three things:

No. 1: Check your ego at the door. A literary collaboration is an equal partnership. Sometimes your idea is the best; other times it’s not. Either way, you can’t let it get to you. As Queen Elsa sang in Frozen: Let it go!

No. 2: A literary collaboration is like any other partnership—including marriage—in that the ability to listen is vital. When your partner is pitching you a scene, an idea, a plot twist, an off-the-wall suggestion that on the surface doesn’t make a lick of sense, then listen. And hope your partner does the same for you.

No. 3: Keep your perspective. It’s not about you and it’s not about your collaborator. It’s about the project, so remember that every bit of thought, effort, creativity and energy must, above all else, serve the story. If you do that, then you’ll serve the reader as well.

Wayne and I are waiting to see what happens with Resurrection Bay. Like all parents, we’re sending our baby out into the world with the highest of hopes.

But here’s the odd part: unlike most parents, Wayne and I have never actually met each other, never even been in the same room together. When he gets down here in August for Killer Nashville, we’ll all get to meet him for the first time.

Steven Womack began his first novel when he was eighteen-years-old. A short eighteen years later, he finally sold one. His first published novel, Murphy’s Fault, was the only debut mystery on the 1990 New York Times Notable Book List. Since then, he has published ten more novels, winning an Edgar Award for Dead Folks’ Blues and a Shamus Award for Murder Manual. His latest novel, written in collaboration with New York City-based screenwriter Wayne McDaniel, is Resurrection Bay, published in June 2014 by Midnight Ink Books.

A scriptwriter as well, Womack also co-wrote the screenplays for Proudheart, which was nominated for the CableAce Award, and Volcano: Fire On the Mountain, an ABC television movie that was one of the most-watched television movies of the year.

Womack lives in Nashville with his writer-wife, Shalynn Ford Womack, and teaches screenwriting at The Film School of Watkins College of Art, Design & Film. Visit his website at www.stevenwomack.com

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to author Tom Wood for putting this blog together.)

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Pitching Grisham and Doing-In Your Ugly Babies: An Interview with author Tony Vanderwarker

What happens when Tony Vanderwarker, the founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, decides he wants to write fiction? He connects with author John Grisham and learns to do-in his ugly babies. Here is a wonderful story of mentorship and the trials and errors of being a writer. Thanks to Beth Terrell for conducting this interview.

Enjoy…and be inspired!




Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville 

Tony Vanderwarker

Tony Vanderwarker

KN: Please welcome Tony Vanderwarker to the Killer Nashville blog.  Tony, could you tell us about your path to becoming a professional writer? When did you know you wanted to be one? How did you get started?

I’ve always wanted to write novels, I think as far back as a teenager. When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa in my late teens, I wrote oodles of ersatz Rimbaud poetry and three or four meandering novels – all of which I burned when I came upon the disasters some years later. But I did get interested in film through working with the government’s film unit and went to film school at NYU. I ended up making a major motion picture, which got minor attention, so I decided to write shorter films. I then went into advertising and cashed out of the business in my late forties. I’ve been writing novels ever since.

KN: Did you always write thrillers? What drew you to the genre?

I began writing comic novels, but they didn’t sell, so I tried thrillers figuring I’d imitate my friend (author) John Grisham. Wrote a couple and got lucky. John offered to take me under his wing and teach me the secrets of thriller writing. So the novel I have coming out, Sleeping Dogs is the one I wrote with him over a period of about five years.

Sleeping Dogs by Tony Vanderwalker

Sleeping Dogs by Tony Vanderwarker

KN: John Grisham was instrumental in helping you come up with the idea for that novel, wasn’t he? Could you tell us about that?

At our lunch when Grisham offered to mentor me, he said, “Okay, we need a plot. You said you had a couple ideas, let’s hear them.” I pitched the first, swing and a miss. The second he shot down also. So I pitched the third as I began to sweat.

“So there are actually seven unrecovered nukes scattered around the U.S. as a result of mid-air accidents and collisions during the Cold War,” I told him.

“You’re kidding,” he said.

“No, all over the place, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon – the Pentagon claims they are harmless.”

“Whoever heard of a harmless nuke? What if the bad guys got a hold of one?”

So with Grisham engaged, we began a long and arduous process of crafting a novel together.

And the interesting part is, when Sleeping Dogs ran into a glut of similar thrillers on the market, I pulled it and wrote a book about writing with John called Writing With The Master. It got picked up and the publisher also decided to publish Sleeping Dogs. So both came out on Feb 4.

KN: Two books on the same day? That’s pretty impressive. What does your writing schedule look like?

I write from 9-12 in the morning, that’s usually when I run out of gas and my dogs get tired of lying around in the studio. They are lousy on plots and terrible spellers, but they contributed the title of my novel.

I take off weekends and holidays. Otherwise, it’s rigorous. I’m lazy and have a dread of the blank page so if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t get any work done. I do two to three pages a day, many of my ideas come to me when I’m half-asleep in the middle of the night. In the morning, my bedside table ends up looking like a bunch of stickies were shot at it.

Writing With the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

Writing With the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

KN: But you’ve worked hard to make the technical details authentic. How much and what kind of research do you do?

Lots, Siri is with me constantly. I’m always asking her crazy questions like, “What did Mussolini have to do with the Mafia?” or, “What’s the difference between an mk mod 47 nuke and some other one?” She’s a tireless co-worker. But it really depends on what kind of book you’re working on and how familiar you are with the territory. Bubonic plague is something I know nothing about (fortunately) so Siri and I are spending a lot of time on that. Reading up on nukes took months. But the ad agency stuff comes flying out of my head faster than I can get it down.

KN: And how about your personal experiences? How do they inform your work?

My life seeps into everything I do. I was having lunch with my publicist a couple weeks ago and she asked about my kids. I described my daughter, who is a theatre director, as a tough and resolute person who is not afraid to tell anyone to go jump. And Sharon said, “Could she have been the model for the lead female characters in Ads For God and Sleeping Dogs?” I hadn’t realized it, but she was right on. Probably included a bit of my wife also since she comes in the same size.

KN: What do you hope readers will take away from Sleeping Dogs?

That nuclear weapons are scary as hell and we ought to pay more attention to how they are stored and handled before we create a catastrophe. Sleeping Dogs brings to life the possibility of terrorists recovering one close to a major population center and coming close to detonating it, immolating millions and making the Eastern Seaboard uninhabitable for centuries.

KN: That does sound scary—and is a message a lot of people probably ought to hear. So how do you get the message out? What sort of marketing and promotion do you do?

The whole nine yards: social media, website (tonyvanderwarker.com), writing websites, email lists I’m on, Kickstarter, plus I have two publicists, one at my publishing house, the other a freelancer I’ve hired. I began marketing this book back in June 2013 and I’ll continue until I’ve bored everyone to tears and is begging me to stop.

KN: What’s next for you? 

Two directions: First, I’ve resurrected two comic novels I wrote years ago and am bringing them out later in the year, probably from a publishing house I’ve started with a friend. So Ads For God and Say Something Funny will be coming back to life. I’m also writing new comic novels as well as another thriller. The comic novel is titled Client From Hell and is about the Mafia taking over an ad agency. The thriller is a sequel to Sleeping Dogs.

KN: You have some pretty eclectic interests as a writer. What authors have inspired you?

The list is endless, but particularly Ford, Franzen, Updike, Kesey, Grisham (for his stories), Hiassen (for his humor) and above all, Cormac McCarthy.

KN: Any advice for aspiring authors?

Be patient. Words are tricky characters and don’t always do what you want. And slow down, speed kills good writing. And about your work, ask yourself the question one of Fellini’s characters posed in 8 ½, something like: “Is this really remarkable or just the foot of another cripple in the sand.” Ruthlessness is as much a part of writing as imagination. You have to be able to do-in your ugly babies.

Tony Vanderwarker is the founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, and is the author of the memoir Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book And Changed My Life about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs (both released by Skyhorse in 2014). He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny. Website: http://tonyvanderwarker.com/.

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Things Readers Want to Know/ Author Del Staecker

If you’re a seasoned author, you get asked the same questions by non-writers. If you’re a beginning author and haven’t yet found your stride, sometimes you find yourself asking the same questions. It’s always beneficial, even for the most seasoned pro, to note how other craftsmen do things. I’m always learning. I think that’s why Killer Nashville is such an incredible experience for me every year. An interesting writer for me is Del Staecker who literally locked himself in an isolated Idaho cabin to write his first novel by longhand just because it was something he always wanted to do. From there, success followed. So here’s the questions Del might have asked back in those days and here also are the answers he gives from his seasoned hand. Experience is always the best teacher, unless you’ve got someone like Del and you’re willing to listen. Thanks Del for taking the time to share.







Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

Author Del Staecker

Author Del Staecker

At readings, signings and other appearances, readers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you create characters?” and, “Do plots just come to you?” I encounter questions such as: “Where do your characters come from?” “Do you create profiles?” “What makes a character a good one?” and, “How do you make dialogue sound so real?”

I have not been trained to be an author. By that, I mean I have not received instruction through an MFA program, or writer’s seminars—formal or informal. For me, writing has come from a life of reading and personal experiences, and although I attended college and received an excellent education, I am a self-taught writer. Correction, I am more a storyteller than writer.

But let me share what I know about creating, developing, and (upon occasion) completing written works worthy of publication.

Q- Where do ideas come from?

A-I allow my memory to wander and my imagination to work. I jot down ideas and occasionally thumb through stacks of notes. If an idea has life—staying power—it jumps out of the pile and demands more thought. I have the beginning of a story, then the characters go their own way. For example, Tales of Tomasewski began when I imagined the experience of searching for a street hustler I knew many years ago. What the character and the person searching for him did is the story—it emerged from their actions.

Q-Are plots outlined?

"More Tomasewski"/Del Staecker

“More Tomasewski”by Del Staecker

A-Nothing is planned. I never know where the story is going. What happens is inexplicable and devoid of method. Strong characters extend good plots. When I began writing The Muted Mermaid, it was one story that grew into three books (Shaved Ice and Chocolate Soup being the other two parts). Tales of Tomasewski started as a single short story and grew into a novel. Subsequently, it has led to contracts for two additional books based on the lead character.

Q-Where do characters come from?

A-From life’s experiences. Each character is a person, or parts of a person, that I have met. Sometimes the traits from several persons blend into one character. Jake Thompson (aka Jan Tomasewski) is a blend of an acquaintance from my college years and many of the people I grew up with on Chicago’s Southside.

Q-What about constructing and using character profiles?

A-No. Characters are represented by their actions and their participation in the situations in which they are embroiled. In fact, the characters take off based upon their own energy, and as real personalities, they are finding their place in a particular universe. I believe the author’s imagination is a creator of that universe. More than once, I’ve awakened from a sound sleep to overhear their conversations. Occasionally, they talk to me.

Q-What is the secret to a good character?

A-They are engaged in activities that seem plausible for them, they exchange thoughts in believable dialogue with other good characters, and they perform deeds in settings that are a fit for them. If their conversations sound authentic and the settings seem real, then the characters are real to the reader.

Q-How is realism attained?

A-The characters do it all on their own. Once their universe exists, I am just a storyteller—an observer, a reporter, informing readers about the world the characters inhabit. My job is to get the description right.

Q-Getting back to profiles—what if a character “goes rogue?”

A-If they are real, then characters can be contradictory. In fact, at times they must be. Also, characters develop. Over time, we all change. Sometimes we grow, and sometimes we regress. Strict adherence to a profile would stifle the “real-ness” of a character. Remember, consistency can be boring. Granted, characters have recurring traits. Ledge Trabue’s quirky stomach and The Professor’s love of food are elements that are timeless and solid for them. Jake Thompson’s sarcasm is eternally his.

Q-How about killing a character?

A-One reader gushed, “I love how you kill people!” Telling that reader the truth was easy. I do not kill any characters. Simply, the characters do their thing. Characters are eliminated by other characters as action unfolds.

Q-What’s the key to writing believable dialogue?

A-Listen to the conversations that characters are having and simply repeat them. After letting things set for a while, I return to each dialogue and read it aloud. Listen as if you are there.

I hope I’ve been helpful in shedding some light on the writing process. My coming to the world of writing books for publication was based upon a lifetime of reading and experiencing life. I do not claim any special expertise, just love for a good story.

Del Staecker is an Executive committee member of the International Association of Crime Weriters, Chair of the 2014 Dashiell Hammett Prize Committee, and author of five crime thrillers. His Ledge Trabue trilogy, The Muted Mermaid, Shaved Ice and Chocolate Soup, is set in Nashville and New Orleans. Visit his website at www.delstaecker.com.

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

Posted in Guest Blogger Series | 3 Comments

The Thing About Theme / Author Frank Zafiro

“Theme” is an oft-misunderstood term. It’s one of those techniques that can take a writer’s work to a new level, but it is also a concept that can lead to hours of confused discussion. In this week’s Killer Nashville’s 52 Weeks of 52 Guests Bloggers series, former police officer, crime writer, and writing teacher Frank Zafiro gives one of the simplest and easily understood definitions of theme that I have ever read. He also takes the mystery out of what theme is…and what it isn’t. And, he gives techniques for working theme into a story either before, during, or after one has written the first draft. Enjoy this article, use Frank’s techniques, and see your own writing take a universal leap.

Happy Reading!

(And Happy Writing – using Frank’s excellent advice).





Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville


Frank Zafiro

Author Frank Zafiro

What is theme?

My wife teaches middle school English and History. Anyone who has worked with seventh graders knows how it is both rewarding and maddening at the same time. Usually maddening, actually. Theme has been the big bugaboo for these kids this year, and my wife’s struggle has been to successfully define it in a way that twelve year olds understand.

In novel writing workshops, I’ve experienced the same issue, only with adults. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of different opinions and definitions out there, and some of them can be confusing or even contradictory. For example, some people will tell you that the theme is the moral of the story. Are they wrong? No, not really. But honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely correct, either. Rather, it’s the moral of the story that addresses the theme.

See, confusing discussion already. And I’m sure some people are nodding their heads while reading that last passage, in total agreement, while others are violently shaking their heads and screaming words about my mental capacity that rhyme with “soar on” or “mummy.”

But here’s the thing about theme.

Forget about it. At least for a while.

Yes, I know that sounds sacrilegious. And honestly, if you’re the kind of person who carefully plots out your novel and follows that construct religiously, this approach might not work for you. But if you outline loosely, or not at all, then forgetting is the perfect solution.

There are really only three approaches to theme, logically. They are:

  1. Begin with the theme in mind.
  2. Discover the theme as you write the novel.
  3. Forget about theme altogether.

    At Their Own Game

    At Their Own Game/ Author Frank Zafiro

Option one is for those careful, meticulous planners. And if that’s you, my hat’s off to you because I think it’s actually difficult to pull off. It seems a little forced to me, but in all likelihood, that’s my own psychology at work there and not anything you should rely on too much. If option one works for you, then it works. Forge on.

Option two is the most exciting one for me, and the technique I almost always employ. I think of a good story (usually beginning with a good “what if”) and focus on the story and the characters. Somewhere around the middle of the book, if it remains a good story and the characters have come alive for me, themes emerge. As I recognize those themes, I might purposefully write the latter half of the book with those themes clearly in mind. For instance, if redemption is the theme I’ve discovered, as was the case in Waist Deep, the main character’s actions and his attitude toward those actions might reflect this theme. Certainly, when I crafted the final scene for this novel, the theme of redemption was on the forefront of my mind.

The thing about option two is that when you write that first revision you’ll end up working on sprinkling elements of whatever themes you eventually discover into the first half of the book. You may also be pleasantly surprised when you unearth references to the theme already in place, there before you even recognized the theme yourself. That’s one sure way to know your theme is definitely the right one.

Option three is not a bad way to go, at least for a first draft. I’ve had writers, particularly in workshops, tell me that they don’t have a theme in mind and their book doesn’t have a theme. I always point to the three options and say that they are obviously going with option three, then. But I also say that if you write a compelling story with engaging, real characters going through some kind of meaningful events…well, then, I defy you not to have a theme or three come out of that. Rather, I think the challenge will be, upon re-read and revision, to find the theme and strengthen it.

How to do that, by the way? I think a light touch is best. Let it come out in the things that characters think, say, and do. Show it through the changes that characters undergo. Or simply by what happens. Events are a great tool to underscore theme.

This always leads us back to the question that I opened with. What is theme?

Let’s stick with a simple answer here. One that even seventh graders can understand and use.

Theme is what your story is about.

That’s it.

Now, I don’t mean plot. That’s what happens in the story. Theme is what it all means.

Themes tend to be about serious issues, even if the story itself isn’t a serious one. A theme is often something you can express in few words, or even one. Things like redemption or justice or unconditional love. This is why themes have a universal appeal, across social, national, and gender lines. Everyone has an idea about love, for example. Or revenge. Everyone can relate.

Is it really that simple? Can’t a book be about more than that?

Of course it can. Take any college lit course and you’ll encounter complexity of theme beyond your wildest dreams. But as a writer, particularly a genre writer, and particularly in a first draft, does it need to be that complex?

I’m saying no. It doesn’t.

You can forget about theme, for a while at least, and just write. Make that story sing and those characters dance, and at some point in the process, theme is going to tap you on the shoulder and announce itself. Then you can consciously work it in, using all the craft you can muster.

I think that is the most organic, purest approach, because when you go about it this way, you realize you’ve actually been writing about a theme the whole time. And if you’re doing that, then it must be something important. Something worth writing about.

That’s theme.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Frank Zafiro became a police officer in 1993 and retired in 2013 as a captain. Frank has written numerous crime novels, including the River City procedural series (begins with Under a Raging Moon), the Ania trilogy with Jim Wilsky (begins with Blood on Blood) and Stefan Kopriva mysteries (Waist Deep, Lovely, Dark, and Deep). Most recently, he has released the hard-boiled novel, At Their Own Game. In addition to writing, Frank is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. To learn more about Frank, visit his site at http://frankzafiro.com.

 (To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)


Posted in Guest Blogger Series, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Madness and Media: An Ethical Exploration / Author Bruce De Silva

Author Bruce De Silva goes, not only into the mind of a serial killer, but into the court system designed to hold him in Killer Nashville’s 52 Weeks, 52 Guest Bloggers series http://killernashville.wordpress.com/category/52-guest-blogs-series/

Never say never.  That’s one of those things we all probably learn with age.  Edgar-winning author Bruce De Silva swore he would never write a story about a serial killer.  But he did.  Sort of.

What he has written is a story that haunts you.  What kind of person is safe for release and, if everyone knows a prisoner is a time bomb, is it right to release him?  Or is the court system allowed to invent charges to keep certain people behind bars after they have served their time for the public good?  Doesn’t happen?  Yes, it does.

This is one of the most intriguing and informative studies I’ve read in a long time and we couldn’t find a better author than Bruce De Silva to fictionalize it.  This story will make you think.

I can see why Bruce De Silva wanted to write “Providence Rag,” even if it is something he said he would never do.  This is not a story about where do you get your ideas, but how do you exorcise them for your mind.  Some stories such as this- haunting and ethical- need to find a voice.

Happy Reading!  You’ll think about this one as you sleep.

Clay Stafford, Founder of Killer Nashville

Bruce De Silva

Author Bruce De Silva

I’ve never thought myself as squeamish, but novels about serial killers make me squirm.  It’s been that way ever since my real-life brush with Craig Price, AKA the Warwick, R.I., Slasher.

Price enjoyed stabbing his victims over and over again, long after they were dead.  He was already behind bars when I was assigned to spend several weeks researching a magazine article about him, so I was never in danger.  But my god, the story was an ugly one.  Once it was published, I was sure I never wanted to get that close to evil again.

So two decades later, when I retired from journalism to write crime novels, I vowed never to write one about a serial killer.

Ever since Hannibal Lecter, novelists and screenwriters have competed to make each new serial murderer more twisted than the last; and I didn’t want to be a part of that.  Besides, I told myself, there are plenty of serial killer novels.  Did we really need another one?

But the Price case never stopped haunting me.  It worked on my subconscious, the place where novels are born.  Eventually, the compulsion to fictionalize it became too great to resist.

The result is Providence Rag, the third novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper.

It is a serial killer book, but in my defense, I would argue that it is a most unusual one.

In the novel, the murders are committed and the killer caught in the first seventy-five pages.  The rest of the book explores an impossible moral dilemma: What are decent people to do when a legal loophole requires that a serial killer be released-and when the only way to hold him is to fabricate new charges against him?

Price, the real killer, butchered two women and two children, before he was old enough to drive.  Just thirteen years old when he began killing, he was the youngest serial killer in U.S. history.  But that’s not the interesting part.

Providence Rag by Bruce De SilvaWhen he was arrested at age 15, the state’s juvenile justice system hadn’t been updated for decades, and when they were written, no one had ever imagined a child like him.  So the law required that juveniles, regardless of their crimes, be set free and given a fresh start at age 21.

The law was promptly rewritten so that this couldn’t happen again, but in America, you can’t change the rules retroactively.  So the authorities were faced with releasing Price after he served only six years for his crimes.  Former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler was horrified.  If Price gets out, he told me, “you’ll be piling up the bodies.”

But Price did not get out.  Twenty-five years later, he remains behind bars, convicted of several offenses he supposedly committed in prison.  I suspect some of these charges were fabricated, but in the very least it is obvious that Price has been absurdly over-sentenced.  For example, he was given thirty years for contempt of court because he declined to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric examination.

Have the authorities abused their power to prevent Price’s release?  Quite possibly.  Should he ever be set free and given the chance to kill again?  I don’t think so.  The ethical dilemma this case poses has always fascinated me.  No matter which side of the issue you come down on, you are considering something that is reprehensible.

I wrote the novel to explore the implications of this.

The real-life conundrum hasn’t caused any soul-searching in Rhode Island-at least not publicly.  Everyone seems content to let Price rot in prison.  And who could blame them?

But a novel is fiction, after all, and Providence Rag is in no way intended to accurately depict real events.  In my book, the ethical issue at the heart of the story haunts Mulligan and his colleagues at the newspaper.

Some of them argue that authorities who are faking charges against the killer are perverting the criminal justice system.  And if they are allowed to get away with it, what’s to stop them from framing someone else?  Besides, isn’t the journalist’s mission to report the truth?

Other’s argue that if they break the story and the killer is released, he is bound to kill again.  And if that happens, the newspaper would have blood on its hands.

The dilemma eventually embroils Mulligan, his fellow reporters, his editors, and the entire state in a heated confrontation over where justice lies.

Bruce De Silva, author of the Mulligan crime novels, has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards and has been a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and the Barry Awards.  His fiction has been published in eleven languages.  Previously, he was a journalist, editing stories that won nearly every journalism prize including the Pulitzer.  Visit his website at www.brucedesilva.com

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

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