Write what you know was written for the Big Thrill Thriller Writers blog.
I’ve often heard this advice, and just as often heard the opposite. Fortunately for me, my career provided the perfect subject for my books: forensic art. Unlike the fancy holograms and computer generated bells and whistles on television, forensic art is about visual communication using something as simple as a pencil and piece of paper. Working as a forensic artist since 1981 gave me a host of plot ideas based on actual cases. As a forensic artist, I could reconstruct skulls, prepare courtroom exhibits, draw composites of unknown suspects, age progress missing children, capture courtroom drama, sketch crime scenes, illustrate unknown remains, clarify video surveillance images and a host other skills. Step aside, Bones! Choosing a career for my protagonist was a no-brainer.
Choosing a location came next. As a resident of Cataldo, Idaho, once saluted in the Corn Patch of the television show Hee Haw, I knew far more about my neighboring moose and wolves than big city life. I decided I’d slide one step away to Montana and create a fictional town called Copper Creek, based on Hamilton, Montana. . . and I did work on a triple homicide there once . . .
Now that I had a protagonist and a location, I needed details of this life. Gwen Marcey (Gwen coming from a name my husband, Rick, liked, and Marcey from his mom’s maiden name,) needed a dog. Of course. But not just any dog. No Golden Retriever, Collie, or German Shepherd. The dog HAD to be a Great Pyrenees. Remember the write what you know? My family raised this breed since 1959 and I’m currently the president of the national club.
I wanted to write from a Christian world view. No cussing or sex. Just tight tension and action. I knew it wouldn’t be a cozy, or sweet or light because of my job, but I also knew it took a bit more work to show the gritty side of forensic art without resorting to bad language and gratuitous violence and sex.
Now came the hard part: actually writing. Keeping tension high; showing, not telling; hooks at the end of the chapters; weaving in backstory or leaving it out; constructing layers within the story. That learning curve took ten years of hard work. I had a NYT bestselling author as a mentor, a harsh critique group, and attended numerous writing conferences taking copious notes. I signed up for on-line classes and read every book on the topic.
In that ten-year journey, I gathered rejections, worked full time, battled stage II breast cancer, and took care of my dying mother.
I was not, WAS NOT going to quit. Rejections meant more revisions. Cancer? I’d use it in the book.
I’m sharing all this with you, m’friends, because we all have that writing journey, that yellow brick road with witches and flying monkeys. But we also have our big hearted tin man, bright scarecrow, and brave lion to help us.
Oh, and yes, it all paid off. A three book deal at auction with HarperCollins Christian taking the highest bid. And finaling in two mystery/suspense competitions.
Although many people suggested to me that I should self-publish if I couldn’t sell my manuscript, I just couldn’t see going that route. I had to keep improving my craft until it was good enough for a large publishing house. I looked into Createspace for others, but not for myself.
Then I re-discovered work I’d done back in 2002 or so: a DVD and workbook on signs of deception. My speaking career was much more active back then and I’d done a lot of presentations on deception. The workbook and DVD were developed for back of the room sales. I’d also given them out for two years in our forensic certification class.
Re-reading the workbook was a surprise. It wasn’t badly written. I could easily see the mistakes I made, but it had promise, especially as a workbook. In two days I’d uploaded the provided template and, voila! An updated and professional looking training book for my classes.
Now I’m inspired to work on a new project-a workbook for my composite classes. Stay tuned.
"Author Parks piles too much on Gwen Marcey's shoulders. The forensic artist is loaded down with a snide ex-husband, a bratty teen daughter, and is a breast cancer survivor. Her feats of physical exertion were just unbelievable for this reader."
I quoted this comment because it wasn't the first time someone had said this. I mean, really? Could someone reasonably have had all those problems I dumped on my character at once? And been able to do all that she did?
The funny thing about this is that it never occurred to me that Gwen was going through more than she could handle. After all, my life is somewhat of the template for Gwen. Gwen was two months from her last chemo treatment when the story opens. The picture of me (yeah, that's me. Not Uncle Fester from the Adams Family,) is about three months into chemo. Two weeks after my last chemo treatment, September 15, 2004, I drove from North Idaho to Sacramento, taught five workshops for ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International.) I had a booth for those three days, then drove from Sacramento to San Jose and taught a 40-hour series of forensic classes, followed by a two day art show. Then I drove home.
While going through chemo, every other week for four months, I continued to work on art, writing, and teaching forensic classes. My mom was dying of emphysema and I took care of her for dinner Monday through Friday, weekends, and holidays. I ran our kennel of Great Pyrenees and continued to work on our ranch.
Stamina? I didn't think about it. I did what I had to do. I had to work. I had to take care of mom. Gwen is the same.
As for lousy ex-husbands, mine took the cake. We were divorced after almost fifteen years of marriage (much like Gwen.) He remarried. Then killed his wife. He's serving 16 years to life in prison.
I guess for a lot of folks, Gwen has more than her fair share of problems, but I don't think they are unreasonable. No one said life was easy. It's how you go through life, how you persevere, keep faith, and have the right attitude that gets you through the troubling times.
I posted Hebrews 12:1 on my refrigerator. It's still there. The last line you'll see in my books, because it's one of the things that got me through:
"Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
And Hebrews 12:2 completes the thought:
"looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Over the past month I’ve had a lot of radio interviews about a new book, Naming Jack the Ripper, by Russell Edwards. Edwards, it seems, purchased a shawl in 2007 at auction. Family legend claimed this shawl was found at the scene of Ripper’s fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes. A man named Amos Simpson, a constable at the scene, after asking permission of the authorities present, picked up the shawl and took it home to his wife. The good woman, horrified at the blood-soaked piece of material, put it away in a trunk in the attic. And so it sat for over a hundred years, passed down with the story of its gristly origins. In 1991, the family donated it to the Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum. Without proof of its provenance, the shawl once again languished in storage. In 2001, the family took it back and, by 2007, were ready to sell.
After purchasing the shawl, amateur sleuth Russell Edwards tracked down the descendants of both Catherine Eddowes and one of the suspects: Aaron Kosminsky, a Polish barber. He collected DNA from both, had the shawl tested, and had a perfect match. Case solved after 126 years.
Or was it?
Let’s go back and revisit the crime scene. On September 30, 1888, at approximately 1:45 AM, PC Edward Walkins discovers Catherine Eddowes’ body in Mitre Square near the Whitechapel section of London. The arriving Detective Inspector as well as the Metropolitan Police immediately ordered a door-to-door search. Evidence collected at the crime scene included such items as a button, thimble, and six pieces of soap. According to Casebook.org, below is a partial list of her possessions inventoried at the scene:
· 2 small blue bags made of bed ticking
· 2 short black clay pipes
· 1 tin box containing tea
· 1 tin matchbox, empty
No mention of a more than 6 foot long by two foot wide silk shawl. I’m to believe that everything down to a button was collected, but not this shawl?
So, did the conversation at the scene go like this?
Simpson: “Er, Inspector, I was wondering if I might have a word with you?”
Inspector: “Yes, what is it? I’m busy.”
Simpson: “See that pretty shawl? The one lying in the woman’s blood next to her body?”
Inspector: “Yes. Obviously not hers. Must have been left here by Jack the Ripper. What about it?”
Simpson: “Even though it’s the only evidence we have of the Ripper, and could be an important lead in the case, could I have it? My wife’s a dressmaker and would love to have that.”
Inspector: “Sure. Take it. I’m sure we’ll find something else in the way of evidence.”
What an incredibly lame story. As a plot for a novel, I’d be laughed out of my critique group. No shawl was found at the scene. Nor was there any record of any “Amos Simpson.”
Let’s ignore this fictional origins of the shawl. We’re still left with the irrefutable DNA evidence. Russell Edwards tells us that he collected the DNA evidence from the descendant of Catherine Eddowes … wait … stop right there … HE collected the evidence? So Edwards has in his possession both the DNA and the shawl? And it’s a perfect match…?
What about the DNA of Aaron Kosminsky, the Polish barber named as a possible suspect in the Ripper murders? Edwards said he also collected the DNA from … an unnamed person. Yes, we are to take his word for it that this … person … is a descendant. Once again, Edwards was the one collecting the DNA. And once again, it’s a perfect match to … what’s-her-name.
Edwards created a work a fiction, starting with the premise of “what would happen if a shawl from the Ripper murders were tested for DNA….” He should have run his idea past a good critique partner or two. He will sell a boatload of books. But only this one story. Once folks start to really think about the premise, and put it together, he’ll never be able to “sell” anyone again on any amazing “finds” he will have in the future.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Amanda Bostic, editor extraordinaire, informed me today that the sales rep for Barnes and Nobles will be submitting A Cry From the Dust for
consideration for the Discover New Writers selection. I screamed whoooohooo, then researched it more. Here’s what Barnes and Nobles had to say about the
“Founded in 1990, the Discover Great New Writers program highlights books of exceptional literary quality from authors at the start of their careers.
A small group of Barnes & Noble bookseller volunteers convenes year-round to review submissions to the program and handpick titles for our promotion, currently featured at 700+ Barnes & Noble and 100 prominent Barnes & Noble College Bookstores, and on www.bn.com/discover.
Publishers recommend writers making a strong literary debut.”
Catch that last line? It left me breathless!
The main character in my novel, A Cry From the Dust, is about two months past her last chemo treatment for breast cancer. I don't think I've ever read a book where the protagonist is in remission. As the saying goes, write what you know, and I am a breast cancer survivor. I don't mind talking about it at all. I sorta figured God had a reason, so all I had to do is stick with the plan. The photo you see here is me, mid cancer treatment. Like my wig? That sucker was ITCHY!
I had a lot of strange ideas about cancer, chemo, doctors, hospitals, and dying. Mostly I didn't think about them at all. I'd never been in a hospital except to visit someone. The doctors I knew were friends. You died when you got cancer. Chemo made you violently sick and all your hair immediately fell out.
I discovered you didn't have to die from cancer. My oncologist gave me a printout on my survival chances (now there's an eye opener!) I had a 79% chance of living longer than five years if I had surgery, chemo, and hormone treatment. Living longer than five years? Good heavens, I figured I wouldn't need to think about dying until I was really old! Well, I'm coming up on ten years in remission, so the printout was right.
Chemo is a trip. I had a port surgically implanted just below my collarbone. The port was about the size of a half-dollar with a small tube that took the chemo straight to my heart. Every other week I'd go to the cancer center, pick up paperwork, walk across the hall and have my blood drawn and tested, return across the hall and meet with the oncologist (a great guy!), go upstairs, have a nurse poke a needle into my port, be seated in a comfy lounge chair, and get plugged into the chemo machine. The chemo itself isn't painful, only cold. In fact, the effects of chemo usually took two days. Wednesday was chemo day. Thursday I got a shot in the stomach to boost my blood, and Friday I got hammered. This was a problem because my mom was dying of emphysema and my care-taking duties started Friday night.
It took two treatments before my hair fell out, and oh! was that an ugly sight. I made an appointment with Nora to get it all shaved off (what was left.) When I entered the salon, everyone went dead silent. No one would look at me. The all knew. Nora whispered, "do you want to go into the back?" Huh? I figured I'd get some humor-mileage out of this. "No," I whispered back. "Give me a Mohawk." So she did. She shaved it all except a line of hair running down the middle of my head. Of course, there was only about twenty hairs left up there. We giggled at the look and shaved it all off.
Well, enough of the cancer story for now. Yeah, I feel fine, thanks for asking. :-)
I started working in forensic art in 1981. Yeah, I know, a long time ago. Long before anyone had ever even heard of forensics, let alone had television, books, movies, you name it on the topic.
I worked for the North Idaho Regional Crime Lab in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I’d
like to say I was hired because I was a brilliant and gifted artist with
Sherlock Holmes-like sleuthing abilities. Actually, I was hired because my dad was the director of the crime lab. He always claimed I was the best artist he knew. I think I was the only artist he knew. The crime lab handled physical
evidence from the ten northern counties of Idaho, the Department of Fish and Game, the FBI, and any agency that requested our services. My initial duties were to prepare the trial charts and hold the stupid end of the tape measure at crime scenes. In the spring of 1985, the FBI offered their second class on forensic art (the first class was held in the fall of 1984.) My dad asked me if I was interested in attending. Me. At the FBI Academy? Waaaahooooo! Off I tromped for the two-week course. I returned with a wonderful skill: composite drawing, and a friend who would later become my husband: Rick.
I was one of the first forensic artists in the Pacific Northwest,
and the first FBI trained forensic artist in Idaho. Like any new service, it was
necessary to let the law enforcement agencies know of my existence and range of abilities. The members of the crime lab traveled across Idaho giving talks and demonstrations of the various forensic services available to them. I set my sights on Spokane, Washington, just an hour away from my home.
Spokane sits near the Idaho-Washington border and boasts a
population of about 300,000. I requested a meeting with the chief of police. I wasn’t sure how well my free-hand sketches would go over. Spokane was still reeling from the shattering crime wave of Kevin Coe (Frederick Harlan Coe,) the South Hill Rapist, made famous by the book Son:
A Psychopath and his Victims, by Jack Olsen. An Identikit composite had been rendered without results. The chief, however, was excited about this new skill and within a few months, Spokane had a new forensic artist.
Now back to you. Do you want to hear more about my cases?
One of the requirements for a writer is to get a good photograph for the book cover. Of yourself. Ugh. I hoped maybe I could buy a model's image and use that. Change it out at times, offer variety. I could be a drop-dead red-head for the first book, maybe a curvy brunette the next. Sigh. Nooo, the publisher wasn't going to go with that.
Dave and Andrea Kramer of Stampede Lake Photography agreed to the dreadful task. Rick and I have known the Kramers since we were married ... in fact, they took our wedding photos. I had to find three or more shirts of different colors for the photo shoot. I guess a stained Great Pyrenees T-shirt wasn't going to cut it. I thought about looking serious, pensive, like I had another Great Novel just spinning in my head. Instead I grinned like a village fool. Oh well, the deed was done. We ate a great dinner together, caught up on our lives, and off they went.
A sneak peek into my book: Dave Kramer, retired Chief of Police of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, is the template for Dave Moore in my books. More about him later.
I’ll start off with a confession. My husband, Rick, plays the banjo. There, I’ve said it. Not a lot, but enough to make me wonder if we’re cousins. For a time, he would jam with his bluegrass friends, a sweet group of people prone to wearing denim bib overalls and playing the saw as a musical interlude. After a few months, Rick started to rave about this one particular banjo picker. He extolled this fellow’s abilities so much that I was forced to politely respond. I asked if he had all his teeth. Unable to arouse my slightest interest, Rick moved on to point out that I simply had to meet his beautiful wife. She was gracious, slender, and movie-star beautiful.
Right. I felt dumpy already. I ignored Rick’s ranting about the banjo-picker-and-his-beautiful-wife and ate another slice of pie. I was depressed so I added extra whipped cream.
Rick’s crusade to have me meet this wonderful couple continued. “Did you know,” he asked me one day, “that my banjo-playing friend is an author?”
Okay, he had me there. I love books. “What has he written?”
“I think it’s called ‘A Clear and Present Darkness.’”
Great. A Clancy wannabe. Rick persisted, however. In desperation, he told me they owned a Great Pyrenees. That was the deciding factor. I’d owned Pyrenees since just after Noah’s flood. We invited them to dinner. Frank and Barb Peretti.
I had no idea who Frank was. I’d never read his books. When they returned the favor and invited us to dinner, I got some inkling of Frank’s reputation and success. Their home was gorgeous, sprawling on emerald green lawns and overlooking the river. Discreetly tucked on the walls leading to the
basement were a variety magazine covers and awards for selling a bajillion
Clever person that I was, I put it together that Frank wasn’t just an author, he was an Author. Big time. Important. A list. I could have been intimidated, but Frank and Barb were such lovely, down-to-earth folks that we became friends. I discovered that Barb wasn’t just movie-star beautiful, she was
a talented artist (actually, so is Frank, but he’s pretty busy writing.)
I’ll skip over all the great times we had, because I’m sure you’re now chomping at the bit to find out how Frank came to mentor me in my writing. Fast forward a number of years. It was Christmas and I’d not found a single thing for Barb. We usually exchanged simple gifts-well, mine were simple, Barb’s were delightfully thoughtful. So I wrote a story. An adventure about two women on a quest: one fat and jolly, the other movie-star beautiful.
I know. I know. I’m so original…. I wrapped it up and gave it to Barb. She started to read it at home and burst out laughing. Often. Frank wanted
to know what she found so amusing and she read excerpts to him. He called and asked to see me. And he did. He told me I had writing talent and that he would “teach me to fish.”
I was stunned and thrilled. I decided to not enter any art shows that year and devote myself to learning the writing trade from the master. That was January of 2004. Two months later I was diagnosed with stage two breast
Funny thing about God. He sure knows how to time things. Throughout that awful/wonderful year, through surgeries, chemo, baldness, sickness, everything-hurt-times, Frank would sit across his kitchen table from
me and listen to what I’d cranked out on my computer. Barb would listen and ply us with lattes.
It was a time of refining fire. I posted on my refrigerator Hebrews 12:1 and took courage from the last line that said, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Not only was I battling cancer, my mom was slowly dying of emphysema and I was caring for her. She died a year later, never knowing about my disease.
I finished my first manuscript that summer of 2004, but my writing, like my life, needed that refining fire. I had much, much more to learn. Rejections, rewrites, more rejections, writer’s conferences, classes, critique groups, still more rejections, classes again, and finally, finally success. Through all of this, Frank patiently, skillfully, taught me to fish.
Fine artist, forensic artist, author.