Ellen Byron: Playwright, Journalist, TV Comedy Writer, and Award-Winning Mystery Writer

MurderBooks welcomes the USA Today Bestselling, Lefty Award-winning, multi-talented Ellen Byron to the blog today. Ellen writes the extremely entertaining Cajun Country Mysteries, she writes comedy-series television, and she has written hundreds of magazine articles that have appeared in national publications. Did I mention she’s also a playwright? TodEllenByronHeadShotay, she shares some of her writing secrets and gives us a peek at how she goes about accomplishing all these things.

MB:        You’re a successful television writer, something I tried to do but failed miserably at. And, not that I’m looking for another bite at that apple (no, really, I promise I’m not), tell us how you managed to get into the business?

Ellen:    LOL, that “successful” thing comes with a lot of ups and downs! I was working as a playwright and journalist in New York City, where I’m from. I had published, produced one-acts, and was shopping around a full-length play that had been a finalist in the O’Neill Theatre Center contest. I got a lot of readings at Off Broadway theatres and after each one, I’d get notes. I was in the middle of a post-reading notes call with the development director at Circle Rep when I had the thought, “If I’m getting all these notes, someone should be paying me to take them.” That’s literally the moment I decided to head west and break into television. To support myself, I freelanced for magazines and taught playwriting at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where I met my TV writing partner. Writing for television is often easier when you’re a team, especially in comedy. It really helps having two people come up with jokes.

MB:        Which television shows have you written for?

Ellen:    The ones people know would be WINGS, JUST SHOOT ME, and STILL STANDING. I’ve also written for a lot of shows that only lasted a season or not even that long. I’ve done pilots for all the networks and a couple of cable outlets, as well as shows for the Disney Channel. My last job was working in animation at Nickelodeon, where I wrote for FAIRLY ODD PARENTS. That was a blast.

MB:        How did you get into the novel-writing business? And which came first, the desire to write novels or to write for television?

Ellen:    I never thought I could write a novel. In 1999 I tried writing a mystery inspired by a writer I hated – spoiler alert, he was the victim – but got about ten pages into it when I realized it wasn’t very good. I didn’t try again until 2011, when I had time on my hands because I wasn’t staffed on a show. A friend started a writers group and to challenge myself, I decided to try writing another mystery. The first one I finished – REALITY CHECKED, now titled YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO THIN OR TOO DEAD – won a 2013 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished authors. That kicked off my mystery writing journey. While I was waiting for that to sell, I busied myself writing the first in my Cajun Country Mystery series, PLANTATION SHUDDEPlantationShuddersCoverArtRS. Sadly, my first book is still looking for home. But, hey -high class problems!

MB:        You’re a native New Yorker, and there’s plenty to write about in New York City. But your novels are set in south Louisiana––another place where there’s plenty to write about. What made you focus there?

Ellen:    I’m a huge Tennessee Williams fan, which motivated me to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. (Roll, Wave!)  I fell totally in love with the city and south Louisiana in general, which I’d explore with my parents when they came to visit. I adore the culture, the people, the food, the music… for me, it’s just about the most interesting place in the country. Yeah, I know, I’m a bit of an author carpetbagger. But I do think my college years and post-college explorations give me some cred. An unexpected and wonderful benefit of my series is that many readers have told me my series has inspired them to visit Cajun Country. I’ve even created itineraries for several. But full disclosure – the Washington/Opelousas area is about as far north as I’ve gotten in the state.

MB:        What can you tell us about the next novel from Ellen Byron?

Ellen:    MARDI GRAS MURDER, my fourth Cajun Country Mystery, launches October 10th. I’m so excited because a) I’m nuts about the cover art, and b) it involves activities specific to the region. The Mardi Gras celebration in the book centers around the Cajun tradition of Courir de Mardi Gras – Mardi Gras Run. If you want to know more about Courirs, feel free to pre-order my book, LOL. There’s also a gumbo contest and a beauty pageant.  But the main plot involves the fallout from an historic event.

Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of orphaned and unwanted children were transported from the New York Foundling Hospital to Cajun families in south Louisiana. People know about the orphan trains that went west, but few people know about the Louisiana train, so I’m looking forward to having them learn a little about it from my book.


I’ve also written a stand-alone mystery inspired by the real-life disappearance of my grandfather in 1933. He was a low-level Jewish mobster. He was from Brooklyn and disappeared in the Boston area, so of course I’m setting it in – New Orleans! It makes total sense in the book, which is set in both the past and present. There’s just something so timeless about NOLA.

MB:        Tell us about some of your mystery-writing influences.

Ellen:    Well, Agatha Christie for one. I think I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I’ve also read a lot about her personal and professional life in an attempt to get inside her head and see how she came up with such great plots.  I tend to read a lot of traditional mysteries. I’ve read everything by Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear. I’m a series reader. I’ll get hooked by one book and then read everything that author’s written. There are lots of other authors I enjoy – too many to mention. I try to read at least one book by every author I know – which is a whole lotta books! But I also read a ton about NOLA and Louisiana, as well as other non-fiction titles.

MB:        Tell us something about your favorite book? Song? Movie? Rock band?

Ellen:    My all-time favorite book is WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I’m obsessed with the Brontes. I actually own a very beat-up 1846 first American edition of THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL by “Acton Bell,” which was Anne Bronte’s pseudonym. My brother found it in a Connecticut dump. My favorite movie is Fellini’s AMARCORD, because my mother is Italian – born there – and it makes me think of the village where she was born. (Orsogna in Provincia di Chieti and the Abruzzo region.) Favorite band: KC & the Sunshine Band. I dare anyone to convince me that “Get Down Tonight” is NOT the greatest pop song ever written.

MB:        What books are you reading now?

Ellen:    FRAGILE GROUNDS: LOUISIANA’S ENDANGERED CEMETERIES, by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein

MB:        Any advice for aspiring writers of cozy mysteries?

Ellen:    Read outside the genre. I think it’s easy to fall into cozy tropes – I do it myself – but let yourself be inspired by traditional, suspense, and even non-fiction books. Challenge yourself to bend the rules at least a little and add new dimensions to your characters and story.

MB:        How do you go about constructing your novels?

Ellen:    It’s funny, I never thought I had a particular game plan when it comes writing my books. But I’ve realized I do. I develop a one-page synopsis that lays out the bones of the story. Then I keep brainstorming and adding notes to the synopsis, turning it into a notes document. If I think of dialogue for my characters, I throw that in, too. Eventually I create a beat sheet where I lay out any story beats I can think of in a line or two. I keep adding until I turn this into a “fluid outline,” where I lay out the story chapter by chapter, adding in the b-story and whatever runners I might have. I call it a fluid outline because at least some of the chapter breaks always change and I find new plot points to add into the structure as I write the first draft.

I make a copy of this document and title it the “cutting outline.” As I write the first draft, I’ll cut each chapter section from the cutting outline and paste it on top of the chapter. I’ll either use or dispose of the notes from this cut-and-paste section as I create an actual chapter. The cutting outline helps me a lot because I don’t have to search through a whole outline to see where I’m at in the draft. There are always some dangling pieces that I’m loath to cut, but as my first draft grows, my cutting outline shrinks, making it more manageable. And BTW, my “outline” is totally rough. Unfinished sentences, snippets of dialogue, story points with question marks. I come up with new stuff all the time when I write the drafts, but I’ve found that structurally, my finished book hews very close to the outline.CajunChristmasKillingCoverArt

BTW, one thing I always try to do is open whatever document I’m working on as soon as I sit down at the computer. So even if I’m doing social media, that doc is there calling to me, instilling guilt if I spend too much time procrastinating!

MB:        If you could live anywhere on earth, and cost would not be a factor, where would you live, and why?

Ellen:    I’d split my time between lovely, comfortable homes in New Orleans, New York, Connecticut, and Los Angeles.

MB:        What are your hobbies?

Ellen:    I’m a huge reader. But I’m also craftsy. I do a lot of one thing until I get sick of it. I.e., I did a ton of needlepoint, then took a break. I’ll probably get back into it soon, though. I’ve made jewelry for contest giveaways, and turned my book covers into decoupaged Christmas ornaments. I think that’s why I like swag so much – it’s kind of craftsy.

But I find lately that I’m on my computer so much it cuts into my hobby time. I have this guilt thing where I feel bad if I’m not working, whether it’s doing social media, putting together a newsletter, or just plain writing. I need to change that!

You can visit Ellen at http://www.ellenbyron.com. Her latest Cajun Country mystery, A Cajun Christmas Killing (Crooked Lane Books, September 2017), is available wherever books are sold. And Ellen, herself, will be appearing at the Left Coast Crime Convention (the very fun mystery readers and writers gathering) in Reno, NV, beginning on March 22, 2018.

Ellen was interviewed for MurderBooks by Roger Johns.

Beauty Is…

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; an old proverb but one that seems to stand the test of time. Novel writing is a creative endeavor. We authors pour our hearts and souls onto the pages of our books. But what you see, or in this case read, is not always what it seems.

One of the things I have always loved about art, regardless of form, is its capacity to speak on a multitude of different levels. British musician, and founding member of the band Genesis, Phil Collins is frequently asked the meaning behind his songs. He never answers the question, citing his fear of ruining the experience for the fans. His reasoning is that people who have grown to love the songs have most likely already attached their own meaning to his words and music.

Another great example is Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, which remains one of my favorite paintings by Andrew. But it was only after years of believing that the portrait was of nothing more than a beautiful young girl lounging in a grassy field while looking back longingly at her cottage that I discovered the truth. Christina, whose full name was Anna Christina Olson, suffered from an incurable neurological disorder known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Her debilitating and progressive loss of muscle function required her to crawl through the field to return home. I was both shocked and intrigued by the actual meaning behind the painting.

My point in writing this blog is to point out that many fiction authors, including my fellow Murder Books bloggers, draw from a deep well of personal and professional experience in order to create what we hope will be books that make a lasting impression. Page turners that entertain, captivate, and speak on some level to the readers. What each reader actually interprets from our novels may not be what we, the authors, fully intended, as it has more to do with each reader’s experiences than our own. The reader of any book will reference their own memories and their own lives when visualizing the story.

My Detective Byron Mysteries address many of the same important and sensitive issues with which society must contend. Creating realistically flawed characters, throwing them into plausible and exciting scenarios, then watching them overcome those issues is at the heart of each Byron novel. Speaking for my Murder Books brethren, if our own experiences speak to you on a personal level then our novels truly have become art, and something we can share.

Until next time!

Trial and Error


As I’ve mentioned in this blog previously, I am a criminal magistrate for Tarrant County, Texas. In my role, I spend a fair amount of time appearing in front of recently arrested individuals. I set bail and inform them of their rights. I encounter a great number of interesting people. Last week I met a woman who listed her occupation as life and health coach. Her charges included possession of alprazolam, methamphetamine and driving while intoxicated. Perhaps, she should list her occupation as Irony Coach.

We’ve all seen courtrooms on television or read about them in books—oak-paneled, high judicial bench, and lots of flags. The court where I work has none of these. I typically video-conference into a room in the basement of the jail. It looks more like a tornado shelter than a Law and Order set. Drop a reader or viewer into my workspace and time would be taken up with orientation. A quick sense of place is provided by the tropes.

My American Heritage dictionary defines a trope as a figure of speech—a convention. The trope is a concept which the reader or viewer will recognize and understand instantly. In an earlier blog, I displayed this artist’s skeStewarttch of the Martha Stewart trial. Although only a snippet of the room is shown, the drawing’s location is immediately obvious.

The tropes in American trial stories are, therefore, familiar. An opening shot of a courthouse, wide steps, columns and double doors—as if we all did business at the Lincoln Memorial. The courthouse from the outside, often resembles a church, imposing but welcoming of citizens.

Inside the building, the scenes routinely include more chaos. In movies, the camera pulls in tight on people’s faces. There is noise and activity. Human intervention and disorder are an integral part of the system. The courtroom itself, has another set of double doors, parallel with the outside. Within, order is restored. Quiet prevails, but with public attendees. Questions and answers rarely overlap. When they do, it is the signal for drama. The scene synthesizes the two earlier shots from outside and inside. Achieving justice requires human action.[i]

The tropes of the courtroom help the audience to more easily immerse themselves in the story they read or watch. We have expectations. We can see a courtroom and know whether the story is set in the United States or England. (Is the defendant standing in the dock? Do the judges and counsel wear wigs?) The phenomenon is not limited to Americans. Anecdotally, Spaniards and Swedes know more about the American criminal justice than their own legal systems because of their familiarity with the images.[ii] They recognize the essential elements of our courtroom dramas.

Some argue that dissatisfaction within the legal profession is due to the reality not measuring up to the tropes; practitioner’s ennui brought about by the sense that the profession was supposed to be bigger and grander than the workaday world most of us inhabit. I don’t know. Brian and Bruce might weigh in on how the television world distorts the real world of police work (more paperwork, less gunfire). I hope that my comrades with law degrees are thicker skinned than this opinion would suggest. We, lawyers, might also worry about not measuring up to the standards set by the television attorneys. Television creates the world where defense attorneys are constantly pulling rabbits out of hats. In truth, most defendants get convicted.

My worries about the portrayal of my profession deal less with professional disenchantment and more about furthering a “two teams” culture. (It also lets me scatter big words into my blog.)

Manichaeism, a third century dualistic religion, taught a constant struggle between two opposing forces: a good world of light, and an evil world of darkness. Perhaps the prophet Mani was an early devotee of courtroom dramas.

My concern with the court trope is that it furthers the notion of ready divisions. Trials get resolved—guilty/not guilty—a winner and a loser are declared. The world becomes split into good and evil. Trials are about “us” versus “them”. For those few cases which go to trial, this image is fine. But, to the extent it seeps into society at large, furthering what some have called American Manichaeism[iii], then our trope becomes problematic. Most of the world does not clearly divide into our team/their team. Life is not a switch, it’s a dial.

Occasionally, I meet a defendant who I feel is truly bad. When that happens, I am grateful for the guards and concrete in my tornado shelter. Most of the time, however, my encounters are more wonderfully complex. The incarcerated coach likely gave sound advice to clients to enhance their physical and emotional well-being. And then, she sought solace in mood-altering chemicals which damaged her body. She allegedly made bad and dangerous choices to drive under the influence. She lives, I assume, like most us, neither all black nor all white, but rather in a multifaceted world of gray. That is what makes her complex and interesting—a better character.

Mark Thielman

[i] Jessica Silbey, American Trial Films and the Popular Culture of Law, Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Criminology and Criminal Justice.

[ii] (Carol J. Clover, Law and the Order of Popular Culture, Law in the Domains of Popular Culture, 1999)

[iii] David Ray Papke, Conventional Wisdom: The Courtroom Trial in American Popular Culture, Marquette Law Review, Vol. 32, Spring 1999.

Acts of Violence


It was a week dominated by violence.

The February 14 school shooting in Florida was a tragic, horrific event.  And with it came the frustration that always accompanies these incidents:  what can we do to stop these things from happening?  Then, a few days later, a thousand miles away, another tragedy occurred.  A woman was killed in her home in a domestic dispute.  This death didn’t make the national news, and out of respect for her and her family’s privacy, I won’t go into detail about this crime.  But suffice it to say that due to the circumstances of her passing, I was in a position to know a lot of the details about her untimely demise.  The same question occurred to me:  what more could have been done to have prevented this from happening?

Both events occurred when a man with a troubled past chose to commit a violent act.  Both killers had displayed “red flags” in the immediate past, and both had come to the attention of local law enforcement multiple times in connection to their threats of violence.  In both circumstances, there was a chance for some sort of preventative action to have been taken, but those opportunities were missed or otherwise not taken advantage of.  One crime involved a gun, the other a knife and a man’s bare hands, but the end result to their victims were equally permanent.

Regular visitors here know that I work in the field of investigations and security consulting.  A large part of what I do is assessing security risks for offices and residences around the world, and recommending strategies to mitigate those risks.  Any violent crime, especially a mass shooting like in Florida, is often considered the worst-case scenario among my peers; the ultimate expression of what we try to prevent.

But there’s the rub.  A dirty little secret in our industry is that no measure is fool proof.  If you were ask me what technology or practice could guarantee such a violent act would never happen, I would have to tell you that no such measure exists.  There are best practices to be sure, and business and organizations have a legal and moral duty of care to take reasonable steps to provide a safe and secure environment.  But it is my grim belief that nothing can absolutely prevent a dedicated person intent on committing violence.

So what are we to do?  Throw up our hands and resign ourselves to this fate?  When children are being murdered, we cannot allow that to be an option.  I am studiously avoiding the political aspects of this subject.  I understand and appreciate the passionate feelings that people from all political stripes bring to the table.  But as a person who has worked in this arena for decades and who has twice been declared by the court an expert, I will tell you there are no easy answers.  Most of the recommendations I make in the course of my work are highly customized to the specific site, and in that approach, no blanket solution would be a fit for all circumstances.

Instead of commenting on specific strategies that have been suggested in the public arena, I thought instead I would contribute to the debate by sharing the thought process security professionals use when considering risk mitigation measures. I claim no authorship of these, as they are general principles known throughout the industry, and as such a source is difficult to cite.  But each of these principles should be a part of any security program designed to prevent or mitigate this type of violence:

  • DETER – Through design or highly visible security measures, make the site an unattractive target to the potential bad actor.  (Effective fences, rigorous access control, uniformed patrols around the perimeter, etc.)
  • DETECT – Through human or technological means, create the ability to monitor the site and provide for prompt detection of dangerous activity or other risk conditions.  (Alarms, gunshot detection, roving patrols, etc.)
  • DELAY – Once a security breach has occurred, create obstacles to slow the bad actor’s progress.  (Building design, central lockdown technology, secure, lockable doors, etc.)
  • DEFEND – Strengthen internal spaces and/or assets to better withstand attack.  (Bullet resistant safe rooms, fortified barriers, body armor, etc)
  • DESTROY – Identify and eliminate the threat

When you consider these principles, you can compare them to some of the suggestions being made in the public debate, and evaluate how they may or may not contribute to an effective reduction in risk.  As I’ve said, there is not an easy solution, nor is a “one size fits all” approach advisable.  But as a citizen, a security professional, but most of all as a father, I refuse to accept that there’s nothing we can do.  I urge our leaders to take meaningful action that will actually help prevent or at least reduce the impact of these tragedies.  Despite the fiery rhetoric from all corners, I don’t believe the person with a different opinion from mine wants innocents to be killed.  I think we can all agree that we want to do something to curtail this violence.

So let’s do something!

–Ben Keller

Interview with Eric Beetner: L.A.-Based Author of Fast-Paced, Highly-Atmospheric Crime Fiction

EricBeetnerHeadShotWe are pleased to welcome Eric Beetner to the blog, this week. Eric is an incredibly busy, incredibly creative man. He is the very prolific author of some of the best noir novels out there, he’s a television editor, he runs the Noir at the Bar reading series for crime fiction writers in L.A. (which is where I met him), and he edits major award-nominated crime fiction anthologies  . . . among other things. His writing has the perceptiveness and impact of John D. MacDonald’s books, along with a modern sensibility that keeps things fresh.

MB:        You’ve got two very fast-moving, action-packed series to your credit – the Lars and Shaine books, and the McGraw Crime novels. I suppose, in polite company, one could say that these series are about people who work in pest control, and folks who operate a pickup-and-delivery service, respectively. But I may be understating things just a touch. Give us the real story, and tell us about where the inspiration for these series came from.

ERIC:      Lars is a hit man at the end of his career and we find him out in the southwest desert on a job and he is realizing he doesn’t have the taste for it anymore. But in order to get out of the life he has to save someone else with him. Mayhem ensues. I was reluctant to write a hitman story, but I liked the idea of this guy who is trying to make a change after so many years of bad decisions. I saw it as a challenge to humanize him.

The McGraws are a family of criminal drivers who do anything that needs doing behind the wheel. It’s a multi-generational story that involves four generations of this family in some trying situations. I like the guys on the fringes, not the kingpins. I’ll never write the world’s greatest assassin or the best safe cracker. They aren’t as interesting to me as the worker bees of the criminal life. People with flaws, with real world problems that would be the same whether they wield a gun or a plumber’s wrench.

CoverArtLarsAndShaineBooksIn the end, I want to write characters who are real enough to be relatable and yet live this life on the wrong side of the law which gives them an element of the unreal.

MB:        In order to make a series work, I think the author has to give readers some characters to like and root for. In both the Lars and Shaine books and in the McGraw books, your main characters have staked out lives for themselves on the wrong side of the law. How do you do that magic trick of creating a rooting interest in characters who are, in some sense, the bad guys?

ERIC:      You’re absolutely right, I think empathy is the key to making crime novels work. If you write about cops or lawyers you’re automatically on the right side of the law so that’s always there like a little engine working in your favor. When you write about criminals, you have to dig down to their humanity and give the reader something to latch on to that makes them relatable even though they’re engaged in activities that one would hope the reader is not.

Criminal characters, for me, can stay grounded by adhering to the basic tenants of right and wrong, even if it is from a skewed perspective. In the case of Lars, he’s a hit man. But he functions with utmost professionalism. He takes pride in his work. Those are empathetic traits. And when it comes to his work, he does have lines he won’t cross. So even if he is crossing some lines most of us wouldn’t, when we see him make a moral stand, we can get behind him and root for him to succeed, and maybe even change his ways which is another big theme in that trilogy.

For the McGraw family in Rumrunners and Leadfoot, they have a pride in what they do as deep rooted and profound as any family who has worked for generations in an oil field or a coal mine, or even as a cop. They know what they do – driving cars for criminal organizations – and they do it the best they can. Pride in their work. And again, they have to make moral decisions that the reader can go along with.

It can be a balancing act, but I’ve gotten praise for that side of my writing as much as anything, which feels really great because I take a lot of time crafting characters you can go along on this ride with while they take you to the far side of the law.

MB:        Tell us a bit about how you came to novel-writing, and what you were doing when you decided to pursue writing? What made you train your focus on crime fiction?

ERIC:      I was a screenwriter for a number of years. I wrote some crime stuff, but I was very eclectic. Hollywood does not like eclectic. They like to know what they’re getting and they want to keep you in that box. I ended up selling stuff but nothing ever got made, so I backed off.CoverArtRumrunnersI wrote my first novel without telling anyone I was doing it and when I finished I had proven my point to myself and knew I could pull it off. That novel is stuffed away in a drawer and I set to work on the next and the next and the next.

I chose to stay in one lane this time and not try to write all over the map. Book readers want that too, to know what they’re gonna get. If Nicholas Sparks fans suddenly got a hardboiled crime novel from him, they’d be disappointed. I understood that since I am primarily a crime reader. Don’t know why, but they’re the stories that most interest me.

So when I decided to try to be a part of that world, I knew exactly what was expected of me and I think it’s helped focus my writing.

MB:        What do you think accounts for the mystery reading public’s enduring fascination with noir fiction?

ERIC:      The best noir fiction puts the reader in the what-would-I-do position. I think people like to get a glimpse of someone’s life that gets torn down to the studs and we can vicariously feel better about our own lives. It’s also satisfying to see someone get his due when he succumbs to greed or lust or allows himself to get dragged down into the criminal world.

My wife loves stories of average people who have their lives destroyed by outsiders or chance occurrences. A lot of people like that for some reason. Human nature? We all have a bit of a sadistic streak in us, deep down.

Sometimes I think all the stories in the back of my mind are what keeps me from a life of crime. As writers we sometimes come up with crimes that make us think, “I could really get away with this.” Then I think back over some of the books I’ve read where a character thought exactly that and how seldom it works out for them and I come to my senses.

MB:        In your Blogger profile, it says you’re a former musician. What kind of music? What instrument(s) did you play? Do you sing?

ERIC:      I’ve been in several bands starting in high school with a hardcore punk outfit, to an acoustic duet in college and then my more serious bands after college which played what you’d call ‘Alternative’ in the 1990s and then the bands I had the most creative satisfaction with were sort of post-punk, a little weird, very loud and prone to making wild stylistic left turns within a single song. People didn’t care for it much, although the people who did really appreciated what  we were doing.

I play guitar and while I was lead vocalist in my last two bands that were signed with indie labels, I wouldn’t always call what I did singing. I shouted a lot. Now and then I’d hit a nice melody and I recorded a bunch of slower, acoustic songs after that last loud band broke up, but they just weren’t as fun to get out and play. I like making a big, unruly noise much better.

MB:        What sort of books do you read for pleasure? And, who are some of your favorite crime fiction authors?  Who are some of your favorites outside the crime fiction genre?

ERIC:      I read mostly crime fiction, leaning toward the hardboiled and thrillers. I’m not a big detective guy, or police procedural. I like dark stories that propel forward. I like pitch black noir and lightning fast plots. Some of my favorites are Joe Lansdale, Max Allan Collins, Charles Williams, William P. McGivern, Lionel White, Steve Brewer, Barry Gifford, Allan Guthrie, Duane Swierczynski, Christa Faust, Richard Lange, Jason Starr, Dietrich Kalteis, Jake Hinkson.

Outside the genre I like a good nonfiction book. I like entertainment biographies like Martin Short’s book and Tina Fey’s. Essays like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris.

MB:        Los Angeles is a very atmospheric place and it’s the setting for a great deal of noir fiction, which is a bit ironic because it’s so relentlessly sunny there. What advice would you give to writers just starting out about how to bring their settings to life?

ERIC:      I think a few well -placed details go a long, long way. I think most readers aren’t interested in getting bogged down by a lot of street by street descriptions or references so specific that only locals would know them. Often the things that make a place unique are small quirks that you can only notice by being there.

Beyond that, I fully endorse making things up. If you need something for a story, then put it in. There are limits, like you can’t have the Empire State building in Kansas, but if you need to bend the reality of a place a tiny bit to serve your story, I think the risk of those one or two snippy emails are worth it for the majority of readers who won’t notice it at all.

A friend of mine is a songwriter and he summed up L.A. once in a song he wrote as he was moving away from here.

“I’m allergic to Los Angeles, it’s stretching me thin. They vaporize desperation and we’re breathing it in.”

In one couplet he kind of gives you the whole vibe of his experience. I look to moments like that for scene setting. Get in and out quick and be sharp.

MB:        What’s coming next from the pen of Eric Beetner?

ERIC:      February of next year will see the completion of my Lars and Shaine trilogy with the final book, The Devil At Your Door. It’s been a very long and crooked road to get these books out. This is the third publisher for this series, the two others closed up shop and left them orphans. As sad as I am to see these characters go, I’m glad to have the whole series out there after a lot of bumps in the road.

Later next year will also see the third book I cowrote with Frank Zafiro in our List trilogy called The Getaway List. The final series in the Lawyer western novellas that I had the pleasure to write will be out and that’s my third in that series which has been written by a few others as well.

My second volume of the Unloaded anthology which I created and edited will be out too. Those are crime stories all written without any guns in them and all proceeds go to an anti-gun violence non-profit. Vol. 1 was nominated for an Anthony Award last year.CoverArtLeadfoot

I have two novels out on submission right now, a third in the can waiting its turn in line and I’m writing episodes for a TV show I’m pitching.

And there are several stories in anthologies that will be out next year. I’ve honestly lost track of all of them. I’m sure I’m behind in writing a few of them.

MB:      Eric, many thanks for taking the time to join us on Murder books. We’ll look forward to your new novels.

Range Day by Brian Thiem

I entered the lobby of the Bluffton Police Department at 8:15 sharp Saturday morning. The room buzzed with chatter from a crowd of law enforcement officers retired from agencies from around the country. Some were in their early 50s, others well into their 70s. Some still had the broad shoulders of former SWAT cops. Others could be mistaken for former schoolteachers or accountants and probably ended their careers as administrators or managers. But once I saw their eyes, I could tell the men and women in the room had been there—done that. sihlouette target

We passed through two locked doors and into the restricted area of the police station. There we had our photos taken for our new HR 218 cards. H.R. 218 (the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004) allows active and retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed firearms in all states, but it requires retired officers to qualify annually to the same standards as active police officers.

The 50 former cops filed into a classroom and spent the remainder of the morning receiving refresher training in the laws related to concealed carry and the use of deadly force, evolving threats, and range safety.

That afternoon, we regrouped at the range. I was one of the range safety officers and had qualified the previous week, so today it was my responsibility to ensure the shooters left the range with the same number of holes they arrived with—i.e. that no one accidentally shot themselves or someone else.

Throughout my career, I had spent many hundreds of hours on gun ranges. They’re dangerous places even for experienced police officers. One mistake can turn deadly. And shooting ranges are even more dangerous when many years had passed since most of the shooters regularly trained.

A Bluffton PD lieutenant ran the range and had the first line of shooters ready their weapons. Shooters slid loaded magazines into their pistols and released the slides, stripping off the top round and feeding it into their guns’ chambers.

My fellow range safety officers assisted the shooters as necessary and looked out for safety violations: no muzzles pointed anywhere but downrange, no fingers on the trigger until ready to fire, no loaded guns behind the firing line. Two of the old-timers shot Glock-23-40S-W_main-1revolvers, a few shot small pocket pistols, such as Ruger .380s, but most shot compact .40 caliber or 9mm handguns such as Glocks, more concealable versions of the duty weapons many carried on the streets of their respective jurisdictions.

The course of fire began with shooters drawing from their holsters and firing quick shots at three yards. Distance increased and shooters had to fire one-handed with both their right and left hands. More shots from the holster and some from the ready position, guns lowered while the shooter scans for a threat. Distance increased, and shooters had to fire five rounds, change magazines, and fire five more. The 50-round course concluded with five shots at the target 15 yards away.

Once those shooters finished, the safety officers ensured their handguns were empty and safe, scored their targets, and brought out the next line of shooters. To pass, 40 hits needed to be within the 8, 9, or 10 ring of the silhouette target, which represented the incapacitation zone of an aggressor’s upper torso. Some shooters barely passed, while most scored around 45 hits.

When I qualified earlier, I had two misses, both in the seven ring, and undoubtedly two of my left-handed shots. Although I understand the need to be able to shoot with my left hand, I know it’s unlikely my right hand will become disabled during a gunfight, so I didn’t get too worried about missing the x-ring.

The days of me being able to drill 50 out of 50 rounds into an area the size of my fist are gone. Shooting accurately gets more difficult every year. My hands aren’t as steady as they once were, and my eyes can’t change focus from the target to my front sight as quickly. Instead of a sharp sight picture, my sights are blurrier than when I first began carrying a gun for a living more than 40 years ago. But I’m a lot smarter than I was in those days. I know my limitations, and know when not to get involved.

As I drove home Saturday afternoon, I was filled with enormous respect for those retired law enforcement officers who showed up to qualify. Although they live in an extremely safe community in our corner of South Carolina, they know the potential exists for violent criminals to try to harm innocent people anytime and anywhere. I’m glad to know a group of armed retired cops with their years of training and experience and willing to step forth if necessary are in my midst.

Guest Author Interview: Micki Browning

We at Murder Books are delighted share our guest author interview with Micki Browning. A graduate of the FBI National Academy, she worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades, retiring as a division commander. Now a full-time writer, Micki won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for her debut mystery, ADRIFT.

Micki also writes short stories and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks. She resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.”

When did you decide to become a full-time writer?

If you can believe my mother, it was around age five, but as I recall, I was also toying with becoming a racecar driver, pioneer, girl detective, barrel racer, and princess. I could make the case I became a full-time writer the moment I was sworn in as a police officer—sure, they lure you into the job with the fun stuff, but practically everything has to be documented. Fiction writing had to wait until I retired from law enforcement.

Has any particular author influenced you?

One author? No. I learn something from every book I read. When I was younger, I read high fantasy—Tolkien, Zimmer-Bradley, mythology—which was great for world-building. Dennis Lehane and Daniel Woodrell proved to me that the darkest subjects could be described lyrically. Christopher Moore is my go-to for dark humor. Lisa Gardner, Meg Gardiner, Tess Gerritsen, and Sue Grafton all left their marks on my writing.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading? What are you currently reading?

I don’t stick to a specific genre. I recently read The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, which won the Newberry Medal for American literature for children. I’m fond of biographies and historical fiction—especially Celtic. Of course, I read mysteries and police procedurals. The Dry by Jane Harper is an amazing debut. I just finished Alafair Burke’s The Ex. Next up is Let Me Die in his Footsteps by Lori Roy.

Do you have a writing routine that you stick to?

I sometimes wish I did, but other than pouring a cup of tea, walking into my home office every morning, and sitting down, the answer is no. Writers nowadays wear many hats, and my schedule varies. With my recent book launch behind me, it’s great to focus on my current story again.

How much of you resides inside your protagonist Mer Cavallo?

I think authors inhabit every character they create. That said, Mer is not my alter-ego. We do, however, share a love of diving, an appreciation of the ocean, and a reluctance to open champagne bottles.

I really enjoyed reading your debut novel, Adrift. I was specifically intrigued by the dive sequences at the Spiegel Grove. Were those scenes based on your real life diving experiences?

Yes. The USS Spiegel Grove is my favorite wreck dive. She’s a massive dock-landing ship that was purpose-sunk as an artificial reef off the coast of Key Largo in 135 feet of water. Adrift was inspired by a medical emergency that occurred at depth on the wreck. The diver recovered, but the incident got my what-if gears grinding.

You were a cop for more than two decades, retiring at the rank of captain. Do you find your law enforcement background assists you in constructing believable mystery stories?

Absolutely. An investigation unfolds just like a mystery and the training I received certainly lends authenticity to my stories. But stories are about people, and as a police officer I interacted with all levels of society. The insight I gained regarding criminal behavior has been particularly invaluable as a writer. After all, a mystery doesn’t start until a crime has been committed.

Tell our readers about your new mystery Beached.

Mer’s life unravels after she finds a plastic-wrapped bundle floating on the waves off Key Largo. Curious, she pulls it aboard her dive boat and lands in the middle of a storm of intrigue involving an obscure legend, an 18th century shipwreck, and a modern pirate who’ll resort to murder to claim the booty first. Of course, shenanigans ensue.

What is next for Micki Browning? Do you plan to continue the Mer Cavallo series?

I do. The third book in the series, Chum, is on the drawing board. But first…

Have you given any thought to writing a procedural?

I’m working on a police procedural right now that is set in a small town in the dead of winter. It’s my first foray into multiple points of view and I’m really excited about how the story is unfolding.

What advice would you give to a writer hoping to be published?

First, don’t give up. Nothing happens overnight in publishing. Second, don’t go it alone. The writing community is incredibly generous, and it’s nice to know you aren’t the first writer to receive a rejection letter. Finally, if you are writing mysteries, plot from the point of view of the antagonist, but write from the perspective of the protagonist.

Is there something you’d like to share about yourself that most readers wouldn’t know?

My grandmother swore I was destined to be a nun. Instead, I became a cop. In many ways it’s the same job, but with a much better uniform.

If you could have a drink with three people living, dead, or even fictional, who would you choose?

Wow, this is the toughest question yet! I’m going to cheat and expand my answer to encompass each category and chose four people. First, Mrs. Simon, my high school English teacher. I probably drove her to drink, so it seems only fair I should buy her one. Queen Elizabeth I, because she had an entire “Age” named after her. Finally, the ever-witty Nick and Nora Charles—those two know how to party.

You can learn more about Micki Browning and her books at the following links:

Adrift ~ A Mer Cavallo Mystery

Beached ~ January 2018