By Brian Thiem: In my current WIP (that’s Work in Progress for my non-writer friends—the book I’m currently working on), one of my main characters had looked forward to “seeing the elephant,” but once she does, the experience profoundly changes her.
The phrase “seen the elephant” has been around for centuries. It originally meant to experience the world at a significant personal cost. Years ago, people had to travel to Africa to see an elephant, an experience filled with excitement and danger.
More recently, the military coined the phrase to describe the experience of combat, and some police departments use the phrase to define an officer’s experience in a life and death battle.
There are various degrees of seeing the elephant. Some soldiers, especially those who served in Vietnam, only consider soldiers who really saw the elephant as those engaged in close-range firefights, where they could see the faces of the enemy as they traded volleys of bullets. Others qualify anyone who has faced death at the hands of an enemy and prevailed as having seen the elephant.
When I deployed for the Iraq War, I saw how my fellow soldiers experienced their first sighting of the elephant when we were still in Kuwait and the sirens sounded as Scud missiles headed our way. I saw the faces of soldiers preparing to face the elephant when riding in a C-130 amid anti-aircraft fire on a night landing in Baghdad, and when leaving the wire in a HUMVEE to travel along the road to the Green Zone, where roadside bombs, snipers, and suicide bombers killed or wounded soldiers daily.
Some young soldiers and police officers secretly desire to see the elephant. They want to test their courage and skill by facing an opponent determined to kill them. They want to know if they’ll freeze or if they have what it takes to fight and win. However, few cops or soldiers who have faced the elephant in that manner ever want to again. They often end up with more regrets than triumphs.
In my WIP, Simone had spent years in the Army and law enforcement yet had never truly faced the elephant. When she does, she is like an African hunter who had tracked a rogue bull elephant that rampaged villages and killed dozens of people. When the elephant charges her, she has a split second to summon every bit of courage and skill she possesses. Or die.
Those soldiers and police officers who have never seen the elephant might think that once they face the elephant and prevail, it will be easier the next time. But that is far from reality. Seeing the elephant changes you. Some are hardened by the experience, others suffer enormous regret at having taken a human life, some numb their emotions with alcohol or drugs, and others experience various degrees of PTSD or debilitating anxiety. And some take their own lives, as demonstrated by the higher rates of suicide among police and combat veterans.
Although my WIP is about a murder investigation and stopping bad guys from killing again, it also explores the lives of several characters, one of whom had looked forward to seeing the elephant, and how after she sees and conquers it, her life and the lives of those around her are forever changed.
As an officer, I’ve given countless presentations on personal safety. One maxim I unfailing mention: It’s not enough to run from danger, one must run toward safety. This is not intuitive. When a person’s fight or flight impulse is triggered, higher reasoning goes out the window — and that can make a bad situation worse.
Mention personal safety, and most people think small. Officers discuss how to make oneself less vulnerable, things to think about during a confrontation, and ways to keep your home safe from intrusion. But the bigger the emergency, the more likely it is you are going to be on your own — at least initially. Weather, fire, or floods may isolate you and your family for days.
Large weather events are dynamic. Experts rely on models to help identify patterns and hazards, but models are based on statistical probabilities— and there is always a margin of error. Having worked in emergency operations centers, I can tell you that sometimes it’s obvious when an evacuation is needed. Other times? Well, not so much.
Decisions are based on the best information available at the time. What is necessary one moment can change the next, but emergency service providers will always err on the side of safety. No one wants to leave their home. In fact, it’s human nature to devise reasons not to leave. A near miss is still a miss, and the more frequently we dodge danger, the more likely we are to think we can do it again.
That mentality will get you hurt.
Sometimes sheltering in place is the right decision. Sometimes it’s a necessity. Not everyone has the ability to evacuate, whether due to economics, disability, or other circumstances. Some preplanning, however, can go a long way to make a bad situation better. Every government website has preparedness guidelines and tips. Most agencies have resources to help those with special needs.
As a new cop, when my shift slowed down, I knew to expect my training officer to pepper me with what-if questions. He’d create emergency scenarios and quiz me about how I’d respond. The exercise broadened my thinking. It also lowered my stress level when I confronted a situation similar to what I’d already considered.
I still play the what if game. I’m a fan of risk management—if it’s predictable, it’s usually preventable. But don’t confuse prepared with paranoid. I’ve worked and weathered plenty of critical incidents and I know my risk profile. Everyone has their own comfort level.
Hurricane Dorian went from a Category 1 to a Cat 4 storm in a blink. Winds traveling in excess of 145 mph wreak havoc and my county ordered mandatory evacuations of its high-risk zones. Worse? The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore began broadcasting from our hometown. No offense to Mr. Cantore, but his presence falls somewhat south of comforting — a fact playfully captured in one of the program’s commercials. It was time to leave.
From the time it was first identified, the storm that grew into Dorian defied expectations. Dorian meandered along an unanticipated path, strengthened with unexpected ferocity into a Cat 5 with 180 mph winds, stalled for an unimaginable length of time over the Bahamas, and left heartbreaking devastation in its wake. Sadly, there will be more hurricanes, another earthquake, wildfire, or flood. Are you prepared? Where will you go? What will you take? Do you know where those items are? If you stay in your home and conditions worsen, which room is the safest? How can you make it more secure? Do you have first aid supplies, food, water, and other necessities? Thinking about these issues before an emergency will help you remain level-headed during the event.
It bears repeating. It’s not enough to flee danger. You must head toward safety. In my case, Dorian remained far enough off the coast of Florida that my husband and I could have weathered the storm had we chosen to stay.
In three weeks time I will have been retired from law enforcement for seven years. Seven! Even as I look at the calendar I am unsure how time passed so quickly. But a quick trip into Portland and the sight of another twelve-year-old behind the wheel of a black and white confirms the awful truth. I am officially a dinosaur.
If you’ve followed some of my prior blog posts you already know how much I struggled after leaving my police life behind. The first few weeks were grand. It felt like a vacation. The phone wasn’t ringing constantly, no frantic emails to return, no emergency trips into Portland in the dead of night. It was truly great. But then, after those first few weeks had passed, I noticed something. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no emails. Nobody needed me. It was as if I’d become obsolete overnight. Worse was the realization that I had lost that decades long connection to my police family. It might be hard for some of you reading this to imagine the feeling of no longer belonging, especially if you’re still approaching retirement from your current occupation. But trust me, it’s an unnerving experience.
I’ve known for some time that my fellow mystery/thriller writers are a welcoming and supportive group of folks. That awareness began in New England, quickly spreading to faraway places like Ireland and Australia. Fellow crime scribes abound. But it wasn’t until a week ago that I realized exactly where I belong.
I was in Tennessee attending my first Killer Nashville mystery writers’ conference. If you are a mystery writer, or hoping to be, this is a can’t miss conference. Similar in size to the New England Crime Bake, Killer Nashville draws writers from far and wide, each of whom are more than willing to share their knowledge, both of writing and the business of writing. I took part in several panels and book signings, but more importantly I got to spend time with old friends and made some new.
On Saturday night the awards banquet was held. A classy event with a fabulous band, great food, some heartfelt speeches, and the presentation of Killer Nashville’s annual awards. As the evening unfolded I had occasion to really observe the people seated at my table, former journalists, musicians, and a cop. While our our prior occupations ran the gamut, each of us shares a love of storytelling and a passion for the written word. Amid the laughter, gaiety, and playful irreverence was the unwavering support and appreciation displayed for their fellow writers. As I watched them interact with one another it occurred to me that these were exactly the same people I had surrounded myself with when I still wore a badge. People from all walks of life, with widely varying backgrounds and experiences, united by a remarkable passion for their chosen career. I realized, with certainty, that I had once again found my tribe.
I had intended to take a break from discussing a historical trial this month. But then, I discovered that Aaron Burr went on trial in August 1807. I felt compelled to release my inner Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Aaron Burr had served as an officer in the Continental Army and New York’s attorney general. In the election of 1800, he tied Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes for the Presidency. The House of Representatives chose Thomas Jefferson as the third president, electing Burr as vice-president.
Broadway Spoiler Alert—He later killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Burr never went to trial for shooting Hamilton. Rather, he was tried for empire building in the American West.
The participants in that case represented some of the major players in the founding of America. The trial judge was John Marshall, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court and the most important justice in Supreme Court history.
Burr was defended by two delegates to the Constitutional Convention—Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin. The prosecution’s team included Charles Lee, a former attorney general and William Wirt, a future presidential candidate.
Behind the scenes, Thomas Jefferson pushed for the prosecution and helped craft the government’s theory of the case.
In March 1805, Burr resigned as vice president near the end of Jefferson’s first term. He had earlier lost the race for the governorship of New York. Following his political setbacks, Burr turned his attention to the vast expanse of western lands. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase. Many people living on the frontier considered the lands of Nueva España rightfully part of the United States as well.
In 1806, Burr acquired a large tract of territory from the Spanish. He envisioned a settlement and possibly an empire and began recruiting armed men. In his cause, he enlisted an old friend, General James Wilkinson, then Governor of America’s new Louisiana territory. Allegedly, Burr worked to secure support for an independent dynasty stretching from New Orleans across Texas. He traveled about the American republic, enlisting support and exchanging ciphered messages with Wilkinson. At a dinner meeting on Blennerhassett’s island, a large island in the Ohio River, Burr and Herman Blennerhassett planned to assemble and train men there.
In July 1806, Burr’s secretary delivered a ciphered letter to Wilkinson announcing that the operation had commenced. The secretary allegedly told Wilkinson that Burr’s troops numbered in the thousands. Wilkinson, however, abandoned the dream of a western empire. He turned on Burr and forwarded to Thomas Jefferson a deciphered copy of the letter.
Jefferson responded by signing a proclamation urging the local authorities to “Search out and bring to…punishment all persons engaged…in such enterprise.”
Burr surrendered near Natchez, Mississippi. A grand jury was empaneled and after listening to evidence declared Burr “not guilty of any crime or misdemeanor against the United States.” He was released and disappeared into the wilderness.
Under the direction of the president, government agents gathered additional information. A new arrest warrant was issued. The authorities arrested Burr in Alabama and transported him to Richmond, Virginia. John Marshall, sitting in Richmond, heard the preliminary evidence and ruled that Burr could be tried on misdemeanor counts of violating the Neutrality Act with Spain, but not on treason.
Unsatisfied, Thomas Jefferson printed circulars asking the western lands to produce any good citizen to come forward with information. He offered blanket pardons and sent out a marshal to gather testimony.
Burr’s pre-trial resumed in May. The prosecution pushed for the treason charges and offered new evidence. The defense urged a subpoena for presidential correspondence between Jefferson and Wilkinson regarding the matter. Marshall authorized the subpoena, Jefferson never complied. Jefferson invoked what we think of today as executive privilege.
Treason is the only crime described in the United States Constitution. The case against Burr required Justice Marshall to interpret the meaning of “treason”. He defined it as requiring an overt act levying war against the United States, and not just a scheme. The Constitution additionally requires two witnesses to testify to prove treason. In a written opinion on the admissibility of evidence, Justice Marshall restricted the government to proving that assembling men on Blennerhasset’s island was Burr’s overt act of waging war on the United States.
Aaron Burr never levied war against the United States. When a United States official came to Blennerhasset’s island to arrest some of the men, they refused arrest and pointed muskets at him. This was the overt “act of war” upon which the United States government based its treason case. It might have been treason or more simply, resisting arrest.
The testimony, furthermore, showed that Burr was 100 miles away from Blennerhassett’s island when the event occured.
With Marshall’s restrictions, the outcome was pre-ordained. The jury’s verdict, returned September 1st, 1807, found Burr “not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us.” The wording has left scholars to ponder the “what ifs” ever since.
Historians have never resolved whether Burr committed a criminal act. Academic debate continues to the present. Were Burr’s actions patriotic or treasonous? How Burr’s actions were viewed may depend as much upon where one lived and the politics of the observer. The Burr case is worth pondering in our current political climate as we again discuss the limits on executive privilege and behavior disloyal to the nation.
Or, if we want to rap it, what word rhymes with Blennerhassett?
Frequent visitors here know that I travel a lot, and my turn
to submit a blog entry happens to fall on a business trip to one of the
furthest destinations I’ve been from my home, India. I’m currently in Delhi, but I’ll also visit
Chennai and have a quick stop in Rome before I return to the States.
As a writer of crime fiction and an international security consultant,
I can hardly avoid seeing everything through the lens of an investigator. As such, I’m constantly on the lookout for things
that might pose a security risk. Things
that could become a problem. Unfortunately,
danger doesn’t always announce itself clearly.
The first signs of danger might only be small things that are out of
place, and the investigator relies upon such things. As the Lord of all fictional investigators
Sherlock Holmes said, “The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious.” Without those subtle variations from the
norm, an investigation is that much more difficult.
Since one of the reasons for my trip was assessing the level
of risk to my company’s international travelers, I was on the look-out for these
potential precursors of trouble. I’ll
admit, I wasn’t very observant when I landed, jetlagged, and made it to my
hotel at about 3:00 a.m. local time. One
immediate difference stood out at the hotel:
the wonderful service. I was
greeted by three hosts who didn’t simply hand over the keys, they took my bags
and walked me personally to my room. This
was a pleasant change of pace.
After a little sleep, I ventured out into the district I was
staying in outside Delhi. I was trying
to replicate the practices of an average business traveler in order to identify
and assess what potential risks they might encounter. I hailed a driver and drove to nearby restaurants. I spent some time at a local shopping center. Inside, I saw such exotic Indian merchants as
MAC Cosmetics, Cold Stone Creamery, and McDonalds. Despite
a real risk of fried foods, this was depressingly ordinary.
The next day, I ventured out of the city center, and went to
Agra, and the most famous tourist destination in all of India, the Taj
Mahal. The journey there held few
observations, except for the traffic conditions. Even on a Sunday morning, lanes were seen as
merely suggestions and cars and jitneys veered in and out of each other’s way
with a lack of collision that was frankly impressive. While the boldness of the pedestrians crossing
busy streets like a life-size game of Frogger made me a little nervous as an
American, I knew it wasn’t different than the practices in many, many other
parts of the world.
But as we drove on, more differences began to appear. Cell phone coverage was intermittent, a
rarity for those of us accustomed to ubiquitous internet availability. Not a risk per se, we humans actually
functioned without data on our phones for thousands of years. My kids were shocked to learn that even in my
lifetime, road trips were not navigated by our phone’s GPS system, but by carefully
consulting the series of maps in your glove compartment. I made a note to ensure our travelers were
aware of the need for advanced planning when cell phone coverage might be
The closer we got to the Taj Mahal, the more things began to
seem out of place. Here, I saw cows wandering
freely in the streets. Not a risk, but not
ordinary either. Cows belonged on a
farm, or in extreme cases of runaway silverware, jumping over the moon at the
very least. As we parked and took an
electric tram from the parking are to the east gate of the site, we were approached
by an unusually high number of children and infant-laden women, asking for a few
rupees. Finally, as we paid our fare and
collected our shoe coverings required to enter the sacred space, I saw a few
monkeys. My companion told me that when
some traveling tourists arrived and learned no food was allowed inside the
site, they were forced to throw out any snacks they had brought. The local monkey population had learned this
was a reliable spot to find assorted fruits and other food, and their numbers
abounded at sunrise. So the monkey
pictured here may not have been out of the ordinary, but he still looked sketchy
Then, we went through the gate and made our way to the main
entrance of the grounds. I’ve attached a
picture, but the picture simply doesn’t do it justice. The Taj Mahal is a magnificent building that
defies easy description. And as I toured
it and learned its history, perhaps the greatest “out of place” observation of
all was right in front of me. As legend
has it, the Taj Mahal was ordered built in 1632 by emperor Shah Jahan to serve
as a mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who tragically died in
childbirth. Construction took 22 years,
and employed over 20,000 workers and over a thousand elephants. With special non-porous marble and
painstakingly etched inlaid jewels, the cost of the construction was inestimable.
But perhaps the most impressive of all is the symmetry of
the entire structure. Four towers
flanking the structure, minarets, are placed at strategic angles not only to topple
away from the main structure in case of earthquake, but to also direct the eye
toward the pleasing balance. Verses of
the Quran inscribed along the arched entrances (in inlaid onyx, not paint) gradually
increase in size the higher it goes, all to give the illusion of a uniform size
to the eye. The mosque structure built
to the west of the tomb (another thing out of place – my experience told me
Muslims faced east to pray, but on the other side of the planet, Mecca is to
the west!) was flanked by an identical but generally unused structure to the
east, all for the sake of balance.
Symmetry. Uniformity. Everything in its place.
And at the precise geometric center of it all was the tomb
of Mumtaz Mahal (well, a replica of her tomb, the actual is in an unadorned room
exactly below the replica). All corners
are at precise angles to the tomb. One
can see a direct line all the way from the northern entrance of the building,
through a seam in the hand-carved marble lattice screen shielding the tomb, all
keeping perfect line with the fountains in the reflecting pool south of the opposite
gate. Everything in precise geometric
Except one thing: the
grave of the man who ordered the tomb built in the first place. After he ordered construction to begin, Shah
Jahan grew gravely ill. Sensing a
succession was in order, some of his sons began battling for control in
anticipation of their father’s imminent demise.
They were surprised by Shah Jahan’s recovery, but they already had a
taste of power. One son deposed his
father and locked him in prison. After
many years in prison, Shah Jahan died.
His son had his body placed next his beloved late bride in the center of
the famous structure.
But it seems obvious that Shah Jahan never intended to be buried
there. Some legends say that he had plans
to build a shadow image of the Taj Mahal, this one made of black marble, situated
across the river in a seeming extension of the perfect symmetry. There, the legend holds, is where Shah Jahan
intended his final resting place to be, with a silver bridge forever linking his
tomb to his wife’s. (I won’t point out
here that the legend of his plans to build a similar structure seems to
conflict with another legend that says Shah Jahan had one hand severed
from all the workers so the grandeur of the Taj Mahal could never be replicated. Hey, I’m a storyteller… the last thing I want
to do is kill the magic of a good legend!)
Once seen, it’s impossible to un-see. For a structure so painstakingly built with
perfect symmetry and harmony around Mumtaz’ tomb, seeing Shah Jahan’s tomb
right next to hers sticks out like a sore thumb. It by no means detracts from the overall
beauty of the site, but it is clearly… out of place.
On the ride back to my hotel, I reflected on that as a
tourist, an investigator, and a writer of crime fiction. I was struck by the irony of the very person
who strove so hard to achieve perfect symmetry became the only unsymmetrical
thing in the whole place. I thought
about how the human brain approaches pattern recognition, and how the greatest
detectives in both reality and fiction can spot those outlier details better
And finally, in terms of the world of writing, I thought
about all those other “abnormalities” I’d observed so far here in India, and I
realized that my internal dialogue had become my very own unreliable
narrator. All those things I found
unusual were simply a part of daily life for a vibrant, prosperous country of
more than a billion people. In reality,
only one things was out of place.
I truly love traveling to new places and seeing new ways of living. I love hearing new legends and the stories other peoples tell themselves. I’ve found my trip to India so far to be quite an education, and I can fully appreciate how the Taj Mahal is considered a wonder of the world. The next time you travel to a new country or a new mystery novel, I wonder if you’ll be able to spot what’s out of place. Maybe it will have been staring you in the face all along!
The FBI National Academy is an advanced course for law
enforcement executives from around the world. For approximately three months,
over 200 men and women move into college-style dorms at the FBI training campus
The academic portion of the program is rigorous, requiring
attendees to take classes, undergo exams, and submit theses at a university
level. Successful graduates receive 17 hours of credit from the University of
Several years ago, when I was a captain on my department, I
was selected for this prestigious program. Since the training is for those in
management, the average age of attendees is 42, and I hit that mark squarely.
The academic portion of the training was highly enjoyable
for me. Studious by nature and curious by training, I relished the mental
challenge. The expansive library at the facility became my haunt, where I pored
over texts and case studies, or met with groups to create presentations. When
others struggled with the heavy course load, I offered what help I could. Some
hadn’t taken college classes for twenty years, and studying is a perishable
skill. The physical aspect, however, did not come so easily.
I suspected the PT instructors laid awake at night thinking of new ways to torture us. One of my fellow attendees, a woman with the NYPD who ran marathons in her spare time, coached me on proper breathing and body mechanics. Still, I couldn’t get the hang of it.
The culmination of our physical training was completing the
infamous FBI obstacle course, which comprises 6.1 miles on uneven terrain in
the Virginia foothills. The course is interspersed with all manner of barriers
and challenges. I’ll never forget the day I lined up with my fellow LEOs to
take my shot at completing what they termed The Yellow Brick Road. The picture
below is a tree decorated with signs depicting the experiences each runner can
expect during the course. This foreboding image is what you see before you begin.
We were grouped in squads of ten with staggered start times.
I eyed my running group. The standout among us was a lieutenant named Tim from
a department in Wisconsin who belonged on the cover of Muscle & Fitness
magazine. The leader of his agency’s SWAT team, we all figured he would set a
new course record. The FBI posted such accomplishments in a place of honor for
all future classes to see. Everyone knew Tim would do our session proud, and we
patted him on the back and wished him well as he stretched at the starting
The whistle blew and off we went. The thoroughbreds took off,
but I kept my draft horse pace, conserving energy for what lay ahead. Hearing footfalls
next to me, I turned to see Tim loping effortlessly by my side.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He grinned. “Running with you.”
“No way.” I was determined not to let him sacrifice his only shot. “Your name has to go up on the wall.”
He sprinted ahead and spun around to face me, running
backward. “I’m 42 years old, happily married, with three beautiful children and
a great career. What do I have to prove to anyone?” His look spoke of utter
resolve. “You’re always helping everyone else with the academics. Now it’s time
to let someone help you.”
He knew I wouldn’t make it on my own. Deep down, I knew it
too. That course was too damned hard.
“Are you sure?”
He gave me a stare calculated to make hardened criminals wet themselves. I stopped arguing and started listening. Tim’s extensive SWAT training had taught him techniques. He demonstrated the proper way to get over a six-foot wall, or shimmy under a mesh grid, (sometimes repeatedly) until I could clumsily follow.
At one point, I had to use a single rope to climb a sheer
rock outcropping. Halfway up, my arms and shoulders burned, my muscles like noodles.
I had nothing left in the tank. Or so I thought. Tim had already scaled the
rock face and was looking down at me. He had total faith that I could make it. One
of the instructors stood next to him and snapped a photo of me from Tim’s
perspective. He wasn’t allowed to help me physically, but his encouragement
gave me the needed boost to hoist myself up. That’s why I’m smiling.
A short time later, my NYPD friend came barreling toward me
from the opposite direction.
“What are you doing?” I said, panting. “You must have finished
“I did.” She shrugged. “They recorded my time, then I came
back to find you.”
“Because you’re insane?”
“Because I’m going to run the rest of the course with you.”
My wingmen stayed by my side, chatting comfortably as if
taking a leisurely morning jog while I sucked air into burning lungs and relied
on sheer will to keep my rubbery legs pumping.
While other runners flew past, a captain with the Texas Rangers
(from a group that had started a good forty minutes after I did) caught up to us
and slowed to match the plodding pace I had set for our trio.
He gave me the customary Texan greeting. “Howdy.”
“Your group is leaving you behind,” I said, gasping.
“I’m going to cross the line with you.”
“Seriously?” I couldn’t believe someone else wanted to help.
I must have looked every bit the total charity case I was at this point. “It
could take me another hour.”
“Then that’s how long it takes.”
We had become a foursome. Amazed by their sacrifice, I began
to pick up the pace a fraction, buoyed by the solidarity they showed. The
picture below is of the four of us crossing the finish line together, arm in
That humbling and powerful experience changed me in many
ways. These are the five life lessons I learned in my journey along the aptly
named Yellow Brick Road:
If you’re better at something, help others.
When you’re the one struggling, swallow your
pride and accept help.
Please join me in welcoming Sharon Goldman and Marilyn Baron to the blog––sisters who count award-winning painter, award-winning novelist, children’s book author and illustrator, and musical playwrights among their combined talents. These very creative, multi-talented sisters have co-authored a set-in-Florida murder mystery with strong romantic elements, and today they tell us a bit about their book, what moved them to write this story, and, for those of us who wonder (and I’m one of them), what it’s like to collaborate on a novel.
Love and Murder. Love and Murder. Go together like a . . . But do they? They do in Groundwork for Murder.
Marilyn & Sharon: In fact, art imitates life when landscape artist Alexandra Newborn has a shocking reunion with her college art professor Dominick “Nick” Anselmo, once a world-celebrated Italian artist, now her homeless lawn man. Their passion is reignited, fueling a creative spark for both.
Nick’s provocative drawings, delivered weekly to Alex’s doorstep, chronicle a torrid affair between Alex’s husband, Mark, and the owner of a local art gallery. When Mark’s body washes up on an Atlantic beach after a powerful hurricane, readers will wonder, “Who done it?” The wife? The husband’s lover? Or the lawn man?
When the affair between Mark and his mistress is exposed to the world at a gallery opening, the seeds are sown for murder, mystery, and romance.
This book is really a hybrid. By rights, it could be considered women’s fiction—one woman’s journey from a less than satisfying marriage to a second chance at love after her former mentor breathes new life into her artwork. Or a romantic suspense, or even a crime thriller. We chose to set the book in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where Sharon lives.
The two main protagonists are artists, so Sharon had those characters down and I studied art history in Florence, Italy, for six months in college, so we wrote what we knew about a topic that was of interest to both of us. Growing up in Miami, we’re more than familiar with hurricanes. We did have to do research on the homeless and on police procedures in Jacksonville Beach, when Alex is thrown into jail for the murder of her husband. But throughout, the book is infused with humor.
What’s it like to work with your sister? The coauthoring process was very smooth and enjoyable. Since we live in different cities, we did all the work by computer and telephone. We would each write a chapter, or character or scene and we worked hard to ensure that the end product was seamless. But we did have some moments when we were reviewing the sex scenes and I insisted, “I did not write that!” And Sharon retorted, “I wouldn’t have written that!” “Well,” we laughed, “one of us had to have written it.”
In the acknowledgments, we included this qualification: “And no, we didn’t base the character of Mark Newborn on our husbands.” If someone said to Sharon, “that sounds a lot like Richard,” Sharon would say, “No, it’s about Steve.” And I would say, “This book is not about Steve, it’s all about Richard.” Hopefully, our husbands will never read this book.
Marilyn Baron, a public relations consultant in Atlanta, is chair of the Roswell Reads Steering Committee, and a member of the Atlanta Authors Series Committee. She is also an award-winning author of women’s fiction, historical romantic thrillers, romantic suspense, and paranormal/fantasy, and a two-time Finalist for Georgia Author of the Year.
Sharon Goldman, a graduate of the University of Florida who had a long career in advertising, is an art teacher and an award-winning artist whose paintings are in private collections and are exhibited in galleries throughout northeast Florida, including the Haskell Gallery in the Jacksonville International Airport. She is also the author and illustrator of a children’s book, There’s A Day Out There. With her sister, Marilyn Baron, she has written Memory Lane, a musical about Alzheimer’s Disease, that was performed as a concert/reading at Essential Theatre in Atlanta.
Please join me in welcoming Lynn Chandler Willis to the blog, today, where she tells us about her writing journey, some of her early influences, and some of the story behind the story of Tell Me No Secrets, her latest Ava Logan Mystery. Tell Me No Secrets is a tense, atmospheric mystery that gives the reader an insider’s view of the outside world encroaching on the near-mystical culture of traditional Appalachia. Add a cast of thoroughly authentic, very memorable characters, and a didn’t-see-it-coming twist at the end, and you’ve got yourself a long night of page-turning ahead of you.
MB: Lynn, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Tell our readers a bit about you. How did you come to novel writing? What led you to focus on the place and the people you’ve chosen to write about?
LCW: My obsession with books began in the 7th grade. Robert Luis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island was required reading and it was the first lengthy book I had ever read. I was mesmerized at how mere words could transport someone to a whole different world. After that, in 10th grade American Lit, we read a lot of Shirley Jackson’s work and I vowed I would one day write something that made students wonder what the real meaning behind a particular sentence was. I wouldn’t laugh because that would be cruel, but I would giggle. All of my books are set in small towns. From Wink, Texas to Boone, North Carolina, the community of small town’s appeals to me. My current focus is the Appalachian mountain region because of the people, the culture, and their way of life.
MB: If you were going to write stories other than crime fiction, which genre would you write? Why?
LCW: I used to write blog posts about life with my grandkids and the funny things they did. People would say “you need to write children’s book.” But I wasn’t writing for kids––I was writing about kids. Big difference. To answer the question . . . I honestly don’t know. I’ve always been drawn to crime. Not sure what that says about me, but . . . maybe humor?
MB: Your new book, Tell Me No Secrets, involves snake handlers, religious fundamentalism, granny witches, and journalists. How much research did you have to do to bring these elements into your story?
LCW: I did spend quite a bit of time in the mountains interviewing old timers and life-long residents of the area to gain insight to the mindset of the people. I did score an invite to a snake handling church but they backed out when my source told them it was for research. They’re not totally comfortable with outsiders, especially journalists.
MB: Where did Ava Logan, your protagonist, come from?
LCW: I created Ava as a means to share the crazy stories of publishing a small-town newspaper. I was the owner/publisher of a bi-weekly paper for thirteen years in a small town and know firsthand the down side of local politics, the drama at the community center, and all the things that are the heartbeat of a small town. I took my love for newspapers and the Appalachian region and created a character who understands the complexities of the area and can report on it with honesty.
MB: What advice do you have for writers looking for that first big break?
LCW: It’s so corny, but never, ever give up. Will you be discouraged? Yes. Have a good cry then sit back down and get back at it. Don’t fall for gimmicks because there is no easy road.
MB: What’s next from the pen of Lynn Chandler Willis?
LCW: I’m working on a possible new series featuring a former F.B.I. agent involved with a family with a darker side. It’s set, of course, in the tripoint area of North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. My favorite place on earth.
Thirty years ago, I was a cadet in the police academy, anxiously anticipating my graduation day—and by that I mean it couldn’t come quick enough. In 1989, to become a certified California police officer, a candidate had to attend a criminal justice training center and successfully complete 852 hours of specialized training. Looking back, the lessons that truly stuck with me were often learned outside the classroom.
I attended a stress academy, which is law enforcement’s version of boot camp, complete with humorless TAC officers. For the most part, the TACs stayed out of the classroom when instructors were teaching, but outside that room, cadets were fair game. No infraction was too small to be remarked upon. Especially egregious errors resulted in the cadet being swarmed by all four TACs giving contradictory orders until it was almost a relief when one of them finally yelled “Drop and give me twenty!” Or thirty. The numbers grew as the academy progressed. The takeaway?
Pushups build character
I didn’t get dropped for pushups any more than anyone else, but as a class we pumped out more pushups than I ever thought possible. A speck on your uniform during inspection? Drop. Forgot the penal code section for burglary? Drop. We were dropped for
pushups as individuals, as a group—or worse yet, not dropped at all while the rest of the class grunted out, “One for Smith, two for Smith…” while Smith pondered the error of his (or her) ways. I may not have reached any epiphanies while I repeatedly lowered and raised my body, but I sure the heck learned the penal code section for burglary and a whole host of other things the TACs wanted us to remember. With the proper motivation, it’s amazing what a person can accomplish. Upper body strength was just a bonus.
Dress for success
I like to joke that I chose to work for a police department rather than a sheriff’s office because I wanted to wear a blue uniform. My cadet uniform was a special shade of tan that made me appear jaundiced and was sized for a man. In the academy, they talked about “command presence” which is all about how others perceived us. Put two officers together—one in a pressed uniform and one wearing clothes that look like they were balled up in the bottom of a locker—and well, assumptions will be made. I learned that a good tailor can work miracles, but how you carry yourself is even more important.
This is the ol’ say what you mean and mean what you say doctrine. It seems obvious, but bluffing in police work often gets someone hurt. False bravado is the antithesis of command presence. If you tell a person to do something or he’s going to jail, you better have the legal authority and the wherewithal to arrest him if he fails to comply. And trust me, whether it’s a TAC officer testing your knowledge or a parolee who’s sizing you up, threatening to do something you don’t have the ability to enforce will end badly.
Obstacles are rarely insurmountable
One of the things we had to master in the academy was scaling a six-foot wall. I knew this prior to the academy, so I practiced. My early attempts looked eerily similar to a bug hitting a windshield. But I’m stubborn, and as my frustration grew, I gritted my teeth, sprinted toward the wall, planted a foot, and launched. My hands grabbed the top of the fence and momentum carried me over (pushups helped, but physics was the real hero in this effort). Running full speed toward a wall is counter-intuitive, but it was that all-in mindset that worked. Half-hearted attempts won’t get you to the other side.
Calm down are two words that shouldn’t be linked together
The volume at which one tells someone to calm down is inversely proportional to the effectiveness of the request. Even spoken quietly, it doesn’t work. What should you do? Take a breath and listen.
The academy was one of most challenging periods of my life. Sure there were fun times (pursuit driving, anyone?), yet there were also moments when I questioned how badly I wanted to be a police officer. But as the weeks passed, the cadets who were going to wash out disappeared. We all survived getting gassed and pepper sprayed. I learned how to take a punch in the boxing ring, and how to handle a patrol car in a four-wheel drift. A bruised bicep reinforced how important it was to snug a shotgun stock tight into the pocket of my shoulder joint. By the end of the academy, I’d learned as much about myself as I had about law enforcement.
By Brian Thiem
About two months ago, Sacramento Police Officer Tara O’Sullivan was shot during a domestic dispute call by a man with a high-powered rifle. Other officers immediately took cover as the gunman continued shooting, preventing them from rescuing Tara as she lay dying in the back yard of a North Sacramento house.
Within minutes, numerous officers responded, but they were unable to get to Tara without subjecting themselves to gunfire.
I can only imagine the sense of utter helplessness felt by Tara and her fellow officers as she lay dying in that backyard while rifle rounds pinged around them, her brother officers wanting to rush to her aid, but knowing that doing so meant certain death.
Those officers were armed with handguns, firearms that are effective out to about 20 yards. They wore concealable Kevlar vests that covered a fraction of their bodies and were only capable of stopping the most common handgun rounds. The rifle bullets the gunman was firing would punch right through them.
It was nearly an hour before the department was able to enter the kill zone with an armored vehicle called a Bearcat and evacuate Tara. Whether Tara was already dead at that time or died en route to the hospital hasn’t been determined or hasn’t been publicly released.
I’ve heard and read too many politicians, activists, and media outlets decrying the so-called militarization of law enforcement—the acquisition of armored vehicles and other tools and weapons beyond what a uniformed police officer uses, and related training for major tactical situations.
Earlier this year, the Alameda County (in which Oakland, the city where I worked for 25 years, is located) voted to eliminate SWAT-type scenarios from a regional law enforcement training exercise that is attended by law enforcement agencies from around the state because it “promotes the militarization of police.”
As a tactical commander and the commander of the special operations section for several years toward the end of my police career, I oversaw hundreds of SWAT operations, and through formal Risk Analysis processes, I determined the circumstances under which specialized tactical teams and equipment was appropriate. Those decisions required balancing resources (personnel, overtime) with officer and community safety, while weighing community expectations and concerns.
Therefore, I cringe when I see news reports of heavily armed FBI SWAT teams serving a search warrant at the house of a white-collar crime suspect, or SWAT teams using armored vehicles with a battering ram for routine search warrants.
The debate over police acquiring and deploying heavy tactical equipment and weapons and engaging in training exercises focusing on terrorist attacks and active shooters should continue in our communities. However, I know some Sacramento police officers who wished they had an armored vehicle closer and more specially trained tactical officers with rifles as they were pinned down by a crazed gunman and their sister lay dying nearby.