Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A Web of Lies

Posted: December 9, 2018 in Uncategorized

A Web of Lies

By Jack B. Strandburg

Note: This Flash Fiction was composed from a three-word creative exercise: housewife, hotel room, necklace. 

Detective Nathan Trask, Chicago homicide Inspector, sat across from Jake Timmons in the interrogation room at police headquarters.

“Have you found the man who killed my wife?” Timmons asked.

Trask pulled out sheet of paper from a manila folder on the desk and placed it on the tables. It was a photograph of a necklace.

“Have you ever seen this before, Mr. Timmons?”

Timmons’s mouth fell open.

“My God, that looks like the necklace I gave Marian for our third wedding anniversary! It was stolen last year.”

“We found this under the bed at the motel where your wife was murdered,” Trask said. “Did you report it stolen?”

“Of course,” Timmons insisted. “I needed to file a report for insurance purposes.”

“It looks very expensive,” Trask said.

Timmons nodded.

“It cost me over twelve thousand dollars. We were devastated when we found out we’d been robbed. Marian treasured that necklace.”

“Robbed,” Trask repeated, sitting back in his chair. “That’s interesting.”

“What do you mean – interesting?” Timmons asked.

Trask removed another sheet from the folder and placed it in front of Timmons.

“You ever see this man before?”

Timmons looked at the photograph and shrugged but his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat was not lost on Trask.

“Never seen him before. Who is he?”

“That’s Joseph Landry; he works for Johnny Reeves, a known loan shark. We found his body last night not far from the motel where we found your wife.”

“What does he have to do with all this?”

“His fingerprints were all over the necklace.”

“Are you saying Landry killed my wife?” Timmons asked.

Trask slowly shook his head.

“One might assume that was the case, but we’ve talked to a known associate of Landry’s who told us Landry got the necklace from a man as payment for  a loan owed to one Johnny Reeves. You know anything about that, Mr. Timmons?”

Timmons bit his lip and his eyes went from the photograph of Landry back to Trask.

“I can only assume whoever stole the necklace from our home owed money to this man Reeves. That’s obviously why he stole it – to pay the loan.”

“You design websites for a living, don’t you Mr. Timmons?”

“Yes, that’s right, why?” Timmons asked with a frown.

“I imagine you need a creative mind to be successful in that business, don’t you?”

“I suppose,” Timmons said haltingly.

“I have another photograph for you to look at, Mr. Timmons, but before I show you, I have one more question. I want you to think long and hard about the answer.”

“What is it?”

“Have you ever met Johnny Reeves or Joseph Landry?”

Timmons hesitated, looked deep into Trask’s eyes, and then shook his head.

“No, sir, I have never seen either of these men before.”

Trask smiled, removed another sheet from the folder and placed it in front of Timmons.

The photograph clearly showed Jake Timmons sitting in a booth at a restaurant talking with Joseph Landry. On the table between them sat the necklace.

Timmons stared at the photograph for a while before looking back up at Trask.

“Where did you get this?”

“Johnny Reeves is more than just a run-of-the-mill loan shark. We’ve been building a case against him and Landry is one of his collectors, but,” Trask pointed to the photograph, “you already know Landry’s association with Reeves. So what was it, a gambling debt, an investment? Why did you take out a loan with Reeves?”

Timmons lowered his head.

“Yes, it was a gambling debt, like you said.”

“Well, you certainly don’t lack for creativity, Mr. Timmons. That’s another lie.”

“What are you talking about?” Timmons asked, and his head shot up. “And what does all this have to do with my wife? Aren’t you supposed to be looking for her killer?”

Trask shook his head.

“We found him.”

Timmons narrowed his eyes to slits.

“What are you talking about?”

Trask picked up the photograph of Joseph Landry.

“This man’s real name is Phillip Marconi, Lieutenant Phillip Marconi. He’s working undercover on the Timmons case.”

“What do you mean – the Timmons case?”

“You sold the necklace to Lieutenant Marconi for twenty grand as down payment for a drug deal, Mr. Timmons, and don’t bother to come up with another lie because we have the entire conversation recorded.”

Timmons sat back in his chair and spread his arms.

“So if you have this on tape, why didn’t you just come out with it? Why dance around with all this loan shark stuff?”

“I’m just trying to find out how much more you’re prepared to lie, Mr. Timmons, because I’m lead investigator on the case involving the murder of your wife. Why did you kill her?”

Timmons shot up from his chair and pressed his fists against the table.

Trask kept his cool, just looking into Timmons’s eyes and smiling.

“She was having an affair with one of her co-workers. They met at the motel just about every week. Is that what you wanted to hear?” Timmons screamed. “Are you satisfied?”

Trask raised a finger.

Don’t forget she also found out about the drug deal, didn’t she?” Trask said and then slowly got up from his chair and nodded to two officers who came into the room when they heard the chair hit the floor.

“Take him away.”

The two officers took Timmons by the arms and escorted him to the door.

Timmons turned back to Trask.

“You’re just as big a liar as I am.”

Trask raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

“I prefer to call it creative interrogation.”



I Have an Idea – What Now?

Posted: December 9, 2018 in Uncategorized

I have an Idea – What Now?

Whether you are an aspiring writer or a published author, you might be asked where you find ideas for your fiction.

Typical sources are newspapers, magazines, television shows, movies, and works by other authors. Many times I’ve read a book or watched a movie and an event or character will spark an idea for a story. One time while driving down the street, I observed a man standing on a street corner and wanted to write about this character.

Hundreds of creative writing books exist in various formats. I own at least four such books. My first mystery novel, now in the rewrite phase, arose from a writing exercise. (You may read details on my website,, under On the Horizon tab.) For the cost-conscious, you will find a wealth of free help on the Internet. I typed “Creative Writing Prompts” on Google and received almost five million hits.

You can choose from any number of software programs for writers, such as WriteSparks Lite, which generates random phrases, words, clichés, and what-if-situations to stimulate writing. I wrote a flash fiction piece using three words (housewife, motel room, necklace) generated by the free trial download of WriteSparks Lite. You can read A Web of Lies on my website.

Songwriters tell a story using music, and you can use music to tell a story. A few weeks ago, while exercising on the treadmill and listening to music on my IPOD, the song Hollywood Nights by Bob Seger started playing. The first two lines of the song follow:

She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast

He was a Midwestern boy on his own

My work-in-progress short story titled The Monogrammer, is based on those nineteen words. I hope to publish the work in one form or another, even if only a blog entry on my website. Who knows? With a lot of work, it might become a novel.

A story consists of nothing more than words, and a “one-stop shop” exists with all the words we need – the dictionary. It contains everything – people, places, obstacles, crimes, emotions, motive, and more. It’s a matter of finding the right combination for your story idea.

The truth is; we don’t need to look far for ideas. The roadblock looms when determining how to move forward because an idea is nothing more than a starting point. You have a character or two, an event, a situation, and a place, but what comes next?

Most of the advice I read from books, magazines, articles, and software programs recommend the writer just start writing. I believe what stops many writers (it caused me to procrastinate more times than I care to admit), is they don’t see promise of a story beyond those first few sentences or paragraphs. Without middle or an end in mind, a writer might be hesitant to answer the bell for Round 1.

This occurred with my short story The Monogrammer. My idea centered on a woman living in California and a man from the Midwest who comes out to the coast. Two characters in two places with little else kept me from writing because I lacked confidence the story would surpass fifty words.

But these two characters insisted on imposing their will on my subconscious until I gave in and started asking questions.

  • What does the man do for a living?
  • Why is he going to California?
  • Is he leaving the Midwest for good or perhaps for a vacation?
  • Does he know this woman or do they meet for the first time?
  • Is he running to or running from something?
  • What events in the lives of these two characters are significant to the story?
  • What relationships (family, friends, and lovers) contributed to who these people are today?

This is a starter list, and the answers to these questions will likely generate more questions.

When I found something with real “meat” I wrote a snippet or scene, even if it didn’t appear in the final version of the story, but I was making progress by writing actual dialogue and narrative. Sure, the story might eventually stall and be trashed, but such is the writing life. Find a different character, event, situation, and place, and then repeat the process.

Consider my example of the stranger standing on a street corner.

  • Who is he?
  • Does he look familiar?
  • Is he waiting for someone or something to happen?
  • Does he belong here?
  • Where did he come from?
  • Why is he standing here?
  • What is he doing the moment you see him?
  • Is he a lookout for a crime occurring or about to occur?
  • Is he a diversion?
  • For those of us drawn to supernatural themes – is he visible one second and gone the next?

Answering one or more of these questions should start the pen moving (or the keys clicking).

I prefer to keep it simple because in writing, more complexity often promotes procrastination and could produce a lack of confidence. A story consists of character, plot, objects, and setting. Events (plot) happen to people (characters) with goals in a place (setting), and interaction between these characters produces conflict – all found in the dictionary.

Here’s a starter: A man posing as a doctor walks into a hospital and removes a patient from their life support system. You can start writing or start asking question, whatever works for you. If all else fails, remember to ask . . . Who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Just remember – a starting place doesn’t need to be the beginning of the story.

A Taste of Retribution

By Jack B. Strandburg

“Gramercy Tavern is an upscale restaurant, Shelly,” John said. “How did you know I had such expensive taste?”

“I know more about you than you think, John Maxwell,” Shelly Robinson replied with a trace of a smile.

“I was surprised when you called and asked me out to dinner. Have we met before? You do look familiar.”

“We have a couple of things in common, John.”

“Oh? Such as?”

“Melanie Kramer.”

John reacted by raising his eyebrows, then his eyes dropped to the table and he played with his fork. “Yes, Melanie. We went out a couple of times. How do you know her?”

“She’s my patient,” Shelly said. “I’m a clinical psychologist.”

“A noble profession,” John said. “What made you choose it?”

“I guess I didn’t have what it took to be a world-famous chef,” Shelly said with a shrug.

John furrowed his brow. “I’m missing something. What do a psychologist and a cook have in common?”

Chef, not cook,” Shelly corrected. “My brother, Richard studied at the Culinary Institute in New York. He’s worked all over the world. He actually recommended this restaurant.”

“Whatever,” John said, with a shrug. “Anyway, I’m not surprised Melanie is seeing a shrink. I didn’t see our relationship as long-term. In fact . . .,”

Shelly raised a hand. “She told me things about you, John, things that can damage your reputation if made public. You’re a liar and a heartless bastard. You use people, John.”

John’s mouth fell open and he slapped a hand to his chest before twisting his mouth into a sarcastic smile. “If you asked me out to dinner to threaten and insult me, why choose Gramercy Tavern? The dinner bill and drinks alone will run a few hundred dollars. Once you add in the tip . . . ,”

Shelly stopped him with a shake of her head. “You don’t get it, do you? Melanie told me all about you stealing funds from your company. What’s the matter, John, a six-figure income isn’t enough?”

John stiffened in the chair before relaxing, but the reaction was unmistakable. Shelly touched a nerve.

Forcing a smile, he said, “You have no proof of anything other than the ramblings of a sex-starved woman. I have connections, and besides, what Melanie may or may not have said must remain confidential. Doctor and patient relationship and all that. True?”

“You don’t care for Melanie, you never did. She told me about your meeting at the night club. You filled her with liquor and she made a bad decision, in my opinion, the worst decision of her life. She must have been pretty drunk to sleep with the likes of you.”

“That’s your opinion . . . doctor,” John said, “but I expect you’re bitter. When was the last time you had a man in your bed?”

Shelly narrowed her eyes. “This is not about me. You need help, John.”

John curled his lips into a smile, then picked up the glass, and took a sip of water. He sat back against the chair and folded his hands on his stomach. “Are you offering your services? How does it work? I come into your office, lie down on your sofa, discuss my childhood, and despite my parents not raising me right, I still became a successful businessman. Or maybe you’re jealous because you can’t have what Melanie had, and want me in a prone position. Is that what this dinner is really all about?”

Shelly curled her lip. “You disgust me with your arrogance and self-centeredness. You’re not worth giving the time of day.”

The waiter brought their entrees to the table. John ordered Roasted Pork Loin, Shelly ordered the Black Bass.

“This looks tasty,” John said and picked up his fork and knife. “I’m going to sit here and enjoy my dinner, light up a smoke, sip on a brandy, and then call it a night. You can sit there and talk your psycho head off for all I care.”

“I want reparations, John. Either you meet my demands or I’ll have a long conversation with a detective.”

John looked up from his plate. “You’re out of your mind, Doc, and what business is it of yours anyway? I’m very good at reading people, and I don’t think extortion fits your personality.”

“I may have nothing more than Melanie’s word, but if I make the allegations, the media will be all over this. Your career and what you call a reputation will be irreparably damaged.”

“I’ve been through this before, Doc. People have been trying to bring me down for years. What makes you think you’ll be any different? And for the record, if anything should happen to hit the papers, I have enough connections with people in high places to destroy your career and your life.”

Shelly leaned forward and put her elbows on the table. “I’m asking for one hundred grand, that’s all. You would hardly miss it.”

“Forget it, Doc, you have nothing on me.”

Shelly leaned back against the chair and sighed. “So you’re turning down my offer?”

John laughed. “Doc, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your money and your time. If you actually believe you can blackmail me, you’re the one who seek help.” He looked off to the left. “What is it they say? Oh yeah, physician, heal thyself.”

“I told you before we had a couple of things in common, John. You were right when you said I looked familiar, because we have met before.”

“Like I said, I know people. So when and where did this memorable event take place?”

“My maiden name is Madison. Arlene was my sister. You remember Arlene don’t you, John? Ten years ago to this day your raped her.”

John put down the fork and ran a napkin across his mouth. He looked around the restaurant before looking back at Shelly. After a few moments to gather his composure, he nodded in recognition, and wagged his finger. “Yes, I remember you now. Your hair is different and you’ve put on some weight. Apparently you forgot the facts of what happened that night. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘it takes two to tango.’ There was never enough evidence to charge me, let alone take me to court.”

“That’s because your scumbag attorney made sure the press destroyed my sister’s reputation. You bought your way out, John, and as far as I’m concerned, both you and your attorney should be burning in hell for what you did.”

John resumed eating his meal. “That will never happen. By the way, how is Arlene?”

Shelly looked away. “She was never the same. The doctor prescribed medication for depression and arranged for therapy. My brother and I paid for both and watched her waste away for nine and a half endless years.” Shelly paused and her eyes welled with tears. “Six months ago she committed suicide. We buried her next to our parents.”

“Touching,” John said. “Look, Doc, I’m not a monster, and I’m sorry for your loss, but if you expect me to feel guilty for her suicide, you’re barking up the wrong tree. She wanted it as much as I did that night.”

Shelly stared into John’s eyes for a time before tossing the napkin on the plate. She reached into her purse and took out a wad of bills and threw it on the table, then got up from the chair. “I’ve suddenly lost my appetite. This should cover the bill and the tip. Mark my words, your time is coming, John. One of these days you’ll pay for your sins,” she said and then went to the restroom.

As she walked away she heard John say, “I wouldn’t bet on it, Doc.”

* * * *

A week later, Shelly Robinson stood at the graves of her sister and parents at St. Paul’s Churchyard in Manhattan. The sky was cloudless and birds chirped in the trees. The temperature was a pleasant seventy-two degrees with low humidity. She turned to the sound of footsteps crunching leaves underfoot.

“Hello, Richard.”

“Hello, Shelly. Did you see this morning’s headlines?”

“Yes, I did. John Maxwell died of an apparent heart attack during a bachelor party at an unnamed strip club. Rather poetic don’t you think?”

“Perhaps the performance was too stressful,” Richard said with a chuckle.

“I assume the coroner didn’t find anything unusual during the autopsy.”

Richard shook his head. “Nothing but a weak heart. No traces of toxins in his system.”

“Good, then we’re on schedule.”

“Like clockwork. Have you contacted Maxwell’s attorney?”

“We have reservations, eight o’clock on Wednesday at Carmine’s in the Theater District. He likes Italian.”

“Arlene would be happy to hear that,” Richard said. “Carmine’s huh? I know the head chef there. I understand the Chicken Scaloppine is to die for.”

Shelly looked at Richard and smiled. “Let’s hope so.”

Every writer develops their stories in different ways. Some outline, some write from scratch and let the characters develop and the plot emerge as they write. Others might draft three or four chapters before they decide it’s time to step back and determine the flow of the story.

I’ve tried all of the above and other approaches, but always come back to, and finally settled on outlining. My “ideal” story will be mapped out with all questions and issues resolved before I write the draft. Of course, that’s in a perfect world.

Regardless of the approach you use, at some point the chronology of the events in the lives of your characters will need to be validated. Most, if not all stories involve background events for your main characters, which may or may not be included in the final version. But these events are important because you want to ensure, for example, that your antagonist (let’s say he or she is a serial killer), was in a certain location at a certain time when he or she claimed their first victim. You also want to make sure he or she was not six months old at the time of the murder.

Here is where a timeline is most useful and I believe must be part of the writing process at some point of story development. What you use to create a timeline is a matter of choice.

In the past I’ve used a Word document in the standard outline form and even used Post-It notes on a whiteboard, but a template I created (and am always “tweaking”) in Excel has proven its worth and stood the test of time. If you’ve ever ‘Googled’ the phrase ‘Timeline in Excel,’ you’ll find more examples than you’ll know what to do with. The truth is, figuring out which one best fits your needs can consume a lot of time.

I’m hoping to spare you that research time.

I’m a proponent on providing examples because I believe giving advice without suggesting how to implement that advice falls well short of being effective. It’s like your doctor telling you to lose weight then sending you on your way without recommending the best approach.

For the moment and the sake of this blog, consider me a caring doctor.

Here is my prescription – my timeline template in Excel in column listing form.

  • Event Month
  • Event Day
  • Event Year
  • Time of day (Estimate)
  • Time of day (Precise)
  • Event Character
  • Event Character birthdate
  • Event Character Age
  • Details (a short summary of the event)
  • Event Location
  • Where does the event become known?
  • Notes (a free form column to expound on event details, ask questions, or brainstorm

If you’ve used Excel for any amount of time, you’re aware of its flexibility and power. Using drop-down lists, tables, and calculations, I’ve saved considerable time filling in the columns in my template.

For instance, I created a character table in a separate sheet and use a drop-down to select the Event Character. This keeps me from having to refer to a separate source of characters.

I use drop-down lists to select Event Month, Day, and Year.

You’ll notice I listed two Time of Day columns. In the Estimate column, I use a drop down list of 24 values corresponding to the hours of the day. This is a ball park time for when the event might occur. In the Precise column I enter the actual time the event occurred, because multiple events are likely to occur within a given hour and it’s essential to list them chronologically. Are both necessary? Perhaps, perhaps not, but to each his own, and in the words of actor Fred Dryer who starred in the TV series, Hunter, “works for me.” I’m probably dating myself but you get what I mean.

The character name table includes birthdate which allows me to set up the calculated column to show the character’s age at the time of an event. This allows me to verify that the CEO of a company is not four years old, for example.

Hopefully before I progress too far into the story development phase, I’m able to create a drop down list for my scenes or chapters, allowing me to select from the list to enter it into the column where does the event become known? For instance, the event date and time our serial killer won’t become known until later in the story, after the protagonist investigates (and hopefully finds and stops the dude).

The Data –> Filter tool in Excel is a powerful and valuable assistant.

Once I fill in as much of the timeline sheet as I can, I can display by a certain value or values by selecting that value or values from the column.

  • I filter by character to track the events in their life.
  • I filter by date to see what events occurred on that date.
  • I filter by scene or chapter to isolate the events that will become known at that time, which allows me to start drafting that particular scene or chapter.
  • I validate that my character’s age jibes with the event, and check the time to ensure the facts of the story are presented as they occur in the story.

. . . All at the touch of a button!

Another benefit to this timeline manifests itself during the brainstorming phase. By filtering on an event for a certain character, I can create previous and/or subsequent events for any character I believe will contribute to the plot. This determines the flow of the story.

For example, I might have an event, ‘John discovers a dead body.

From this I can brainstorm and create previous and subsequent events for John as well as other characters. Who is the person? Who killed them? How did they get there? When did they kill this person? Did anyone witness the murder? Placing characters in a location and time will help to determine hints, clues, and witnesses.

I’ve discovered the best thing about this timeline approach to developing story is it’s more fun than writing the actual story.

Isn’t it “time” for your timeline?


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As writers seeking the one magical piece of advice making our names synonymous with Stephen King, John Grisham, Sue Grafton and a host of other best-selling authors, we’ve read it a hundred times –

If you don’t have interesting characters, you have no story. Forget interesting! The reader absolutely must love (or hate) your character and feel what they feel, as if they themselves were in the middle of that character’s world.

No argument there. But the biggest problem with advice is it doesn’t often include examples of how to bring those characters to life.

The “experts” advise spending time developing their character; come to know them as if you were playing the part.

This is called character profiling.

I’ve been at the writing game for longer than I care to admit. Through articles, blogs, how-to books, my own research, and a love affair with Google, I’ve produced an extensive character profile in Excel, my writing companion I would be absolutely lost without. As it is with most writing templates, it is an ever-changing and ever-growing work-in-progress.

My character profile is broken down into 36 categories, among them Name, Physical Description, Background, Education, Psychological, Sociological, Relationships . . . you get the idea.

The categories themselves are subdivided into 475 rows of detail. For instance, a character’s physical description includes height, weight, hair color, eye color, physique.

How much or how little of a character profile is recommended is directly related to the role the character plays in the story. A typical story will usually contain three main characters. Protagonist, Antagonist, and Love Interest, perhaps one or two more, and are the only characters requiring a “complete” character profile. Indeed, no more than a physical description is needed for the majority of the characters in the story.

It’s the “complete” in the above paragraph that bogged me down in my early days of writing, when I was naïve and took every piece of advice to heart. I wanted to be “complete” in developing my main characters, making sure I knew how they ate, talked, walked, spoke, and slept, all of which required extensive thought and decision. After all, we can’t have every character born in California and eating pasta every night for dinner.

The more I read and the more I practiced my craft, the less naïve I became. I started to take each piece of advice with a grain of salt, particularly when the advice, some from best-selling authors, often contradicted each other. You know what I’m talking about . . . you’ve been there, haven’t you?

I was spending so much time on the character profile; all it did was keep me from writing the story.

Yes, interesting characters are an absolute must for a good story, but if nothing happens to the most interesting character in the world, guess what? You have no story.

Now when I sit down to develop a story, I work my character profile and story structure in concert. By story structure I mean plots, obstacles, and conflict . . . in short . . . events, all of which need to be worked around the goals and motivations of the main characters.

I create the bare minimum of my extensive character profile, followed by at least an idea of what events will drive the actions of the characters. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a skeleton of scenes and chapters outlined, even if a particular scene/chapter description is simply ‘Detective Finds Body.’

Once I create a basic idea of the structure, I can return to my character profile and fill in only the appropriate details. For example, the fact my main character might have attended elementary school in Kansas is only relevant if something significant happened during that time and contributed to the makeup of the character. Unless I decide to write a scene in a restaurant, it’s probably not important to spend much (if any) time determining what foods the character prefers or how he or she eats.

Take it from me; filling out a comprehensive character profile should be done with extreme prejudice because it can chew up a lot of time otherwise spent writing the story.

More importantly, since the writer’s goal is to maximize show, and minimize tell, there might be a tendency to provide nothing more than a “laundry list” of a character’s traits without considering its importance. I fell into this trap early on and many times “threw” something together just to fill in the blanks.

There is an obvious benefit to using this approach. Rather than get bogged down with what might be called the administrative details, it will encourage you to start writing the story, the goal of every writer.

The biggest reason not to spend too much time on profiling is you might end up “pigeonholing” your character. If you’ve been at this game for any amount of time, I expect you’ll agree that while you draft your story, your character will be shaped and reshaped through the events, conflict, dialogue and interaction between other characters, often rendering your original character profile you spent so much time on, null and void.

Give it a try.

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