Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My First Year

by Jamie Freveletti

Yesterday my second novel, Running Dark, launched. It was a banner day. I am officially no longer a “debut” author. Here’s what I learned in my first year of as a published author:

1. Debut authors have a special place for a short while

When you’re debut, reviewers take an additional look at you. They, like everyone else, want to know about you, your book, and what you write. This is especially beneficial and, I think, appropriate. You’re a new quantity. With any luck, some of the now dwindling review space will go to you.

2. The story is king

People want to hear about the story. Yes, those who are unpublished and writing their own manuscripts want to learn a bit about how your particular story got to market, but the majority of readers want to hear the story.

3. Marketing—it’s a strange and unusual pastime.

Every author out there feels the pressure to market their novel and I’m no different. Running from the Devil launched in the worst economic downturn in forty years. People who used to buy hard cover books without a second thought were thinking twice. Established authors saw fifty percent declines in their sales. Asking readers to take a risk on a debut author was asking a lot.

While this may have created an argument for more intensive marketing, I’m not sure that marketing sells a book. I did the usual things authors do: blog, tour, and attend conferences, and the book sold, but I did none of these things in Germany and there the book hit the bestseller list and continues to sell at a rapid clip. Same story, no additional input from me. I find that interesting.

I’ll continue to focus on the writing, do what I can when it’s launch time and let the marketing team in New York run with it. Between us, we’ll get it done.

4. Keep your head about you and your ego in check.

It’s a heady day the day your first novel appears on the book shelves of your local bookseller. If it sells well, you feel great. Don’t, however, fall prey to your own press clippings. You’re an author, you didn’t cure cancer. Do your best not to act as though you did.

Like most things in life, a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Know what you want and ask for it, but keep your expectations in line with reality. Try to be nice, it will pay off. Watch out for the users and fakers and liars. Find someone in the industry you can trust and listen to their advice.

5. Enjoy every minute.

I’ve worked a lot harder jobs than this. Being a lawyer is intellectually stimulating and lucrative but also grueling, being a waitress can be stressful and exhausting, and making candles--my first job--was hot, dangerous, and cemented my desire to go to college. Only the toughest survived that job, and I wasn’t one of them

Being a writer is a strange alchemy of imagination and work, but it’s fun and magical. My publisher just picked up books three and four and so I’m employed for a while. I intend to enjoy every minute of it.

My heartfelt thanks to all the readers out there who made it possible.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Law of the Land

Friend of the Outfit Simon Wood is an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot and an occasional private investigator. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. He's had over 150 stories and articles published, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines anthologies. He's the Anthony Award winning author of WORKING STIFFS, ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN, PAYING THE PIPER, and WE ALL FALL DOWN. His latest thriller, TERMINATED, is out in mass paperback. Curious people can learn more at

Welcome, Simon!

Grr, jurisdictions. I don’t like the US’s decentralized approach to governing its people. I’m from a country with a one-stop shopping approach to life. There’s one sales tax, one driving license, one government, one set of laws, one police force to name just a few. But here in the US, everything is fragmented. There are federal, state and local versions of everything. That means duplications, especially when it comes to politicians. No wonder we’re in a mess. But I’m digressing. Okay, I get the logic of a regional and provincial infrastructure and it worked well when to country was developing, but does it have to be so fragmented now? We no longer live in times where it takes a month to navigate the country. Communication happens in nanoseconds not days. This desire of mine applies most to the police in the US. I wish there was a centralized police force. It can be broken down by state, county, etc. but I want it to be one homogenous entity. I want a cop to be a cop to be a cop to be a cop. Not a fed, a marshal, a sheriff, or a cop.

I came to this conclusion a few years ago as I lay across a city-county limit line after being hit by a car. If this were the UK, a simple call to the emergency services would have sorted everything out, but sadly it turned into a three-ring circus of bureaucratic silliness. Who to call became an issue. My head and torso was in the city while my legs were in the county. A 911 call was an issue in itself. In my part of the US, it’s recommended that you don’t call 911 on your cell phone because it gets routed to a California Highway Patrol center in a different county and not the local dispatch. So the suggestion is that you keep your local police department’s phone number programmed into your phone. The people who witnessed the incident remembered this issue and covered all the bases by calling individual jurisdictions as well as 911. Calls were placed to the city, the county and CHP. Because I was at a city/county intersection, the matter of who should respond arose. I didn’t much care who responded as long as someone did. I was kind of concussed and bleeding inside at the time. Eventually, CHP won the battle because they only took twenty minutes to answer the phone, but also because the county has outsourced traffic accidents to the state. That must have been in a memo that didn’t reach me. In the meantime, I caught a ride to the hospital from a concerned citizen.

Despite the frustration of that situation, as a scribbler, everything that happens to me—good or bad—is grist for the mill and the mill is working. I don’t go out of my way to be subversive in my storytelling, but I do zero in on chinks in society's armor. Proving the point that “one man’s meat is another man’s pudding,” a system of decentralization is open to abuse. Jurisdictional territoriality can be exploited by the devious. Normally, the investigating police entity is the one from where the crime or incident occurred. Obviously, things change when you cross state lines, but if I steal a car in Oakland and break into a house in Berkeley, it’s not going to be a federal case and the two city police departments aren’t going to band together unless something leads them to the fact. This is where my devious little writer mind comes in. If I wanted to victimize someone, I could commit each little crime in a different jurisdiction. It wouldn’t be hard. Very few of us live in the same city where we work. Using my wife as an example, her 30-mile commute takes her through ten city and county jurisdictions. Even if someone brought a complaint against me, they'd have to duplicate the complaint in every jurisdiction. Ah, the complexities of simplicity.

I played with this issue in my latest thriller, Terminated. The story centers on a vindictive employee causing havoc for his boss. The incidents occur in different jurisdictions making it hard to point a finger at the guilty party.

Like I say, I don’t like decentralized government infrastructure, but it suits me fine when it comes to my fiction.

Yours across state lines,
Simon Wood

Friday, June 25, 2010


by Michael Dymmoch

My mother passed away last winter; this week she would have celebrated her 87th birthday. Though my grandmother taught me to read, Mother always kept books in the house. And she never censored my reading. Mom got me a library card and, until I could drive myself, she drove me to the library to satisfy my reading jones. I always got books for Christmas. Mom gave everybody books.

She taught me to recycle before recycling had a name. She let me take days off school to go to the annual Winnetka Rummage sale, which was almost as good as Christmas. Before we had an energy crisis she taught me to conserve energy: Go back and turn off that light! Close the door—are you trying to heat the outdoors?

Mom never said No to a pet in a way that let me know she meant it. If I was a good mother, it’s because my mother gave me a great example and a chance to practice parenting on a variety of creatures with different needs and ways of communicating. She taught empathy by example. She embraced everyone we brought home, notwithstanding reservations she may have had about them. In cases where visitors acted up, Mom just said, Go home. Come back when you can behave.

She taught me to trust in my ability to manage whatever I have to, and to expect the universe to provide—Live horse and you’ll get grass.

Mom insisted that I get a college education. It was never You should go to college, always You’re going to college. But she never suggested I shouldn’t follow my heart in what I studied. When I graduated, she was a whole lot prouder than I, as she was when my first book came out.

Most importantly, Mom gave me a great moral compass—two vital precepts to live by: How would you feel if someone did that to you? and—in case I felt like doing murder—Two wrongs don’t make a right! If I have the courage to say, That’s just wrong! I got it from her.

Mom’s legacy will continue down the generations. She raised her children to follow her example, Now we’re doing our best to model it for our kids.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Secrets to Getting Published

by Marcus Sakey

I frequently teach a workshop course entitled "Secrets to Getting Published"; I'm actually slated to teach it this July at the Midwest Writers Workshop, along with fellow Outfiteer Sean Chercover. If you're an aspiring writer, we'd certainly love to see you.

Anyway, though the title is obviously calculated for appeal, I have found that a lot of the things I present actually do seem like secrets to people. Sometimes that's because there's a dearth of information on the subject; sometimes it's because the existing information is out-dated or misleading.

So in that spirit, here are a couple of tips to bear in mind if you're trying to get published.

First, finish the book. I mean really finish it, which means getting feedback from a bunch of people, tearing it apart, putting it back together, repeating that as necessary, then revising, and then editing, and then polishing. It's not done until it shines.

But once it does, the next step is to look for an agent. You're not looking for an editor--they don't read unsolicited work these days--and I don't recommend self-publishing. While there are of course a handful of exceptions to every rule, for the most part self-publishing is disdained by the industry, and is also a really tough way to make a buck.

To find an agent, you first need to figure out who to approach. Go to your local library or bookstore and start checking the acknowledgments in books similar to your own. The best way to find an agent who will do well with your work is to find agents who are already doing well with work like yours.

Next, write a query letter. I have an extremely detailed article on how to do that on my website. In essence, it comes down to this: seduce the agent. Don't get bogged down in details, don't include that which has no place, and above all, make sure you're grabbing hold of their jugular. A good query should make an agent desperate to read the book before someone else scoops it up.

Send out a batch of these, then start working on your next book. As the rejections come in, have a beer, send out another batch. Then get back to your book.

In truth, this is the heart of the "secret" of getting published: present yourself professionally, demonstrate that you have knowledge of the industry, and then get back to your next book.

For all the talk of self-promotion, of marketing, of the rise of e-books and the importance of networking and the changing face of publishing, one element remains central. There is one element over which you have absolute control. And one thing that has to be your focus above all else.

Your novel.

For a far, far more detailed version of the query process, as well as a lot of other tips I've discovered, check out my website. Or come to Muncie this July and join Sean and I at the Midwest Writers Workshop--we'd love to see you.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On Purple Hearts and Cigarettes

By Kevin Guilfoile

I'm going to be talking out of my rear again today, just so you're warned.

Last week I finally got around to watching the series finale of Lost. I had spent the previous days avoiding any discussion of it, and so after I saw it I went out and surveyed the articles and chats and reviews. There were people who liked it and a lot of people who didn't. But what struck me about the response was the degree to which the fans of the show felt that as the series wound down they were "owed" something creatively by the producers and writers of the show. No one could quite explain what that something was, but they all thought they'd know it when they saw it. And a lot of them said they didn't see it.

I'm not trying to start a debate about the success or failure of the final season of Lost. But it got me thinking about this idea of what the artist owes the audience, and more specifically what the novelist owes the reader.

I'm basing this strictly on tangential conversations I've had over the years (and my experience with the novels themselves), but if I were to poll my friends who identify their books as literary fiction, I think many of them would say the writer owes nothing to the reader except for the obvious: A compelling story with finely-drawn characters, written well. (As my friend John Warner, an acclaimed short story writer and English professor whose debut novel will be released next year says, "I believe there’s an obligation to the audience to engage them with the text from the biggest picture stuff like character and story, all the way down to the sentence and word level. The text should be organic, true to itself, to the set of rules that it establishes on its own. By the end of a literary novel, I think the reader usually knows the rules the writer has established over the course of the text, so the blank slate isn’t so blank anymore.") Many would bristle at the idea that in terms of the details of the story--how the story specifically ends, what happens to the characters, whether or not every question has been explicitly answered, all the things fans were complaining about after the final Lost episode--they owe the reader a particular result. The story is the author's alone. A book is not a democracy. When the reader picks up a novel, they sign on to the author's vision and agree to go on that journey no matter where it takes them. They may or may not enjoy the story, but to wish it were different, or that the journey would take them to a different place, would be out of bounds, according to these writers. These are not elements that are negotiable by the reader.

But if I were to ask my friends who consider themselves genre writers, I think I'd get a slightly different answer. I think suspense writers, for instance, are acutely aware of the reader's expectations and are usually loath to defy them. I think many of them would say that if good doesn't win over evil, that if order is not restored, that if questions are not explicitly answered, they are cheating the reader. They aren't giving her what she paid for.

It's the difference, I guess, between Lee Child's ability to kill off Jack Reacher, and John Updike's ability to kill off Rabbit Angstrom.

Last week I was at an event, and afterwards I was sitting at the hotel bar watching the Lakers-Celtics game with Christopher Reich, the bestselling author of many terrific novels, including the upcoming RULES OF BETRAYAL. I was describing to him a short story I was contemplating writing and Chris was hammering me (in a helpful way) on a storyline that I had planned to leave largely unresolved."You can't do that," Chris said. "You can't raise a question that big and not resolve it. You have to tell the reader why it happened." And of course, he's right. If I'm writing a certain kind of story, I really shouldn't do that. But who decides what kind of story I'm writing? Is it me, or is it the reader?

Now this is an old debate (not to mention the plot of Misery), and in a lot of MFA programs they would deride this approach to writing as "formula." But that's a mischaracterization thats shows a lack of understanding about what these writers are really doing. Sure there are popular genre writers who are phoning it in, essentially writing the same book over and over, but for most suspense writers I think the thing that defines them is not a formula but a relationship with the reader. And for me, what makes a great genre novel is a writer who understands these expectations and uses them to surprise the reader, but also thrill and delight him--a writer who subverts and plays with the reader's expectations without completely betraying them.

Justin Cronin wrote two acclaimed works of literary fiction. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and is a professor at Rice University. Currently he's touring to support one of the most anticipated books of the summer, the vampire thriller The Passage. At BEA this month, he said, "I used to have readers, but now I think I'm going to have fans."

Readers can be critical, but fans can be disappointed. Writing for the latter seems to involve a whole other set of responsibilities.

Also a reminder about my Twitter contest. Ahead of my upcoming novel THE THOUSAND, I'm looking for 1,000 Twitter followers, and when I get them I'll be giving away ten signed advance copies, plus a handwritten deleted chapter and lots of other cool stuff.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Organized Chaos

by David Ellis

When I think of the qualities that go into being a good novelist, organization is not one of them. I think of imagination and creativity and courage and insightfulness. I think of someone poring over a sentence, looking for that perfect word that captures the essence of the moment. I think of someone closing their eyes and letting the inspiration of Beethoven’s Fifth wash over them. I think of someone listening, observing, questioning, obsessing, dreaming.

I don’t think of someone creating an Excel spreadsheet.

But the longer I write books, the more I realize the importance of having my act together beforehand and as I go along.

One way is advance outlining. I don’t always do it and I know our community is all over the place on this. I hear that Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline don’t do it at all. James Patterson outlines every chapter and preaches it as gospel. Me, I never used to do it at all.

But as time has become tighter for me since I took this job with the government (that’s right, folks, I work longer hours for the government than I did in my private law practice, stereotypes notwithstanding) and my kids were born, I have realized that I don’t have the time to head down one path, only to realize later that I need to turn around and change direction. I don’t have that week to waste. I don’t outline every single thing, in part because I lack the discipline and in part because I know that I’ll call audibles as I go along, anyway, but generally plotting something out in advance has become more a part of my writing than I ever thought it would be. It’s also more fun than I thought it would be. The best parts of my novels are the parts that I didn’t write but dreamed up in my head as I outlined, only to be spoiled when I actually had to translate that brilliant idea to paper.

Another organizational tool is keeping track of what you’re doing as you go along. I’m talking about keeping a chart of some sort that chronicles what you’ve done in each chapter. I never used to dream of doing that. But now I like it. It helps you keep control over your book. You get 300 pages in and the thing gets unwieldy, yes? You wonder how many times you left this clue, or that red herring, or that information about character. You want to know how long you’ve gone without major action, or how long ago you reminded the reader of something that is so important that you want to emphasize it, but not too often.

It also helps with revisions. Your editor makes one of those maddening general comments about how there’s not enough of this or too much of that in the book. It’s easier to digest that comment if you can see your novel from the big picture. With one of my books, I only did this after the editor came back with her comments. At that point, I thought it was necessary to see the big picture to understand what she meant. The result? I couldn’t believe how much I learned about my book from this chapter-by-chapter chronology. To any of you out there who haven’t tried this, I highly recommend it.

I want to add a couple of additional things at the end here, unrelated:

1. Scott Turow’s new novel, Innocent, is brilliant. He’s always been my favorite but he continues to amaze me. When it comes to drama and the law, this guy is playing chess, the rest of us checkers.

2. I haven’t said a word about Blago and his trial. I did predict in an earlier piece that he would go with the “clown defense” and that’s partly what he seems to be doing; that and the I-was-duped-by-greedy-friends defense. I’ve been waiting for him go with advice-of-counsel, as some have predicted. But that would require his lawyer to go along with it, and who knows if that will happen? In any event, riveting theater. Who can predict what a jury will do?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blagojevich versus Burge

The buzz around town is Blago and Burge, and I had the dubious pleasure of seeing each of them this week. Both men are fighting for their lives from charges of abusing their power; one with an avaricious bank account, the other with a baton.

I was at the courthouse to watch the trial of former Chicago Police Lieutenant Jon Burge. Michael McDermott, a former detective under Burge, was expected to be an excellent prosecution witness since he had testified at a grand jury that he saw Burge point a gun at a suspect and pull a typewriter bag over his head in order to get a confession. But at trial, Burge in front of him, McDermott’s appearance was more confrontational than expected. He wasn’t sure the gun was actually pointed at the suspect, he said, and he wasn’t sure it was a typewriter bag; he wasn’t even certain Burge had pulled it over the suspect. Sounding near tears, McDermott accused the prosecutor of threatening his family, his job and his pension if he didn’t testify. Assistant U.S. Attorney April Perry was unmoved, asking him sarcastically, “You didn’t have a gun pointed to your head, did you?”

Witnessing this trial should have been enough excitement, but what happened after in the lobby after was more fascinating. Or possibly just more surreal. While I was speaking to family members of suspects interrogated by Burge, the former guv strutted in with his defense team. I’d met Rod Blagojevich once before, maybe eight years ago, but didn’t expect him to remember. Yet there he was, striding toward me, arms outstretched. I froze like a deer in the cross-hairs. To no avail. Soon, he was greeting me, then wrapping his arms around me in a powerful hug while a bevy television cameras captured the moment (and flushed away any political aspirations I thankfully never had).

When he had released me, I said hello to his wife and watched as Blago engaged some onlookers in conversation. “It was a good day today!” he said. (At trial that day prosecutors played taped conversations between Blago and Lon Monk, his friend from days of yore. “…[G]ive US the f*** money,” Monk says in the tape, describing a conversation with a race track owner. Prosecutors claim the tapes show how Monk, Blago and others set out to shakedown people for illegal campaign contributions). “A great day!” Blago said.

Detective Jon Burge had been serious and somber in court, looking like he longed for the baton back in his fist. Blago, however, was a freshly-crowned beauty queen—tanned, glowing, fit and beaming with what appeared to be genuine happiness. I peered closer. How did he do it? How could someone be so joyful while facing odds that even Vegas wouldn’t touch? Granted, the man has been called a classic narcissist (and far too many other names that I won’t put to pen), but surely even narcissists have bad days, bleak days, especially when they’re facing decades in a penitentiary. And yet look at that bliss.

Later, I asked my office manager, Carol, what she thought. Carol runs a business called Positive Focus that inspires people to envision the world through a positive lens thereby creating a life of fulfillment and passion (and who, by the way, often sponsors “free hug” days). I expected Carol to say that Blago was a true testament to the concept that choosing to be happy, regardless of what’s going on in your life, will empower you and free you.

Instead she commented she sincerely doubted that would free the former guv. “I wonder,” she said, “if Burge would have felt better with a hug from Blago?”

Jon Burge to testify in his defense tomorrow.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Kind of Town, Except ...

By Bryan Gruley

My friends keep congratulating me on the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup. I’m a hockey player and I live in Chicago, so I must be celebrating, right?
Actually, no.

I’ve lived in Chicago for five years. I love it. Love the city, the restaurants, the parks, the music, the theaters, even the L train. I do not love the sports teams.
I can’t. Because it’s all about the pain.

I’m from Detroit. Although I left for good in 1987, I still root for the hockey Red Wings, the baseball Tigers, the basketball Pistons, and the (barely) football Lions. For 18 years in Washington, D.C., I didn’t think about adopting the Washington Redskins, the Baltimore Orioles, the Washington Capitals, or whatever Washington’s basketball team was named then.

When we moved to Chicago to a house a few blocks from Wrigley Field, it was tempting to do as the Romans do and become a Cubs fan (though the Romans did rule the world before their decline). And the Bears were on their way to a Super Bowl, so why not cheer for them? I’ve always liked their helmets, anyway.

I know friends and family who trade allegiances like stocks and bonds. One of my brothers-in-law is a college football fan who attended Central Michigan University. No national titles likely there, so he attached himself to the University of Michigan. Then he moved to Colorado just as the Buffaloes were getting good, and he’d switch his loyalty back and forth between Michigan and Colorado, depending on who was ranked higher. Now that both suck, he’s probably looking at Colorado State.

I can read the box scores and figure out which bandwagon to jump on. But I don’t. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. Maybe I have an irrational fear of joining new clubs. Maybe I see the ruined city that once was my home, and I cling to those teams because they’re the best of what remains. Or maybe I just like those classic uniforms, with the winged wheel and the Olde English D.

Chicago fans, as much as anyone, should understand. It’s been more than a century since the Cubs last won the World Series, 24 years since the Super Bowl was Chicago’s. Eighty-eight years passed before the Sox finally won the Series again.

And now, the Blackhawks have brought the Stanley Cup back for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president.

I’m sure Hawks fans would have liked a few more Cups sprinkled in over the last 49 years. But how much sweeter this one must be for all the pain and frustration of those barren decades. I know a few Chicagoans who gave up on the Hawks. I admire the ones who stayed true.

Even the ones who yell that moronic “Detroit Sucks” cheer.

In Detroit, the Pistons are terrible and the Lions—with exactly one post-season win in the last 53 years--are the Lions. The Tigers lost their division on the last day of last season. The Red Wings exited the NHL playoffs before they had a shot at the Hawks.

For a Detroit fan like me, it’s all pain. But if I walked away from it—got myself a Bulls T-shirt or learned that silly Bears fight song—I’d be cheating not just my hometown, but myself.

Helicopters whup-whapped over our house last week, following the Stanley Cup as Hawks players and fans took it on a pub crawl. It hurt a little to imagine how much fun they were having. But I take solace in knowing that next year, those helicopters will be flying over Detroit.

Friday, June 11, 2010

That Which I Feared Most

Barbara D'Amato

Like Job, that which I feared has come to pass.

I forgot I was supposed to blog today. I always hoped this oversight wouldn't happen. As an excuse, we are hosting a party tonight for a child who is graduating from Kellogg and my mind was elsewhere.

However, to make a little lemonade out of this lemon, I was forced to think about the things that distract us from writing. Illness, for instance, especially of a family member, household disasters, a dental appointment, the discovery that your central plot element has already been used. When do we override the distractions and when do they conquer us?

My friend, the late writer Mary Shura Craig, used to say that people she liked would ask her to lunch or dinner but she usually refused. She couldn't spare the time. She said, "I am ruthless about time." And she added that she would not often let family issues intrude on her writing schedule, either. She produced many wonderful books in her lifetime, in three names -- mysteries under her own, thrillers as M. S. Craig, and children's books as Mary Francis Shura.
But I've never figured out how ruthless to be.

The best I've been able to do is combine stressors. I try to set up "hell days" so that other days are clear. Maybe one day with the dentist in the morning, the internist in the afternoon, and the closet clean-out in the evening. This actually works pretty well, except for emergencies.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Outfit at Printers Row

For those of you headed down to the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago this weekend, here's where and when you'll find members of The Outfit:

Saturday, 10:30 AM
Marcus Sakey, David Heinzmann, and Kevin Guilfoile will be discussing the "Thrill of Mystery" with the terrific Gillian Flynn in the Burnham Room at the Hotel Blake (500 S Dearborn). (Sean Chercover, who was also scheduled for this event, is sidelined with an illness, unfortunately.)

Saturday, 3:00 PM
Outfitter emeritus Sara Paretsky will be in conversation with the Tribune's Julia Keller in the Harold Washington Library's Cindy Pritzker Auditorium.

Sunday, 2:00 PM
Libby Fischer Hellmann, Laura Caldwell, and Jamie Freveletti will be contemplating "Crime and Punishment" with Daniel Levin and Jeff Jacobson in the Harold Washington Library's Multi-Purpose Room.

What events and authors are you looking forward to this weekend? Let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Last Words of the Executed

A while back, I was asked to read a galley of journalist Robert K. Elder's new book, and say something nice about it if I liked it. I thought it was terrific, and here's what I said: "By compiling the last words of people put to death by the state in America, juxtaposed against details of their crimes and victims, Robert K. Elder has created an extraordinary book. No matter which side of the capital punishment divide you find yourself, Last Words of the Executed is a must-read. Because this is not a political book, but a human journey. You may find your beliefs challenged, changed, or reaffirmed, but you will not come away unaffected."

I also invited Rob to guest-blog at The Outfit, and here he is...


By Robert K. Elder

When Sean Chercover asked me to guest post this week, I thought: This will be easy. Since the name of this blog is The Outfit, I would just choose some excerpts from “Last Words of the Executed” about gangsters and their final words.

There was just one problem.

As my friend Jonathan Eig (author of “Get Capone”) pointed out to me recently, “The death penalty was not a deterrent for organized crime. So few of them were even prosecuted, let alone found guilty.” And for the most part, he’s right.

Most of the executed gangsters in my book are from lower level street gangs. And the one, true member of a crime syndicate I found—Louis Lepke, the former overlord of Murder, Inc.—used his final words to reinforce omertà, organized crime’s code of silence.

“I am anxious to have it clearly understood that I did not offer to talk and give information in exchange for any promise of commutation of my death sentence,” Lepke said in 1944 on his way to Sing Sing’s electric chair.

So, what I’ve chosen below are a series of last words from Chicago-related cases, including the last words of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer at the heart of Erik Larsen’s “Devil in the White City.” I’ve also included excerpts from the murderers of Chicago mayor Anton J. Cermak, a Chicago Daily News reporter, as well as a few other cases.

If you want to read more, you can pick up the book here or attend the book release bash Thursday, June 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Stop Smiling (1371 N. Milwaukee Ave.). The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan will MC the event. I also post historical last words every day from and from my Twitter account, @lastwordsx.

Now, excerpts from “Last Words of the Executed”:

“Beautiful world . . . I’ve forgiven everybody. . . . I haven’t a thing to say. Turn ’er loose. . . . Goodbye, Doc. . . . You’re a wonderful old boy. I haven’t got a thing against anybody in the world. I forgive everybody. I can do that because of this wonderful Jewish rabbi. That’s all. Goodbye.”
—Charles Birger, convicted of murder, Illinois. Executed April 19, 1928

A gang leader in southern Illinois, Birger was convicted of hiring two men to murder the mayor of West City. Birger scoffed and jeered during his sanity trial while deputies were trying to testify, and at one point he got up and remarked, “We’ll take a smoke on that, judge, as you can’t do any more to me than you already have.” When asked where he wanted to be buried, Birger said, “A Catholic cemetery because that’s the last place the devil would look for a Jew.”


“I no want minister. There no God. It’s all below. I’ll go myself, I no scared of lectric chair . . . See, I no fraid of lectric chair. No cameraman? No movie to take a picture of Zangara? Lousy capitalists—no picture—capitalists, no one here take my picture, all capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Good-bye, adios to all the world. Push the button!”
—Giuseppe Zangara, convicted of murder, Florida. Executed March 20, 1933

After President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt finished a speech in Miami, Zangara attempted to assassinate him with a pawnshop revolver. Instead of hitting Roosevelt, Zangara wounded four others, including Chicago mayor Anton J. Cermak, who later died of his wounds. Zangara, an Italian immigrant, claimed that “pains in his stomach” caused him to hate people in power, according to a newspaper report.


“Gentlemen, I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in my execution. I only wish to say that the extent of my wrong-doing in taking human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations. I wish to also state here, so that there can be no chance of misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family—the three children and Benjamin, the father—of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am to-day to be hanged. That is all I have to say.”
—Herman Webster Mudgett, best known by his alias H. H. Holmes or Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, convicted of murder, Pennsylvania. Executed May 7, 1896

Holmes killed more than twenty people in his hotel on Chicago’s South Side and sold some of their remains to medical schools, according authorities. Perhaps it’s understandable that Holmes instructed that his body be cemented into his coffin to fend off grave robbers after his execution. He had built his hotel to prepare for Chicago’s World Fair, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and many of his guests were his victims. Holmes was the “devil” in Erik Larson’s book “The Devil in the White City.”


“Frank Bell, having been baptized, made confession and received communion. He felt resigned to God’s holy will and stated that he was perfectly sure that Leo Brothers is innocent of the crime he is charged with. The reason I make this statement is because I would have appeared at Brothers’ trial if the Supreme Court should have given him a new one. I regret that the Supreme Court did not grant a decision before [it was] too late for me to act. I made a statement contradicting my testimony given to officials denying I had anything to do with the Lingle murder. My first statement which I made was the true facts pertaining to the Lingle case.”
—Frank Bell, convicted of robbery and murder, Illinois. Executed January 8, 1932

Bell faced the electric chair for his part in the murder of restaurant manager Chris Patras, who allegedly had promised Bell and his gang $10,000 for the killing of Chicago Daily Tribune crime reporter Alfred Lingle. Lingle was shot in the middle of the day in a crowded subway in downtown Chicago. Bell fingered fellow gang member Richard Sullivan as the triggerman in Patras’ slaying.

Robert K. Elder is the author of “Last Words of the Executed” and Regional Editor for AOL’s in Chicago.

Monday, June 07, 2010


By David Heinzmann, who can't seem to fathom the technical complexity of Blogger, today...

David Alwan was hustling around Peoria, Illinois on Friday, making all the last-minute arrangements for the grand opening of his new restaurant, when he got a phone call from the FBI. A couple dozen investigators were on hand and they thought a murderer had buried a woman’s body on his farm just north of town.

And they wanted permission to start digging.

And not just any body. They were looking for Stacy Peterson, the third wife of former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson, who’s murder trial for the death of his second wife is about to start next month.

Alwan, whose family has been prominent in the food service business in Peoria for decades, had never met Drew Peterson, and he was floored. But the investigators explained that they had a tip the body was buried near a gun club and shooting range, which happens to be surrounded on three sides by Alwan’s farm. A team of dogs trained to sniff out human remains had gone crazy for a little patch of pasture on his rustic spread of fields and timber along the Kickapoo Creek.

So soon the investigators were digging by hand. They dug all day Saturday but found nothing. No mysterious blue barrel that Peterson was supposed to have been seen loading into his vehicle. Not even the remains of a deer carcass. This week they’ll come back with scanning equipment to try to pinpoint what the dogs smelled.

Is this it? Will the crime be solved on the banks of the Kickapoo Creek, a two-hour drive from the suburbs where Peterson and his wife lived? We don’t know.

The tip about the gun club location allegedly came from some kind of mysterious “jailhouse informant,” which set off all kinds of speculation and denials because Peterson has been in solitary confinement since he was arrested in the murder of his second wife, Kathleen Savio. His defense lawyers have mocked the tip as a red herring and a publicity stunt by prosecutors who aren’t confident they can convict Peterson in the Savio case.

As I’ve noted before I grew up around Peoria. Mr. Alwan and I know a lot of the same people, and I grew up eating steaks from his family’s Alwan Brothers Meats Co. So it wasn’t a shocker that I was drawn into working on this story this weekend, albeit from home because I was alone with two little kids while my wife attended a bridal shower for my niece in… Peoria.

Anyway, Sunday morning I was sitting on the front porch drinking coffee and reading emails when I received a note from a reader who said the story reminded him of a TV plot he’d seen once. He had a theory on what happened out on that farm in Peoria. It was a pretty intriguing theory. Sorry, my journalist’s hat won’t let me speculate about guilt or innocence, so I won’t go into the details. But I’ll invite Outfit readers to tap their mystery-thriller instincts and offer up some ideas of their own. What’s buried out there amid the alfalfa and oak trees on the banks of the Kickapoo, and how did it get there?

You fill in the blanks…

One postscript: I am securely and happily on the Blackhawks bandwagon. After last night’s blazing and bruising win over the Flyers, the Stanley Cup is within reach. And I’ve gone from a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about hockey to shouting at the TV as clocks run out amid frantic, frenzied scrambles around the net. And every time Antti Niemi drops on his ass and splays his legs and skates and pads trying to stop the puck I think of Gus Carpenter, the tragic-heroic goalie and newsman-sleuth in Bryan’s Starvation Lake.

David Heinzmann is having technical difficulties...

But that probably shouldn't surprise anyone.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Eleanor Taylor Bland, 1944-2010

We lost a wonderful woman the other day. Yes, she was a pioneer for female African-American mystery writers. Yes she wrote graceful, velvety prose. Yes, she never met a cause she wasn't dedicated to. But Eleanor was so much more: a mentor, a cheerleader, a mother and grandmother, a fount of wisdom on craft and the way the "publishing world" worked, a diplomatic but endearing soul, who had a wicked sense of humor.

Many of you have written over the past few months to tell me what Eleanor meant to you -- even though you'd only met her once or twice. I hope you'll take some time now to share your memories of Eleanor in the comments section.

Btw, if all goes well, we hope to endow a scholarship in her name for female African-American mystery writers. More on that as it develops.

To start off, here are a couple of personal tributes.

June 2, 2010
This afternoon Eleanor ended her decades-long struggle with Gardner’s Disease. Despite her illness, Eleanor wrote and published 14 novels about small-town cop Marti MacAlister, and edited a collection of stories by well-known African-American writers, “Shades of Black” (2005). Her novel “Scream in Silence” (2000) was on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Eleanor accomplished more in one day than most people in a month. She helped pre-published writers at seminars, meetings and the bar; she chaired committees for outreach to marginalized writers; she spoke and taught at grade schools and high schools in Waukegan; and she always gently corrected a beginning writer by saying, “It’s good, but it’s not soup yet.” A memorial will be established in Eleanor’s name to keep her flame of helping others burning.

My first experience with Eleanor was at MWA Midwest's Dark and Stormy conference, probably in 1995. She was critiquing manuscripts, and I'd sent her 25 pages of my first (still unpublished) mystery. I was so nervous I was shaking. We met in a conference room, and she started to laugh. I didn't think it was that funny, but she made a joke about my nervousness, and immediately the ice was broken. She went on to say that my writing needed a lot of work, and I had to learn the craft of fiction, but she thought I "had something" -- that's the way she put it. And she said if I worked really hard, I might actually get published one day. That was the first time anyone had said anything good about my writing. I never forgot it. A year later, I ended up in her writing group, the Red Herrings. I can still remember her admonitions: "Eyes don't drop"... she would say. "They don't roll, either"...
But she always said it with a smile. Over the years we became friends. I mean, who else can you discuss ways to kill someone and what the cops might have missed at the crime scene? I will miss her generosity, her work ethic, and her stories.

Eleanor Taylor Bland was one of the most courageous people I have ever met. Many, many years ago, we knew how dire her prognosis was, and yet she kept on working and kept on being positive. During that time, she gave publication options to aspiring authors who had never been pubhished or who were underpublished. Through it all, she was vigorous, ebullient, and enthusiastic. I still remember her conducting the orchestra as one of the most fun things I have ever seen. Eleanor typified the best of what a writer can be. Bless you, Eleanor.

Your turn now...
From the Chicago Reader: A helpful Who's Who of the Jon Burge trial.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Writing Hero Protagonists in a World of Damaged Souls

by Jamie Freveletti

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about writing the damaged protagonist, and promised to discuss writing a hero. Writing heroes, especially in the current climate where damaged protagonists are the norm, can be tough. Currently, even protagonists that were initially written as heroes have been altered in later incarnations to be damaged.

For example, in Ludlum’s novel, The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne was actually a good guy working for an undercover CIA operation and charged with finding “Carlos” the international assassin. He spent most of the novel concerned that he may be an assassin, and is relieved to finally learn that he was not.

Fast forward twenty years to the movies starring Matt Damon and the Jason Bourne character is altered to be the assassin, not the hero, and he spends his time learning the horrific truth. The movie goes through quite a few twists to show that Bourne was brainwashed into being the bad player.

Why are damaged protagonists in vogue? As I blogged earlier, I think it’s because the damaged individual gives the writer a built in conflict between the character and the demons he or she faces. In a novel, conflict is king. Without it, you got nothin.’ Additionally, damaged characters can engage in a lot of edgy behavior and the reader will buy it a whole lot quicker than if the character was presented without emotional baggage.

So what does this mean for writing heroes? A lot. It means that you need to present someone as inherently decent who does the right thing in the face of bad actors, and you need to make that courage ring true. People love to root for heroes, but they need to be portrayed as believable as well. This presents a challenge for the writer, because a lot of behavior that might be interesting to write about with regard to the damaged character is off limits to the hero. The hero can't step off the line of good, needs to treat others with respect, and yet still be multi-dimensional enough to keep the readers turning pages.

I write a female hero, and it feels right for me. She doesn't cringe from danger, doesn't wait for the men to save her-she saves the men- and she deals with them on an equal basis. This last bit of information is key when writing a female hero, because she needs to make the final decisions and propel the action forward. If she defers to the men she's not the hero, she's a supporting character.

The better known writers have FBI agents, detectives, cops, ex-Secret Service agents and former military written by Rollins, Baldacci, Grafton and Child. All of these writers get it when it comes to writing heroes. Their protagonists are the kind of people you’d want in your corner or shoulder to shoulder with you in that bar when the guy with the pool cue is aiming at your head. There’s something reassuring about a man or woman character that you can depend on to outwit evil, and who has never felt the need to wallow in it. Perhaps they’re coming back into fashion, or maybe never went out of fashion, but they’re fun to write and even better to read.

I'd love to hear about your favorite hero protagonist-book or movie!