The 700-Word Crazies

California’s wildfires inspired this story. The 700-word length was more manageable the second-time around, but this tale required more precise word choices than my first attempt six months ago. For me, writing this story was a moment to reflect on the power of words, how one choice over another changes the storyline, the emotion, and the character. Mid-way through, I even considered rewriting it in the first-person, tried it, and realized the tone was just right in third person: distant and indifferent. Had Louisa Belden narrated her story, the coldness would have evaporated, and a completely different tale would have emerged.

So, here it is, still imperfect, but? As you read it, consider words you might have chosen, how you might have told the same tale, and from whose viewpoint. I know I would make changes … does the search for perfect never end? I suspect not, but I do know the discipline of 700-words is a great way to brush up your skills.

Almost Free

It had been an accident; a metal blade hit stone and sparked the dry weeds. The breeze did the rest. Louisa made no attempt to put it out. She drove her tractor into the small shed at the family home and waited. It was time for it to end.

When her cellphone chirped the evacuation notice, she checked out her kitchen window, the ridgeline was haloed in orange. She snapped on the charm bracelet her father had given her, grabbed her box of treasures, her computer, and her emergency suitcase, packed them in her ancient SUV, and hightailed it to a hotel. She didn’t leave the prescribed note on the door indicating the house was empty — she did pour gasoline on the kitchen floor and turn on the gas burners.

That was three days ago. Louisa tracked the raging fire religiously. She knew when updates were posted, she knew the best incidence commanders, she even knew the old burns. A knock on her hotel room door drew her attention from the latest posting. The maps weren’t always accurate, but if yesterday’s was, the fire had ended her long watch.

“Miss Belden?” a voice called, followed by another knock.

Louisa peered through the drapes. Two police, one male, one female. She opened the door, wrapped in a thin bathrobe from her emergency pack. Instinctively, she clutched the lapels of the robe tight over her favorite sleep shirt.

“Do you have a moment?” The two cops stepped in. Louisa’s right hand shot up, the ice cream cone charm on her bracelet slapping her wrist. “Sorry. May we enter?’

Louisa sat at a small table in front of the hotel window. The police joined her, folding their hands on the tabletop.

“Your home has burned to the ground. While putting out embers, the fire detail found bones in the ashes of the kitchen, the fire seems to have concentrated there. We’ve been looking for you since, hoping to find you alive.”

Louisa fidgeted with her charm. “You found me. There was a root cellar under the kitchen; my sister and I played house in it when we were little.”


Louisa nodded. “She disappeared when she was twelve, between the bus stop and home. Twenty years ago. I have a picture of her in my treasure box.” Louisa fluttered a hand toward her few items piled on an armchair.

“No need. This bracelet was in the ashes near the bones. Not a full skeleton, the smaller bones disintegrated in the heat. A skull and femur survived.”

Louisa fingered the horse charm dangling from the bracelet the male cop held. “Father insisted that Christine was kidnapped because the bracelet was gone.”

“According to the cold case files, you girls rode the bus to school that day, you had band practice, Christine came home alone. One of the neighbor boys claimed he saw your father and sister in the woods arguing or kissing the night before. He was four, so it was disregarded. He still insists.”


“Your father molested your sister, didn’t he? The bracelet was meant to buy her silence.” The male cop flicked the ice cream cone dangling from Louisa’s bracelet. “I bet you were happy when he moved on to Christine. Or were you jealous?”

The female cop crossed to Louisa’s treasure box. “Enough to kill her,” she said, holding up a filet knife.

“Christine’s favorite shooter marble is in there, too, if that matters. My sister showed me the knife on the way to school. It was back in the utensil drawer the next day. I searched for her for years. When I found her grave, I told father I was going to the police, he bought me a pinecone charm.”

“You didn’t leave a note when you evacuated, did you hope the incident report would assume the bones were yours?”

Louisa nodded. “Then we would be free.”

“We’ve tried to locate your father. Do you know where he is?

“Gone. Mother remarried after he left.”

“The femur was an adolescent’s; the skull is an adult’s. The fire crew is still searching.”

“May I?” Louisa held her hand out for her sister’s bracelet, adding Christine’s charm to her own.


A quick note: The final book in the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, Don’t Tell will be available November 11, 2021. In celebration of the coming event, the ebook of the third book in the series, Pay Back, will be available for $.99 October 7-13.

Back to the Concerts by Karen Shughart

We moved from a mid-sized metropolitan area to a small village on the south shore of Lake Ontario in the Finger Lakes region of New York almost seven years ago. We love being part of a community where everyone truly does know your name, and the beauty surrounding us is inspirational. I wouldn’t be writing the Edmund DeCleryk mystery series anywhere else.

There’s lots going on here, especially during summer months, but attending monthly cultural events was an integral part of our lives where we used to live, so we decided to explore what was available in nearby Rochester and other nearby communities.  The highway system is good, and within a short drive there are a multitude of choices:  Broadway offerings performed by excellent touring companies; ballet; opera; community theatre; choral performances, and concerts of every sort. 

We discovered a wonderful performing arts venue, The Smith Opera House, in nearby Geneva, and that each year they offer a subscription to a cultural series that includes performances by both the Rochester and Syracuse symphony orchestras, world renowned dance troupes and award-winning vocal groups. This series became the opportunity for a monthly date night, preceded by dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, located a few doors away from the performing arts hall. It was something we looked forward to, especially during winter months.

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on

Then the pandemic hit, and our date nights in Geneva fizzled. The series was cancelled, and we found ourselves scheduling nights at home: pizza, perhaps; or takeout from a nearby restaurant; followed by streaming cultural events on TV. It was nice watching events from the safety and comfort of our home, and we agreed we enjoyed those evenings, but it wasn’t the same.

The Smith has opened its doors again, but for safety reasons there will be no subscription series this year. Each performance will be available as a separate entity, there will be no paper tickets (just an email confirmation) and patrons must order online or purchase their tickets at the door the evening of the event. Masks plus proof of vaccination will be required, plus there will be social distancing inside the venue.

We’re fine with that.  I just ordered two tickets for the first symphony performance to be held later this month. The restaurant we like has re-opened but with strict guidelines; we’re fine with that, too. We’re happy to be able to get out for an evening.

While we are looking forward to resuming some semblance of normalcy in our lives, I must admit to feeling a bit anxious about attending these performances in person as more cases of Covid and its variants seem to be gaining a chokehold on our country again.   We also realize that things could change between now and then. It’s okay, we’re willing to deal with it. Life is in flux, it usually is, but we’re hoping for the best.

Guest Blogger ~ Brenda Whiteside

The Wickedest Town in the West turned ghost town, turned hippie haven, turned tourist mecca…that’s the inspiration for my latest series, The MacKenzie Chronicles. Although I’ve renamed my city Joshua, Arizona, anyone familiar with Jerome, Arizona will recognize the setting within my stories.

I was born and raised in Arizona and fell in love with the city in the 1960s. Jerome has long been a favorite place to visit for locals. The town nearly died in the 1950s when the mining dried up. What once was a raucous little town in the late 1800s through the 1920s, hanging on the side of a mountain, inhabited by the men who worked the mines, the wealthy who owned the mines, and the ladies who lived in the cribs and entertained both, became a ghost town. And the city does literally hang on the side of the mountain. There is the ruin of a jail that slid down three streets during a storm decades ago. The three main roads are stacked like stadium seating on the side of the mountain.

In the 1960s, hippies discovered Jerome and squatted in the abandoned buildings. They took up residence mainly in an area of town called The Gulch. In my series, I have renamed it The Ravine. The wave of hippies and artists also bought homes, improved them, and turned the town into a center for art. To this day, The Gulch/Ravine is a roughed-out area with a road that is nearly impossible to drive. The remaining hippie community prefers it that way.

Today, the town flourishes with artists, wine tasting, historical settings, and restaurants. The residents prefer to keep the town looking much like it did in the 1920s when the mines pumped out the minerals that made millions.

Frank MacKenzie, an artist, and Susie Muse, a store owner and mystic, met in the hippie days of Joshua. The MacKenzie Chronicles are about their three children, now grown. Susie died a couple of decades ago, but two of her offspring have mystic talents while one has her feet more solidly on the ground like her father. There is murder, mystery, suspense, and romance in Joshua, Arizona for the MacKenzie siblings, some of which reaches into those early hippie days and affects the present.

Mystery on Spirit Mountain

The past never sleeps.

The truth never dies.

Only Harlan MacKenzie can sense the troubled history of the Big Purple House. When he’s hired to restore the historical mansion, he doesn’t foresee the secrets—secrets that entangle his family in deceit and murder.

Phaedra is selling the house that has been in her family for decades. As her friends-to-lovers relationship with Harlan escalates, she puts her values on the line and chances losing him.

After a stranger comes to town, weaving her web of deception, hell-bent on correcting an old grievance connected to the house, dark revelations of the past implode the present. Harlan and Phaedra are thrown on a dangerous path, not only risking love but possibly their lives.


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Brenda Whiteside is the author of suspenseful, action-adventure stories with a touch of romance. Mostly. She and her husband are gypsies at heart having lived in six states and two countries. For now, they’ve settled in Central Arizona, but won’t discount the possibility of another move in their future. They share their home with a rescue dog named Amigo. While FDW is fishing, Brenda writes.

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I Am a Serial Killer Who Grieves for Each Death

Yes, I kill people. But only fictional people, characters in my mystery novels. And I don’t kill any character lightly. I actually prefer to write mysteries that don’t involve murders, because with a murder, the crime is over, there’s no hope for a happy outcome, and all that’s left to do is to prosecute the killer. As a private investigator, I worked on a death case, and it was sad and painful to interview everyone left behind. I much prefer to write about kidnapping or disappearances, because the outcome could go either way. But, as a mystery writer, I have found that now and then I simply have to kill a character, or readers would stop believing that could happen in my books.

Most of the time, I would like to kill off a despised character, the one who abuses animals or humans or takes advantage of everyone to make money. But who would grieve over those deaths? If dozens of people have motive to bump off that despicable person, then frankly, as a reader I can’t get very invested in discovering the killer because it seems like a public service, and I’m not sure that I want to see the perpetrator identified and punished.

No, to create suspense and interest, most often a mystery novelist needs to kill someone who the reader cares about. And, call me crazy (and many of us authors are), but it’s hard to create a likeable character and then kill them. It hurts. The most painful one for me was Alex Kazaki, a scuba-diving wildlife biologist that I had to bump off in the Galápagos (Undercurrents novel), long considered a magical place for all wildlife biologists. I really liked his gentle humor and kind heart, and I remember the day I concluded that I needed to kill him. His death still haunts me, as it does my series protagonist, Sam Westin. Alex left behind a wife and baby who loved him dearly.

Latina wildlife photographer Jade Silva died near the Arizona-Mexico wall (Borderland). She was gutsy. She was talented. I still feel that her death left a hole in the world, but I’m grateful for her last photo of a rare jaguar imprisoned by the border wall.

Then there are the clueless, who die doing foolish things because they are naïve or misguided. I had to kill one of those people off in The Only Clue because he didn’t understand how dangerous a silverback could be. Even a gorilla who knows sign language is still a gorilla. And I had to bump off two women in Bear Bait for two completely different reasons; neither of them deserved that. My novel Backcountry was inspired by the real-life murders of two women hikers, and as a hiker, those still-unsolved deaths are especially close to my heart.

I killed two beloved parents in my Run for Your Life trilogy, leaving my then 14-year-old protagonist an orphan. And—oh dear God—I included a dead infant in The Only Witness. Although that wasn’t murder, it still hurt me to imagine that tiny corpse buried in the field.

And now it occurs to me that recently I’ve killed even more, in a horrific avalanche, in the novel I’m currently writing. I guess it’s a blessing that they were all strangers to me. But I feel sorry for their relatives, whom my protagonist may meet in the novel. Yikes, my death tally is growing.

Being a mystery novelist can be a weird, emotional roller coaster ride of grief, fear, and—hopefully—eventual triumph. Am I alone in experiencing all these emotions while crafting my novels? Am I crazy?

The Illusive Word

Early on in my writing, I would have times when I’d be writing along and…nothing. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t find the word I wanted. That was before I was writing on a computer. I would pull out my dictionary and look up a word similar to what I wanted. And hopefully by process of elimination, the right word would reveal itself.

After attending my first RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference, I learned that every writer needs a dictionary( which I had), a thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the book Goals, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. I went home and found those books at my local bookstore and they have been on my shelf. I even purchased a newer version of The Chicago Manual of Style this year.

my shelf of reference books

As you can tell by the ratty cover on the thesaurus, I have used it a lot. Even when I look up a word through Word Docs, I will end up going to the book. I sort through word after word, until I come up with the one that makes the sentence show what I want.

My falling apart thesaurus

There are days it feels like I stop my momentum more than I write. On those days my brain doesn’t spit out the words I want and I hunt and hunt. Then there are days I don’t touch any of the books as my fingers fly over the keys moving my story along with the precise words I need to convey the scene.

I know I will be going back and editing the story and could just put in what I want to say in parenthesis and move on. But my brain won’t let me. I have to have the exact word or I can’t move on with the story. Although there have been a couple of times when the right word couldn’t be conjured up with all my reference books. Then I do put down what I want to say in parenthesis and come back to it when I do the edits, hoping the brain is more engaged that day.

I think the need to have the “perfect” word is a curse to writers. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can use up writing time hunting down the illusive word that is on the tip of my fingers but can’t quite manifest in my mind.

For me, this is a second behind editing as the hardest and most dreaded part of writing for me. How about other writers? Do you also struggle at times to find the right word? Readers, have you ever read something and thought, “this word would have been a better choice?”