Writing Good Grief

I was recently reminded by my own ineptness that the grief of loss has no timelines. Nor should it in telling a tale, most especially a tale of murder. For each murder done, someone grieves for the dead, be it the detective, the killer, or the friend. And this grief displays itself in action, the resolve to find the killer, the need to hide motive, and, perhaps, revenge.

The protagonist (detective or innocent) is called upon to develop a relationship with the dead whether the loss is personal or not. As the protagonist wades through the suspects to resolve the central mystery, each character brings their hurt with them. They have all suffered a loss and so are at some stage: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance/hope. Since each step along the path takes as long as it does, any given character may be in any stage at any time, offering endless possibilities to the storyteller.

The framework of grief is one piece of the scaffolding for my military family saga The Cooper Quartet. In Dead Legend (Book 1), two boys are left adrift by their father Mac’s death. The oldest son, Byron, sixteen when his Navy pilot father dies, quickly moves on to bargaining while keeping one foot firmly planted in denial. The younger son, Laury, hits anger and stays there for twelve years. Each of the four thrillers in the saga moves along the continuum of loss toward growth and forgiveness.

From Dead Legend: Navy Pilot LT Byron Cooper

“Let’s get out of here.” Byron shucked dollars out of the right hip pocket of his slacks as he stood.

“Mac doesn’t come to you?”

Byron grabbed Chloe’s arm. His hand felt hot on her flesh. “Yes. Tonight—with you—with everyone. Happy now?”

Marine First Sergeant Laury Cooper

Laury took the photograph that Vincent held out to him. He put two fingers between a pair of cigarette smoke caked blinds to let a ray of sun splash the picture. His eyes locked on the blood smeared down the leather bucket seats of Mac’s MG and wouldn’t let go. When the shock passed, he fixated on Mac’s right hand extended as though he had been gripping the gearshift knob the moment before. Laury’s hands shook, sweat rode up his back and down his armpits. He ran a hand over the lengthening stubble on his head.

Grief is not simple. It is recurring, a memory at the oddest moment, a moth in the morning. It is not a thrown-off phrase (My fiancé died in the war). Loss haunts us, it should haunt characters as well impacting their judgment and actions.

From Head First (Book 2):  LTjg Robin Haas (their cousin)

She clamped the rounded pewter ends of the POW bracelet she wore tighter on her wrist then traced the name and date with her fingers, LT Harry A. Stillwater, 10/5/68. Four years, two months, and fourteen days, in that time he had been Killed in Action, Missing in Action and now was a Prisoner of War. At least, they thought he was.

Who really knew? Robin had gone to North Dakota to Harry’s funeral, sobbing with the sisters Harry adored, the mother he treasured and the father he idealized, trying the while not to crawl into his empty grave. Yellow roses made her cry. A-6s made her cry. Even Gunner, their tabby tom cat, made her cry.

Throughout it all, characters must remain true to themselves. Good grief in a story might be silent to raging but it must always be organic. And in so being, the character’s action or reaction to any element may surprise, revealing a new facet or changed state that alters the reader’s perceptions and the resolution of the story.

From Don’t Tell (Book 4): Kate Van Streain Cooper (Laury’s new wife)

Each afternoon, she checked out a chaise from the nut-brown beachboy at the kiosk as he ran his eyes down her long limbs. They would skim over the inked drawing between her shoulder blades, still fresh after a week, and follow the Chinese characters tattooed on her spine to her dimple. Feeling admired, she languished by the water in her chaise, alternately reading Michener’s Hawaii and dozing. She opened her eyes at each passing shadow expecting to see her husband smiling down at her, his azure blue eyes blazing beneath his long dark eyelashes.

Good grief hovers below the surface of the plot, providing motivation and color. It remains just out of reach, shading the past and the future. A character in its own right. In The Cooper Quartet, it takes two brothers four books to come to terms with their father’s loss. In the process, their lives are changed forever by the Vietnam War and the actions they take to protect each other and their families.

My adventures with AI or …

The movie War Games has been stuck in my mind for, what? Forty years? And having worked in the nascent modeling of meteorological data, I know that prediction is only as good as the data accessed and the decision tree established. By humans. Humans, too, build AI models. Meaning at some point, computers will take over. I know this, because of War Games, I Robot … the list is long.

That said, as a writer, I find creating marketing and cover copy difficult. This should be some sort of weird joke since I toiled in the advertising trade for years writing copy. But here is the issue — when writing about plums or kiwi fruit you are writing about something with which you have no emotional attachment.

Not so with your book baby. I find it disconcerting to write something like this: (Any book) is an action-packed and heart-wrenching tale of family, friendship, and loss that will leave readers captivated until the very end. I don’t want to over-hype, I worry about readers being disappointed when they aren’t captivated. I worry that someone will notice my baby has a big ____ (fill in the blank).

So, I reviewed several AI programs that touted their book marketing capabilities. Decided, I took advantage of a free trial offer from Anyword (the above is an example of the output). Here’s what I discovered. The output is only as good as the input. No kidding, the more honed your sales points are, the better the output.  Duh!

Anyword’s user interface is easy to navigate. Having selected the Amazon landing page option, I entered my bullet points. Three versions of AI-generated text popped out (you can pick fewer). Cool. I did this for my new book Unbecoming a Lady, then my series The Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet. Other than the glee of hitting a button and having words magically appear on the screen, I benefitted most immediately from some great closing sales pitches. But the landing page copy generated always required editing. Some of the text output was downright funny and once a bit scary. So, it takes time to edit the output, just as it takes time to develop the input for your book(s).

Further after three or four pitches, I noticed a pattern. The book was always exciting, wonderful, thrilling, suspenseful, ____ (fill in the hype word). You get the idea. Since the program (all AI programs) searches a database of successful like-product pitches, the text can be robotic and derivative.  In fairness, the blurbs do match every other Amazon sales pitch, including that for cat watering stations, light bulb changers, and, well, everything. Based on the language errors made in Anyword and errors seen on Amazon, I suspect AI, including Anyword, is used by many marketing firms to create pitches quickly with little editing.

In the end, your AI-generated book description is no more exotic or exciting than any other book’s. Good or bad? I don’t know. My years in advertising tell me no. This means, to stand out from the competition you will need to do more honing. And, yes, research.

My Conclusions?

Using AI to create book sales copy is freeing in that it gives you a totally non-human, unbiased swag at your book. A place to start. But it isn’t a time saver. Maybe an ego saver, if it saves you from hanky-wringing angst while writing the hype for your book baby.

Anyword has a hefty subscription fee, enough to give one pause, though it would give you the ability to endlessly redo your landing pages. And that is attractive, despite the little voice whispering: For crikey sakes, you worked in advertising. Yes, still?

As you can see, I’m undecided. Though, I admit I worry AI will soon write us all out of business. Remember, War Games haunts me.

Down to One Last Charge

Eight days! Stuck behind a mountain of snow. Our prize oak tree split and embedded in our car, stranding us. We were down to one charge on one power pack for one phone (our only lifeline) when power was restored.

Imagine no power for eight days. In the mountains that means no heat, water, lights, or flushing toilets. Oh, we had enough food. I went shopping two days before the storm as did everyone else in the area. I was standing, resting my elbow on my shopping cart’s handle, when a woman in another endless checkout line yelled, “It better snow!” 

It did. Feet of it. It was enjoyable, big fluffy flakes softly piling up on our deck, until a tree demolished our car, and the power went out. After that, we had no way out, nor did our neighbors. We have an excellent wood-burning iron stove and dry wood. We could light our gas stove with matches, but not the oven. We had headlamps, and lanterns of all sorts. Batteries for the ages. Puzzles. And a massive goose-down comforter in the unheated bedroom. We believe the ambient temperature of sheetrock to be forty-four degrees.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you know my most recent book Unbecoming a Lady takes place in 1876. That’s where we lived for those eight days. It’s tough. But what I learned is this, it can be done. It takes some reorientation, for sure. On the first day, you figure out what is essential, and how to operate all while praying that the power comes back on. You overuse your phone because it is your only point of contact with the outside world. And, in our case, the only way to file the insurance claim on our destroyed car. Oh, for a horse and sleigh like those used in Cora’s little prairie town of Wanee.

Then you get the endless emails from PG&E telling you they are on site and the power will be up Monday … no Wednesday … no Friday.

As time went on, we ate the food from the freezer in the order it thawed. We ate pretty darn good. One night we dined on coconut shrimp and dim sum. Way better than Cora’s winter mainstays of storage vegetables and salted meat.

We lived Cora Countryman’s life for over a week minus the three-story house to clean and the boarders to feed that define her days. Hard, all-consuming work. All your attention turns to staying warm, clean, and fed. You get up in the morning and light the fire, boil water to make pour-over coffee, scramble eggs, and fry bacon. Forget the toast. Then you gather fresh snow for your coolers and dump water in the toilet tanks until they flush. You melt snow and boil it to wash yourself and the dishes. Put fresh batteries in where needed. Shovel a path through the snow to the wood pile. Then shovel it again. Pull out the old laundry drying rack and set it by the fireplace, so everything is dry for the next day’s shoveling. You get the idea. And when it gets dark huddle around the fire with your puzzle. Then repeat.

My husband and I finished the puzzle, headlamps on our heads. It is striking how well we adapted to life without television, streaming, phones, lights, toilets, running water, and a microwave. Perhaps because games were played outside when we were kids, the telephone was tethered to the wall, and the television was a small square box with three channels. This isn’t to say that we didn’t delight when the microwave went diddle-diddle-dee, happily letting us know the power was back on.

Now, like Cora, I wonder how her mother found time to play Whist three days a week. And I have a deeper understanding of her day-to-day life. Now to write a wintertime mystery!

Unbecoming a Lady

I’m not one for blowing my own horn. Weird for someone who was a Creative Director at an advertising agency and sold state departments of education customized educational assessments. But waving my hands over my head, making pitches in elevators — and well — drawing attention to myself feels uncomfortable.  

Yet here I am with a book, Unbecoming a Lady, available on March 15th. And, these days, if I don’t pitch it, who will? From the cover:

A torn sleeve, a bruised arm, and a lie.  

A friend knocks on Cora Countryman’s front door seeking help with the torn sleeve of her work dress, claiming she ripped it on a bush. As the town’s seamstress, Cora has mended many a dress. So, when she sees a ragged tear in her friend’s forearm and a bruise left by a thumb, Cora questions her friend’s story. When Cora asks about the wounds, her friend is evasive. Worried by the lack of answers, Cora starts her own investigation.

When murder is done, Cora won’t give in, back down, or submit to the behavior expected of a young lady in 1876 in a burgeoning Illinois prairie town. Why should she, she never expected to stay. That is until her mother abandoned her, leaving her heavily in debt, her reputation on the line, and the drudgery of a boarding house to run for one boarder.

Her intended life of mystery and adventure never seemed so far away.

Fellow blogger, Heather Haven, author of the Alvarez Family Mysteries and the Persephone Cole Historical Mysteries, read a review copy of Unbecoming a Lady. Here is what she had to say:

“Thanks to the superb writing and storytelling skills of D. Z. Church, one of the most authentic and unique protagonists, Cora Countryman, comes alive for you page after page. A grand, grand read.”

I’m blushing right now. Thanks, Heather. Reading Heather’s review, it occurs to me that maybe Cora sells herself.

A bit of Cora

In response to a question from Cora, the Methodist preacher’s wife lists the passersby seen on the street and in the park:

“Just the liveryman, a delivery wagon of coal, Mrs. Layman and Mrs. Sullivan chatting.” (The preacher’s wife) pointed toward a stand of marsh grass along the edges of the pond. “And that new Constable, John or Jack McKie, I believe.”

“Quite the parade!”

“I was on my porch sorting roses for the vestry. By the way, Mr. Kanady is not the only eligible bachelor; Mr. McKie is unmarried, as well. He is a strong, handsome sort. Dashing in his uniform. And I hear seeking a wife that might ensure his position in the community. And, of course, there is that darling new doctor. He is a gentle sort and I think a bit shy that he cannot see distances, but he does have the prettiest brown eyes.”

“I think you are a bit smitten with the new doctor, Dr. Shaw, correct? Well, none of these fine unmarried men need look my way. I am determined to stay single, joining the growing number of women who choose the unmarried life, preferring a life of learning, travel, and enrichment instead.”

Cora is feisty, fun, rash, fearless, and above all loyal.  

Did I mention the release date for Unbecoming a Lady is March 15? The eBook is available now for pre-order on Amazon. And, of course, we all need reviews – yes? Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Unbecoming-Lady-D-Z-Church-ebook/dp/B0BTKBSP1B/

Reach me at dzchurch.com, or facebook.com/mysteryhistorysuspense

On Husbands, Fellow Writers, and Cats

As we drove across the San Joaquin Valley watching for high water, my husband asked me about a plot I was developing. He is a great listener, asks the kinds of questions that lead to better plots, and as someone who rammed through most of his nine lives, has a fine background in adventure. So, he was all on board with my plot involving three boys disappearing from school in hopes of floating down a tributary or two to the Mississippi River. Mind you he used up one of his lives on a homemade raft in a river at flood stage when a mite older than the boys in question.

Spoon River

He asked why the boys hadn’t chosen the closest tributary to their hometown. I explained it was across open ground and farmland. A far more romantic river was nearer, treelined, and wound around for miles before merging with the Illinois River, then the Mississippi. Besides, who wouldn’t want to float down Spoon River?

Then he asked what happened to the boys. When I told him. He gave me that look. You know the one, somewhere between are you mad and don’t do that, just don’t.

Holy smokes. I immediately began to retool the plot. I’d like to say this was the first time I’ve received the look, but it isn’t.

As for the rafting part, he is an expert on being swept off a self-made raft, driven under trees, and pounded on the bottom of a river dashing to the ocean.  And if I ever need to know what it is like to leap off a cliff onto a beach, I know where to go.

Writers/readers who read a few drafts…

… and gently steer. Having read my latest book, two readers made the same comment. I responded to each that the paragraph in question foreshadowed the book’s conclusion.

Then, I read it again.

Here it is: “I believe I did. But, Cora, if you know who struck down that poor girl, you must tell me true. You must bear witness to it!”

When what was meant was: “I believe I did. But, Cora, I, too, have heard the Railtown men grousing that Eliza had another suitor. If you suspect a second suitor and know his name, if he exists, you must tell me.”

Notice any difference?

And later, another character says: “Constable McKie is but one who believes you know the killer’s name. And there is one man who will do anything to stop you from revealing it. Now, do you understand?”

Versus: “Constable McKie is but one who believes you think Michael Thomas innocent but are less sure of Eliza’s other suitor. Even if innocent, that man might wish to stop you from discovering his name hoping for a future in this town. And if he is Eliza’s killer? Now, do you understand?”

Thank heavens for readers, right?


I have a Russian Blue named Blue because it is a lot better than Do-do which was his given name. He is not the sort of cat who sleeps on computers or printers, but he is compulsive about his schedule like the Germans operating the Louisa in The African Queen.

At 9:15 he picks out his canned food. This entails walking up the hall, tail up, to the cupboard, waiting for me to open it, then sticking his head in for a look.

At 2:15 he demands I pick him up, hug and lug him to the sliding door so that he has a better angle from which to watch the birds on the deck. Mostly, he wants hugs.

At 4:15 he demands, in a loud Russian Blue voice, that his soup be stirred. I go to the kitchen and stir his wet food so that it is refreshed, or if he is having one of those gravy sorts of things, add water to make more gravy.

When he seeks my attention, he sits next to me, staring up until I respond. And in so doing provides me a bit of time to refresh my thinking, ponder my next sentence, and edit my next word.

I simply cannot imagine writing without all three. And, so you know, the book above, Unbecoming a Lady, will land in ebook and paperback formats around the Ides of March.