Sheila Stephens: Camera Surveillance


Sheila L. Stephens was the first female Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) special agent in the state of Alabama – one of the first in the nation.  Recruited by ATF while a police officer in Mountain Brook, Alabama, she has a unique platform from which to write and speak about the people and issues of law enforcement.

Stephens is a graduate of The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Alabama State Trooper Academy and the University of Alabama, holding degrees in Deaf Education and in Criminal Justice.  In September 2007, she graduated from Boston University with a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice.   She is presently enrolled in a Clinical Psychology PhD program and will specialize in Forensic Psychology. 

While a special agent with ATF, she was a member of the National Response Team, a select group of first responders to arson and explosives scenes.   Also chosen as a representative to the multi-agency, multi-state offensive against a deadly white supremacy group in Arkansas, she participated as a member of the entry team, the search team and the select interview team. 

She holds certificates in the areas of Education, Interviewing/Interrogation, Hypnosis, and Street Survival.  She has taught at the Birmingham Police Academy, and is the owner and operator of a security and private investigative agency specializing in hidden camera technology for police departments, businesses, and the monitoring of care-givers.  She is presently an Adjunct Criminal Justice Professor at, the online, Andrew Jackson University.  In September 2008, she will begin her adjunct teaching position at Boston University’s online Criminal Justice program.

While on injury leave from ATF, she was poisoned with arsenic and mercury.   Although not expected to recover, she continued to write and study.  As she recovered, she began speaking, sharing the same information on law enforcement issues that she presents at organizations and conferences around the country today.  She recently presented The “CSI Effect” on Crime Labs at the New England School of Law, and wrote an article that appears in their Law Review.  As to her books, in August 2008, The Everything Private Investigation Book will be released, and The Book of Weapons, Technology and Surveillance is scheduled to be released by Writer’s Digest Books in 2009.

Prevented from returning to ATF by her injury, Stephens has incorporated her private investigation/security business and is working on a non-profit division.  A popular speaker on literacy, and an advocate for mandatory heavy metals testing at yearly physicals and in emergency rooms, she is also Associate Editor of The Agent, the newsletter of the National Association of Federal Agents (NAFA).  Finally, she is a member of the National Association of Investigative Specialists (NAIS), Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and the author’s and speakers’ association, The Crime Lab Project. 

Sheila Stephens:

Technology changes every day.  One area used by law enforcement and P.I.s alike is the covert, or hidden, camera.  Covert cameras have become smaller and are hidden in more inventive items than ever before. Prices have also been lowered. You can purchase a covert camera in almost anything – clocks, VCRs, air purifiers, sprinklers, exits signs, speakers, books, plants, and much more. Cameras in pens, eyeglasses, hats, briefcases, and the like can be carried on your person. Many companies will install cameras in anything you wish. The best improvement in decades is the availability of cameras and recorders, with batteries to power them, all contained in one unit.

In the past, investigators were forced to be very creative when installing stationary covert cameras because of the problem of hiding and powering a recording device. Now, many recorders power themselves and the camera to which they’re attached, so there are no wires to camouflage. Because of this, these cameras can be moved around easily.

Wireless Versus Wired

You might ask about wireless cameras, thinking they have the same capabilities as wired cameras. They do, but there have always been drawbacks to wireless transmission. Some of these follow:

  • Other wireless devices can and do interfere with wireless transmission. Devices such as portable phones, some cable connections, microwaves, and other items can render wireless cameras almost useless.
  • Wireless transmission depends, usually, on line of sight
  • Transmission is limited to a fixed distance between transmitter and camera receiver. Usually, the distance is very short. Only law enforcement personnel are allowed to use wireless transmission that extends far enough for a backup team to be inconspicuous.

Covert cameras can be placed in hospital rooms to monitor nursing personnel and in nurseries and other locations for checking on nannies and babysitters. They can also be used to prove spousal abuse. One woman contracted with my PI service to help prove that her husband had abused her.  The man’s behavior escalated and the client was afraid that the next beating would kill her. Worse, she was terrified that her children would be hurt. My investigators installed a covert camera inside a speaker in her living room where most of the incidents took place. Two days after, the man arrived home intoxicated and beat his wife with both fists until she passed out. She was admitted to the hospital, this time with internal bleeding, while an investigator retrieved the recording and delivered it to police. Because of evidence on the covert camera, the husband is in prison today. The client has returned to school and she and her children are in counseling.  This kind of case is so difficult to prove in court. For without video evidence it becomes a “he said/she said” situation which, unfortunately, can come down to who has the best attorney or court connections – it can come down to the makeup of the jury.

Mobile Covert Cameras

Only a few years ago, if investigators wanted to wear a covert body camera, it entailed finding a way to conceal a not-so-small video recorder on his person and inconspicuously run wires to a camera, such as a pen, pager, or glasses case, in the PI’s pocket. Because of this, every shirt, jacket, and pair of jeans or slacks contained a hole for threading a line to the covert camera. Things are different today; it’s much easier and less conspicuous to wear covert technology.  I still have a scar from wearing a “wire” in the late eighties when I was with ATF.  The wire malfunctioned and burned through to my skin.  I made the case but, before backup could arrive, everyone in the room sniffed around and made faces trying to find that unusual smell. That smell was me – roasting – plus the smell of the malfunctioning wire.

Covert body cameras can be used to check someone’s mate and in mystery shopping, but there are other uses for these cameras. PIs who investigate childcare or eldercare facilities and treatment centers use them when interviewing. The camera records exactly what is in front of it. It can’t be accused of overstating the truth or omitting facts. The PI walks around filming, checking the cleanliness of the child’s or elder’s room, common areas, restrooms, and kitchens. The camera is unemotional when watching for the response of personnel – or lack of response – to a child’s or elder’s needs and requests. As in the case of the abused wife, recorded evidence in cases such as these are rarely challenged.  Stationary covert cameras can be left in the room to film what hapens long after the investigator is gone.

Covert Vs Visible Cameras

Many camera purchasers, and even investigators, believe that visible cameras are superior to hidden cameras. This may have been true in the past, but not any more. Visible cameras serve a purpose, but only when they are used correctly and in conjunction with covert cameras. Some security experts believe that because visible cameras are so prevalent, most people forget about them. However, the person who enters an office or retail store with the intention of stealing is keenly aware of these cameras. Potential shoplifters scope them out to ascertain location, distance apart, and possible blind spots between them. In the very misinformed businesses where the owner or operator displays the camera view to the public on a monitor or TV, he’s helping the thief locate those blind spots within which he can operate.

An example of the use of blind spots occurred in a parking garage at dusk. A young woman, Anne, walked through the dim garage toward her car, feeling safe because of visible security cameras spaced equal distances apart on concrete pillars. She waved at one of them. Suddenly, she was pulled into a corner of the deck and brutally raped. After crawling into the main area of the parking garage, Anne was rescued by a distraught security guard. When she was interviewed in the hospital, she reported looking up at all those cameras and wondering why no one came to her assistance. She’d been dragged into a blind spot where she and her attacker weren’t visible to even one of the cameras. The attacker had obviously scoped out the area ahead of time, knowing just where to commit his crime.

Owners and managers often purchase cameras thinking they will deter theft. Cameras may deter the basically honest soul who experiences a momentary temptation, but nothing really deters the serious criminal. Hidden cameras are the alternative for this person. If covert cameras were to be placed strategically among the visible ones, even if a sign were posted alerting the public of this fact, criminals may be deterred, not knowing where their actions could be documented. I prefer covert cameras alone, however. Hidden cameras catch people in the act of a crime, preventing loss from habitual shoplifters as well as employees.  

There are laws governing how and where these cameras can be used – but that’s another blog!  Short story is that they cannot be used any where someone would have a LEGAL expectation of privacy. 

You can visit Sheila at Website:

Email Sheila at  

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Literary Agent Lucienne Diver: It’s All About The Buzz


Lucienne Diver has been an agent with Spectrum Literary Agency for over fifteen years, representing all kinds of commercial fiction, including fantasy, romance, mystery/suspense, science fiction, some mainstream and young adult.  Her authors include Marjorie M. Liu, Susan Krinard, Rachel Caine, P.N. Elrod, Roberta Gellis and many others.  A complete list can be seen on the website:


She also maintains her own blog of agently, authorial and personal ramblings at  (Since she’s often asked: “varkat” is short for “various Katherines” – Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, Kit from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, etc. – some of her favorite characters from literature.)



 It’s all about the Buzz 

One of the most constantly asked questions out there is “What can I do to promote my books?”  No one seems to have the magical answer, though there are a ton of ideas out there, some of which I’ll get into here.  The truth is that the biggest seller of books continues to be word of mouth, so the very most important thing an author can do is write a kick-butt book that will have everyone raving – to their friends, on-line, in reviews on Amazon and 


Of course, before you can get people raving, you have to get them to pick up the book.   There’s a whole lot that the publisher can do for you, like arrange coop advertising, which is basically the publisher paying for placement, whether on shelves or in special display stands in the front of stores.  A publisher may also arrange for book tours, radio and television interviews, magazine, newspaper and banner ads to get the word out.  Except for the coop advertising, these are things an author can do on his or her own, especially with the help of a publicist, though they can be very costly and must still be coordinated with the publisher to avoid stepping on any toes.


So, how can you get the most bang out of your marketing dollar? It’s pretty commonly accepted that a new author will put the advance for his or her first book back into promotion.  It makes sense; it’s an investment in the future.  Many established writers also put a lot of time and resources into publicity.  One of the most effective means of promotion is the web.  However, just having a site isn’t enough these days.  It’s great if people already know you and just want to check when your next book is coming out, but to draw readers in, you need good and changing content – contests, a blog, maybe helpful articles and links, book trailers, snippets of fiction or non-fiction free to your readers that they can’t find anywhere else.  Invite in guest bloggers.  The key is to give something, not just expect to get something with a “Hey, buy my book.”  It also helps to reach out rather than wait for folks to come to you.  Sites like MySpace, Facebook, Shelfari, Bebo (I could go on all day with the list) will introduce you to other readers and writers.  They can be fantastic networking tools, but can also be highly addictive, so be sure not to use the time you should spend writing!  The trick is that you get out of these sites what you put into them.  Interaction is key.


Another great and relatively inexpensive way to go is to kind of create your own celebrity status.  Humbly and informatively (no bragging allowed), let your college, high school or local paper know about your upcoming release or your recent award nomination.  Even before your book comes out, you should be working on a list of contacts – places, people, communities to which you have ties and some local or other cachet.  Prep your pitch, press release or postcards to go out to these venues.  Local book stores, libraries – sure, put them on the mailing list and make sure that it goes out early enough (a few months before publication with maybe a second mailing just as the book hits shelves) for them to place orders.  At the very least, it’s not a terribly expensive way to get the word out.  At the most, you’ll generate more orders and interest.


Do you go to conventions?  Can you think of something beyond the standard bookmarks and postcards to put on the take-tables that people will keep and think of you with each use?  Have you come up with an intriguing tagline or catch-phrase?  Maybe you can even send your novelty item out with your mailings.


Signings – the trick with signings is that it really helps if you have a) a really strong following or b) a gimmick to bring people over to the table.  Otherwise, it might look a lot like that book signing at the beginning of the recent movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  Maybe give a talk or reading to go along with the signing.  Have a friend along, maybe, who’s standing, approachable and shilling (pleasantly and chattily), have a candy dish out and a poster or something else outsized to draw the eye.  Try to make it an event rather than just you with the barrier of a table separating you from your target audience.  Offer to sign stock of whatever doesn’t sell so the store can put your books up front with “Autographed” stickers attached.  In fact, whenever you step into a bookstore and find your books, offer to sign stock.  Some bookstores are, surprisingly, less open to this than others, but persevere. 


Always, but always, have your business cards with you.  You never know when a networking opportunity will arise.  I was just on a pub crawl in London and ended up “selling” my books to everyone in sight.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a single card on hand to help folks remember. 


In summary – write the best darned book you can and then get the word out.  If someone lets you know how much they enjoy your book, ask them to share the excitement.  Get a buzz going and then keep up the momentum by writing your next great work!







Tomorrow –  Author/former ATF Special Agent Sheila Stephens talks about hidden cameras


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What Is An Arrest?








* Tomorrow – Literary Agent Lucienne Diver On Creating Buzz

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Weekend Road Trip: Capitola, California


Capitola, California is located in Santa Cruz County on Monterey Bay. In the early 1960s, a large group of normally passive birds began attacking Capitola residents and tourists.

Nearby Santa Cruz was a favorite vacation spot for a well-known movie director. He’d read about the bird attacks and decided to make a movie about it. The director’s name was Alfred Hitchcock. The movie…The Birds.






One of my favorite spots in the world…

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Friday’s Heroes: Lt. Dave Swords on Miranda


Lieutenant David Swords (ret.) is a thrity year veteran of the Springfield, Ohio Police Department. Nearly half of Lt. Swords’ police career was spent as an investigator, working on cases ranging from simple vandalisms to armed robberies and murders.

David is the author of a novel, “Shadows on the Soul.” He and his family live near Springfield.

The Miranda Warning

You have the right to read this blog. If you give up that right – you’ll be sorry!

Anyone who has watched American television for the past forty years can probably recitethe Miranda warning as well as most veteran police officers. You know the routine. Sgt. Joe Friday facing down a wisenheimer suspect, little white card in hand, and spewing out the warning most cops, and half the sixth graders in this country, can say in their sleep.

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court.

You have the right to speak with an attorney and have an attorney present with you during questioning.

If you can not afford to hire an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish

Now, for those who might be interested, I typed the above warning from memory, and it’s been over four years since I’ve given it to anyone. It is nice to know my brain hasn’t completely atrophied.

So, where did the Miranda warning come from?

Contrary to what some may believe, Miranda’s first name was not Carmen. No, no, that was the hootchy-kootchy girl with the fruit salad on her head.

The Miranda referred to in the famous Miranda warning was Ernesto Miranda, who was arrested in Arizona in 1963 for rape and kidnapping. He was convicted, based mostly on his confession, but subsequent appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned his conviction in 1966 and issued the now well-known Miranda decision, which basically said that persons being questioned by the police should be advised of their Constitutional right against self-incrimination and their right to speak with a lawyer. They must also be told that, if they are indigent, they can have a lawyer appointed to represent them at no cost to themselves.

Miranda was retried and convicted using other evidence that the police had, and was returned to prison. He was paroled in 1972, but his freedom was short lived. Miranda was knifed to death in a barroom cutting scrape in 1976. In what some might call poetic justice, the man taken into custody as a suspect in Miranda’s killing was given his Miranda warning, decided not to answer questions, and was eventually released. It is my understanding the case remains unsolved to his day. Oh, well.

Are all Miranda warnings the same from state to state?

Not exactly.

As I mentioned before, the 1966 Miranda decision was primarily concerned with the right to remain silent, the right to a lawyer, and the right to a government appointed lawyer for indigent persons. The court did not dictate how these rights must be conveyed to a suspect, but only that the person be so advised prior to questioning.

I won’t get into where the familiar word-for-word Joe Friday recitation came from, but suffice it to say that at one point it was all standardized in the familiar warning.

States and agencies can add to, or try to simplify, the warning, as long as the basic warnings are in place. Many agencies add something to the effect of “having these rights in mind, are you willing to talk with me now?”

As for what warning the detective may use in your story, you may wish to call a police agency in the jurisdiction in which your story takes place to find out how they do it. One good way to do research in that area might be to get yourself arrested and see what the police say (just kidding!)

When must the Miranda warning be given?

Remember, if your story takes place prior to 1966, you need not include the Miranda warning. It did not exist prior to that year.

The basic rule of thumb for when Miranda must be used is when a person is suspected of a crime and being questioned while in custody. Usually, custody means at the police station, but a person can be in custody anywhere, even in their own home. What the court will consider is what the police said or did that may have made the person believe they were not free to leave. A person may even feel free to leave from the station house. It’s all in the details.

What happens if a suspect invokes his right to remain silent or wants to talk to a lawyer?

Very simple – you’re done.

If a suspect decides to invoke their right to remain silent, usually by saying something to the effect of, “I ain’t got to talk to you, and you can’t make me,” then you may not continue questioning. You may never re-attempt questioning. The suspect must be the one to reinstitute contact.

When do the police NOT give Miranda?

Have you ever seen a TV show where two uniformed cops chase down a suspect, tackle him, cuff him, and as they are leading him away, one starts reciting Miranda? When you see that, know that officers all over the country are reaching for the remote and switching to “Dancing with the Stars.” You only read Miranda if you are going to question a person concerning a crime. If you see the crime committed, what’s to ask? And you will certainly wait until things calm down if you do wish to question the person.

I can’t tell you how many times I arrested someone and before they were booked into jail, they complained, “You never read me my rights.” To which I answered, “No, and I’m not going to either.” That always made them happy.

Also, any statement a person makes without being prompted by a question, a spontaneous outburst, if you will, is admissible without Miranda. This is a fact lost on some inexperienced officers. Often I have heard officers stop a person that has started to make such a statement to read them Miranda. You feel like choking someone in that situation, and that could make a nice little aggravating episode for your protagonist investigator.

As with all matters of law, I have covered about a tenth of what I could concerning the Miranda warning. In a nutshell, it must be read before custodial questioning of a suspect. If it is not, any statements could be inadmissible in court. Of course, that could put a mad killer back on the street for your detective to hunt down.

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Martha Alderson: Blockbuster Plots For Writers


Martha Alderson, M.A. is an international plot consultant for writers. Her clients include best-selling authors, screenwriters, writing teachers and fiction editors. Her own fiction writing has won attention in several literary writing contests, including a finalist in the Heekin Foundation Prize and a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Writing Contest.

Five years ago, Alderson began teaching plot workshops incorporating sensory feedback for full discovery and ease in learning. With the help of this communications leader, children and adult writers of all skill levels now grasp the elusive concept of plot and are able to use it effectively in their own works of fiction. She takes readers and writers alike beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

As the founder of Blockbuster Plots for Writers, Alderson created a unique line of plot tools for writers, including the Mystery Writers Plot Planner Workshop DVD. She teaches scene development and plot workshops privately and at writing conferences.

Martha Alderson:

I’m thrilled at this opportunity to share the page with so many outstanding resources and creative people. This new offering of yours, Lee, inviting all of us to post on your blog is such a reflection of you and your generous spirit. You are an amazing person. Thank you so much. If you’d ever like a free plot consultation, just say the word. My pleasure…….

Recently, I produced the first plot workshop DVD for a two-DVD set for mystery writers. The mystery novel I used as an example was Folly, by Laurie R. King. I chose this book not only because of all the mystery subplots involved in the story, but also because it’s a fine example of a character-driven (as opposed to action-driven and/or theme-driven) story.

Folly involves two major characters – Rae and Desmond. As the book jacket describes:

At fifty-two, Rae Newborn is a woman on the edge: on the edge of sanity, on the edge of tragedy, and now on the edge of the world. A celebrated artist, she has moved to an island at the far reaches of the continent into the house she inherited form her mysterious great-uncle. Isolated from the outside world, Rae will finally come face-to-face with the feelings that have long torments her-panic, melancholy, and the haunting sense that someone is watching her. Before she came to Folly Island. Rae believed most of things she heard existed only her in mind. Now, as she rebuilds her life as well as the house, she finds her story and that of her dead uncle beginning to intertwine.

The mystery plot lines in this example are many: who killed Rae’s great-uncle, who is on the island with her, who raped her, and who killed her husband and daughter. The character development plot line starts with a woman on the edge of sanity and, because of everything she experiences throughout the book, ends with a woman transformed at depth.

Mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels usually rely more heavily on action-driven plot rather than character-driven. Yet, the definition of any truly great story involves, at its core, character transformation.

Folly has several plotlines beyond the character emotional development plot lines for Rae and for her great-uncle, each of which creates an exciting character study with lots of mystery and suspense, conflict and tension. The two major mystery subplots keep the reader guessing. Because of the deaths that take place in Folly, the protagonist often interacts with the police.

Sam Escobar is the sheriff back home in Santa Cruz. Jerry Carmichael is the San Juan County sheriff Rae deals with on her great-uncle’s island in the Pacific Northwest. Both of these characters employ police procedures, which at the times of my first, second, and third readings of the book read flawlessly. Not having any experience with police procedures, police firearms, police reports, police lineups, and the like, I now wonder how King came up with the authentic details she used in her book, many of which provided essential plot points throughout the story. If she were writing the story now, she could turn to Lee’s amazing blog. But, the book was written six years ago and leads me to believe she must have had to rely on her imagination and/or lots of research.

My passion is to help writers with plot. I have analyzed the plot and structure of countless books, ranging from children’s picture books, to young adult novels, memoirs, mysteries, romance novels, suspense and thrillers, mainstream, and the classics. With such a narrow focus and obsession, I am known by my students as the plot queen and, in the blogisphere, as the plot whisperer. By plot, I mean a series of scenes that are deliberately arranged by cause and effect to create dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, suspense and/or curiosity, to further the character emotional development and provide thematic significance.

Mystery writers have an advantage over other writers in that conflict, tension, suspense, and curiosity are inherent in the genre. Writing mystery has another advantage. The overall story goal is a given to solve the mystery. Classic right-brained writers are often “spoken to by the muse” through the character development. Right-brained learners can struggle creating concrete goals for the character. Goal setting for classic dramatic action writers, on the other hand, is a breeze.

Most writers have a preference for one style of writing over another. Some writers are more adept at developing complex, interesting, and quirky characters. Others excel at page-turning action. The lucky writers are good at creating both the Character Emotional Development plotline and the Dramatic Action plotline. Become aware of your strengths and learn to address your weaknesses, and you, too, can become one of the lucky ones.


Broadly speaking, writers who prefer writing action-driven stories focus on logical thinking, rational analysis, and accuracy. Action-driven writers tend to rely more on the left side of their brain. These writers approach writing as a linear function and see the story in its parts. Action-driven writers like structure. They usually pre-plot or create an outline before writing. Action-driven writers have little trouble expressing themselves in words.


Writers who write character-driven stories tend to focus on aesthetics and feelings, creativity and imagination. These writers access the right side of their brains and enjoy playing with the beauty of language. They are intuitive, and like to work things out on the page. Character-driven writers are holistic and subjective. They can synthesize new information, but are somewhat (or more) disorganized and random. They see the story as the whole. Right brain writers may know what they mean, but often have trouble finding the right words.

The Test

Take the test to see whether you are stronger at developing Character Emotional Development plot lines or Dramatic Action plot lines.

Fill in the Character Emotional Development Plot Profile below for your protagonist (the character who is most changed by the dramatic action), any other major viewpoint characters and, if there is one, the character who represents the major human antagonist for the protagonist:

1)  Protagonist’s overall story goal (this goal often changes because of the event that triggers the End of the Beginning-around the ¼ mark of the overall page count-and catapults the protagonist into the heart of the story world itself – The Middle. If so, list both story goals and answer #2 & 3 for each goal):

2)  What stands in his/her way of achieving this goal:

3)  What does he/she stand to lose, if not successful:

4)  Flaw or greatest fault:

5)  Greatest strength:

6)  Hates:

7)  Loves:

8)  Fear:

9)  Secret:

10) Dream:


A) Writers who filled out 1-3 with ease often prefer writing Dramatic Action.

B) Writers who filled in 4- 10 with ease often prefer Character Emotional Development.

C) Writers who filled in everything with ease are often adept at creating both the Dramatic Action and the Character Emotional Development plot lines.


Without a firm understanding of points 1-3, you have no front story. The Dramatic Action plotline is what gets the reader to turn the pages. Without dramatic action there is no excitement on the page. Most mystery writers fall into this category.

Without a firm understanding of points 4-10, you are more likely to line up the action pieces of your story, arrange them in a logical order and then draw conclusions. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, this presentation lacks the human element. Such an omission could increase your chances of losing your audience’s interest.

Yes, at the heart of every good mystery is a protagonist strong enough to stand in the midst of chaos and death, fear and uncertainty, and stay with the case until the mystery has been solved. Still, the more a character is moved and changed, at the least, or transformed, at the most, by the dramatic action, the stronger the readers’ identification with the story.

For more plot tips, go to My blog: has not only my plot tips, but other writers’ comments lend an added benefit for more well rounded input and advice. Happy plotting.



For more plot tips, visit her website at: and her blog at: Sign up for her free monthly Plot Tips eZine, at:

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