Monday, July 14, 2014

Release of The Doc! An Interview with Timothy Desmond

Hi, Tim! Welcome to Murder Lab and congrats on the release of your new thriller, The Doc. This sounds like an interesting story combining several elements including my favorite topic, a medical thriller component. Tell me about your protagonist, Dr. Hank Houston.

TD – Hank has a mixture of interests besides his medical career. He is a shooting sports enthusiast who was an active competitor in high power rifle matches. Those matches cover several rifle types from United States military service rifles to custom built match rifles. With that sport, many reload their own match ammunition, and have dealer licenses, which Hank had also. So, he was a gun dealer, and then quit that in mid 1990s. Too, like many professionals, he is a private pilot, owning his own plane. Another hobby he is involved with is Civil War reenacting.

The novel begins when Hank is contacted by a dying friend who happens to be a Civil War reenactor. That's intriguing! Care to comment about how you came up with this character?

TD – There was a doctor friend of mine, who was the initial real life model, combined with my own interests. As I mentioned, novel character Hank is a Civil War reenactor also. His friend, Matt Sweet, was a patient who introduced him to that, after Hank quit competitive shooting. I believe it is very tough writing original and different characters. In art and science there is simultaneous invention happening. One can have different treatment and style, but it is still difficult to be original. Civil War reenactors are portrayed as “yahoos” in movies like Sweet Home Alabama and others, and even in the book Confederate in the Attic by Tony Horowitz [Vintage 1998], there is a comic or tongue-in-cheek point of view of reenactors. And while there are many novels with Civil War reenacting in them, like South of Shiloh by Chuck Logan [Harper 2008], and Tishomingo Blues by the late Elmore Leonard, both which I liked very much, they had killings at reenactments in them. I wanted to portray reenacting in a different light. I wanted Hank to be an unforgettable and different character.
Is the Civil War era a particular interest of yours?

TD - Yes, the Civil War events and the history are an interest of mine. I became a Civil War reenactor after going to a few events as a spectator. Then a friend took us to a Sons of Confederate Veterans dinner social and we joined a reenactment group there. I was in a Confederate infantry company and there were many different guys and gals in the unit. One was a veterinarian. Others were students, teachers, construction guys, gulf war veterans, history professors, civil engineers, corrections officers, accountants, manufacturing line workers. You get the picture.

It sounds like the story takes a rapid turn when a domestic black ops unit comes into play. What can you tell us about this unit?

TD – The core unit is a security private contractor called Safety Research Institute – SRI. They work in and out of their cover offices in the fictional Federal Accounting Office in Washington, DC. The SRI unit is one of many federal government contractors, and they are contracted with the real DHS.

Is this modeled on black ops you're familiar with in the nonfictional world? Or, if you told me, would you have to kill me?

TD – You are safe, as I honestly have no idea. This unit is a combination of musings over the years. I must say that it was first written in 1999, as I mention in a note at the end of the book, before TV’s 24, before 9/11, before Patriot Act, and other now-known dark things about government. But, here was the question I asked myself. If you were in charge of creating an operation that must be completely buried from the public and courts, how would you do that? In the mid 90s I wrote a short story about a private company security man, who’s job it was to get hostages released from third world entities. One might ask, if that company were a real company or a cover government company. I realize that many refer to CIA as “the company.” I’m not talking about CIA, but something larger and more sinister, with a multitude of companies.  

The excerpt posted on your blog is also of interest. Here, we delve into Hank's day job a bit. To what extent is The Doc a medical thriller? How else would you classify it?

TD - The idea is that there are several layers of sub-contractors that operate as private companies all over the country. Another arm of the SRI has their own hospital type institution which contracts with the federal court system to do the psychological evaluations of detainees or other wards of the courts. That unit also has done chemical induced interrogations. It is not a truth serum, as there is no such thing, but the drug these units use is a classified powerful formula of a conscious sedation type medication.   

Conspiracy writer Jim Marrs has said that the government and military use of drug experiments in the late 50s and 60s has stopped. But, what if it hasn’t stopped? Are ther still biological weapons here? That is dark, huh. In the 1930s, the German government used medicine, their medical community, to kill their own people.

I'll return to the murder of Hank's friend's daughter. What can you tell us about this character and how much we will see of her? Any specifics about her murder you'd like to tease us with?

TD – Dana Sweet is half the book, but she is the premise of the whole story. That is that Hank is trying to fathom, the reasons and answers for her loss. She was raised as a reenacting kid, and reenacted as a Confederate infantryman. She had a certain point of view of excessive government control that was caused by and increased after the Civil War. As a grad student in Virginia she was working on a paper about population control, which she thought would delve into a larger “control” premise for a thesis. She gets hired as an accountant in the FAO and also befriends some members of the SRI unit. One of those fellows likes her, but she falls in love with another Virginia Civil War reenactor who is a DHS agent. 

What else should I know about this novel that might not be evident from its cover blurb?

TD – At first I thought the latest blurb gave too much away, but I do realize there has to be the “hook,” as we know.  The recent news and stories about Snowden and the NSA where bloggers last year were posing the question, “do you think Snowden is a hero or a traitor?” brings up so much about what is close to us. The privacy issue and those pros and cons of abuse points of view are all relevant to this novel.

What else should our readers know about you?

TD – I was at a writers’ conference once. I had purchased extra interviews with agents or publishers. I sat before a publisher from a Los Angeles press.  Her first question was “Are you a cop?” Then “Ex- military?” My answers were, “No,” and after her brief view of my sample of novel, I was dismissed with the admonition that it was OK to say I had researched conspiracies for thirty years. I’m not a cop, CIA, nor NSA. I am an ex-state government school employee – high school science teacher.

And last, please tell our readers where we can buy The Doc.

Black Opal Books at:

Timothy J. Desmond
Amazon author page at:
Writing at:
Art at:

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Death by Gin - Question From a Reader

Jessica Hatfield asks Murder Lab:

The victim is injected with 10 ml of gin directly into the the lungs with an insulin needle. Here are my questions: 

1) Is the needle of an insulin syringe long enough to inject into the lungs? 
2) Would fluid of any kind in the lungs kill someone? 
3) If the fluid was gin, how would the body metabolize it? 
4) Is this the least bit plausible? 

We've directed this question to Elliott Garber, army veterinarian and Murder Lab Member. Please visit Elliott here for more about his work and his works. Here's what Elliott has to say about Jessica's conundrum:

Here are my initial reactions, with absolutely no extra research done on my part:

1) No, the needle on an insulin syringe is not going to be long enough to reach into the lungs. Maybe if the victim is VERY thin and the murderer presses really hard into the flesh, but I don't think so.

2) Yes, fluid of any kind in the lungs can kill someone. That doesn't mean it always will, though. The lungs can absorb a small amount of fluid on their own without causing someone to drown. However, even a small amount of water can cause someone to drown through a phenomenon called secondary drowning. This is when the water/fluid acts as an irritant in the lungs and results in an inflammatory reaction, causing the lungs to secrete more fluid and leading to pulmonary edema and possibly death. You might be able to make your murder work this way.

3) The lungs would almost certainly absorb some of the alcohol from the gin, probably leading to the same effects as alcohol taken by mouth.

4) I like the idea, but you'll have to figure something out for that needle. It would also be really hard to quickly inject 10 mL through the tiny insulin syringe/needle. Come to think of it, you probably couldn't even put an insulin needle onto a 10 mL syringe. Insulin syringes are only 1 mL or even smaller, and they're using made with the needle permanently attached.

Thanks, Elliott! Jessica, your book sounds intriguing. Let us know when it's ready for the prime time!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Second Time Around (Part 2) - Self-Publishing a Second Time

Guest post by Lance Charnes

Last time, I talked about the things that didn’t change between publishing my first novel (Doha 12) and my second one (South). Some things were just fine the way they were, while others really should’ve changed – sometimes in a big way – but didn’t.

What did change in that one-year interval? Glad you asked.

Things That Changed for the Better

I’ve gained some more beta readers from Doha 12, so this time I could get feedback from more people faster. This is a good thing. In order to get South out within the one-year window I’d set for myself, I didn’t have time to put the whole thing through my critique group, something that made me more than a little nervous. My new network of beta readers gave me enough good feedback that I came out reasonably confident that South held together to the end.

I waited months before I finally submitted Doha 12 to Midwest Book Review, a legitimate (i.e. not pay-to-play) review outlet that actually carries some weight with librarians. I used my MBR review to place Doha 12 in several libraries. This time, I catapulted copies of South to MBR as soon as I had a couple good reviews to tout.

One of those reviews was from Macmillan’s Criminal Element, a mystery/thriller-oriented blog to which I started contributing shortly after Doha 12 came out. Not only is it good exposure, but I was able to get South reviewed for their Fresh Meat feature. This meant several thousand readers were exposed to a very nice and lengthy review on launch day. You can’t buy that kind of publicity if you’re an indie author.

While flogging Doha 12, I discovered a couple promotional sites that seem promising.
·      eBookBargainsUK is actually eBook Bargains Everywhere but the U.S., with newsletters going to Latin America, Asia, Africa, and various European nations; it also runs links to non-‘Zon outlets. The associated blog boosts e-book outlets all over the world, and while it veers into breathlessness, I’ve used the info to locate my books in places I’d never otherwise know about.
·      Kindle Books and Tips is the only paid-ad placement on which I’ve broken even or profited – twice. It’s a combo website/newsletter/tweet-and-Facebook operation with a potentially large reach and very reasonable ad rates. It is, unfortunately, Kindle-centric, and most of its readership is in the U.S. Still, I’ll be slamming South in there once it keeps enough ‘Zon reviews (see Why Did That Have to Change?).

There are more e-book sales sites opening up around the world every day, and nearly all of them carry English-language books. Kobo in particular has been very aggressive in partnering with these sites. Collectively these outlets make up an increasing chunk of non-U.S. e-book sales. Getting listed beyond the Kobo partner sites is still a challenge for an indie author, although I hear that Smashwords is making deals with a number of foreign sites.

I now know a lot of little things that helped save time. For instance:
·      The Ingram catalog accepts limited HTML code for the product descriptions in its catalog. I discovered this too late with Doha 12, after I’d spent a huge amount of time trying to get my horribly mangled back-cover copy fixed on bookselling websites I never previously knew existed.
·      Got your book in Amazon or iTunes, and you’re tired of posting all those links to all their various storefronts? SmartURLs will save your life. This lets you create a single URL that will figure out where the clicker is located, and send him/her to the right storefront for his/her location. For instance, my URL will take you to ‘Zon’s U.S. storefront if you’re in America, if you’re in Canada, or if you’re in Germany. If nothing else, it makes for much cleaner email signature lines and blog posts.
·      Just knowing where the last book showed up made it easier to find the new one. Between Ingram and Kobo, my books are popping up all over the world. It took months for me to find all the channels selling Doha 12 (I’m still discovering them); I’d located South in the same outlets in the span of a couple weeks.

Why Did That Have to Change?

I was able to build my Kindle edition of Doha 12 in Calibre and upload it directly into KDP, meaning I had much more control over how it came out. Not anymore. KDP now has an online converter, but it’s not nearly as capable as either Calibre or Amazon’s own Kindlegen tool. This means you can use Kindlegen to create your Kindle MOBI file, and the online converter will then convert (and mangle) your already-converted file. The KDP people were very apologetic about this, but still…really?

Several of the review sites I placed on last time are either closed to new submissions or have gone belly-up. That’s too bad; I got some good reviews from them. At the same time, I haven’t found others with the same reach replacing them. It seems like every third blog out there now is a book-review blog, and they each have their thirty or so followers. I’m sorry; if I’m going to both give you a book and wait six months for you to review it, I want more eyeballs on the result.

Not only is it harder to get a review, but Amazon is deleting reviews seemingly at random. I lost two of my four ‘Zon reviews for South without notice, and I’m pretty sure neither broke the terms of service (the reviewers aren’t related to me, nor did I pay them). This is probably a reaction to last year’s sock-puppet scandal. The capricious and non-transparent way enforcement is carried out is cheesing off a number of reviewers and authors. Losing legitimate reviews also shuts books out of the better promotional opportunities.

Discoverability was a bloody awful mess last year. It’s worse now. Just that many more people have piled on, increasing the size of the ocean in which our books swim (or sink). The few publicity outlets that seem to work are either (a) overwhelmed, or (b) have discovered their worth and are either increasingly restrictive or significantly more expensive, or both (I’m looking at you, BookBub). As hard as it was to write and produce your book…that’s the easy part.

There’s very little about publishing a book (as opposed to writing it) that you could call “fun.” However, when you’ve gone through it once, you’ve largely paved the way for all the others that come after it. I fully expect it will be easier still when I put out my third novel, but other things will have changed in the interim, making this the perpetual learning experience.

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His international thriller Doha 12 and near-future thriller South are both available in Kindle, ePub and trade paperback editions around the world, in case you want to buy a copy in Finland. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Vesuvius Isotope in San Diego Book Awards Finals!

Hello to all...

First, let me apologize for dropping off in recent months. I am back at work in my "other" career and have been busy building a new laboratory dedicated to molecular discovery of cancer immunotherapies.

But I'm popping back up because The Vesuvius Isotope is a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards Mystery category! Please step on over to the page and check out the other books nominated.

In other news, we are still editing The Death Row Complex and hope to get it out later this year. Thanks to all for your support,

Cheers and happy reading,

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Second Time Around (Part 1)

By guest blogger Lance Charnes...

Love's more comfortable the second time you fall
Like a friendly home the second time you call…
-- The Second Time Around, by Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen

I recently launched my second published novel, the near-future thriller South, almost exactly a year after my first (international thriller Doha 12). A year’s not all that long – Miley Cyrus is still around, after all – but in the fast-moving independent publishing world, time seems to move in dog years.

The first-time publishing experience is, frankly, not any fun at all. There’s a lot of administration, signing contracts, researching artists, editors, distributors, publishing platforms, beta readers, review outlets, publicity outlets, and so on, and then dealing with your chosen ones. You spend far more time on minutiae than on writing that second book. But how does it work for the second and subsequent books? Here’s what didn’t change over that year; next post will talk about what did change.

Things That Didn’t Change – and that’s Good

My support structure was already in place, which saved me perhaps hundreds of hours this go-round.
·      I’d already set up my Kindle, Nook and Kobo accounts, set up all the payment details, found Draft2Digital for dealing with iTunes, finally finished signing contracts with Lightning Source, and figured out how to work the CreateSpace system. By now I know where the holes are, too, and I’ve plugged all the ones I can.
·      My author profile and photo was already set up in Amazon Author Central in the various storefronts where that exists (including a French translation for!).
·      I already had my stash of ISBNs, and I already had my account with the Copyright Office, so I could polish off those issues in a single evening.
·      I already have a cover artist (Damonza) from Doha 12, his product is a known quantity, and I know how he works. I didn’t have to worry about what I’d end up with for a cover – I knew it would be great.

Similarly, I’m already established on Goodreads and Kindleboards and some of the other promotional websites. The Twitter feed’s already there, the website and Facebook author page are already set up, and all have some history behind them now.

The process for creating ePubs for Nook and Kobo is pretty much the same as before. I used Calibre, validated the results through the IDPF ePub Validator (another discovery from last time), and uploaded direct. I also already knew the rules for what I could link to from each of the channels and had a system to create the different versions without fumbling it. I wish I could say the same for Kindle, but… (see Why Did That Have to Change? in the next post)

Things That (Unfortunately) Didn’t Change

The economics of POD still make it virtually impossible to place printed copies in bookstores. I’ve had indie bookstores turn up their noses at the 35-40% discount I offer through Lightning Source; they don’t want to hear that I make less than a buck on each copy, and that if I set a 55% discount, I’d have to price the book so they’d never be able to sell it.

The indie-pub platforms still have woefully inadequate sales reporting. You’re lucky if you can figure out what country your book sold in; forget sussing out which channel sold it (Kobo partner site reporting, anyone?). You can’t even get the exact sale date on the ‘Zon. Trying to figure out whether your promotions are working? Good luck.

Trying to sell a book is still an ugly, grinding slog, especially if you’re trying to push non-Amazon sales. The promotional infrastructure for Nook or Kobo is simply not there. Also, a great deal of the ‘Zon-centric promotional machine is still geared to free books, even though Amazon has tightened the noose on book-giveaway affiliates.

Getting reviews: ditto. Review sites big and small still have multi-month backlogs, assuming they don’t go out of business before they get to you. Only about 10% of readers (if you’re lucky) will post reviews. And even if you get reviews, you might not be able to keep them (see Why Did That Have to Change? in the next post).

You’d think that bookselling websites would be able to pick up the pertinent data about your book from the distributor’s catalog (such as Ingram) or its partner (such as Kobo). After all, we’ve been doing database-to-database transfers for, oh, fifty years or so. But noooooo. The explosion of online booksellers (see Things That Changed for the Better, next post) has also led to an explosion of places that can lose your cover image, mangle your book description, fail to link to your other books, and otherwise cause you headaches. Some will fix the problems if you ask; others won’t even return your emails.

Nook author support is still atrocious. The “help” operators can’t do anything but follow very simple scripts, and the chat operators appear to just cut you off when you ask too many questions. There’s no escalation and, according to the phone and chat people, no supervisors. Say what you will about the ‘Zon, but KDP will get back to you within a day and Author Central lets you talk directly to people who seem to be able to fix things. If Nook customer service is as bad as its author service, it’s no wonder the device is failing.

As this shows, stasis can be both good and bad. If only we could choose which things will change, and which won’t! In the next post, I’ll cover some areas that changed (for better or worse) in the past year. See you soon.

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His international thriller Doha 12 and near-future thriller South are both available in Kindle, ePub and trade paperback editions around the world, in case you want to buy a copy in Finland. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Trip Through a Classic: Murder on the Orient Express

As a big-time thriller fan, I find it refreshing from time to time to indulge in a classic murder mystery. Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is certainly one of the most read of all time. Since I have an obsession for train travel anyway, and, frankly, felt a bit embarrassed never to have read this book, it seemed like a good idea. And what a fun adventure it was.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was the structure - so different from the thriller structure to which I am much more accustomed. Instead of leaping from scene to scene and character to character, Orient Express strolls along at a downright leisurely pace, following the perfectly ordered logic of M. Poirot, who never allows either characters nor plot twists to get ahead of themselves. The novel is literally organized into three sections (no spoilers here - there's a table of contents) in which 1) Characters are introduced and crime is committed 2) The evidence of every character is presented in turn, and 3) Poirot solves the case in a supremely logical fashion. It's quite fascinating to watch it all develop so cleanly.

In the first couple of chapters, I found myself consulting my old, battered globe to follow the precise train paths through the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Of course, a few chapters in, we become snowbound (again, no spoilers - it's on the back cover) and then, the adventure begins.

Something else that amused me was the blatant stereotyping central to a novel first published in 1934. While it might have gone over by today's author like a lead balloon, Christie's use of such "evidence" as "Italians use knives! The English are too proper!" is both hilarious and ultimately ironic when one reaches the climax of the story.

Overall, a delightful story which I would highly recommend. It would have been a one-sitting read for me, and I'm slow, if I had had the luxury of sitting long enough to read it all at once. As it turned out, with a busy schedule of real life, it took me a few days. To my snowbound friends (which means, almost everyone in the world right now except for me,) do yourself a favor and pick it up before the snow melts. Murder on the Orient Express pairs perfectly it with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire in the fireplace.