Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Dark Side of Ideas



HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Am I seeing a theme emerge? I am always so intrigued when our topics seem to–coincidentally–verge in the same direction. I know we rarely talk about how the JRW sausage is made, but  you should know that when we schedule guest authors, we have NO idea what they’ll write about. That’s part of the fun!

So this week turned out to be a little…dark. GOOD dark, we like dark, but it’s so odd. First, Hannah Mary McKinnon and her bad guy main character in NEVER COMING HOME. Then Susan Furlong’s creepy dolls. (Sorry, dolls, nothing personal.) And coming up later...well, you’ll see.


And today, Annette Dashofy, a dear and treasured friend of the Reds, is talking about darkness, too. In a completely different way.

The Dark Side of Story Ideas
 by Annette Dashofy

As writers, we’re always asked where we get our story ideas. In the case of Fatal Reunion, it’s a plot that has simmered in the dark recesses of my brain for over four decades.

I’ve lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania, all my life. While largely rural, the area isn’t immune to crime. But back in the mid-seventies, it was a pretty safe place to live. Then came November of 1976.

For the sake of those readers who don’t wish to hear the gory details regarding a string of brutal homicides involving young women, I won’t share the incidents here. I did a blog about it on Writing Stiffs back in 2007 if you want to check it out. A more recent and thorough post on the still-open cases can be found on The Murder Squad.

Suffice it to say the Washington County Strangler has haunted me all this time. Some say the cases aren’t linked, and it’s probably true that a few of the young women died at the hands of someone else. There are also some who believe the real killer was a public figure of the time who took his own life. The killings may or may not have ended after that event.


It was around that time in my life that I wrote my first crime fiction novel. Inspired by the real-life unsolved mysteries, I created two women cops, the female versions of Starsky and Hutch. (Shortly afterwards, a new hit TV show premiered. You may remember Cagney and Lacey. I guess I was a little ahead of my time.) Looking back, the book was pretty awful. But in that novel, my fictional cops solved the string of murders.

Fast forward to 2020. I had parted company with my old publisher, who frequently steered me toward the cozier end of the mystery spectrum. I wanted to tackle this story again, and since I no longer had the cozy restraints, I decided Zoe Chambers was the perfect character to reflect my fears and help solve a fictionalized version of the case. Thankfully, my agent found a publisher willing to take it on as well.


Fatal Reunion is a complete work of fiction. I made up suspects and victims, as I always do. The only nonfiction aspect is within Zoe’s heart. I piled my own emotions and fears into her and ran with it.

Once again, my cops solve the crime.

The string of murders back in the 1970s left me rattled. A young woman suddenly aware her rural home wasn’t the safe haven she’d previously believed. But it also sparked my interest in crime writing. In our fiction, we have control over the outcome. Our heroes find the clues, connect the dots. The bad guys are caught. Justice is served. There’s a strange sense of fulfillment in making things turn out “right” in the end. Forty-five years later, there is still no satisfactory ending to the stories of Susan Rush, Mary Gency, or Brenda Ritter.

So, Reds, do any of you have a real story from your past that you have yet to address in your fiction, but want to? And readers, are you fascinated by true crime stories or do you prefer total fiction in your reading material?

HANK: Oh, great question. For fiction, total fiction is fine, or true crime disguised, also fine. But I am very annoyed when true crime writers take liberties. Just tell me the REAL story. If you don’t know everything, fine. This is especially frustrating in TV shows. If something is real, I don’t want my brain clogged with speculation or dramatization. End of rant.

What do you think, Reds and readers?




Fatal Reunion

The 11th in the Zoe Chambers Mystery Series:

As Monongahela County’s new coroner Zoe Chambers-Adams gears up for a third day searching for a missing woman, she receives the news she’s been dreading: a body has been found. What she discovers at the scene leaves no doubt—the missing woman was violently murdered. Worse, the manner of death mirrors the Monongahela Strangler case that terrorized the county when Zoe was in high school. Those murders stopped, but the case was never satisfactorily solved. And with people arriving in town for Zoe’s twentieth high school reunion, the memories of those scary days return with a vengeance.

But Zoe’s new husband, Vance Township Police Chief Pete Adams, sees the murder differently. His investigation reveals two feuding families and a forbidden relationship between their children. The homicide appears to be a crime of passion, until Pete’s relentless digging unearths a link between his prime suspect and Zoe’s serial-killer. Suddenly, with the predator threatening to strike someone near and dear to both Zoe and Pete, they must race to uncover the truth and catch a madman before another innocent victim is brutally murdered.





Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of twelve novels including the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic turned county coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. The eleventh book in the series, Fatal Reunion, is available now in digital and is coming soon in paperback. Annette and her husband live on ten acres of what was her grandfather’s dairy farm in Washington County, PA, with their very spoiled cat, Kensi.

103 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Annette, on your newest book . . . this sounds so captivating; I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I find true crime fascinating, but I dislike when that story is twisted into something it isn’t just to make it more sensational . . . I want to know all the facts and I want the story to be the true one.
    I do enjoy trying to figure out the case as the clues are revealed . . . it does seem as if fictional crime may allow the writer more leeway in developing the story . . . .

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    1. Hank Phillippi RyanMay 12, 2022 at 12:52 AM

      Oh, I so agree! Just tell me the real story! I love trying to solve the crime too, but I only want the real facts :-) And I agree as well, if it’s fiction, anything goes. Xx

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    2. I agree, Joan. If it's labeled TRUE CRIME, it should be that. I understand taking some liberties with conversations because the writer can't possibly know exactly what was said. I guess there's a fine line between True Crime and Creative Nonfiction.

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  2. I will stick with complete fiction, thank you very much. True crime depresses me since those people who died were real. I can much better handle fictional people dying.

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    1. There is a huge difference between the two, definitely.

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    2. Oh. That is a very profound way to look at it, Mark. xxx

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  3. Annette, you know how thrilled I am that a new Zoe and Pete book is out. I love this series so much. I'm sure it's odd to non-mystery/crime readers to hear any of us say that a murder series gives us comfort, but, and Annette, you know this already, during 2020 Annette's Zoe Chambers series was a Godsend to me. I read all ten in 2020 and finished out the year with #10. Covid was scaring us all so much and stressing us out to our breaking points, and Zoe Chambers helped keep me sane. So, I start Fatal Reunion with great delight. Congratulations, my dear Annette, on your new book. Oh, and I love the cover, and I think you were right to have them darken it up a bit.

    I have a true crime that has stuck in my craw for over 50 years. I thought I might write about it someday, but I don't think so now. I think I might have mentioned it here before. I must have been in junior high when it happened. A friend of my father's, not one of his closest though, suffered the murder of his wife. They had three daughters, two of whom were home. One was at high school, and I think one was home sick. The third daughter was out of high school, around 19. Their grandmother, the man's mother-in-law, lived with them and was bedfast, or at least she was said to be. She supposedly shot her daughter (the wife and mother of the three girls) from the bed, and it killed the woman. That was the official line. It always struck me as curious that they said the gun was kept in the closet and yet the old woman was the shooter. Hmm. Anyway, the man who was named Bac Worthington stood by his mother-in-law as she was charged and convicted. She was sent somewhere, but it wasn't prison. The daughters were all upset with their father for supporting the grandmother/mother-in-law, and they pretty much wrote their father out of their lives. However, I'm thinking that maybe they didn't really disown him, as they continued to live in the house. Now, did one of the daughters who was home really shoot the mother? I've always thought it possible.

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    1. Kathy, this is a fascinating and strange true crime story, and you make it sound very possible that the father and grandmother were protecting one of the daughters, with the grandmother sacrificing herself for the girl's sake. Imagine the other two daughters knowing that their sister shot their mother, if that is indeed what happened! It would make a good book, if a disturbing one.

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    2. Kathy, I'm so glad that Zoe and Pete helped you through 2020. I'm also deeply grateful that we've become good friends as a result!

      That true crime story is haunting. So many "what ifs."

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    3. Wow. That is so disturbing, Kathy. And yes, so many scary possibilities...

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    4. Kim, yes, that was what I had meant to say, too, that the grandmother was protecting one of the girls, and the father knew. Of course, I couldn't understand why the daughters would be upset with their father for standing by the grandmother, if it happened that way. Unless, they thought it made one of them look guilty. It was just such a strange set of circumstances, and, as you say, Hank, so many scary possibilities.

      Annette, I am so happy that we've become good friends, too. I love our chats and keeping up with one another.

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  4. As I'm reading FATAL REUNION now, I can't wait to see the outcome. Like Hank, I don't mind reading true crime, but leave the speculations out - just the facts. But, I prefer fiction.

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    1. Good morning, Dru! I continue to chew my fingernails as I hope you enjoy it!

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    2. Oh, lucky you! (And I understand, Annette, it is always so terrifying :-) when an esteemed reviewer is reading!)

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  5. Hello, Annette! I'm glad to meet you via JRW and overjoyed to be introduced to the Zoe Chambers series. Discovering twelve good mysteries in one go is a terrific gift. FATAL REUNION sounds very exciting, but I think I'll begin with CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE and lead up to it. I just bought it for my Kindle two minutes ago.

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    1. Thank you so much! Yes, each book stands on its own as far as the mysteries are concerned, but reading them in order allows you to follow the characters' growth. I hope you enjoy them!

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    2. Oh, hurray! You are in for 12 treats! xxx

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  6. I started Fatal Reunion yesterday morning and finished it about 4 hours ago. Yes, it is that good. I even skipped desert to keep reading that good. There were times when I was thinking oh no Annette don't you dare do this, and other times with wow I needed this Zoe Fix. Thank you for coming to JRW's this morning and a big thank you to you and your talent.

    About a crime that haunts me. I was doing some research for a client, reading newspapers from the 1950's from Seattle. The King County sheriff's wife disappeared. Why and how? and also why was this in the news? A lot was implied but never quite said.

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    1. Aw, thank you, Coralee!

      Old crimes are as fascinating because of what we don't know about them as of what we DO know.

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    2. Ohh....lots of backstory there, I agree!

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  8. As you know, Annette, I also love this series and am so glad it's continuing. I'll pick up my copy tomorrow!

    I learned only in the last ten years of a horrible crime committed in my home town - on my street - in southern California. A girl was imprisoned in her home by her father. Genie was deprived of any company or movement. She was badly beaten by her father and forbidden to speak or make sounds. Her mother, going blind, finally escaped, taking Genie with her at thirteen, She became a case for linguists to study when, because she hadn't been exposed to language or socialized in the least.

    The father was caught, but it's horrifying to know this was going on only three blocks from my house when I was growing up and NOBODY KNEW. He ended up ending his own life. I've considered writing a fictional version of these happenings, but I don't think I could bear to immerse myself in so much darkness. The real story also has a dark ending - the adults around her started fighting over her. Her mother couldn't take care of her. Genie regressed and was institutionalized. So very sad.

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    1. Link to a fairly recent story about her. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/14/genie-feral-child-los-angeles-researchers

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    2. How dreadful, Edith. I seem to recall hearing about it--or part of it, at least--on the national news. But I hadn't heard how things ended up with Genie. Heartbreaking.

      And thanks so much for your kind words. I hope you enjoy Fatal Reunion!

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    3. Man's inhumanity to man, a story as old as time, but so tragic in this case. How could any father be so cruel? He must have been evil incarnate.

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    4. Oh, gosh--so haunting. And yes, somehow intensified by your proximity, so agree.

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    5. Thing is, while working toward my doctorate in linguistics in the late seventies, I had professors who talked about her case. But I never heard where she lived or knew she was being held blocks from my house until recently!

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  9. Hank and Reds, thanks so much for having me here today. Alas, I'm about to get in my car and drive across the state (don't get me started on the joys of the Pennsylvania Turnpike) to the Pennwriters Conference, so I won't be around much to respond to comments. But I'll check in as soon as I get settled in my hotel room this afternoon.

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    1. Oh. SO much fun!! Tell everyone hi, and we will keep the Reds fires burning for you! xx

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    2. Have a wonderful trip, Annette!

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    3. We made it! Catching up now.

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  10. ANNETTE: Welcome back to JRW! Like others, I have been a huge fan of Zoe & Pete so I was thrilled about a new book. Looking forward to reading FATAL REUNION.

    Me, I generally prefer reading crime fiction instead of true crime. Fictional cop shows are fine to watch but I avoided cold cases/true crime shows.

    There was a horrific series of attacks on teenaged girls that took place in Toronto and then in Burlington/St Catharines ON that has haunted many of us. In the late 1980s, I alternated between co-op work placements in Toronto and academic terms at the University of Waterloo (100 km/60 mi from Toronto) when more than a dozen rapes occurred in Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto. Then in the early 1990s, two teenaged girls were kidnapped, raped, tortured & killed in another part of southern Ontario. Paul Bernardo & Karla Homolka were eventually arrested & tried for the murders. Bernardo was also later identified as being the Scarborough Rapist.
    https://criminalminds.fandom.com/wiki/Paul_Bernardo_and_Karla_Homolka

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  11. Congrats on the new book Annette!

    I'm not a fan of straight true crime myself. I prefer my fictionalized reading. However, if an author works some kind of real world crime/event into their fiction, I am usually fine with that.

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    1. Annette, I also became a fan of Zoe and Pete in 2020 after meeting you here on the JRW blog. Libraries were all closed so I bought a Kindle and over the course of a few months, loaded it with your books, which I love! Many congratulations on your new book, which is waiting on my Kindle right now. I am so glad that your new publisher is allowing you leeway past strict cozy rules. This sounds like a story that must be told your way.

      As far as True Crimes are concerned, spare me the details. Knowing those details sometimes replays over and over in my head. I do want to know if a crime happened and what it was. But I do not look for dramatizations to watch on TV. Even fictional crimes can hit replay in my conscious mind.

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    2. Thank you Jay and Judy.

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  12. Welcome back to JRW Annette! You have found your true voice with Zoe, it seems. We had a tragic event on our block when I was a kid. I definitely used it as backstory in my first advice column mystery, DEADLY ADVICE. Have a good conference and stay safe!

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  13. A new Zoey Chambers mystery to look forward to! So exciting, Annette, and you know I'm thrilled for your success.

    The only true crime that I can think of is the mass murder a few years ago in Pike County, Ohio. Seven adults and a 16-year old boy in the Rhoden family, all shot exection-style in three homes on a rural family compound, plus a trailer elsewhere. The shooters spared a toddler and two infants, who were left alone for the couple days it took to find the massacre.

    A nationwide manhunt began, and all sorts of wild theories sprang up. There was evidence of marijuana cultivation and cockfighting at the compound, and at first investigators speculated that some kind of cartel was involved. The real story is so bizarre, and I'm not quite sure of all the facts, but it turned out there was a custody dispute between the mother of one of the infants and the man with whom she'd had a sexual relationship starting when she was just 13, Jake Wagner. The Wagner family--Jake, his parents, and his older brother--conspired to murder this family, just to get custody of a three-year old. Because they could clearly provide a much better environment for a child, right?

    The whole story is such a mare's nest of anger, jealousy, covetousness, and downright sin that surely someone will write about it.

    Hank, I also DETEST those "true crime" pieces on TV that seem to take a good ten minutes of information and streeeeettttcch it out to an hour (or, God help us, two hours) of insinuation, speculation, and dramatic repetition (ad infinitum, ad nauseum) of the same "facts", most often with no actual conclusions. Pablum for the masses, I guess.

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    1. And people who are interested in storytelling, in the craft of storytelling , can easily see that padding and over-dramatization, right? And the careful structuring for suspense. AND how they disguise the suspect by not letting you see that they are in prison, and so must have been found guilty! :-)

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    2. Annette I apologize for misspelling Zoe's name. I have the same problem with Roberta's Hayley, Hailey, Haley?

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    3. You're forgiven, Karen. I'm just glad you enjoy the books. What a devasting crime! And I'm in full agreement about the dramatization and padding of the true crime shows.

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  14. So fascinating to rea this, Annette, and so happy to see you here! Stories that haunt me... oh my, yes. One in particular I've worked and reworked over the years and I'm still coming back to. Not about a murder but it's aftermath. And it happened to a dear friend. I think one of the pitfalls of writing crime fiction is that we can make it seem like death is just a plot point. Personal experience can be a touchstone for an author trying to keep it real (and respectful.)

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    1. Exactly. You followed your instincts, and they were right, as always. xx

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  15. Congratulations on your latest release! Painful episodes in my life keep bubbling to the surface. I grab the emotions and run with it. Finding a body is never just a plot point for me.

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    1. Emotions! Yes! Liz Milliron and I are sitting here in our hotel room decompressing after the drive and discussing the emotions behind the crimes. Murder for the sake of murder without an emotional connection may be "true" crime, but it really makes for unreadable fiction.

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  16. Annette: Congratulations on your new novel. The cover design is perfect for the darker theme. As a reader, I prefer to escape into fiction. However, I could read a satirical novel about reality. I just finished JAMEELA GREEN RUINS EVERYTHING by Zarqa Nawaz. Highly recommended for fans of THE GIRL WHO SAVED THE KING OF SWEDEN by Jonas Jonasson. I remember meeting you at my first mystery conference (Malice Domestic 2016).

    Diana

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    1. I don't either, Hank. Must look them up. And thank you Diana! I do love Malice Domestic!

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    2. Annette: Thank you. I loved Malice Domestic and hope to go again when the pandemic is finally over. I read samples of new novels from NetGalley, which is how I discovered JAMEELA GREEN RUINS EVERYTHING and I bought the ebook for that book. I laughed and laughed.

      Hank: Since I joined the bookstagram community on Instagram, I learned about many new to me authors and books. Someone posted a photo of THE GIRL WHO SAVED THE KING OF SWEDEN by Jonas Jonasson. I borrowed a copy from the library and loved the book. If you like Satire, then you may like these novels.

      Diana

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  17. Congratulations on the new book! I'm glad you were able to channel all the fear into this book!
    My son's father (it's complicated, he's still a brother or best friend to me) was a detective for the Portland Police Bureau. During his time in Homicide, he helped solve cases involving a serial killer and rapist (google Sebastian Shaw). I always thought that case would make a great book. Unfortunately, a true crime version of the story was published...and it's a terrible book! Maybe one of the wonderful writers or readers on JRW would like to take this on?

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    1. Hmm... tempting! Ah, I wonder, though, which of us would write about that? Hmm...

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  18. Congratulations on the new book, Annette! I'll be getting to Zoe and Pete by next week, I think. Or maybe sooner.

    One way I prefer fictional crime is there is usually a resolution with the loose ends tied up. True crime seldom works that way, although we may find out who did it and we hope for justice for the victims, we never really get to understand why. There was a case, not terribly far from where I live when a young girl rode her bicycle up the road and was never seen again. This was more than 30 years ago when it was not unreasonable for a kid to ride a bike during the day. They did eventually get the man who had taken her - he had also killed a young teenage boy, that he tied to a tree, in a different state. But her body has never been discovered. The monster took the police to where he thought he buried her in the Adirondacks but they didn't find anything. That case haunts me.

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    1. The "tying to a tree" crime is SO common, I know from some of my husband's cases. That's very very strange and disturbing. xx

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    2. Thank you, Judi! I hope you enjoy Fatal Reunion.

      Tying to a tree is common, Hank? Ugh.

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  19. I'm so happy to hear that Zoe Chambers will live on with a new publisher! Congratulations, Annette.

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  20. Fatal Reunion is next up on my TBR, I can hardly wait!

    I like a dash of true crime in my fiction, it often sends me on a Google search for more information.

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  21. So happy to see a new Zoe Chambers book.

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  22. Zoe and Pete are a new item on my TBR pile! Congratulations on finding the publisher that supports your vision.

    Fiction for me. I avoid the sensationalized things like "Cops" and "Dateline" but I've read some expose type things. They are useful but not entertaining. I don't read mysteries for the crime. I read them for puzzle, character, a semblance of justice and just good stories.

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    1. We could have a whole big discussion about Dateline, right? :-)

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    2. I expect so, but I mis-spoke . While I don't watch Dateline either, I meant 20/20. I respect Jane Pauley and her work!

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  23. I prefer fiction, but will read true crime if it is done respectfully and factually. I hate those made-for-tv movies that sensationalize a true crime. This has currently occurred with the infamous true crime that took place in Cleveland--the monster who kidnapped three young girls and held them captive for a decade. It was horrifying enough to read the details--but to see it reenacted? No, thanks! Can't imagine how those three young woman feel about seeing their nightmare on the screen.

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    1. I often think about the poor families of the victims too. They're being victimized all over again.

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  24. And, Annette--congratulations! I'm so glad you are able to write the story that you want! I need to get caught up on Zoe and Pete!

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  25. True crime stories can be fascinating, but please. Just the facts, ma'am. I don't like having to guess what is fact and what is speculation or drama to jazz it up. We just watched Operation Mincemeat on Netflix last night. It's a neat story about fooling the Nazis into thinking the allies were invading Greece, not Sicily. There were so many elements to this story that were questionable though. Anyway, congratulations Annette on the latest Zoe and Pete! This is Pat D in case I'm still out of the loop.

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  26. Annette, I'm so glad you've felt able to go darker - as someone who writes a series with cozy-adjacent touchstones and a traditional mystery setting, I'm aware of the push to divide the crime fiction world into cozy versus thrillers. Which is a shame, because I think people like you and me and Paula Munier and Linda Castillo have real things to say about small towns and ordinary people.

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    1. SO agree! And Laura McHugh, and Samantha Allen. SO valuable.xx

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  27. Congratulations, Annette, and I'm so glad Zoe has found a new home--especially that your new publisher is happy to let you explore darker storylines. I'm not a big reader of true crime, although I'll get very involved in research if a real crime is a touchstone for something in one of my stories.

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  28. Congratulations, Annette! How exciting to be able to craft the mystery that has been plaguing you for so long. I was blissfully unaware of any crime growing up in rural CT, but shortly after I moved to Phoenix in my twenties, a woman's head was fished (literally) out of one of the canals. That haunted me for quite awhile as it took 22 years for the murderer to be caught.

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  29. This is right in my wheelhouse! As I write noir, the dark is where I live (in fiction of course!). I worked at New England Telephone back in the 60s as a switchboard operator. Back then, we had to break into phone booth conversations to say, "Your three minutes are up. Please deposit XX for an additional minute." Or something to that effect. One time I broke in on a conversation (we always pulled our little lever back so they couldn't hear us listening in so that we could break in between the people talking) and heard a mob hit being planned for someone at Gunstock Acres. That place was known to be a place where Boston heavyweights lived under a guarded gate. I wrote down the info. Then I told my foreman. They said we couldn't report it because I wasn't supposed to be listening in. I went home, told my parents, and they called the FBI who came right away. They took all the details, thanked me, and said this was the last I would hear from them as they couldn't tell me what happened. So I had no idea what happened! That kicked off my interest in creating characters around a Boston mob and the FBI. Nothing gruesome, just fascinating.

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  30. Congrats, Annette, for your new baby!! You were ahead of your time!

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  31. Congratulations, Annette! I’m so glad to see Zoe and Pete back in the world.

    I much prefer fictional crime to true crime. As you pointed out, there are too often no answers or solutions for the real world victims. We can bring resolution in our writing.

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    1. By the way, Anonymous is Liz Milliron. Sigh.

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    2. Liz and I are sharing a room with the same spotty wi-fi. I've tried and tried to comment and sometimes it lets me and sometimes my comments vanish. The hazards of hotel internet.

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  32. I am currently reading Fatal Reunion and am glad to see Zoe and the gang. It’s definitely up my alley as it deviates from cozy just enough. Of course I don’t know the ending yet but guessing, based on the above, it might keep me on my toes. I love these books and hope you publish more.

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