Guest Post: Karen Borelli

Please welcome Karen Borelli, author of Do Grave Harm.

do grave harmA villain can be a person or thing. In my latest story, Do Grave Harm, the villain is both.

Do Grave Harm is a story about Jennifer Atkinson, a divorced breast cancer patient, who gets trapped in a radiation lab when the technician is killed outside. She feels driven to find out who would kill the man and why they did it while she was getting treatment. She’s a witness who hasn’t actually seen anything. More she’s a fighter and survivor. During October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, all proceeds from this story will be donated to metastatic breast cancer research charities.

Cancer is the obvious villainy thing. A truer villain I’ve never known.  I know breast cancer intimately. In 2014 I was diagnosed with an aggressive form called Her2+. Like Jennifer, I had a year of chemotherapy and thirty-three radiation treatments. All I could think about was fighting the disease, trying to keep my strength up to get through the treatments. Then trying to keep a good attitude through endless tests and holding my breath for the results, praying the medicines were killing the disease. That’s where the similarities between Jennifer and I stop.

Going through treatment, particularly radiation provided the fodder for the story behind Do Grave Harm. The machine that delivers the radiation is large and though my treatment time was short, you are all alone in a sterile room. Just you and the machine. I sometimes struggle with claustrophobia, usually in underground caves or narrow stairways with no windows.  I’ve never before suffered the anxiety during a medical test but during one radiation session, I realized all it would take was one slight miscalculation, one small missing bolt or screw and I would be toast.

So making cancer a villain was easy. But how does one person fight a disease that has no conscience, no morals, no soul, no physical being? Any animal (human or non) can be stopped by force or law. For some types of cancer there is no current cure. It won’t be controlled by judge or jury. So my villainy thing wasn’t going as easily as I hoped.

So we came to a person. A disease didn’t use a scalpel to kill the first victim in my story. That takes premeditation and dexterity. In short, a hand.

Was it raised in anger? Most certainly. Killing with a blade seems to be much more hostile, evil even, than other ways. What drives someone to that kind of anger?

Was the hand raised for greed? That could work, I thought. Killing because of greed has been a problem for as long as people have wanted more than they have.

What are some other reasons humans kill each other? Pity? Pride? Mercy?

Or was it raised for none of those? Alas my villainy person wasn’t going easy either.

Of course, our intrepid Jennifer, who has much more energy and curiosity than I ever would, gets all the answers, whether she wants them or not. I hope you will take the opportunity to read through the excerpt on my website or follow me on social media.


“Helpless” and “vulnerable” aren’t normally part of freelance writer Jennifer Atkinson’s vocabulary. But there’s nothing normal about her regularly scheduled radiation treatment, especially when she discovers that while she was fighting claustrophobia inside the massive machine aimed at her breast, someone was murdering the technician at the controls.

As the gruesome scene plays over and over in her mind, small details that didn’t seem significant at the time start the wheels turning. Soon she’s asking more questions than she’s answering for the seriously attractive investigating officer, Blue Bald Falls Detective Ben Manteo.

Despite Ben’s warning she should keep her nose out of it, Jennifer can’t resist using her limited energy to pick up seemingly unrelated threads that, inevitably, begin to weave themselves into a narrative. A story of lies, deceit, and betrayal that someone will go to any length to make sure never gets told…

Note: The proceeds from this story during October, breast cancer awareness month, will be donated to metastatic breast cancer research.


A southern girl, Trixie traveled north when she found the love of her life. Together, they enjoyed more than 20 years working as journalists. Now back home in Tennessee she’s writing stories that range from short hot romances with a kiss of humor to southern-flavored mysteries. She lives seven miles from the neighborhood where she grew up with two cats, an aging beagle and a host of characters waiting for her to tell their stories.


Facebook: @TrixieStilleto

Twitter: @TrixieStilletto








When you’re your own worst enemy

I’ve written about my favorite villains before in this post from early August. I am a sucker for sympathetic villains — antagonists who are very bad for very good reasons. But to be honest, I’m feeling like my own bad guy right now.

For the past month, I have been hustling to finish the draft of a manuscript. A book I have been working on for over a year. I stopped progress on it to work on a passion project, but now I need this finished. I need it out of my head space. Off my plate — only temporarily since it has to go to my beta readers and then to my editor. Revisions have to be conquered at some point. But I wanted this draft done before I left for Bouchercon so I could enjoy the convention without this albatross around my neck.

And it may not happen. There is still so much left to do and only two days to do it.

Villains think they’re too smart to be defeated. I thought I was too smart to work without a proper outline. Villains plan ahead, but don’t foresee the hiccups. I rewrote the plot, but didn’t anticipate the logistics of a double murder and two mysteries in one book. I learned my lesson, but too late: I should’ve written out the crime scenes first.

It’s 11:21pm, and I am mentally drained and sweating buckets — it’s unseasonably humid in the Northeast. I am also stress-eating, so I’m bloated and queasy.

I screwed up, and now I have to pay. Maybe, I’m not the villain, but the protagonist, flawed, but trying to compensate. Yeah, that sounds better. Which means I’m at the all-is-lost moment, and there is no where to go but up.


Interview: Joel Gordonson

Please welcome Joel Gordonson, author of The Atwelle Confession!

The Atwelle Confession_300dpiWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?
Sculling at dawn on calm water; quiet reflection and taking stock of life over a simple breakfast; checking the news and finding no violence or terrorism; writing/editing fiction in the morning; lunch with a friend; working with clients and colleagues in the afternoon; a walk on the beach to watch the sun set into the ocean before an evening of a late dinner with special people, reading a book worthy of admiration, or watching an escapist movie; no unanswered emails when I go to bed.
I’m lucky enough in life that I actually do have a fair number of these perfect days—except for the email part.

Do you have a signature phrase/expression?

“All men can be trusted, but not with the same things.”  John Barth—The Sotweed Factor
Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
Dumas, Twain, Dickens, LeCarre, Heller –  all authors of fiction classics comprised of original, captivating, multi-faceted plots with a fitting message for our times as well as theirs.  I also greatly admire Beryl Markham’s West with the Night—extraordinary life experiences of a remarkable woman beautifully recounted in her first try at a book.
I am compelled to name Abraham Lincoln as well, though he may not be remembered foremost as an author. His collected letters and speeches contain some of the most elegant and inspiring phrases ever written about some of the most emotional and difficult burdens ever borne, along with courageous and instructive self-deprecating humor.  There’s an insightful analysis of his writing skills in Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer.

Do you listen to music when you write? 

I do, without fail.  I was raised on the greatest hits of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  My mother was a piano teacher who served me a new classical piece with breakfast every morning.  Music, as a background to writing, allows me quick mental breaks from concentration and also inspiration from hearing how composers and performers follow, bend or break conventional forms.

What made you interested in writing The Atwelle Confession

The genesis of the book came from a dinner with a good friend, a medieval historian, who told me about her discovery of mysterious, rare gargoyles in a remote church in Norfolk, England.  After two hours of staring at the bedroom ceiling later that evening, I got up and wrote down the rough outline of the plot.  It was the kind of plot I like to read—lots of characters and scenes that seem unrelated at first and then come together to a surprising conclusion.  So I kept at it and had fun.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing? 

If I’m going to cook, I want the meal to have more nutrition than cotton candy.  If I am to go through all the effort of writing a manuscript and getting a book published, I want the plot to be not only entertaining, but also reflective of a worthwhile theme.   So when planning my plots, I have as cornerstones an engaging story with a surprise ending and a meaningful message.
My first novel, an historical fiction adventure story based in biblical times, focused on the themes of love, sacrifice and forgiveness, and commitment to friends, family and community.  I chose to attempt an original treatment of these themes because our society continues to be incapable of dealing with the increasing problems of violence, poverty and prejudice, while we as individuals feel increasingly powerless.   Yet the remarkable power of love, sacrifice and forgiveness by individuals can make a significant difference in families and communities where one can actually do something about those problems.
My most recent novel, The Atwelle Confession, is a “whodunit” that comments on the evils of greed and the power of hopeful perseverance.
Tell us about your main character.
The book involves two murder mysteries in which the same sequence of bizarre murders occurs in a medieval church about five hundred years apart, first during the church’s construction and again during the church’s restoration.  So there are a good number of main characters leading up to the single solution in the last chapter.
Without a “spoiler alert,” I can’t tell you much about my main characters because most of them are suspects at one time or another.    But I (along with one of my editors) am particularly fond of the 16th Century priest, Father Regis, who is brilliant, well educated, respected by all and yet riddled with self-doubt, and his friend and confidante Peter, the village idiot who is completely self-confident and happily accepting of his life without home or means.  Their friendship is improbable, but wonderfully loving and supportive of each other.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

Sorry. No can do without a spoiler alert. Who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist?  There’s the rub of the plot.  

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Raymond Chandler, who, like Philip Marlowe, would become more interesting the more he drank.  Every time he said the word “like” during dinner, (“He was like…”; “She was like…”; “It was like…”) I’d be on the edge of my seat.   I look for that word in his novels; what follows usually blows me away.

J. K. Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith, to hear her unique story of rags to riches and all the accompanying emotions and issues.  She’s also very bright and attractive, which never hurts a dinner party.
Anthony Horowitz, because we both list Harry Flashman as our favorite rogue character in literature, he is an engaging conversationalist, and I’d like to hear his comparison of approaching novels versus screenplays.
Agatha Christie, of course.  But perhaps because she knows it all, has done it all, and consequently would want to talk about anything but mystery writing.
Elmore Leonard, who would call out people’s BS and make the conversation interestingly pointed.  However, I fear he would not accept my invitation since I continually violate some of  his rules of writing.
A new author, picked at random, to see what surprise ending might result.
What’s next for you?
My next (almost finished) manuscript involves Buddhist themes of present awareness, conscious action, self-actualization and self-forgiveness, all in the unlikely settings of LA gang violence and a remote Indian reservation. 

I also have a pile of plot outlines from spending too much time in airports and airplanes. Because they remain unwritten, they still seem like certain brilliant literary and commercial successes.  And I’m having great fun writing the book and lyrics for a musical with a dear friend who is a supremely talented jazz pianist.   Wine and cheese are often involved in our working sessions, so my lyrics occasionally rhyme.
Author Joel Gordonson publicity photosJoel Gordonson is the author of The Atwelle Confession and That Boy from Nazareth: The Coming of Age of Jesus of Nazareth. Along with being a novelist, he is a successful international attorney. With law degrees in the United States and from the University of Cambridge, he has published scholarly works in legal publications while writing fiction on the side. In addition to writing, he has done extensive public speaking including decades of appellate arguments, seminars, speeches, and media appearances. “Home” is divided between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California. For more information, please visit

Real-life villains

As we still – as individuals and as a nation – reel from the tragic events on Las Vegas, villainy is at the top of our collective minds. Not only were the events Sunday night horrific, but it brought out some truly dark and divisive comments in society, including people who claimed that the victims didn’t need relief money because “they were rich” to the now-former CBS attorney who said the victims were undeserving of sympathy because “country fans were mostly Republicans” (apology since posted).

Yesterday, Becky posed the question that with all this going on, why do we even need fictional villains? Real life seems more than capable of providing enough villainy for everyone. Of course I–like her–believe we do need fictional villains because we need fictional heroes. We need triumph. And you can’t have a hero without a villain. The bigger the hero, the bigger the villain.

But it strikes me there’s another, more insidious, type of villain at large in society. One that is more difficult to overcome.


Events like natural disasters and mass shootings can bring on despair like nothing else. What can we do? We’re just little cogs in a big wheel. We seem to be doomed, so why bother?

Once again, I think fiction comes to the rescue. If we can write and read about the triumph of heroes, there’s hope for us. Soldiers, cops, firemen, private detectives, fabric store owners, pet shop owners, clockmakers, Quaker midwives–all these heroes look at the circumstances in their own lives and say, “no.” They could turn around and walk away. Yes, even the professionals. There are other jobs out there. But they don’t. They look despair and chaos firmly in the eye and say, “not in my town.”

I think we need that. Too much grimness and depression clogs the news cycle. We need to see someone triumph to believe we can triumph.

Even if that person is fictional.


Image courtest of Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan retreat center, Friendship, NY

Do We Need Fictional Villains When We Have So Many Real Ones?

Yesterday morning I woke to the horrific news about the Las Vegas massacre. I tried to ignore the worst of it even as it swirled around me. But there was no escape.

Yesterday afternoon I abandoned my work on the outline for a new mystery. Even a cozy, light mystery seemed wrong.

This morning I saw on my To Do list that my blog post theme for tomorrow was “Villainy.”

Books, movies, and television are saturated with bad guys, some of whom we even like. Fagin. Beetlejuice. Shere Khan. Moby Dick. Macbeth. All the characters in Shameless.

But how can we write fictional villains when the world is teeming with them, walking invisible among us? Apparently we talk to them, pour their coffee, greet them warmly, sell them guns, movie tickets, and muffins every day.

I’m struggling with this along with most of the rest of the world.

Early this morning, before the sun even hinted at a new dawn, I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw this. I can’t verify anything but the truthiness of it.

what I do is important

“Of course,” I thought. “Of course people need stories to transport them out of their real lives.” And some will risk their life to do so. People need Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler and Harry Potter and Coraline and Madame Bovary and Leopold Bloom and Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch.

But do we need another murderer? Another Norman Bates? Another Hannibal Lecter? Another Bill Sikes? Another Mr Ripley?

Do we?

And then it came to me.

Yes, we do.

We need the villains so the heroes can win. We need the bad guys to get some kind of comeuppance, whether that’s prison, their eye-for-an-eye death, or just a life spent looking over their shoulder, waiting for whatever avenging shoe will drop and smoosh them.

Unlike real-life, fictional murders are almost always tied up within a few hundred pages, a logical bow waving in the righteous breeze. Our hero figures out what happened, whodunnit, and usually why they dunnit.

Unlike real life.

And we need that.

Don’t we?



Villains – one of my favorite things to write.

Type the word villain into Google and here is what you see: villain: noun: (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot. The definition sent chills up my spine. Google gets it! Love it when life works with me—don’t you? The only thing that would make it better is a gif of Snidely Whiplash twirling his mustaches. Cue the eyeroll and the cheesy music.

I’m a pantser (and I’m trying to fix that because it makes my life hard). When I start a novel, I know two things. My point of view character—I write a series—and the circumstances of a death. In the current WIP I have a dead man found without a mark on him in a car in an isolated area of rural Miami-Dade County. He’s in front of a group of houses that look like futuristic pods abandoned for years and due to be demolished. Last known use of the houses, any illegal activity you can think of, including meth lab and waiting room for air drop of certain illegal substances from foreign countries.

There’s the setup. I have an idea of a cast of characters that accompany this scenario too. Right now, I know five pivotal characters in addition to my protagonist, her boyfriend, and her best friend (who happens to be the sister of the dead man). Any one of them could be the villain. “What,” you say. “Even the protagonist?” Sure. The villain doesn’t have to be the killer. The villain needs only have a dark enough side to incite the death.

Everyone has a villainous side. No one is immune. The fun part of writing characters is digging until you find it. Peeling away those protective layers of civilization until the primitive core of each character is exposed then covering up the hideous bubbling cauldron of emotion before it escapes is a writer’s job. The character’s secret may be safe with the writer, or not depending on the particular circumstances of the crime.

Writers are watchers. The raised voice, the change in pitch during a discussion between friends or family members, the body language that accompanies the words, the way a driver reacts when another pulls in front of him, all of these are noted and used. Mini-studies in human nature and individual tipping points. Villainy on a small (and sometimes large) scale demonstrated on a daily basis. All of those get woven into the fabric of characters until they become complete human beings on the page.

It’s important to me that my villains are participating characters in the story– not Jack in the Box jump ups at the end of the novel. I want my readers to have a relationship with them throughout the book. Now that I have a handful of well-rounded named characters, the fun begins. I outline a series of traits (usually three or four) and give each character motive, means, and opportunity. Each character gets their own mini crime story and their own alibi. No character gets an ending. That comes later. It’s fun to watch them point fingers at each other or disavow any knowledge of the crime. All the red herrings in a row. This is where my villains are apt to get cut if they can’t support the story. No saints allowed. Viable suspects only.

If I’m feeling particularly wronged by someone, I’ll write in a special character. Like the idiot whose sense of entitlement led him to cut me off on a narrow two-lane bridge over a canal because he was too important to wait for the light and nearly drove me off the road into the water below—not that I’m still upset about it. Which means, I get to give some of my villainous emotions to a character or two! Very cathartic.

Be careful what you do—you might end up in my book!

Writers – do you enjoy writing villains?

Readers – do you enjoy reading the villains or the good guys and do you want the villains to be characters throughout the book or just guests with cameos?

October: Spooks and Spirits and Villains

Our hearts go out to those impacted by the horrific shooting in Las Vegas yesterday. Sending love and healing to all.


noun vil·lainy \ ˈvi-lə-nē \

  1. villainous conduct; also :a villainous act
  2. the quality or state of being villainous :depravity


  1. the actions or conduct of a villain; outrageous wickedness.
  2. a villainous act or deed.
  3. villeinage.


One of my all time favorites, is Professor Moriarty, from the Sherlock Holmes novels.  An evil mastermind, leader (ruler?) of the criminal underground, Moriarty is relentless in his goal of besting Sherlock Holmes; he is one of the rare few to truly challenge Holmes on an intellectual level. What makes him so fascinating? I love puzzles, so I think that Holmes would be quite interesting without Moriarty; however, I don’t think that the stories would be nearly as long-lasting and Holmes’ character nearly as robust.

Another would be the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A nasty piece of work, she not only killed Christmas, but she also banished happiness.  Elsa on a bad day has nothing on the White Witch! The White Witch’s villiany includes freezing her enemies, and (did I mention?), preventing Christmas from coming.

Let’s not forget Lord Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series. A vile psychopath, Voldemort wants all the power for himself, in order to remove the silly limits and rules that get in the way — muggles? They should exist only to serve him, if they exist at all. Good wizards? Useless. No, Voldemort has evil in his heart — if he has one — and only his desire to do evil sustains him.

Who are some of your favorite villains? Would your most beloved characters be the same without their arch-rivals?