“Show and Tell” in Your Writing


One of the common problems I have been running across lately in my work as a freelance editor, is that there is a lot of “telling” in the writing, and not much “showing.” The writer “tells” us to be afraid, that the character is arrogant & mean, that the house is falling apart, etc. But the writer fails to create a sense of dread, wonder, and affection for the character.

Instead, the writer should be making the reader afraid, showing them the arrogance of the character and how dilapidated the house is, and so on.

For example, a writer who is only “telling” things might say, “The spooky old house was falling apart.”

But this is far too much “telling.”  You have just told the reader that they are supposed to be afraid of the house, instead of creating a sense of dread and fear in them as you describe the house in better detail. The reader will not feel something just because you tell them to, you have to create that mood.

Also: How is it falling apart? Show how it is falling apart: describe the windows cracked, the rotten floorboards, the curtains ragged, the paint on the walls (inside and out) faded and chipping away, etc. Give them a specific image in their mind, so they can visualize the details.

You should also use sensory descriptors and imagery to create the mood and images you wish to convey. Use sensory descriptors to get the reader to feel the danger: sight, sound, smell, etc.

Some examples:

  • The rustling of the leaves in the cold wind made him look over his shoulder.  For a moment, the bizarre shapes of the gnarled, twisted branches as they shook in the wind made Peter they were trying to grab at him from all sides.
  • Suddenly, an overwhelming stench hit him.  It was the smell of very rotten meat and organic decay.  It was the smell of death. His stomach turned over, and he gagged, almost vomiting.  The next thing he knew, the scent was gone and he could breathe again.
  • A freezing wind blew out of the woods.  It was unnaturally cold, even for this time of year, and was blowing in the opposite direction of the rain.  It was as if the woods had a wind of its own.  Holly felt the chill of it deep in her bones.

If possible, a writer should also evoke emotions and the readers’ own memories to help create a stronger image, and more powerful writing. Make the reader feel anger at the injustice of the villain’s actions against the hero (or another character), or comfortable & safe at the smell of pie cooking in a kitchen – just before you have the demonic-werewolf-ghost jump through the window and attack someone.

Another example: Instead of calling someone “villainous”, show us how they can be mean and evil.  If a main character savagely kicks a homeless man who is merely sleeping in a freezing alleyway, for example, or laughs at the sight of a bully beating up a smaller child, we know that character is not one of the good guys.  Such “Random Acts of Villainy” can be just as effective as “Random Acts of Kindness” in showing the reader who your characters are.

One of my favorite characters on TV is Adrian Monk.  Every episode we are “shown” his major character traits:  He has a keen eye for detail, and a passion to make things right in the world.  The writers show this by giving him OCD, and grief over the murder of his late wife.  His OCD causes him to notice details that pass by most people, but it is not focused solely on crime scenes: he also obsesses on the placement of every item in the room, the socks someone is wearing, the idea that he might have left his stove on back home, and so on.

Yes, you should have a list of descriptive terms for every character, but you should not share this list with your readers. Instead, try to demonstrate how each character is worthy of those descriptors.


“Cheap at the Beginning Makes for Expensive in the End” (A Commentary on Self-Editing Your Manuscript)

“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” Ben Franklin once said. In that same vein, it can also be said that “A writer who is his own editor invariably looks foolish as an author.”

Or, to quote another adage, “Cheap at the beginning makes for expensive in the end.”

At 3 to 5 cents per word (a not-uncommon fee for freelance editors), paying for a professional editor can be expensive, especially for a first-time author. So a book that is 75,000 words in length can cost as much as $3,750 for one round of editing (at least two rounds is recommended by some editors).

Costs like this can make the idea of “self-editing” your manuscript very tempting and very appealing.

But before you toss away the idea of paying for an editor, consider this…

An author of my acquaintance (I’ll call him “Bob”) was able to self-publish a novel he had long been wanting to see in print. This author said he had already been published professionally by “the trades,” so he certainly would have had dealt with the publishing industry—including editors—before.

All throughout his draft-writing process, he commented on many Facebook and other social media posts where writers were asking about hiring an editor. “Bob” repeatedly said that editors cost too much, and that writers should try to “self-edit.” He told countless writers that “self-editing” was not only possible, but just as effective as a professional editor, and perfectly acceptable for self-publishing. He made himself quite the advocate for this, in spite of the many times myself and others tried to explain that editors do far more than merely spell-check, doing far more than any app or other computer software could do.

Recently, “Bob” self-published this book. It was a story he had been wanting to write for a long time. He paid money he said he could not really afford, to have 10,000 copies printed up and have the ebook posted online.


He went on social media, spending the entire day promoting his new book online.

Because it was my favorite genre, and I rarely get to read many new authors writing in that genre, I was looking forward to reading it. As soon as I read his announcement about his new book, I downloaded it and began to read.

…And instantly became so very embarrassed for his sake.

While there were almost no spelling errors, it was rife with punctuation issues. The first few pages alone had several sentences that were confusing and poorly worded. Even the paragraph-long blurb for his dust jacket had numerous errors, and was not engagingly written the way a promotional blurb should be, in order to get people to buy the book. The book was painful to read, and I did not get past the first chapter.

While I was trying to figure out how to tell him that his dream book was… not the best quality work, I went onto his post announcing his new book. I saw that a few other people had already politely and gently told him it was not as well written as he thought, and needed a good editor.

“Bob” was floored.thumbnail

Now that he saw the problems with his book and had some of them pointed out to him, the reality of his situation was sinking in. “Bob” had invested a lot of his own money, and had 10,000 copies of a book that was an embarrassment to any professional author. He would have to either eat the huge loss or continue to humiliate himself online, in hopes of making a few sales.

He chose to delete his promotional posts, stop promoting his book, and slink off into the sunset by leaving social media for awhile.

This scenario is a too-common occurrence. Writers try to be cheap and apply “do it yourself” mentality to publishing, or just don’t realize the vital and incredibly powerful role editors play in the publishing process. However, this time, this writer’s humiliation was even worse. Remember, this particular writer had gotten on social media on numerous occasions, claiming that “self-editing” is more than sufficient for self-publishers. And now “Bob’s” hubris-driven blunder was out there on the internet for everyone to see.

To make matters even worse, this author who had said he was a published professional, now had a book that made him look like a vanity-press-printed amateur.

Don’t get me wrong. “Bob” is a good writer. Overall, his ideas and stories are very good. He has a quick wit and a great sense of humor in his blogs & posts. So it’s quite believable that he has indeed been published before.

But submitting to “the trades” is very different than self-publishing.

A Submissions Editor at a publishing house expects to see an unpolished work. They expect to have their editorial staff go through every manuscript and make tons of changes, before allowing it anywhere near the printing press. So submitting an unedited (or “self-edited”) ms to “the trades” is perfectly acceptable.

However, in self-publishing, your initial readers are Joe and Jane Average. They expect (and very rightly so) that every book they download or buy at a store will have been written and perfected, prior to their reading the opening sentence. They expect (again, rightly so) the same quality of writing and professional publishing that they would get from a book published by any of “The Big Five” publishing houses.

So for you, a writer looking at venues for your book, this means that you must ask yourself:

Can you afford to be a professional author by self-publishing, or should you submit your work to “the trades”?


Because if you can’t afford to pay for a good editor to polish your manuscript, then—to be brutally honest—you either don’t want to be taken seriously as a professional author, or you just don’t belong in self-publishing.

However… This is not to say you don’t belong in print. As I said before, “the trades” are a great option for the beginning writer with no editorial budget. The publisher there will pay for the editor to go over your work, and you always receive some kind of payment for the time you spent writing (this is never the situation with self-publishing). The person first reading your manuscript there expects grammatical imperfection, and is looking at the overall quality of your story and use of language.

Yes, “the trades” will probably reject your manuscript—if you do things right, various publishers will probably reject it more than a few times. But if you research which imprint/publisher you are submitting to and how your manuscript fits into their image & product offerings, and if you write a good query letter, then a good writer stands a good chance of being published (and polished) without paying out of your own savings to do so.

…And you will never have a book on the market that makes you look like an amateur hack.

Anne Fisher-Ahlert is a freelance editor who is happy to look over several pages of your manuscript for free, in order to demonstrate how much you need an editor, and with hopes that you will hire her. Anne’s email is Anne_Ahlert@Yahoo.com .

#LettersFromTheFront of the #SecondCivilWar

My Dearest Family,

The battle is going well, and my spirits are high. I am proud to pass along the many verified reports that we have won the Battle of Bowling Green. The War is going well at every turn.

My Battalion currently has the Red Hats surrounded. Sadly, their blind obedience to their Dear Leader keeps them from admitting defeat. But we continue to barrage them with facts and science, until they can tweet no more. Their Russian allies continue to send spies into our midst, and their own Russian troops in disguise among the Red Hats, but we are neither dismayed nor discouraged. They tend to quickly give away their true nature, so we are not often fooled.

One factor that has been to our advantage is the Red Hats’ distrust of vaccines. Their Anti-Vaxxer strike teams have been wiped out by smallpox & measles. Those who survived are in no condition to fight. Few of the enemy troops have Health Care, merely because of their hatred of Pres. Obama. Their forces are therefore sorely weakened.

Another factor to our advantage is their use of fossil fuels. The smoke from their coal fires is easily spotted by our Scouts, whereas our solar generating panels are only visible from the air. Because they kling to their guns and not to drones, the enemy has yet to spot the panels, so we are resting comfortably in both the heat & cold, and our food is well cooked.

In the wee hours of this morning, we had great fun & success by sneaking into their camps, when we changed the signs on their bathrooms to say they were all transgender restrooms. As a result, none of the Red Hats will use them. Their bladders & intestines are exploding, because they have yet to figure out the only difference is a sign on a door!

I am also glad to report that the Canadians & Germans have been powerful allies. Their counter-strikes to the nonsensical tarrifs, and their morale support to us all in #TheResistance, have been invaluably helpful in proving the incompetence of their Dear Leader. Plus, the Maple Sugar candies and Lebkuchen are delicious.

Our only real difficulty so far has been the need to shoot around the Bernie-supporting Peace Protestors, who try to block the trajectories of our weapons with their “Feel the Bern” protest signs, and either instigate or are goaded into fights with the Hillary supporters in our midst. It is disheartening to see so many good people misled into conflict with their own people. I only wish they would all see that this infighting only serves the Red Hats and their Russian Overlords, and cease their bitter bickering.

Still, none of it will cost us our inevitable victory, of that I am certain. Our sources are much more accurate & real, and our cause is much more just & honorable. Each time they have hurled their petty childish insults, and screamed “Fake News!” or “But her emails!”, their aim has been pitiful and they have missed their marks entirely. Their morale is boosted by Fox News propaganda, but even that is failing them, as the celebrities of that network quit in protest of the vile & inhumane policies that their masters promote. I know we are assured victory, and I hope to be returning home soon.

My love to the dogs, give them all hugs from me.


Click here for some backstory on the hashtag #SecondCivilWar .

Harlan Ellison’s First Day of School

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the late great Harlan Ellison in person at a convention. He told a simple but delightful story about his first day of school, which perfectly illustrated his love of stories, reading, and learning in general…

Harlan had learned to read long before going to school, and was a voracious reader of anything he could find. His parents did not stifle his love of reading, but instead allowed him to read any book or story for any age.

When it came time for his first day of school, his mother walked him to school. He was very excited. He’d been told school was a place of learning, so he had imagined rooms full of books and books and books, all over the walls, like a huge library.

His was deeply confused and disappointed when he got to his assigned classroom. There were only a few pictures books; mostly there were toys, some desks, and other kids playing on a colorful rug.

Where were all the books of learning?

Bored, and unwilling to socialize with the other kids, he sat down at the teacher’s desk and began to read the adult-level paperback she had set there at some point.

Before too long, the teacher came up to him and tried to get him to join the other kids and sit at his desk.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m reading.”

(In his household, he had been taught it was always impolite to interrupt someone when they are reading.)

The teacher persisted, and used a firmer tone, telling him he really needed to go sit down.

“Excuse me,” he said again. “I’m READING.”

Well, his poor mother, who had walked him to school, had no sooner walked in the door to her house, when she heard the phone ring.

The school was calling, asking her to come in and speak to the Principal about her son. So she had to walk all the way back.

(I take it from his narrative at the time, that this was not a small distance.)

When she got there, the Principal told her that her son had been repeatedly lying to the teacher.

“Harlan,” his mother asked, “What did you say?”

“I just told her I was reading,” insisted young Harlan.

The Principal chimed in. “Well, that’s the problem, you see. He had a grown-up book and insisted he was reading it.”

“But he CAN read it,” said his mother.

The Principal obviously did not believe it.

His mother took a thick book from the Principal’s desk. “Here, Harlan. Read to the man.”

So Harlan proceeded to read out loud from a thick, adult book, without pause or problem.

That was his first and last day of Kindergarten.

They put him into the First Grade, only because school rules did not allow any higher promotion than one grade level.

Promoting Your Book on Social Media

Many writers, including those who are on just one social media platform, either ignore opportunities for promotion, or make amateur mistakes in using it. Social media can be a very cost-effective and cheap way to promote your work.

While it helps to have an existing following on social media, it’s not required. You can quickly and easily set up new accounts, or even build old ones to be much better at promoting your work.

Unless you are writing books on the subject of politics, or writing crude comedy, keep accounts non-political, professional-looking, and polite. Have people who do not know you review any of your existing accounts you would like to use to promote your work. Ask them if they think book promo would be too incongruous to the other posts in that account, or get buried in any chatter. Also ask them if they think your profile does not look like that of a professional writer. (Get rid of those “drunk at a party” posts, and pictures of you showing off your abs.)

Your account and profile should reflect the image you would like to see from someone who is writing your books.

If necessary, create a second new account on a platform you are already on, to avoid offending or alienating potential sales, and to keep your public image professional.

Post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram too. Those are hot promotional platforms now, and you should be on multiple platforms. Decide what the demographics of your target readership is, and use the appropriate platforms. For example, young adults are very active on Instagram, adults prefer Facebook, LinkedIn is good for business professionals & writer’s groups, and Twitter is very popular for political discourse. You should not avoid a platform if its largest audience is not your target demographic (their audiences are not exclusively one demographic or another), but you should be aware of their demographics & consider how to use their strengths to your advantage.

Make an effort to post/tweet/retweet at least once every day or two, in order to build followers. (You don’t have to write an original post every day. You can retweet or share posts from other people. Just be sure to stick to subjects & share things that your target readership would enjoy.) The point is to keep your account active and in other people’s feed, as well as getting the attention of new followers.

Be sure to use a social media management app to monitor who is following/unfollowing you on any platform, but especially on Twitter.

Twitter’s analytics (computer-programmed mathematical formulas that control their platform) requires a balance between followers/following numbers. If your ratio is off by too much, you become unable to follow new people (this phenomenon is known as being in “Twitter Jail”).

Always unfollow accounts that have not followed you back in a long time, or who are only following you in order to build their own numbers. Monitor & check every day or two who has unfollowed you, so you can quickly identify and unfollow such accounts.

Twitter has “Follow Back” parties for some subjects, such as politics or SciFi fandom, connected via hashtags. Learn to use these to build followers quickly, BUT do not use them to gain followers dishonestly. (For example, don’t get followers in a political follow party if you are using your account solely to promote a romance novel.)

Some writer groups on social media (especially on Facebook) have certain days of the week assigned to allow you to self-promote for free. Check group rules, and join as many of those as possible.

Learn to use hashtags (such as #SciFi #Zombies #TeenMystery or #Supernatural ) in Twitter, Facebook, and especially Instagram. Try to relate your posts/tweets to trending/popular hashtags (like #50Shades #StarWars #TalkLikeAPirateDay #MeToo #adulting etc). People browse social media using hashtags, and using them increases your chances of having your posts seen, read, and shared.

Whenever possible, find a way to use an image or gif in your posts/tweets. These tend to get noticed better. It’s okay to use memes or clipart sometimes; don’t use only your book cover all the time.

Try to write/retweet posts that people will want to share. This also increases your visibility and publicity.

This all might seem like a lot of work, but once you get the hang of it, this should all take just a few minutes of each day to promote your work, build an online presence, and build sales.

Just don’t get pulled in to spending valuable writing time, by hanging out on social media instead. It can be very addictive.😉

Dropping the F-Bomb: A Book Lover’s Memory

When I was a pre-teen, way back in the 1970s, my mom bought me a paperback, that I think was the one pictured, called “Super-Cops: The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin.” We both thought it was about Superheroes.

It turned out to be a tough-guy cop book, about mean-street police partners. They loved using the F-bomb.

After several chapters, I decided I should probably know what that meant, since they used it so often. (Remember, this was the 1970s, and I lived in a small town.) So I walked up to my mom, who was washing dishes at the time, and innocently asked her what it meant.

She was shocked, and asked me what I said. Her tone said I might be in trouble, but I repeated it anyway.

She picked up a bar of soap and shook it at me. She told me that if ever I said that word again, she would use it to wash out my mouth. 

(Note to self: Never ask a parent what a word means while they are standing near a bar of soap!)

After I explained I really didn’t know it was a dirty word, she calmed a lot, and asked me where I heard it. 

After I told her about the book, she confiscated it. Knowing how she always treated books, I could not picture her ever throwing one away, so I kept looking around the house for it for awhile after (I never found it).

It was a good book. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Rejection: Advice from an Editor

Rejection happens… a lot.

It should happen a lot, if you’re doing it right.

If your ms hasn’t been rejected by at least a dozen publishers (preferably more), you haven’t tried hard enough yet.


Remember, “Gone With The Wind” was rejected hundreds of times, before it finally found its way to print. Most authors deal with countless rejections, and the successful ones keep trying.

Rejection is not a personal slam against you or your work. Sometimes the ms is not a good fit for the publisher, sometimes you did not present yourself as a professional author, but instead seemed careless or rude in your query letter, other times the publisher just does not have the funds & staff at that time to take on another title for publication.

Rejection happens for a lot of reasons, many of them beyond your control. But there are lots of trade publishers out there, willing & hungry to read your submissions, and– yes– pay you to publish your work.


Avoid some of the common mistakes in submissions. (More on these in future posts.)

Just remember that you will get rejections. Expect them. Plan for them.

I remember one successful full-time author, who told other writers that he sends out at least 10-25 query letters a week for magazine articles & short stories, expecting to only get one or two of those accepted. He also spends time every week working on his latest book, and pitching his last one. By diversifying and keeping himself on lots of desks at once, he keeps himself gainfully employed.

To be a profitable, full-time author, rejection slips should be a normal part of your business. Just remind yourself that they are not about you, they are about your query/ms and how well it works for the company you are submitting it to.

Yes, it takes a bit of a thick skin, but just keep submitting!

“A Skeleton in the Closet: A Genealogy Mystery” Chapters 1 & 2


At the sound of something brushing gently against my apartment door, I was terrified.

It was not the kind of fear you get when you’re on a roller coaster, where the blood rushes through your veins and clears out your head.

It was that deep, gnawing, unending fear that kicked me in the stomach and made me dread the phone ringing and picking up the mail.  I had long since been screening calls and had told all my friends to talk to the machine.  The bill collectors from the credit card companies would never leave messages, and just hung up.

But now I was terrified because I knew what that sound meant.

My landlord had left a message on my answering machine just a few minutes earlier.

I knew.

I knew that the scratching and movement on the other side was an eviction notice being taped on my door.

I knew that I had run out of time, and I knew I had only a few more weeks to come up with a sum of money that no temp job would ever pay.

I knew I couldn’t ask my parents to take me in any longer.  They had settled in to their new retirement community, and were so crammed for space that their walk-in closet was now their computer-room-slash-home-office.  I had only once in my life used the option of living with my parents, and only now realized how wonderful it had been to have that available to me.

My breath was instinctively held. I released it slowly and quietly, then waited and listened to be sure the hall was empty, and that my landlord had left the stairwell.

Tears started to form in my eyes, and I scolded myself. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no coward.  I knew I was one of countless people who had been in this situation before, so I had nothing to really be ashamed of.

But the more my mind told me not to be upset, the more a few tears fell down my cheeks.

As I pulled the notice from the door, I took care to close it behind me as quietly as possible.  I still didn’t want to face my landlord right then.

I fell down and dropped onto the couch.  There was no real reason to read the notice, but I opened it automatically, and unfolded the crinkled corners. Sobs started out of me, and I dropped the papers to the floor.

I looked at the chair on the other side of the room, at the brand new set of bagpipes sitting in their case.  I had ordered them back before my former company’s mass-layoff, and had waited for almost three months before they arrived.  Then it had been several more months before I could play them with any skill at all.  I had fought to find practice time in my crazy work schedule, and was happy to have found a quiet spot down the road from my old office building where I could run off at lunchtime and play without disturbing anyone. 

That, as they say, was then.

Now I looked at them and saw a valuable asset that could be sold to one of the other students in my bagpipe band, and easily pay for more than a month’s rent and groceries.

All that work, all that time, for nothing.

Now, even though I felt like I was on the verge of being voted into the band as a full playing member, I would have to give it all up and wait.  Wait until I had another job, wait another year or more until I saved up money to buy another set (which would by then surely cost $1,000 more), and wait until I had learned the band’s new playlist requirements for membership audition (these would certainly have changed by that time, too).

Realistically, if I sold them now, I would probably be giving up bagpiping for several years, maybe forever.

Silently, from behind the tears, my thoughts turned into a prayer.

I know we haven’t talked in a long time God, but if You can do anything, I could really use some help here.  I don’t know what to do or what I’m supposed to do.  I don’t know what You want me to do.  I’ve always thought You must have a plan for me, but I could sure use a hint right now what it is.

I didn’t expect an answer right away.  After all, everyone always says that God doesn’t work like that.

Perhaps it was because I was so caught up in the sound of my own crying that I didn’t hear the first few rings of the phone.  It must have rung, because the machine was answering.

“Veronica, if you’re there, pick up.  It’s me, Daisy.”

Quickly, I wiped the tears from my eyes and grabbed a tissue to wipe my nose.  During my last (much shorter) encounter with the unemployment line, Daisy had thrown some freelance work my way, and she never said “pick up” unless it was urgent.  Thankfully, while I was working to disguise the sniffling and hoarse voice that would have been a dead giveaway to the tears, Daisy kept talking to my machine.

“I’ve found something for you that could bring some money in.  I don’t know how much, but it’s something right now, and I think you’d be perfect for this…“

Finally feeling prepared to pick up the phone, I answered.  “Sorry, Daisy.  I’m here. It just took me a minute to find the cordless phone.”

As soon as I heard my own voice, I knew that I still sounded nasal and stuffy, and my gravelly voice gave away that I had been crying.

“You okay?”  Daisy asked.

“I’m fine.  I was just watching a good movie.”

Either Daisy believed the fib, or was too much of a friend to pursue the subject, and let it drop.

“Well, I’ve got this old friend of mine from my DJ days in St. Louis.  She’s a nurse now and lives in Montana, and she needs some genealogy and local historical research done.  I know you helped me out with that before, so I thought you could make some money doing the same thing for her.  I googled it, and professional genealogists make some good money.”

“Daisy, I don’t have the certifications for high pay.  I’m just an amateur.”

“She doesn’t care.  She was impressed by my description of your work, and wants you.  She’s willing to pay pretty well, too – now that she inherited some money from her Grandfather.”

I stood silently for a moment, unsure of things.  God doesn’t work this fast, does He? 

“You still there?” asked Daisy.

“Oh… yeah.  I’m here.”

“Well, it would involve some travel, but you would get reimbursed pretty quickly.  I don’t know if your finances are up to it right now, but I figured I had to at least throw it your way.  It’s a little weird, but after going to that Star Trek convention with you, I know you’re fairly comfortable with weird.”

“How do you mean, ‘weird’?”

“Well, my friend Rose’s Grandfather passed away a few months ago, and she was going through his things to figure out what to do with them, and found a wooden chest in the closet.  Inside the chest was a human skeleton.”

“And in what way does this… very interesting situation lend itself to genealogy?” I asked.

 “Well, the police originally thought the skeleton was one of a pair of missing hikers from way back when, but now they’re saying it might be one of Rose’s relatives.”

“So she’s from a rather dysfunctional family, is that it?”

“No.  That’s just it – from everything I’ve ever known about her, Rose’s family is kind of like one of those 1950’s Leave it to Beaver types.  I can’t imagine her Grandfather living with a dead body in his closet.”

“Well, I have to admit,” I said, “this certainly ranks high on the weirdness scale.”

Daisy gave a mild laugh.  “Oh, yeah!  Anyway, they need to have more information on her family tree for the DNA identification process.  And Rose wants to find out more about her family’s relationship to this missing hikers thing.  Even though the police say it’s not possible, Rose is sure it’s related somehow.”

“But the police must have reasons for ruling that out already, mustn’t they?”

“Maybe, but Rose and I aren’t very confident in their work.  We both think they’re typical small-town cops who are stumbling around on a case that’s too big for them.”

After a pause, Daisy continued.  “So, what do you say?  A week or two of paid travel to the lovely wide-open state of Montana, with all expenses paid?”

“We-e-ell…”  I walked over to the couch, and picked up the eviction notice.  It gave me four weeks to find the money.  Uncertainly, I answered, “I’d have to get paid before the first of next month.”

“Done.”  Daisy was obviously sure enough of the situation to answer so firmly.  I was feeling better about the job.

Later, as I hung up the phone, my confidence slipped away.    This was more of a job for a professional private investigator, and I’m just an amateur genealogist.  My stomach knotted up.  Only my faith that this was God sending something my way, kept me from picking up the phone to call Daisy and back out of the job.


Even though Daisy had told me to call right away, I took a few minutes to compose myself a bit more so could be sure that my voice no longer showed hints of my previous tears. I also had to spend some time online researching how much genealogists get paid.

The amount shocked and inspired me. The professional’s rate was very tempting, especially in light of my finances, but I was determined to be honest and charge the lady an amateur’s rate.

The number Daisy gave me was the hospital where Rose worked.  After several minutes of being caught in long-distance voicemail Hell (during which I futilely said “human being please”, and pressed “1” and “2” more times than I could count), I finally got through the corporate communications barrier to speak to a human being.  Several more minutes of being kept on hold passed.

Finally, Rose Allendale herself came on the line.

Rose was very nice when I apologized for calling her at work, and insisted on talking about the case in spite of the numerous interruptions obviously caused by people walking up to her desk.  Before the conversation ended, I had gotten down most of the available facts.

The “missing hiker thing”, as Daisy had referred to it, involved a missing newlywed couple who had been hiking in a forest preserve in the late 1920s.  Just before they had disappeared, Rose’s Grandfather, Emory Allendale, had taken their photograph.  At the time, he was working as a nature photographer for the federal government.  Later, the hikers’ campsite was discovered with everything intact and no evidence for either of them.  Rewards had been offered and search parties sent out, but no trace of either one was ever found.

Recently, Rose’s Grandfather had passed on.  He had lived most of his adult life in a small house in Bears Falls, Montana, near where the hikers had gone missing, and a human skeleton had been found hidden in a trunk he owned.  The police had told her that the skeleton was a male, based on some of the bones.  The newspapers had also said that there appeared to be a gunshot wound in the skull, but not trace of an exit wound for the bullet, and no bullet was found in the skull or in the trunk.  Since no one else had been reported missing in that part of the country before, police were theorizing that this was half of the missing hiker pair, and that Emory had shot him.  They were busy x-raying, sonar-scanning, dog-sniffing, and digging up much of the ground around Emory’s old home in search of the woman’s remains, in hopes of finding her, too.

Rose, however, didn’t think her Grandfather had killed anyone or that the police would find any other remains.  She was convinced that someone had somehow put the trunk there after her Grandfather died. She thought it would have to have been done during the time when she had been going through his possessions, wrapping up heirlooms and donating anything no one else in the family said they wanted.

Rose also said that she remembered hearing her Grandfather once say that he had never fired a gun in his life.  It was just a couple of years ago, and she could think of no reason why he would have lied at the time about that.  Rose wanted to prove her Grandfather’s innocence, but felt the police were too set on their theory of the events to consider hers, and Rose couldn’t shake the feeling that they were hiding something from her.

Even if it cost her all her savings and even if it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, Rose said, she wanted to know the real truth.  She was launching her own investigation, because she had to know if her Grandfather had killed anyone, and not spend the rest of her life wondering if the police had just rushed to conclusions.

Since I had come recommended by a friend, Rose offered to pay whatever the fee was, including any travel expenses that might be incurred.  She wanted to have me find out as much information as I could about the missing couple, and also to work with the police and forensics people to verify the man’s identity and to get as much historical information as possible about the case.

When I tried to assure her that travel might not be necessary (most of my Genealogy was done online), Rose was adamant that she preferred me to be nearby during the investigation, and that she was willing to pay for any travel expenses. In spite of my persistent reminders that I was not a detective, she was insistent that Daisy had given me the perfect references.

Since this was possibly a career-making case, and was far better than the miniscule amount on my unemployment check, I agreed to spend a couple of weeks on-site, but insisted that I would need to take at least a day to get myself up to speed on the case and do any preliminary research on the missing couple’s descendants.

I always hate talking money when I freelance, so the next few minutes of discussion felt awkward. Still, she agreed pretty quickly to my fee, and even insisted on paying a higher rate. She was determined enough that I was concerned my protestations would soon become impolite. We agreed to meet up at her home in two more days.


Energized and wanting to get all the facts straight and written down, before I forgot any of my conversation with her, I hopped on the computer and started Googling and typing.

It didn’t take long to learn more about the case.  The basic facts were posted in several web-sites that showed up after only a quick “Google” search. Frustratingly, there was a book listed on Amazon.com about the case that had yet to be published, but no publication date was listed; this usually meant that it would not be released for some months yet. 

After printing out a few web pages that seemed rather promising at first glance, I did some quick checking on Ancestry.com to get myself started on the descendants.

Thankfully, the missing couple had an unusual last name and there would be fewer “hits” to sort through.  George and Betty Darmok hadn’t had any children, but George did have had one sister, according to news stories.  The police were hoping to use mitochondrial DNA to identify the skeleton.  If the sister was still living or had any daughters of her own, the “X” chromosome in the male skeleton could be matched up to the “X” chromosome in the living female relatives, since “X” chromosomes are passed down through the female line.

Because the police were also looking for George Darmok’s relatives, I decided to start by giving the police a call and trying to share information.

I guessed that Rose might have made her disapproval of the police department known and that there might be bitter feelings about the case, but Rose had also said that one of the officers was more open and helpful than the rest, so I decided to call him before leaving for Montana.

“We already have people working on the genealogy, Miss Heldin,” Officer Parker said.  “I don’t think I understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”

As inoffensively as I could, I tried to re-state her client’s position. “Rose Allendale is paying me to look into it. She wants to have another pair of eyes looking at the missing man’s family tree and at the original case itself.”

“I can understand that,” said Officer Parker.  “It doesn’t hurt to have another investigator looking at the facts, and I certainly don’t mind sharing my information, but I don’t quite understand what a genealogist is doing investigating this.”

“I was referred by a friend of a friend,” I said.  “My expertise is in comparatively recent historical research in the United States, especially the eras between the Civil War and the second World War.  I’m more than just a record-chaser, I’m also a historian, and I like to put a person’s life into a historical perspective.  Besides, I’ve already voiced my own doubts about my duties to my client, but she seems rather set on it.”

Officer Parker laughed lightly.  “Well, Rose certainly is a bit quick to jump on things.  I don’t mind, though.  She has a certain way about her that makes her easily forgiven… Well, Miss Heldin, don’t expect to find any corrupt cops planting evidence or anything.  Our department was one of less than a dozen in the entire country to earn a Certification of Integrity.”

“Oh, that’s certainly not why I’m working on this, Officer Parker!  I’m only hoping to add another pair of eyes and approach the topic from a different angle.  Hopefully, I’ll find something your people don’t.  If there’s one thing I’ve found to be true of genealogy, it’s that more people working on the same problem can only help.”

“In police work, sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth, ma’am.”  His words were harsh, but his manner was too good-natured for me to take offense.  “I simply want you to understand that I am going to share any information with you that I am able to, but I won’t be able to divulge every aspect of the case.  Some things have to be kept quiet in order to do better police work.  I also want to make it clear that we’re not a library you can keep coming back to.  We may be a small town by your Chicago standards, but wedo have other work and I don’t want your investigation to take over our offices.”

“Oh, I certainly understand, Officer, and I certainly don’t want to make a pest of myself at all.  If you’ll just help me hook up with whoever is doing your background research, I’ll be glad to get out of your hair.”

“They’re already done with the research on this case and they’ve moved on to another one, but I’ll be glad to fax you copies of what that investigator gave me.”

“Oh…done so soon?” I asked.  “I thought that the skeleton was found less than a week ago.”

“Yes, but they apparently didn’t have to look hard for a relative.  The story is famous enough that a lot of reporters and authors did that for us long ago.”

“Ah, I see.”  I was glad to hear that there was ample literature somewhere on the story and that someone still had copies of some of it. It also meant I would be spending a lot of time researching while en route, however.  “Well, I certainly do appreciate your help, Officer Parker.  If you’ve got a pen I’ll give you my fax number.”



The tiny town of Bears Falls, where Emory Allendale had lived and died, was nowhere near an airport, so I was left with the choice of driving or taking a train. 

Driving was pretty much out of the question.  My car was already near the end of its life, and I was sure driving it all the way from my suburban Chicago home to Rose’s home in Montana would be too much, even for my antique Nissan “Rice-Burner.”

Although Rose had made it clear that car rental was an option, I realized that driving would substantially cut down my reading time and ability to work out the basics of the case, so mass-transit seemed to be the preferred choice. 

The train was fine by me, anyway, since the new post-9/11 security measures made airline travel too time-consuming and aggravating for my tastes.

Online travel sites quickly determined that the best method of getting there without spending too many hours on a bus or too much money up front, involved taking a train most of the way, then renting a car.  There was an Amtrak station within spitting distance of my destination, and I estimated that just the cost of repeatedly filling up the gas tank and spending only one night in a motel would make the train ticket and car rental well worth it.


I tried to avoid enjoying the beautiful scenery that kept popping up outside the window as the train lolled its way through the pleasant Midwestern landscape, and concentrate on my reading and research.

I started with Officer Parker’s files, my notes from my conversation with Rose, and my online search printouts, since they were the quickest and most condensed version of the various facts and didn’t require an internet connection.


On June 17, 1928, a newlywed couple named George and Betty Darmok disappeared.  George had been 21 at the time, and Betty 17 years old.  The couple had previously told various friends that they wanted to spend a month camping out and hiking in the beautiful preserves and forests of what was now called Kootenai National Park.

Only a few days after they began their hike, they returned back to the Great House that acted as a combination general store, restaurant, and hotel for the many tourists of the day.  Most were not as nature-loving as the young couple, and would only stay long enough to see the unusual rock formations near the Great House, but some would brave an overnight or more in the nearby camping area.

The pair stocked up on some supplies, and George was overheard at the cash register insisting that various items other hikers assured them were necessary, would be a waste of money and he refused to buy any of them.  While in the Great House, they had their photograph taken by a young Emory Allendale, Rose’s Grandfather, who was there taking photographs of the park.  It was the last known verified sighting of the pair, and young Mr. Allendale was able to precisely note the time of day in a later newspaper interview, because he had not yet made his long trek to the creek to develop his film in the water, and the sun was about to go down.  Like others who overheard the couple talking, Mr. Allendale was surprised at George’s insistence that they would head out to hike more that evening, in spite of the late hour.

The couple’s absence was first noted the next day, when a Trail Officer came across their campsite not far from the Great House.  It was eerie, he claimed, and felt the way a ghost town must feel.  Coffee had been set over a fire and the pot was almost burnt dry from being left on too long.  Breakfast was still on two plates, half-eaten.  Clothing and personal items were set out as if someone would be returning any moment to start their day.  As much as he walked around the site and called out, no one answered.  He soon realized that shoeprints led to a nearby stream, but did not return back toward the campsite.

The Trail Officer quickly made his way to the Great House and sounded the alarm.  Police were called, search teams organized, but not one single clue as to what happened to the couple ever surfaced.

In the years since, a couple of people claimed to be Betty or George, including one lady who was hiking the trail with a tour group.  After hearing the story of the missing couple, she calmly stated that she was Betty Darmok, and that she had killed her husband and ran off and assumed a new identity.  Although everyone in the tour group agreed that this woman existed and had actually said all this, she disappeared immediately after returning to the Great House and was never identified or heard from again.

At the time the couple disappeared, one newspaper reported that George Darmok had a married sister named Helen Gorn who lived in Utah.  Helen was quoted in the papers as saying that her brother had “a bit of an Irish temper” when drunk, and she hoped “he hasn’t gone and done anything stupid.”

Many years after the hikers’ disappearance, Helen’s daughter came forward.  Apparently, Helen and her husband Oliver had separated years before, and Oliver had taken their daughter Rebecca with him.  Also, he had apparently passed on at some point before his wife’s death.  Rebecca then went to court to have George declared legally dead, and be named the recipient of George Darmok’s estate.  This estate was not much, and consisted only of some “small furniture” and what was described in one newspaper article as “personal items and family heirlooms of small value.”  Copies of marriage and Social Security records filed some years later indicated that Rebecca Gorn was now to be found under the name Rebecca Astenbaum, and that she lived in Libby, Montana, very near Kootenai National Park. 


The abundance of newspaper information certainly explained why the police felt so comfortable with their prospective mitochondrial DNA.  Still, I felt like I should be more professional about my research.  I remembered another Genealogist (it was my mother, actually) saying that a good Genealogist always tries to get at least two reliable sources for every piece of information before believing it to be a fact.  While the newspaper articles were good sources, there was only one article in the file about Rebecca, and the other documents about her were all about her adult life.  There was no other verification that she was a blood relative of George Darmok, or that Helen Gorn ever had any children.  Actually, other than that one newspaper article, there was no other verification in the police files that Helen was even George’s sister.

I was a little irritated.  If I did pursue this line of inquiry, Vital Records Departments invariably took at least 10 days on a “rush” job, and those usually cost a lot more to get.  Still, if Rose Allendale was willing to pay the extra fee, it might be possible.  I felt bad about asking her to pay money for double-checking what would seem to be fairly well-established to most people.

Also, the fact that Helen was quoted in the one article as saying that George had a temper was something Rose would probably want to hear.  If nothing else, it gave strength to her theory that her Grandfather didn’t kill the couple, and left open the possibility that the husband had killed the wife, then either killed himself or went into hiding.

According to the recent information on her, Rebecca Astenbaum now owned a newspaper called the “Kootenai Gazette,” which she had purchased with her entire inheritance.  That would make her simple enough to find and contact.

I considered the Utah angle.  If Helen had really lived in Utah, she might actually have been Mormon.  Especially if any of her children were Mormon, someone in her family would have some information on her family tree available online with the Latter Day Saints (or “LDS”) databases.

I was getting a bit irritated at myself for having agreed to leave home to do on-site research so soon after starting on the case.  I was sure that I would have a dozen more possibilities I would want to look up online before I got off the train.

And then there were a couple of other details that troubled me.  The only official government documents in all of the papers Officer Parker had faxed over were the missing couple’s birth certificates and marriage license.  There were no court papers declaring them dead.  But most troubling of all was the dates stamped by the various county clerks on all of the official original copies, although barely legible after being copied and faxed, still unquestionably showed them all to have been requested at least three years ago.  Other records in the police files also seemed to indicate someone had been looking into this “Cold Case” for some time; from the name on the “Requestor” line of at least three of the different documents, it looked like that someone was named “Enkel.” 

Even though this might all be completely innocent, my instincts told me otherwise.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like there were a lot of areas the police had left unchecked and questions that were still unanswered, and I felt less guilty about having to charge money for my research expenses.

Writing “Surprise Soup”

Every genre has a formula.  Many writers pride themselves on breaking formula, but are later disappointed that not many people seemed to like their changes.  Those writers who don’t understand why, need to understand that consumers don’t like to buy “Soup Surprise.”

To explain…

Imagine you have the biggest craving for chocolate cake. And not just any cake, either—your mouth is watering for the cake that is served at your favorite restaurant.  So you go to that restaurant and order chocolate cake. After waiting patiently, you get your cake.  You pick up a huge forkful of chocolatey goodness and put it in your mouth, only to discover…


They changed the recipe, and no one told you.  It is now Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake.  

Assuming you have no potential anaphylactic shock from any possible peanut allergies, you would still be very put out. Yes, at any other time, you might actually have enjoyed trying some Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake.  But this was not expected, so your tastebuds revolt, and you have to spit it out.

Or, you go to that restaurant to have some soup.  Every day, they always have your favorite soup, so you plan on having the same soup.  But that day, they tell you, they are out of your soup.  Now, they only have “Soup Surprise” – AND you have to order the soup to find out what it is.

Even with this warning, even if a customer did not have any possible food allergies, most people are not likely to order it.

Yes, there are the people who like an adventure and who will try anything, but most people go to their favorite place to have their favorite flavors.

The same is true for books.  Most people go to their favorite genres and sub-genres to have their favorite characters and stories. It’s the reason that book and TV series are so popular: people ENJOY the familiar and the comfortable.

For example, I had been a long-time reader of a certain Cozy Tea Mystery series.  I enjoyed the characters, the concepts, the pacing, and everything.  For eight books, I was comfortable in that town, with that heroine, watching her gradually develop as a character, enjoying that she was gradually developing a romantic interest in the last three. Then, on book number nine… BAM!

The author changed the recipe on my beloved chocolate cake to add mint and peanut butter. For some reason, the heroine had amnesia.  All of the regular characters, plus the romantic interest that the author had developed over the last few books, were now gone. Another male character was thrown in the story to take his place.  The previously G-rated series now had multiple sex scenes that were written mildly X-Rated, there was more profanity, and the violence of the crime was more graphically described. None of the characters, not even the heroine, seemed familiar.  I felt as disoriented as the amnesic heroine of the story claimed to be.

Ordinarily, I know I would have enjoyed this story. The mystery itself was well-conceived, the storytelling in general was very good. But the fact that my favorite chocolate cake now had peanut-butter-and-mint in it left me with a bitter taste in my literary mouth, and I have not picked up that series again.

Another example…

I also enjoy some Science Fiction. There have been more than a few books over the years that people have suggested that I read, because they know I like Science Fiction. But SciFi is a strange animal, and has some very specific rules and formulas. It has many sub-genres that are very unique, including Time Travel, Alternate Universe, Hard Science Tech, Dystopian, and so on. Someone who is not familiar with the distinctions of these sub-genres is quick to assume that because I like some SciFi, that I like all of it. But any SciFi nerd knows that being a Trekkie does not automatically mean you will “go gaga” over Star Wars, or vice versa.

So, when I get these recommendations, I go in knowing that I am ordering the “Soup Surprise”—I merely know it’s soup, and I have no idea if I’ll really enjoy it.  The way they describe the book sounds like something I might like, but I just have to read it to find out if it really is the flavor they claim it is. They have read a few SciFi books, so they are just sure this is one of the same kinds of stories that I like.

But that’s like saying, “Hey, I know you like Chicken Noodle Soup. You’re gonna love this. It has chicken in it, too.” (They think it’s the chicken that I like, when I actually enjoy the noodles the most.) 

Sometimes I get lucky and they really did recommend a good SciFi story. But Science Fiction, like many genres that encompass a large variety of sub-categories, is not something you can have just a few tastes of, then assume you can make for yourself and mess with the recipe at the same time. As an editor, I have read stories by writers who were trying very hard to write stories from a genre that they had not read sufficiently, or for which they had only seen movies on screen. Their lack of experience with the formulas and “rules” for that kind of book was always apparent.

You might think that they had a right to experiment with that formula, and you would be right. But before changing around a recipe, you need to know the basics – that Chicken Noodle Soup needs to at least have chicken, noodles, and broth. Changing out a basic ingredient in the soup (genre) changes the kind of soup (genre) you are making (writing).

Before you as a writer want to get creative with a genre, be sure you have read enough of that genre to know its sub-genres and formula (“recipe”). Be sure to know what the basic ingredients are, before you end up serving your readers with a literary version of “Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake” or “Soup Surprise.”

So You Want To Be a Freelance Editor…

You’ve seen how overflowing the current marketplace is with self-publishing writers and would-be ebook authors, and you’ve recognized the potential profit to you as a possible freelance editor. Now what? Well, here’s some things you should know… 

(1) In case you haven’t watched enough People’s Court episodes to know, you need to get everything in writing– changes and amendments to contracts included. “Verbal contract” is a joke, and unenforceable by any judge or credit agency. Clients will know this and laugh at your repeated requests for payment, and ignore all your phone calls. Any possible changes that you need to make to your estimates of hours must also be in writing.  You’re a professional, and professionals have contracts, written estimates, and invoices.  Amateurs and hobbyists have verbal agreements and undocumented phone conversations.  Text messages don’t tend to last long enough to act as evidence– phones get lost and phone companies sometimes delete old text messages.  Only get it in email or on paper.

(2) There are some really crappy writers out there, and some really good ones, but they all can use an editor–and not all of them realize how much they need one. Unfortunately, they won’t all have a positive and agreeable attitude towards your editorial input. You have to be careful to not upset the writer, and be prepared for the one who will reject everything you said (no matter how well-stroked their ego), only to go back to the original version (this is often where your paper contract will save you a big loss of time & money).

When I say, “not upset the writer,” I don’t intend for it to be demeaning.  What I mean is, that some writers are very good, but take every little correction to heart as evidence of how supposedly “terrible” they are.  A very few shouldn’t even be writing greeting cards, but don’t want to hear that truth.  Yet others are very open to criticism and are too willing to make every change you suggest without question (an editor should be questioned, as an editor is not a “Story God”).  Most writers are somewhere along this spectrum, and can change their place on it from moment to moment.  Editorial work requires a lot more people skills than many people think.  Expect to have a lot of long conversations and polite drawn-out disagreements about such trivial things as the placement and use of a comma.

Freelance editing is different from trade editing, in that the freelancer has less control or say in the final outcome of the work.  Instead of working for the entity who’s paying for the publishing process, and therefore having more say on what is or isn’t in the final print, you work for the writer.  The writer is paying for it all, and therefore has final say on his/her own work.  You have less authority than an editor at a trade publisher, and are less able to insist upon anything.

(3) Some clients will want a “line edit” (basically just a spell-check), while others will want to have a full “book doctor” job, rewrites and all. Clarify this with the client and put it in the contracts before you start your work. Restrain your editorial instincts (and grit your teeth to refrain from comments you think ought to be made) when you are asked to only spell-check writing that really needs a major rewrite instead. You can tell them some things (like, “these scenes don’t make sense in the order you wrote them in”), but don’t let yourself start rewriting unless the client wants that. However, even when the client says they want it, don’t be shocked if they end up ignoring and/or undoing your edits.

(4) Most writers have no idea how many hours it takes to properly edit a document (if you do more than just spell-checking for them, especially) and might object to the number of hours (read: unexpected high cost, if you charge them hourly) of a decent edit. Keep in touch with clients throughout the process, to give them an idea of how it’s going, so your hours invested won’t be so much of a shock to their pocketbook.

(5) Dedicate as many hours per day as you would be expected to dedicate to an office job somewhere. Don’t treat clients as a hobby or part-time job (unless you clarify with them beforehand in emails that you have another client at the same time, or some other valid professional reason for minimizing your hours). Doing so is very unprofessional, and will hurt you in the long run. Bad business practices do haunt you in these days of online reviews and LinkedIn networking, etc. First and foremost, behave and treat your work the same way would expect a true professional in an office to behave and treat their work. Your client is your boss and your next reference for your “resume” (online reviews, etc), so don’t mess around and/or screw him/her over.  Don’t try padding your hours, either.  Your client already thinks you’re taking too much time and costing too much.  (Besides, that’s dishonest– and honesty always makes for good, professional business practices.)

(6) For your first few freelance gigs, you might want to have a more experienced editor look over your work before showing it to the client. This is not to negate your abilities, but an experienced eye does pick up on things a less-experienced one misses, and it’s a great learning experience that will make you all the more desirable and better-paid in the workforce (freelance or otherwise). Even at my age, another pair of eyes double-checking me has never hurt my work, and only helped it. A good mentor, whether free or paid, is invaluable to a beginning editor.

I think of editing like piano tuning. Some people have an ear for music, and some don’t. Having an ear for music can help you get a career in music, but the ear alone won’t make you a good piano tuner (just as having an eye for typos does not automatically make someone a good editor). To be a good piano tuner, you need professional training and mentorship (in this, I speak with some personal knowledge, as my brother is a piano tuner with an excellent musical ear). The same is true with editorial work: It’s more than just finding typos, it’s also knowing some other things to look for/at, and the people skills needed to deal with authors. There are things that someone of more experience can best teach you. Yes, there are those people who stumble into piano tuning/editing and somehow manage to master it alone, but they are doing it the hard way, and (no offense to anyone who might be doing well after stumbling into freelance editing, but…) the quality of their work is usually not as high as the trained piano tuner/editor.

(7) You can never learn too much about copyrights. Really. Some things on the internet might seem to be public domain, or you might think you are safe using a certain quote as long as you credit it or get verbal approval, but every single thing must be checked and double-checked for legality and reproduction– text, photos, artwork, quotes, music, etc. There are a lot of weird copyright issues that have come up for me through the years, that I never expected to be an issue ever. Nowadays, with the internet, things are actually worse for copyright infringement, but easier for checking out. Never hesitate to send a client to a copyright lawyer if you have any doubts or questions (drag them there kicking and screaming, if necessary).

A famous example of bad copyright checking: The “Barney the Dinosaur” show was cancelled because they used a common tune, “This Old Man” redone as “I love you, you love me”. They assumed it was so old as to be public domain. It was not, and they were sued.

Another famous example: Weird Al Yankovic parodied a song after merely asking his agent to ask the other agent. Supposedly, everyone was okay with him doing the parody, but it turns out the band he was mimicking said they had never even heard the request to use the song.

Even the famous and successful can sometimes mess up a copyright issue, so a good editor should never assume anything, no matter what verbal assurances their client gives them.

And, of course (which also goes back to my original point)– Get it in writing from the legal copyright holder.

Superhero Secret Identities in an Era of Facial Recognition Technology

Having been a reader of comic books for over 30 years now, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the story lines, characters, political messages, and more. As readers have matured and society has changed, comic characters matured and storylines reflected society: Superman and Spider-Man have gotten married, Batman had a son, Green Arrow’s sidekick fought drug addiction, and multiple characters have come out as gay, and more.

As society around them changes, these characters and storylines will need to keep changing to stay relevant. But this means they are about to hit a technological wall. 

A fundamental plot device in the industry, the concept of a “Secret Identity,” is in grave danger of becoming obsolete.

In the real world, we now live in a time where almost every major street corner or storefront has some kind of video monitoring, as well as private individuals posting images of themselves and everyone around them on the internet.  Even if you don’t post photos of yourself, there is still an almost certain chance that there is a photo of you somewhere on the internet and/or in a government database.

Facial Recognition technology is being used not only by the government, but in the private sector by such varied users as airports, stadiums, and even NASCAR.  Facebook has used it to “Tag” and match up images of people—even if the person in the photo does not have a Facebook account.  Also, while it is primarily used to compare facial features, similar technology that will recognize an unusual walking stride (such as a slight limp) or another body movement (e.g., facial twitch or another nervous habit) is expected to be commonplace in the near future.

(We have already seen the superhero industry use FR in “Batman v Superman,” when Batman discovers that Lex Luthor has used it to match Diana Prince’s face at an ATM to an antique photo.)

Currently, Facial Recognition (FR) technology is able to recognize a person, whether or not they are wearing glasses, a false beard, a different hair color, or any number of classic Secret Identity tricks.  One article on FR tech makes it plainly clear that “Artificial mustaches, fake wigs or mustaches will not work, because they do not change the distances between points on the face.” [http://www.worldthinktank.net/pdfs/FacialRecognitionCountermeasures.pdf]   

Any tricks that might be used to change these vital measurement points are detectable by the technology, which can use heat signatures and other methods to determine that a non-organic and unnatural object is on the face.  For example, fake eyebrows or a false nose would change the measurement points, BUT these alterations show a different heat signature than the person’s skin, so the technology knows to ignore them and go with the real measurements instead.

Even Batman’s cowl could prove ineffective defense against more advanced FR tech.  While it might fool the simpler FR software, in that the partial mask would negate their ability to recognize the presence of any face at all, many FR programs need only a portion of a person’s face before they can make a match.  At this point in the technology, many programs need just about half of a face, and some of the contemporary versions of Batman portray him showing the bottom half of his face.

What chance, then, does Superman have of keeping his real identity a secret from the U.S. government or some bad guy’s technological genius, if all he does is throw on a pair of glasses and change into blue jeans?  Realistically, ZERO.

By taking the public photos of Superman and trying to match them to others in a database, the government (or Lex Luthor) only has to run his face through Facial Recognition technology in order to find it matches the Driver’s License photo of Clark Kent— or the photo from his Daily Planet Press Pass, or the photos Jimmy Olsen takes of Clark Kent & others around the Planet’s offices that Jimmy uploads to “The Cloud,” etc.

Expert hackers, like DC’s “Oracle” or Marvel’s “Cypher”, would be able to hack into one or two of the FR software programs that are being used and “convince” the programs to “ignore” Superhero-Secret Identity matches, but there are too many platforms out there and too many different programs being used.  Even some possible Superhero Helper, working 24/7 at hacking and keeping the computers from matching Secret Identities to Superhero Identities, would be unable to keep up with all of them, especially since there are so many in development and so many databases around the world to alter.

Batman (or someone equally tech-savvy) might have some anti-facial-recognition trick or technology of their own.  Currently, nose plugs can change the shape of the nose enough to confuse the FR tech.  The simple act of chewing tobacco or wearing “Dracula-Teeth” (the kind that children play with) can change the jaw line enough to confound the FR tech, since this will change the measurement points for the jaw area.  Certainly Batman would be careful to keep either his Bruce Wayne jaw line or his Batman jaw line distinct by some trick, just as Christian Bale’s Batman made his voice unrecognizable from Bruce Wayne’s by making it more growling and gravelly, or how Ben Affleck uses voice-altering tech to change his voice while wearing a cowl.  (Batman is, after all, known to be a master of theatrical performance, like his famous fictional predecessor, Sherlock Holmes, so we can expect some amazing FR-foiling theatrical trickery from him.)

It is important to note, however, that these kinds of tricks are not expected to work much farther into the future, as the technology improves.

There IS a product that has been developed to counter facial recognition.  It is a set of glasses that a person can wear, resembling workman’s goggles, which create a sort of “white noise” for cameras.  They emit beams of LED light that are invisible to the human eye but bright to electronic camera sensors.  The glasses have 12 beams aimed in the directions from which any FR cameras might be trying to scan.  One drawback is that anyone looking at any electronic photos will know that the wearer had these glasses on.  Another is that the tech is currently bulky and the LED emitters are obvious, so wearing them discretely is not possible at this point – Clark Kent could not integrate these emitters into his current spectacles, for example, without everyone wondering what the heck he was wearing on his face. 

So what does all of this mean for Comic Books and the Superhero genre at large?

Well, considering the public’s love for and fascination with Superheroes and comic-book culture, it’s doubtful that they will be disappearing from our popular culture anytime soon.  As long as the general public is unaware of the prevalence of camera technology, or until such technology is not a part of the public’s cultural self-image, then Superheroes can carry on with their Secret Identities and double lives.

At some point in the future, though, Clark Kent will have to take off his glasses.  He might start using some Kryptonian technology to change his appearance (similar to the way he recently began using Kryptonian tech to explain his instantaneous costume changes), or he might have to give up having a Secret Identity altogether.  

Until then, we will continue to believe that a man can fly, all the while spending his days fooling his Investigative Reporter girlfriend— and the rest of the world— by nothing more than putting on a pair of Ray-Bans.