Category: writing

Death of Wine Snob (Part 3)

This is the continuation of a short story about the murder of a wine expert. Parts one and two can be read here and here.

“Nice job perk,” I said as I circled the car and admired the lines and the rich interior. “What does one of these cost?”

Forty-five minutes later I pulled into the parking lot of the Timber Ridge Winery. The building was large, with a modern design with lots of steel and glass. I followed a sign to the front door that led to a reception area and tasting room. The place smelled like wine and wood polish. The room was spacious, with wood paneling and floors, and a long bar. Some nicely finished wooden tables and chairs dotted the space. One wall had an interpretive display of photos and text under a big headline that said ‘How Wine is Made’.

A stunning, tall blond in an expensive dress and high heels near the bar spotted me and walked over. She had a small brass name tag pinned to her dress high on her right breast that said ‘Gretchen’.

“May I help you?” she said with a vaguely European accent.

“Yes, thank you,” I stammered. “I am a Detective from the Newberg Police Department. I am here to see Mr. Dobson.”

She moved closer and laid a hand on my arm. She smelled good and I began to feel as awkward as a 7th grader at his first school dance.

“Is Mr. Dobson expecting you?”


“May I tell him your name?” she said.

“Yes, it’s Detective Manley.”

“Really,” she said with a wry smile. “The name suits you. If you would follow me.”

She motioned to a door at the back of the room and led the way. The door opened into a large room lined with shelves and counters. At one end, near French doors that opened into a garden, was a large desk with a couple of side chairs in front of it. Wine racks, stuffed with hundreds of bottles of wine took up most of the shelf space. Other shelves held a variety of wine glasses of different shapes and sizes.

As we walked in, she said, “This is Mr. Dobson’s workroom. We call it the lab.”

To our left, a man stood in front of some trash containers pulling bottles out of one and dropping them into another marked “Recycling”. He gave us a baleful glare and then left through the door we had come through.

She watched him go and said, “Can’t have glass in the regular trash. It drives Dave crazy. He is so adamant about recycling.”

“That was Dave Cooper?” I said.


“Could you tell him I would like to talk to him after I am done with Mr. Dobson?”

“Yes, I will,” she said.

She led me over to the desk and offered me a seat and said, “Werner will be right with you Detective Manley,” and then glided out of the room the way we had come in. I watched her go. Couldn’t help myself. Then I sat and looked around the room and a few minutes later the door opened and Werner Dobson made his entrance.

Werner was an intense-looking, middle age man, a bit below average height and a bit above average weight, with thick, well-barbered dark hair and handsome, dignified features. He greeted me politely enough but there was no friendliness in it. He sat down behind his desk.

“What is this all about, Detective?” he said.

“I am investigating the homicide of Peter Joseph. He was murdered last night, and we are trying to interview those who may have had contact with him recently to see if they know something that might lead us to a killer. Do you know Mr. Joseph?”

“Peter is dead?” He seemed surprised but not particularly saddened by the news.

“So, you know him?” I said.

“Sure. Not well, but everyone in the local industry knows Peter. He writes about wines, sometimes well, so he was one of those on the edge of the wine industry around here that it paid to know and to suck up to from time to time. “

“Sounds like you didn’t like him,” I said to see if I could get a reaction.

“I didn’t dislike him enough to kill him if that’s what you are looking for. I would say I was more ambivalent when it came to Peter. I had some respect for his opinions, but he was often a little wrongheaded and reckless.”

“Have you been in contact with him in the last few days?”

“You know I have, Detective. Why else would you be here? You have probably been talking to Boyd Schantz.”

I acknowledged it with a nod and a shrug in hopes he would keep talking.

He did, “Peter came out here last Friday. He would showcase local wineries in his column, and he came out to take a look at our operation. He came. He got the tour. Then we met with Dave Cooper and tasted some of the stock from the cellar. He arrived after lunch and left around 4:00 PM. Then I talked to him on the phone Saturday and then ran into him at a tasting room in downtown Newberg that night.”

“What was the phone conversation about?”

“He was basically letting me know what he was going to say in the column and wanted to get my reaction.”

“Is that what led to the confrontation at the tasting room that night?”

He smiled for the first time, “So that’s it. You think I am a suspect because he was going to pan my wine in his column. Well, you are wrong. Sure, we disagreed about what he was going to write about the latest vintage, but it was nothing to murder someone over. More of a difference of opinion. He had influence but not that much.”

I told him about the circumstances of Joseph’s death and his face went pale.

“That’s horrible,” he said, looking shocked. “If that were to get out…”

“Any ideas on who might have been angry enough to do something like that?” I asked. “Or why they would pick a wine from your winery?”

“No idea. I assure you it wasn’t me. Maybe it was someone who overheard our discussion at the tasting room, and they want to embarrass me. I don’t know.”

“Where were you last night?” I asked.

“At home. All night. With a friend.”

“Does this friend have a name? I might need to check your story.”

He pursed his lips and looked at the floor for a moment, thinking. Then he said, “She does, but I would not want to embarrass her unless I have to. If it comes to the point where I need an alibi, I will tell you who it was.”

“Fair enough,” I said. I didn’t like it. I would have preferred to strike him off the list of suspects sooner than later if I could.

“Okay,” I said as I rose from the chair. “Thank you for your time. If anything occurs to you, give me a call. Here’s my card. I’ll find my own way out.”

He took the card and I turned and left.


I left the room through the same door that I came in. Gretchen and Dave Cooper were standing near one of the front windows talking. He was tall and slim, wearing work clothes, and boots. He had a full head of longish dark hair. He moved closer to her and tried to put his arm around her waist, and she brushed it aside and moved away. I walked toward them, and they both turned as I approached.

“Ah. Detective Manley. This is Dave Cooper.”

The man looked disconcerted, offered a handshake, and said, “I am Dave Cooper. How can I help you?”

I shook his hand and then badged him and said, “Detective Manley with the Newberg Police. I am investigating the death of Peter Joseph. He was murdered last night in his home. Do you know him?”

“Sure, I know him,” he paused and blinked absently for a moment as he seemed to process the news. “What? He was murdered?”

“Yes. Someone shot him in the head.”

“Good God. Why would someone kill Peter?”

“Well, that is the question isn’t it, or at least one of them. When was the last time you saw him?”

“It would have been Saturday night. I was at a tasting room downtown with Werner, and we ran into Peter there. Werner and Peter got into a little verbal altercation over something Peter was writing about the winery.”

“Do you remember what it was about?”

“Sure, I do,” he said, his voice becoming a little more strident. “Peter came to the winery on Friday for a tour and a tasting, and he apparently didn’t think much of our latest Pinot. He planned to write about it in his column as if his opinion counts for anything.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“What do mean?”

“You don’t seem to think much of his opinion. How did it make you feel that he was taking that slant on a wine that I suppose you were at least partly responsible for producing?”

“Well, it made me angry,” he said, his face reddening. “The man was a dilettante—a poser. He seemed to think that since he owned a forty-thousand-dollar bottle of wine, he was an expert. In fact, he didn’t know squat.”

I said, “Did it make you angry enough to kill him?”

“Good heavens no,” he said without hesitation. “Sure, he could sway the opinions of some weak-minded people but certainly not enough to make a difference, or enough to make it worth killing him.”

“Where were you last night?”

He gave me an insolent look and said, “At home. I got home early and read until around ten and then went to bed. No, no one was here with me if that is your next question.”

“Okay,” I said. “I think that covers everything. If you can think of anything that might help the investigation, please call me.”

I handed him a card.

“I will,” he said, “but I can’t think what that would be.”

I shrugged and nodded at the card in his hand, and said, “Well just in case. By the way, someone I talked to said you and Werner drove off in a Maserati. Was that your car?”

“Yes, we were driving mine on Saturday. Werner also has one. They’re company cars. They are supposed to promote an affluent image for the winery.”

“Do you have one here?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Do you want to see it?”

I nodded yes, and he led me out to the parking lot and over to a dark blue, convertible sports car parked in a reserved space nearby.

“Here it is,” he said. “A Maserati GranTurismo convertible. The winery owns two of them. This is mine and Werner drives the other.”

“Nice job perk,” I said as I circled the car and admired the lines and the rich interior. “What does one of these cost?”

“About $150,000. They make great chick magnets, but they also tend to attract traffic cops and door dings.”

“Mind if I take a picture?” I said holding up my phone.

“Go ahead.”

I did and then thanked him for his time and left.

Link to Part 4

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design Part 2

My last post, “How to Plan Your Novel — Scene Design”, provided a list of things you might want to think about before you start writing. It also focused on one of those things in particular– the importance of establishing goals for the characters in the scene.

Once you have decided on a goal, it is time to give some thought to how to crush any hopes and dreams the character may have of achieving or benefiting from accomplishing the goal. This is called “the disaster”. The basic formula is GOALS –> CONFLICT –> DISASTER. The drama that gets your readers to turn the page is rooted in conflict and disaster. The oft-quoted metaphor that you should get the protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him applies here. Maybe a better way to think of it is to throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

There are four basic answers to the question–will the character achieve his goal in this scene? They are “yes”, “yes–but”, “no”, and “no–and”. The first answer–“yes” should rarely, if ever, be used before the ending of the book. A few months ago, I read an action thriller with a pretty good premise and plot and some decent characters. It could have been a good novel, but the story’s glaring problem was that the protagonist was successful at everything he did. The answer to every goal he had in the book was yes, and that lack of drama made for a mediocre story.

There are three appropriate answers to the question in the middle of a novel. The first is in the “be careful what you ask for” department. The answer is “yes–but”. In this scenario, the character achieves the goal she is pursuing in the scene, but there are unpleasant consequences to that success. Maybe the gal gets the guy, but she also gets a dose of the clap.

…throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

An example of this is in the book “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. The protagonist, Clarise Starling, an FBI academy trainee, fulfills her goal to get a role in the Buffalo Bill investigation. That success nearly costs her a chance to graduate from the academy and subjects her to an internal affairs complaint that threatens to ruin her career before it even gets started.

“No” is the second answer that creates a disaster. In this case, the character is seeking something and gets the metaphorical door slammed in her face. In “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone meets with mobster Moe Greene to tell him the family wants to buy out his casino share. Greene’s response is, “I’ll buy you out. You don’t buy me out.” His answer is a firm no that throws an obstacle in the way of Michael’s goal to move the family to Vegas. It also provides the impetus for a dramatic scene with lots of great conflict and sharp dialog between characters.

The scene with Moe Greene in The Godfather is notable in that not only does Moe say no, but Michael says no to the no of Moe. (Sorry for the bad poetry.) Michael’s no is an example of the third type of disaster–“no–and”. This disaster is perhaps the most effective. Not only is the goal of the character blocked by a firm no, but there are far-reaching consequences from the character’s desire and attempts to accomplish the goal. In Moe Greene’s case (spoiler alert), the no he receives from Michael costs him both his share of the casino and his life.

So as you plan your scenes, know what the characters in the scene want and use one of the three disasters to dash their hopes. Hit them with the shovel as they try to dig their way out of the hole.

Check out my book, Trail to Peril.

Available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback.

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design

In “An Easy Way to Outline Your Novel,” I describe a simple process to start organizing a novel where you layout brief descriptions of the story’s scenes into the beginning, middle, and ending sections. When you finish, it’s time to start writing, right? You can, but some other things would be good to know before you start pounding the keyboard.

Structure a scene like the whole novel. Fictional works have similar structure at different scales, sort of like fractal geometry. The story will have a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, the beginning, middle, and end of the story all have a beginning, middle, and end. Scale it down further to scenes, and we find the same pattern. You can think of a scene as a sort of micro-novel. It has all of the elements of the larger work of which it is a part.

This means you will need more columns in your spreadsheet because there are some other things to think about before you start writing. Here are some of the items in mine.

What do the characters in the scene want?
What is the disaster that occurs to the characters in the scene?
What is the point-of-view?
Where does the scene take place?
What time of the day?
What is the duration of the scene?
What characters are in the scene?
What characters are off-stage?
What is the emotional condition of the characters?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal.

The plan is to discuss all of these. For now, let’s look at the first one–what do the characters want?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal. Think of examples like, Clarice trying to find the serial killer in “Silence of the Lambs”, or Paul Atreides seeking revenge against the Emperor and the Harkonnen in “Dune”. Nearly every scene in your novel should likewise have goals for the characters that appear in it. In “Life of Pi” there is a one-sentence chapter/scene where he sings Happy Birthday to his mother. In one poignant sentence that constitutes the whole scene, the author expresses his goal–to be reunited with his family–and the grief he feels at realizing his hopes are fruitless.

The character’s goals in each scene set up the conflict between characters that make a story exciting and show the protagonist’s struggle to accomplish the overriding goal of the whole novel.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”. It’s available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Time To Get Back To Work

The holidays were great. Three kids made it to our house for Christmas, including the oldest, who made it back from a deployment to Europe just in time. The fourth is in South Carolina and could not travel due to Navy Covid restrictions, but stayed connected through the magic of technology. It was a great family time, but now it’s time to get back to work, and here are my six writing goals for 2021.

  1. Write 1,000 words per working day. There are 260 working days per year, so 260,000 words total for the year. Writing that counts for this goal includes new novels, short stories, and blog posts.
  2. Read 75 books I have not read before. I usually read a couple of books a week, but some are re-reads.  
  3. Write a short story every two months–6 total for the year.

Lovingly embrace failure.

  1. Lovingly embrace failure. Collect 20 rejection letters from submissions for publication or from literary agents this year. 
  2. Finish the first draft of a new novel this year. I have two that I started and abandoned. It’s time to dust one of them off, re-think it, re-plan it, re-plot it, populate it with some fascinating characters, and then write the first draft.  
  3. Finish the rewrites of two novels I have languishing in the lonely desk drawer of stalled projects. I made pretty good progress on one of them in November and December but got distracted by the holidays and a sudden interest in Python programming. My hope is to get it in shape for publishing by the end of February. The other one is a bigger, messier project that will have to wait until later in the year.

That is my writing plan for the year. One thing I learned from NaNoWriMo is the importance of tracking my daily progress. For that, I have a little notebook. Thanks to this post, I have added 331 words to my total for the day, and I am off to write the other 669.   

Joe Biden is a Plot Goldmine

Current events can be a rich source of plot material. Last year I read a story about a decapitated murder victim that had been left on a judge’s front porch. It turned out to be a “fake news” story, but for me, it became the basis for a novel about a corrupt county judge and a small-town detective.

The combination of Covid-19, Portland riots, and wildfires has also been a rich vein of ideas. I used these calamities to revive a novel I wrote a few years ago. It is a dystopian tale set in Oregon after an EMP attack. I am rewriting it now and resetting the time frame to post-2020 Oregon. The addition of a pandemic, anarchist, and the travail of burned out rural communities will help make the tale more plausible. Covid-19 also figures in a short story about a man hospitalized for the virus and emerges three weeks later to find out he is the victim of a crime that threatens to ruin his reputation.

If you want an excellent example of current events that would help develop great plots, look no further than Joe and Hunter Biden. They are generating more drama than Cecil B. DeMille ever dreamed was possible. The advantage of the Biden drama is that most major news organizations are reluctant to print anything about it. This means that the material will be fresh for your readers.

Current events can be a rich source of plot material.

Here are three ideas to try out.

The rich, privileged son of a former Vice-President ruins his own life, scuttles his father’s presidential ambitions, and jeopardizes the future of an entire great nation with his dissolute, corrupt actions.

The US Vice President leads a corruption scheme to enrich himself, his family, the sitting President, and the President’s presumed successor by selling his influence to hostile foreign nations. It all goes south when the wrong person is elected President. A massive coverup effort ensues. It becomes more and more complicated when the Vice President is unexpectedly nominated by his party for President in the following election.

A ruthless and power-hungry California Senator is wisely rejected by voters in the party’s primaries, and an elderly, semi-senile, former Vice President gets the nomination. The Senator colludes with worried party officials to get her chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee. After the election, they plan to elevate her to the President by exposing her running mate’s mental incompetence.

Those are just a few obvious ideas. I personally like number 2. It is too bad Tom Clancy is not around to write it.

In any event, this illustrates how useful it is to look to current events for plot ideas that can form the basis for a story or provide elements to enrich your tale.

My book — Trail to Peril is available on Amazon.