Sunday, September 28, 2014

Halloween-Murder In My Home

Dying For Halloween
By Tj O’Connor, author of Dying to Know & Dying for the Past, New Sins for Old Scores, and others
Fall. October. Halloween. Three of the four things I live for every year at this time. The season is magical to me. It’s comfy and mysterious—warm days growing shorter with each tick of the calendar ... chilly evenings with the musky-scent of falling leaves and fireplace logs. Every August, I start counting the days until October and now it’s here. So haul out the Halloween decorations—skeletons, witches, and hay bales—and warm up the cider. It’s here. Yet, there is a downside of this season. It tends to be short in Virginia, not the long, more colorful weeks in Upstate New York where I grew up. But having lived overseas where the difference in seasons was the tone of the sand, dirt, and olive trees all around, I’ll take it!
    But wait … what? Me sappy and romantic for the changing leaves and children scurrying around dressed like Bill Clinton and Batman?
    Sorry. No.  
    Halloween has a special place in my heart, but it’s not born of sappy memories or trick or treat (it is but I’ll never tell). I grew up in the country in Upstate New York and spent a good amount of time in the outdoors. Yes, I love the changing fall colors and the scents and sounds of the season. Yes, it conjures up some great memories—and some pretty horrible ones, too. But, none of these is why October makes me giggle and swoon like my wife at a shoe sale.
    It’s about the killing and the mayhem. It’s about the dark, maniacal gathering—the food, the spirits … murdering the entire family one at a time ... and slowly. Oh yeah, baby, it’s here. Bring on the hors d'oeuvres, the expensive wines, and the spread of gourmet delights. Sharpen that cleaver and load up the pistols. It’s time for a killing. Or two. Maybe three or four—“The wine is delightful and the mussels marinara divine—bang, you’re dead!
    Uh, perhaps a little explanation is in order. I think I heard a siren coming up the road.

Each year for the past many years (and each summer years ago when my kids were younger and less a pain in the …), I sponsor an annual Halloween murder mystery dinner party. No, not one of those “out of the box” dinner parties with lame scripts and phony dialogue (I tried one and it was horrible.) No, I’m talking a homegrown, authored by moi, props galore, murder-in-abundance dinner party for my family and friends.  As my two passions are cooking and writing, I put on a spread of tons of good food, write the storyline, and perform as the master of killer-monies (read that ceremonies for you slow folk). What a blast! The storyline and party include prizes for best costume, prize for who solves the murder, prizes for who solves any murders that take place during the evening, and prizes for who ends up with the most money (fake of course) at the end of the party. Party Note: The money is a story prop used as bribery, graft, payoffs, extortion, and general mayhem. While I try to control this mayhem, I am rarely successful. Like before I let anyone into my home, they must undergo a body search for unauthorized weapons, cheats, their own fake money, and other props used to steal the show. Each year, I lose this battle miserably—like the year the meek, mild victim who should have died in Act II ended up killing more party guests and surviving the evening more than anyone. Damn, I didn’t see that one coming.

    If you want to see a bunch of friends and family turn on each other for three hours, throw one of these gigs. Spouses kill spouses. Children kill parents. Friends kill everyone. And in the end, nothing—no one—is sacred! Even my yellow Lab was assassinated three times in one evening—give that boy a shrimp and a cookie and he becomes a ham!
    Last year—2013—the costume theme was favorite monster movie characters. The storyline was about a family patriarch who was about to sell his new book The Killing of Tyler Quinn, but the family all had a piece of it and wanted their cut. (Yes, it does sound familiar to me, too.) So the patriarch, his agent, publisher, and editor were all killed out of vengeance and greed (sorry Midnight Ink, Melanie, Kimberley…honest, there were stand-ins!). It took about thirty minutes and one round of drinks before the partygoers were killing each other off and trying to win the game—and not on script, either.
    Over the years, I’ve thrown murder parties surrounding 1930 gangsters trying to take over my turf in Winchester (if you know Winchester, that wouldn’t take long). There have been superhero parties where it was open season on plotting the murders of your spouse and best friend. And even pirate treasure themes and on and on.
    The funniest part of these events is that I spend weeks writing the plot and putting together crime scene clues, evidence, and all the characters—only to have my guests run away with the show and start improvising as they go! No one has any lines. Each player has a character to play and gets a card during three rounds of the evening (appetizers, dinner, dessert rounds) which tell them what they must accomplish and do. Last year, the players had to solve a series of clues, puzzles, and hidden secrets to find all the evidence—after examining a crime scene. They were stealing each other’s clues, locking others in the bathroom, moving evidence to hide it from the others, and even stealing my artwork on the walls “just in case it meant something.” It was so exhausting even my three Labs found a corner to hide out in. It took three days to straighten my house afterwards!


Publication Note: No animals or stuffed animals were injured during these productions. My artwork and memorabilia is another matter. And my liquor cabinet takes weeks to recover. As does my refrigerator. And nerves. And checkbook.

    But alas, the laughs and the food and fun lasted long after the party was over.
    This year, the theme is “Shaken Not Stirred” and the costumes are their favorite sci-fi (not syfy) movie characters. The storyline is about spies and counter-spies trying to find each other’s secrets and kill off the enemy agents. I’m sure I won’t have to write too many details—the imaginations of the partygoers—most on their 7th or 8th event—will write it themselves. The question will be—will I survive for another October-kill next year?
    Stay tuned. Listen to your police radios. Watch the night sky.   

    Maybe I’ll use up another blog in November to report on the mayhem and pass around a few photos. If you don’t hear from me though, they got me again. Hopefully, none of my family or friends will use my annual gala as a means to my real end.


Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his eight novels and is currently available in bookstores and online. Dying for the Past, the first of two sequels to Dying to Know, will be released in January, 2015—available now for pre-orders! Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism and investigations. Learn about his world at and Facebook at




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dying For A Sequel

Dying For A Sequel

By Tj O’Connor, author of Dying to Know & Dying for the Past

There is nothing more gratifying, and terrifying at the same time, than
publishing your first novel. Before getting that heart-stopping telephone call from your agent that, yes, some brilliant and forward-thinking publisher would be putting your work to print, you had but one litmus test for your story—publishing. After the call, the terror sets in—what if no one buys it? What if the critics hate it? Worse… what the hell will I do for an encore?

The answers to the first two questions—sales and critics—is fodder for a future blog. For now, the answer to “what the hell will you do for an encore” is easy…Write a sequel.

And therein lies the terror. Oh, so many terrors. What if I can’t capture the story and characters again? What if the first one fails and the second one is worse? Worse… what if the first one is great and the second one stinks? What if… And so goes the sleepless nights and reams of paper in search of the solution.

When Midnight Ink demonstrated their class and stature in the publishing world by signing me to write three novels in the Gumshoe Ghost series (note—this series title is not my doing…honest!), I had already penned two more murder, different mysteries—New Sins for Old Scores, which my agent is currently trying to place in the market (any of you publishing pros out there, here’s your chance… call my Kimberley Cameron!) and The Killing of Tyler Quinn, which is presently in rewrite. But Midnight Ink wanted two more Oliver Tucker stories—the Gumshoe Ghost himself—so I teed up Dying for the Past, which will be out January 8, 2015, and Dying to Tell, coming in 2016.

The first dilemma I had was how to transition from book one to book two, Dying for the Past. Let me set the stage for the difficulties I had. Book one—Dying to Know—is the story of Oliver “Tuck” Tucker, a detective murdered in the opening chapter who returns to help his wife, Angel, and former partner, Bear Braddock, solve his crime. Of course, there are a half-dozen other important characters, including Hercule, Tuck’s black Lab companion; Poor Nic, a loveable/hateable retired mobster; and several secondary characters of note, too. The story, as with all the sequels, intertwines a current murder with a historical subplot involving murder and intrigue. The two story lines weave and cross back and forth and conclude together. Always. Thus, there are two timelines surrounding the characters—the present concerning the murder, and the distant past surrounding the historical plot. Tuck can move between these timelines and does to solve the cases. It’s like playing three dimensional chess with dead bodies!

So, the dilemma was—do I treat Dying for the Past (book two) like a standalone story or write it as though it’s simply the next chapter of a longer story. In my case, I took an eclectic approach and wrote Dying for the Past as a standalone story, but let the storyline flirt with Dying to Know (book one) as though a continuing chapter in Tuck’s larger story. Thus, in Dying for the Past, I have an entirely new murder(s) and the historical subplot that includes 1939 gangsters, Russian spies, and the search for the book that has the key to modern day spies and traitors. I reintroduced my characters, periodically mentioned the plot and outcome of the Dying to Know—but sparingly—and created a new cast of fresh good guys and bad guys to support those returning characters from Dying to Know. And, much to my pleasure, it worked—having a dead guy solve crimes creates a lot of challenges!

Part of the allure of a good mystery is the characters. They have fears, strengths, weaknesses, and history to unravel. After exhausting myself trying to make Dying to Know a good mystery novel, I was again terrified about how I would keep my main characters fresh, interesting, and still a little mysterious to any reader who already read the first novel. The danger would be having nothing new for the reader to learn about them.

I found the solution by developing the second set of support characters for Dying for the Past. Each of the Gumshoe Ghost sequels will have new characters supporting the story—after all, it’s a murder mystery so not all of them will make it to “The End.” And these new characters allowed me to create new fears, strengths, weaknesses, and storylines for my main characters to evolve. Human nature is that way, right? How you act with one person is not always the same as with another. How you respond to one situation or crisis is not always the same as in another, particularly if new people are involved. I used these new characters to drive my main character’s new storylines and, in doing that, create new things for the reader to discover about them. In book one—Dying to Know— Tuck is learning how to be a dead detective. In book two—Dying for the Past—Tuck finds his family roots; and some are roses and some are deadly nightshade, let me tell you. Now, Angel and Bear are coming to grips with Tuck’s demise—after all, figuring out how to live and work with a dead guy isn’t easy. There are other key characters, too—like Poor Nic, the loveable/hateable retired mob boss—who has so many skeletons in his closet that Tuck can’t count them.

As Tuck’s sequels continue, Tuck will learn more and more about his family and with each one, have to investigate yet another historical crime along with a new one. Angel and Bear will find out that life with and without Tuck has a lot of twists and turns. The new characters in each sequel will bring along their own baggage, influences on the main characters, and body bags.

The biggest conflict I found in writing sequels was deciding which characters to keep around and which to send on vacation. In book one—Dying to Know—I received a lot of great comments about several characters—Poor Nic, the aforementioned love/hate mobster; AndrĂ© Cartier, Angel’s uncle; Detectives Cal Clemens and Mike Spence, the brilliant yet bumbling partners; and even Doc Gilley, Tuck’s spirit mentor. My problem was, in book two—Dying for the Past—I had a new crew of story characters to add and didn’t have room for everyone to return. The questions were: who would sit out the sequels? How do I explain where they went—not everyone can be sick or on vacation, right? Who would be most popular or have the biggest impact on the series? The answer lay in what I like to think was a brilliant strategy—I listened to my readers,  asked my agent and publicist, and read who the critics keyed on. Then, I ignored all that and kept those characters who moved me. You see, certain characters came alive to me—other than Tuck, Angel, and Bear, that is. They presented so many possibilities for future stories and subplots that I had to keep them around and use them to stir things up. In the end, if they stirred things up in book one, they returned to book two. If not, they got the flu, moved away, were out to lunch, on vacation… you get the idea.

After all is said, there were so many challenges to writing my sequels, I cannot recall them all. But it suffices to say, they kept me up many, many nights.

Dying for the Past is a better novel than Dying to Know, and I hope Dying to Tell is better than both. You see, I think I’m learning as I go and my characters are teaching me. Dying for the Past was challenging, too, as it made me search for what I wanted from Tuck, Angel, Bear, and even Poor Nic. With each sequel, I will try to challenge each of my characters to keep my readers—and me—guessing. After all, I write what my characters tell me—resistance to them is futile.

I’ve just wrapped Dying to Tell—book three—and after explaining my process for dealing with sequels, I have some rewriting to do!  I hope you enjoy Tuck’s cases in Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, and Dying to Tell… visit my site and drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you!

Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his eight novels and is currently available in bookstores and online. Dying for the Past is his first of two sequels to Dying to Know and will be released January 8, 2015—available now for pre-orders! Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism and investigations. Learn about his world at and Facebook at

This post has been reprinted from where I am a monthly contributor.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dying for History - Key Elements of My Novels

Dying For History-Key Elements of My Novels
By Tj O’Connor, author of Dying to Know & Dying for the Past

Every good book I’ve ever read intrigued me not just because of the main story, but because it had subplots and vignettes that kept the main story buoyed with a touch of complexity and diversion. One of my favorite subplot techniques is the interweaving of real history into the storyline. There are many facets of using historical events as a subplot in my stories that I enjoy. Among them, performing research and finding twists and turns from real-life events are my favorites. The old adage, “History Repeats Itself” has become a mainstay subplot of my novels.
Let me give you a few examples.

Dying to Know—In my debut novel, dead-detective Oliver “Tuck” Tucker is faced with solving his own murder and dealing with a series of grisly others. Some of the murders go back over forty years. The historical subplot revolves around the American Civil War—a significant era in the history of real-life city Winchester, Virginia. The story, and resulting murders, begin when the discovery of unmarked Civil War remains threatens to halt a multi-million dollar development project. The battle between history and development is a fact in Winchester. For years, the county has considered building a highway bypass around parts of the city. But in its path is at least one Civil War battlefield. More angst and skirmishes have resulted over this conflict than perhaps in some of the many battles Winchester actually fought in the war. If you know anything about historical sites, you might know that the protection of historical lands often trump new construction, development, and even some modern zoning laws across our country. And trust me, getting in the way of development is a sure fire way of creating a crisis in your community. Land barons are often in battle over future development with societies sworn to protect historical sites. In Dying to Know, the land dispute and Civil War connections to Tuck’s murder are rooted in real Winchester History and drive the story from several viewpoints.

Dying for the Past—Tuck and his pals are back in Book II and encounter the death of a mysterious philanthropist who seems to have a wad of Grover Clevelands in his pocket—1930’s Gold Certificate one-thousand dollar bills. Notwithstanding a plethora of sketchy characters, Dying for the Past’s historical subplot focuses on 1930’s mobsters and their pre-World War II collaboration with our own FBI. This theme follows Tuck and others chasing “The Book”—an old mobster’s journal detailing Nazi and Russian spy rings around Washington D.C. and New York City. This subplot is based on true events in our history. In the late 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. Government sought the help of folks who knew our ports, rail yards, transportation hubs, and the gritty underbelly of American cities where spies and saboteurs might hang out. Who did they turn to? The second largest intelligence network in the country—organized crime. During those days, the U.S. was concerned about Nazi, Japanese, Russian, and even Italian efforts to conduct wartime sabotage and subversion operations against us here at home. Organized crime families had deep inroads into some of the biggest targets in the country—New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, Detroit, and many other port cities. Well-known gangsters such as Lucky Luciano were reputed to have assisted American authorities in the war effort. In Luciano’s case, his organization reportedly helped gather intelligence for the invasion of Sicily and in the protection of New York’s ports against saboteurs and spies. Borrowing from these historical vignettes, I transposed some of the mob connections to Winchester and molded the plot around just such a storyline—1930’s mobsters helping track World War II spy rings. The result, with some colorful characters involved in the present day murders, set the foundation for a murder plot that lasted for more than seventy-five years.

New Sins for Old Scores—In an unrelated mystery series that my brilliant agent, Kimberley Cameron, is offering to the market as we speak, I use a real World War II OSS operation—Office of Strategic Services—and superimpose it into present-day Northern Virginia. The story surrounds Richard Jax, a Virginia State Police investigator under suspicion for the murder of his partner. Jax is thrust into the story when he is almost killed after stumbling onto a strange human-trafficking operation out of an old World War II Inn. Unbeknownst to him, he connects with Captain Trick McCall—a murdered OSS Operative from World War II—who was believed a double agent who betrayed his country. Together, they pursue their two cases—separated by seventy years—and learn that history is repeating itself. The story surrounds real-life Operation Paperclip, the American OSS operation to spirit scientists and industrialists out of war-torn Europe before the Nazi or Russians could further exploit them. Operation Paperclip was responsible for the U.S. making significant scientific gains, especially nuclear and jet propulsion technology, being explored by the Germans. In New Sins for Old Scores, I superimposed this human-capitol operation into modern-day Middle Eastern theaters of combat, and added in a rogue element of prior World War II operatives and modern-day mercenaries who move Middle Easterners out of Afghanistan and Iraq to the U.S.—for profit and exploitation. This spin on Operation Paperclip helped me create a viable plot that was worth murder to keep secret, and linked the modern human traffickers to real-world World War II spy exploits. It also raises the question—could it really be happening? So once again, I took a historical episode and superimposed it into a modern-day murder mystery to create the environment and plot necessary for my characters to be plunged into crisis and murder—and link their cases to crimes of the past.

History appeals to me in many ways as a reader, but it motivates me as an author. In a time that every plot and every character-type seems to have been written over and over as often as redos of Superman, historical events give me a foundation of facts for which I can create new plots and characters, and hopefully offer a new spin on intrigue.

I have two other novels—Dying to Tell and The Killing of Tyler Quinn—that have a historical subplot woven into modern-day mysteries. But I’ll save those discussions for another time.

Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his eight novels and is currently available in bookstores and online. Dying for the Past is his first of two sequels to Dying to Know and will be released January 8, 2015—available now for pre-orders! Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism and investigations.

Learn about his world at and Facebook at

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