How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

dialogue new

Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.


Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.


Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.


So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.



E. Michael Helms: Me, Myself, and I


Me, Myself, and I—or why I favor First Person Point of View

Why do I favor writing (and reading) in First Person POV? “I’m glad I asked that question,” I said. Okay, all kidding aside, here are a few reasons why:

Realism: We all experience life in first person. Think about it. When is the last time you heard anyone referring to him or herself as anything other than “I” “me” “mine” “my” “myself”? If your wife, husband, best friend, lover, or worst enemy dines out at a fabulous restaurant in your absence, how do you learn about their dining experience? It must be relayed to you through the spoken word from the individual’s own mouth. Think second-hand information. In real life, there is no “omniscient” being that can fill in the particulars about what your friend or cousin saw, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted during the meal.

Imagine you’re at a crowded stadium for your team’s most important game of the season. If they win, they play for the national championship. Lose—they go home—game over, season over. You are there, experiencing first hand (first person) the scent of hot dogs, popcorn, roasted peanuts, and draft beer wafting on the breeze. Not to mention the lovely young college lass wearing the low-cut blouse sitting in front of you. The air is electric. The crowd roars as you watch the quarterback scramble and hurl a sixty-yard TD strike to the open wide receiver. The roar is deafening, the stadium literally shakes, and you are there!

But what if you’re stuck at home with no ticket? Worse yet, your new sixty-six inch, flat-screen TV is on the blink. The game is about to begin as you frantically dial your radio to the station broadcasting the game, hoping to catch the opening kickoff. Ah, there it is, and the reception is decent—not great—but you can pick out what’s going on from the announcer’s running commentary. “Shotgun formation, empty backfield. Bronson studies the defense. He takes the snap, avoids a tackle and rolls out of the pocket to the right. Deshaun Carter has a step on the cornerback down the right sideline! Bronson sidesteps another rusher. He’s got Carter wide open . . . there’s the throw . . . it’s . . . Carter juggles the ball . . . he’s got it! Touchdown, Tigers!”

Which scenario do you prefer? (Assuming you are a rabid football fan; if not, insert your own favorite pastime.) For me, experiencing the game first hand wins, hands-down.

Walk a mile in my shoes: Another strong point for First Person POV is the intimate connection between the reader and protagonist. From the beginning the reader is “inside the hero’s head” and immediately privy to his thoughts and emotions. Nothing is “watered down” by the distance of a third person narrator. Reader and protagonist are bonded “in the moment.”

Strong characterization: Because the reader is inside the hero’s head, he/she quickly learns what makes the protagonist “tick.” The reader becomes a mind reader, knowing minute details about the protag that might not be revealed to anyone in the story, even our hero’s closest friend or love interest. Nothing is hidden from the reader. He/she sees all, knows all, even the protagonist’s deepest, darkest secrets. Quite an advantage, is it not?

Did someone say “pitfalls?”: Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there are—or can be—obstacles to First Person POV. If handled correctly, I believe first person is an effective and highly entertaining way to construct a story or novel. There are, however, a few things to be aware of:

Scenes where our narrator is absent. If our hero is missing from the scene, he can’t know firsthand what happened. This is where strong secondary characters can shine. The protag’s good friend was a witness, and through snappy and informative dialogue events are transferred to our hero. Or, our hero reads about it in the newspaper, or hears it as breaking news on the radio or TV. The point is, important information can be passed to the protagonist effectively in a variety of ways. Skillfully done, it works fine. Poorly done, it can kill your story and cause readers to abandon ship.

Sentence structure. I did this, I did that, I said, ad nauseam. Too many “I”s can quickly become irritating, especially used at the beginning of sentences. I crept to the window. I listened for any sign that he was inside. I pulled the revolver from my back pocket just in case he showed. You get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one. If you plan to use First Person POV be prepared to find innovative ways to break up the nasty habit of beginning too many sentences in the same paragraph (or page) with “I.”

The sounds of silence. There is always the danger of too much inner monologue, or thought, or reflection. If you find your protagonist slogging through a page or two filled with the above, hit the brakes. Break up those lengthy, silent soliloquies or risk losing the reader. Too much “silence” amounts to telling the reader, not showing. So, when your hero begins to wax eloquently to himself, have him receive a phone call with pertinent information that propels the plot forward, or a knock on the door from the cops warning him against crossing the line, or have him unexpectedly spot a suspect and decide to tail him. Remember, B-R-E-A-K it up!

Scarecrows won’t cut it. To pull off First Person POV for the long haul of a novel-length work, your protagonist must be stuffed with more than straw. He or she must be well-rounded, with a strong voice and a vibrant personality. A healthy dose of attitude always helps. Our hero can bend, but not break. Our hero has morals, lives by a code of honor that can’t be broken, but always has a flaw or three to balance things out. No Superman or Superwoman allowed here, unless you’re writing a superhero book. Above all, the reader must be drawn to the protagonist by that certain “something” all heroes possess to one degree or another.

Okay, there you have my perspective on First Person POV. I take full responsibility for my humble offering. I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts, agree or disagree. Or, the author of this brief article would enjoy hearing reader’s opinions, whether they agree, disagree, or wish to remain neutral in this matter.

“Oh, good grief!” –Charlie Brown



E. Michael Helms: It’s Show and Tell Time

helmsOn showing versus telling in writing: Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. 

It’s Show and Tell Time!

Remember back in grammar school how we looked forward to our class’s Show and Tell time? No? Well, maybe schools cut S&T from the curriculum a while back, like everyday P.E., and the latest victim from those “dear old Golden Rule days,” cursive writing. But I digress.

It was a Friday morning, about a decade past the midway point of last century. The school year was drawing to a close, and the weekend beckoned. Mrs. Fussel was a doozy for show and tell. A “learning experience,” she called it, a time for us fourth-graders to “expand our imagination and creativity.” As I recall, there were no hard and fast rules about what we brought to show off and tell about, no forbidden items to send school officials into a frenzied panic. Pocket knives, slingshots, lizards, frogs—all had passed muster and drawn oohs, ahs, and occasional shrieks from girls in our classroom. Heck, one time Billy Ross even brought a big rat snake he’d caught, and Mrs. Fussel let anybody brave enough have a turn touching or holding it.

green lizard - 1rat snake

So I figured I was on safe ground when I opened the grocery sack and withdrew my prized collection of black widow spiders. As I set it on the edge of teacher’s desk, Mrs. Fussel screamed, shoved back the chair and vacated her position at the head of the room. In her hasty retreat a stack of work booklets tipped over, knocking the goldfish bowl to the floor. The bowl shattered, the spiders scattered, and my classmates clattered—some racing after Mrs. Fussel as she waved them into the hallway and safety, others attacking my treasured arachnid collection with books and shoes and other handy weaponry.

By lunchtime the show and tell incident was the talk of the school. My classmates wowed friends from other rooms with tales of bravery and narrow escapes from the jaws of death. One phrase, expressed in a dozen different ways, has remained with me throughout all the passing years: “Boy, you should’ve seen it!” The eyewitnesses to the event—my classmates—saw it happen. For them, it was a much more powerful experience than those who were told about it. “Wow, I wish I could’ve been there and saw that!” was a common response from the listeners.

Yes, the creepy-crawly caper happened as recorded. The classroom was evacuated and the custodians called in to make certain none of my show and tell stars survived. New rules were put in place to insure students and faculty wouldn’t be subjected to danger in the future. I escaped with a stern talking-to and a note for my parents to sign. I didn’t fare so well at home, but that’s another story.


I use this life experience to illustrate a well-worn but important phrase for all writers: Show, don’t Tell! Which group of school kids experienced the spider incident on a deeper level? Those who saw it, those who witnessed it as it occurred in real time. They were shown the teacher’s reaction, the goldfish bowl crashing to the floor, the venomous spiders scurrying to escape, the pandemonium that followed. In contrast, their friends in other classrooms only experienced the chaotic scene by being told about it. To them it was secondhand information, in the past instead of real time.

Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. Don’t relegate your readers to after-action listeners. SHOW, DON’T TELL!


E. Michael Helms: “Dissecting the Mystery”

helmsOn mystery: Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water.

By E. Michael Helms

Dissecting the Mystery

What makes a good mystery? Could there be a simpler question? On the flipside, could there be a more general, broad-based question? Each reader has his or her tastes and opinions, as does every writer. I can’t—and won’t— presume to have the answers. What I will do is share some aspects of what I believe—as a reader, makes a good mystery—and as a writer, what works for me.


In a good mystery no “cardboard” allowed.

(Okay, book covers are the exception.) Characters are foremost! Characters, especially the protagonist/hero and important secondary characters, must be well-rounded and three-dimensional. “Real” characters have good traits. “Real” characters have flaws. Superman may be “faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive,” but he’s also vulnerable to kryptonite (and Lois Lane). Mac McClellan is a Southern gentleman, a combat veteran, and has a wry sense of humor. He’s also suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is bitter toward his ex-wife, drinks too much, and can be bossy. Kate Bell, Mac’s girlfriend and Girl Friday in solving cases, is independent and strong-willed. She also has a slightly shady past that she keeps hidden from Mac until it comes out in the second Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Ruse.The villain must also be a complex person. Satan need not apply. Every good (meaning bad) villain should have a redeeming quality or two. In an upcoming Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Spirits, the villain suffered abuse as a child. Said villain (no spoilers here) is also intelligent and a great achiever. But the past often overpowers and warps the future despite the best intentions. Even minor characters must be minimally fleshed-out. If they are worth mentioning by name or have a speaking role, they deserve to be more than cardboard cutouts.

In a good mystery no plodding plots allowed.

Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water. You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s worth repeating: you must pull the reader into the story, and the sooner the better. In my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, the opening sentence sets the stage: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. Short and sweet, but doesn’t it make you want to read more and find out why?Had I opened with back-story, how Mac had recently retired from the Marine Corps and traveled to the Florida panhandle for a fishing vacation, you might have kept on reading for a while hoping the pace picked up. Personally, I would’ve thought, “Ho-hum.” By the fourteenth page, Mac discovers a body, is suspected of murder, and warned not to leave the area by the local sheriff. Information important to back-story can be fed in piecemeal as the story progress, but keep that plot moving! And speaking of moving, it is the characters who drive the plot! Every scene, every action, every sentence or phrase of dialogue, must be used to reveal character, information, or propel the storyline forward. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong.


In a good mystery the crime must be worthy of the story.

Meaning—almost without exception—murder! Even most cozies have a murder as the catalyst of the plot. Violence and bloodshed should fit the mystery’s sub-genre. Most cozies involve a murder happening “offstage.” And, in most cases, there is little or no blood and gore. The darker the mystery, the more ramped-up the murder and violence can be.Also, the murder should happen fairly early in the story. It’s what draws the hero/heroine into the plot, the driving force behind his/her compulsion to dig deep and solve the mystery. In Deadly Catch a body is discovered in Chapter One. There are/have been exceptions, but today’s reader generally wants things upfront and happening quickly. In this “I want it now!” world, there is way too much competition for an author to chance dragging things out too long.

In a good mystery the killer shouldn’t come from “out of left field.”

Nothing infuriates mystery readers more than having a character introduced late and with little involvement in the story, only to learn that he/she is the real perpetrator of the crime. The bad guy/gal should be inserted into the plot early and often. The perp can be a “friendly” or a suspect, one of few or several. In Deadly Catch Mac is acquainted with the real villain (via back-story, fed-in later) before the opening scene. Of course, Mac is unaware that he/she is the murderer. That info comes later—much later—as it should. Generally, in a good mystery, the later the killer is revealed, the better.A couple of years ago I read a mystery by a well-known author (who shall remain nameless) where the killer turned out to be the brother of a secondary character who wasn’t an important “player” in the story. The problem is, this brother was introduced late in the storyline, with very little information revealed about him. Only near the end (after the case was wrapped) did I learn the brother had a very sordid past. That was a “left field villain” if I ever saw one.

just the facts

In a good mystery authors better get their facts right!

Today’s readers are a savvy bunch. Almost nothing slips by them. If the murder victim has a big hole blown through him, the murder weapon had better not be a .22 caliber rifle or pistol. If the victim dies of poisoning, the poison used better match the dying throes a witness observes, or the autopsy results. Radio transmissions should be accurate. For example, if a cop is taking a break for coffee and doughnuts, he’d better not call in an “11-99!” If the private eye is tailing a suspect in a real location, the streets and landmarks had better be correct. There is no excuse for not getting the facts straight in this day and age of the Internet and computer access.

In a good mystery there are red herrings, dead ends, and clues—oh my!

Tidbits of information and misinformation scattered here and there throughout the story are inherent to a good mystery. Red herrings, dead ends, and clues are key elements to get the reader involved in solving the mystery alongside the protagonist.With apologies for preaching to the choir, a red herring is simply a clue that sends the reader and protagonist in the wrong direction. Think smoke and mirrors, or in football, a misdirection play: offensive linemen pull and block to the right side as the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back and then slips the ball to the fullback who hits the left side of the line of scrimmage. By faking to the right and running to the left, the offense has just handed the defense a red herring.A dead end is simply a clue that leads nowhere, wasting the sleuth’s time. Or does it? Maybe following the false lead, only to be stymied, allows our hero to cross off a suspect, or points the finger at another possible perp, or leads the protag in an entirely new direction that might prove invaluable as the case unfolds.In a good mystery, when a clue actually points to the real killer, it shouldn’t be obvious. No bells and whistles allowed. Subtlety is the keyword here. Perhaps pursuing a red herring or dead end results in our hero eliminating a suspect from his list, only to realize later, as things play out, that “this” minor clue and “that” subtle clue were telltale signs he’d overlooked earlier.







In a good mystery the hero will face conflict, resistance, danger . . . and prevail!

There is no room in a good mystery for the hero to have a pleasant walk in the park, conveniently find and pocket clues, and waltz to the other end unopposed. There must be conflict and resistance, even from those close to the protagonist. “Yes” people are boring beyond words. The pathway through the park (the plot/storyline) must be strewn with tripwires, stumbling blocks, antagonistic characters, and other dangers. Without these elements, why bother? Will the reader give a hoot? I don’t think so. Above all, our hero must find himself in hot water, the hotter the better. And just when it looks like all is lost, he must use intestinal fortitude, wit, and a bit of (believable) luck to turn the tables.

After all, as Sherlock Holmes would say, it’s “Elementary.”




Crash Course: E. Michael Helms on Improving Dialogue in Your Writing

helmsOn writing dialogue:Dialogue is an invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader).

By E. Michael Helms

He said, She said: Tagverbs, Adverbs, and other Miscreant Uses of Dialogue
It’s ’fess up time. All writers are guilty of it. No matter how experienced a writer one may be, it’s a pitfall we must always be vigilant to avoid. So, at the risk of offending writers everywhere, I present a brief refresher course on dialogue.  
Overusing colorful verbs (or “tagverbs,” as I like to call them) as dialogue tags
In dialogue, the overuse of strong verbs used as tags tends to draw attention to the words themselves and become distracting to the reader. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Here’s what The New York Times Book Review had to say about best-selling author Robert Ludlum’s, The Bourne Ultimatum (yes, that Robert Ludlum):
bourne“Mr. Ludlum has other peculiarities.  For example, he hates . . . “he said” . . . and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper . . . intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable (one): ‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.”
Another common fault is using adverbs to describe how a character speaks. It’s so much easier to “tell” the reader how the character said something than “show” how it was said. Here are a few examples from McNally’s Secret, by Lawrence Sanders (yes, that Lawrence Sanders):
I said resignedly; father asked idly; I said heartily; I said hastily; he inquired anxiously; she said darkly; she said lightly; she said cheerily; I said cheerfully; he cried with unexpected fury; she said fondly; I said politely; he said proudly; he said with unnecessary vehemence; he said coldly; he said hotly; she said faintly; she said bitterly; she said crisply; I asked eagerly; she said doubtfully; he said grudgingly; he said mournfully; I added earnestly; she said hesitantly; I said gratefully; she said in a doleful voice; and my two personal favorites: someone remarked sententiously; I caroled as melodiously as I could.
*Examples for Your Perusal—which sounds better to your ear?*
“You’re fired!” Fred blurted hotly. (Tagverb and adverb)
“You’re fired,” Fred said, slamming the folder on the desk. (“said” is hardly noticed)
Fred slammed the folder on his desk. “You’re fired.” (action denotes speaker’s temperament)
            “You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary sobbed pitifully.
            “You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary said, bursting into tears.
            Mary turned away to hide her tears. “You always manage to spoil the evening.”
A good rule: When a tag is needed, “he said/she said” works just fine in most situations. Use more colorful tags occasionally if you must. Always try to “show” how something was said rather than “telling” how it was said. 
Loaded dialogue (or, lazily packing dialogue with information)
*Do people really talk like this?*
“I suppose we could ask our son, Joe, to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones suggested. “After all, he is one of the best attorneys in town, and we did put him through law school.”
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones replied, “but he is already representing his sister, the Harvard professor, with her slander case against the university newspaper.”
*Well no, but they might reasonably say something like this:*
“Let’s ask Joe to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s no conflict of interest for an attorney to represent his parents.  Besides, it’s about time he did something for us. If he can afford to drive a Ferrari, he can afford to pay us back something for five years of law school.”    
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones said, “but I’m afraid it will conflict with his handling of Susan’s case.  If she doesn’t get tenure because of those lies the Harvard Herald printed, she’ll be devastated.  Joe won’t let that happen. You know what a protective big brother he’s always been.”  
The lesson?  If needed, you can impart information to the reader if you word the dialogue carefully.
word countDispensable dialogue (or, empty, wordcount-building dialogue)
“Good morning, Joe,” Sharon said, seeing her friend approaching down the hallway. “How are you today?”
“Fine, Sharon, and you?”
Sharon smiled warmly. “I couldn’t be better. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. Couldn’t ask for better. Makes you want to skip work and go on a picnic.”
“It sure does,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Oh, well, back to the grindstone. Nice seeing you, Joe.”
“Nice seeing you, too, Sharon. Tell Steve ‘hello’ for me, would you?”
“I sure will, and please give Tammy my best.”
“I will. Well, have a nice day.”
“You, too. Bye-bye.”
(While the above exchange is technically okay, it’s boring and does absolutely nothing to reveal character, show conflict, or propel the plot.)
writing image 
A Reminder
Dialogue is an invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader).
Dialogue is action and conflict (characters interacting with one another).        
Dialogue is drama (the story is unfolding, or moving forward by what the characters say).
Dialogue is immediate scene (characters are on-stage, acting out scenes before the reader’s eyes).
Closing Words from author P.G. Wodehouse
“[A]lways get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”


Introducing Mac McClellan, P.I.

character mattersMcClellan’s biggest fear: Letting someone down.

Today we are pleased to welcome retired U.S. Marine-turned-private investigator Mac McClellan to #MotiveMeansOpportunity. Mac retired from the Marines a few years ago after a twenty-four year career. He has graciously agreed to answer a few questions that might be of interest to the readers of MMO and his Mac McClellan Mystery series.
MMO: Welcome to our humble blog, Mac.
Mac: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.
MMO: Tell us a little about your background. When and where you were born, your education, military service, what brought you to the Florida panhandle after your retirement, etc.
Mac: There’s not a whole lot to tell. I was born and raised in Brevard , North Carolina . I played baseball and football, and loved to go camping and hiking in the mountains around there. After graduating high school I joined the Marine Corps on my 18th birthday, August 8, 1990. My training ended just in time for me to participate as a rifleman in Operation Desert Storm. My unit was involved in taking the airfield at Kuwait City in late February of ’91. The Iraqis put up quite a fight and it took us several hours to secure the area. I took a round through and through the left thigh during the battle and earned my first purple heart. Nothing bad, just some bleeding.
After the First Gulf War I did a two-year stint with Division Recon until I blew out a knee during a training op. After rehab I was transferred back to a rifle company. By the time President Bush Two decided to invade Iraq , I was a staff NCO. I served as Platoon Sergeant on my first deployment. Later I was promoted to Gunnery Sergeant and served as company gunny during my next two deployments. My last deployment to Iraq was in 2004. It included the Second Battle of Fallujah in November. Fallujah was a bitch. Enough said.
What brought me to the panhandle? A good buddy of mine used to brag about this area all the time. We made plans for a fishing trip after Fallujah, but he was KIA. When I got home my wife told me she was tired of playing father and mother, and wanted out of the marriage. I knew she was seeing someone, but we agreed to stay together a few more years until our twins, Mike and Megan, finished high school. They left for college shortly after I retired. Jill presented me with the divorce papers. I signed them before a judge, bought a camper and headed for Florida .
MMO: So, your Marine Corps friend and your divorce brought you to the panhandle; what made you stay?
Mac: It’s complicated. The Corps had been my home for twenty-four years. I was newly divorced. My wife was living in “our” dream retirement home with her Navy pilot boyfriend. The kids had flown the nest. I came here to fish, relax, and think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
deadly catch
One morning I snagged a badly decomposed body while fishing near Five Mile Island . The body was that of a popular local young woman who was supposed to be honeymooning with her husband in the mountains of Georgia or North Carolina . She also happened to be the niece of the local sheriff. We butted heads, and I was warned not to leave Dodge. Then a baggie of marijuana was found stashed aboard my rental boat. Just so happens a bale of the same strain of pot had washed ashore near where I discovered the body. I knew then somebody was setting me up to take the fall. One thing led to another and I was able to solve the murder and bust up a connected drug-smuggling ring. Oh, and Kate Bell had a little something to do with my staying. She works at the local marina. We hit it off right away, and she was a big help in helping me solve the case.
MMO: Interesting. You enjoyed the “thrill of the hunt” so much that you decided to take it up as a vocation and become a licensed private investigator?
Mac: (Laughs.) Not exactly. You can thank Kate and her “Uncle” Frank for that. I’m an old movie buff. One night Kate and I were coming out of the theater when she saw who she claimed was her former boyfriend. Problem was, the guy had been dead for over ten years. I tried to get her to listen to reason, but she kept insisting it was the same person. I went with Kate to see Frank Hightower. Frank’s a very close friend of the Bells, a retired cop who now runs his own private investigative company in Destin, Kate’s hometown. Kate had kept Frank informed about the murder and drug case I’d solved. Frank thought I had the makings of a decent PI. Together they conspired to get me to snoop into Kate’s old circle of friends and find out if there was anything to the boyfriend’s reappearance or not. In exchange for my time, Frank offered to pay all fees while I worked on becoming a bona fide investigator and Kate’s case. Voila!—Mac McClellan, PI.
MMO: What makes Mac McClellan “tick?”
Mac: I’d say a strong sense of duty, dependability, and responsibility.
MMO: Those are certainly admirable traits. What about faults?
Mac: (Laughs again; pauses … thinking.) I’ve put on a few pounds. I need to drop about ten to get back to my fighting weight. And Kate thinks I drink too much. I guess she’s right. Maybe.
MMO: Moving along, are you a religious person?
Mac: No, not really. My parents took me to church and Sunday school when I was a kid. I don’t think it did me much good. I’ve seen too much crap to believe in a loving and benevolent God. How many times have you seen some natural disaster on television, like a tornado. They interview some guy standing outside his demolished house and he’s saying, “The good Lord was really watching out for us today.” And down the street a mother and her two young kids were crushed to death or sucked out of the house and killed. Where was “the good Lord” when that was happening? Life is a crapshoot. Call me agnostic. I’m not saying there isn’t a god, but if he/she/it exists, he/she/it doesn’t give a crap about the human race.
MMO: What does combat-hardened former Marine Mac McClellan fear most?
Mac: Letting someone down.
MMO: Short and succinct. I like that. Favorite food?
Mac: Steak and shrimp. And BLTs.
MMO: Drink?
Mac: Yes. (Laughs.) Water, Scotch, and beer.
MMO: Tell me the first word that comes to mind when I say: women.
Mac: Pedestal.
MMO: War.
Mac: Peace.
MMO: Surrender.
Mac: No.
MMO: Very good. What are you especially proud of in your life?
Mac: My kids. They’re both good people. Kate Bell. I’m a better man for knowing her. And I like to think I’ve done my best, or given my all when it comes to interacting with people in general. The Marine Corps had a lot to do with molding me into who I am today.
MMO: A commendable answer. One last question: is there a code or creed that you live by?
Mac: Absolutely—Semper Fidelis. Always faithful. To me, that says it all.
MMO: Thanks for being with us today, Mac. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Mac: Thank you. It’s a pleasure being had.