Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thriller writer Tom Grace on BLEEDER

"Bleeder is an intelligent, deftly written mystery that offers a skillful blend of reason and faith. John Desjarlais skillfully combines a wounded scholar, a stigmatic priest, and Aristotle himself in a fascinating tale of a death that's either a miracle or a murder."

Tom Grace, author of "The Secret Cardinal"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Curt Jester review of BLEEDER

What do you get when you combine a story about an alleged stigmatic priest, a town seeking healings from this priest, a skeptic who is not a cynic, and then the death of this priest on Good Friday? You get Bleeder: A Mystery , a well crafted and engaging story.

I was pretty well hooked from the first pages on and the novel never disappointed. The story is written as a mystery as to whether the priest was murdered and the various motives of people none too happy to have him there in their midst. It certainly kept me guessing. Plus the novel is more than a mystery novel in that it also uses mystery in the Catholic sense. There is a sense of the mystery of God throughout. And the author does not try to dot every i when it comes to answering these mysteries, but gives them the proper place. The theology presented in this novel is pitch perfect, though it is not a preachy novel that hits you over the head with Catholicism. Rather, it’s an excellent mystery novel with some theological elements. Highly recommended.

The Curt Jester (blogger Jeff Miller)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Our Lady of Guadalupe

...plays a part in my forthcoming mystery, VIPER. Her feast day is today.
I had truly hoped to be done (or nearly done) with a draft of the book by today, but schoolwork, a terrible chest cold, household injuries and 2 very sick dogs (one had a stroke, the other was diagnosed with cancer) have really slowed me down. New deadline: May 1, the first day of "Mary's Month." That will give me the summer to work closely with my editor in revision and have a fast turnaround time.

Family and Faith review of BLEEDER

From the Family and Faith review of BLEEDER: "I was absolutely floored! Go out and buy this book!" I guess she liked it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Midwest Book Review

"BLEEDER is a truly entertaining mystery, highly recommended."

Midwest Book Review

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Catholic Writers Guild conference online 2/26-3/5

This year's Catholic Writers’ Conference Online, which will be held February 26-March 5, 2010, will focus on the practical things the writer needs to succeed.

The conference is held via chats and forums at Sponsored by the Catholic Writer’s Guild, the online conference is free of charge and open to writers of all levels who register between October 1, 2009 and February 15, 2010.

"We've always concentrated on workshops and chats that teach the writer skills or provide information in the areas of crafting, publishing and marketing their works, but this year, we're adding critique workshops and some incredible opportunities to pitch to leading publishers," said organizer Karina Fabian.

This year, publishers hearing pitches include well known Catholic publishers like Pauline, large Christian publishers like Thomas Nelson, and smaller presses like White Rose. Thus far, eleven pitch sessions are scheduled, running the gamut from Christian romance to Catholic theology.

In a new program, at least fifty attendees will have the opportunity to have pieces of their work critiqued by successful editors and writers. In addition, there will be forum-based workshops and chat room presentations covering topics from dialogue to freelancing to how Catholic fiction differs from Christian fiction.

"Even in good economic times, it's hard for writers to attend live conferences," said Fabian, "but this year, we think it's even more important to help careers by utilizing an online format. We're so grateful that our presenters are willing to share their time and talent."

Early registration is recommended. Although the conference is offered free of charge, donations are accepted; proceeds will go toward future conferences. Non-Catholics may attend, as long as they respect Catholic beliefs and the conference's Catholic focus.

To register or for more information, go to

Sunday, November 29, 2009

CWG Seal of Approval

BLEEDER was awarded the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval last week. The Seal assures Catholic bookstores that there is nothing in the book that might embarrass the bookseller or the faithful reader - gratuitous sex, gore, Catholic-bashing and the like. It isn't the same as an imprimatur and isn't meant to be. Nor is it meant to suggest that the book is 'safe' (even though I'd rate it a PG). I prefer to think that the seal says that the book speaks the truth in all ways - theologically and emotionally - without being superficial, suger-coated or sentimental, without sacrificing literary quality. So is there violence? Heck, it's a MURDER mystery. Is there sex? Enough to make the people real. Is there theological controversy? Of course - Catholics are relentlessly logical and analyze everything (as my protagonist, a lapsed Presbyterian, discovers). So, thank you, CWG, for your 'faith' in me and in BLEEDER.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CatholicTV interview

Catholic Mystery Fiction Involving a ‘Murdered’ Priest? Author To Be Interviewed on CatholicTV Talk
11/24/2009 - 11:34 AM PST

Catholic PRWire

WATERTOWN, MA (November 24, 2009) - Catholic Mystery Fiction Involving a ‘Murdered’ Priest? Author To Be Interviewed on CatholicTV Talk Show 

On November 27th, author John Desjarlais, author of the mystery novel “Bleeder” will be interviewed on the CatholicTV talk show “This is the Day”. The novel involves the apparent murder or miraculous death of a priest who bleeds to death in front of his congregation on Good Friday. 

CatholicTV is a nationally-broadcasted television network headquartered near Boston. CatholicTV streams its broadcast simultaneously, 24 hours a day at 

Desjarlais will discuss his novel during his interview on “This is the Day”. “Murder mysteries in general get close to our deepest motives and fears, showing humans in extremis. Such stories have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries – not just the mystery of death, but the mystery of undeserved suffering.” says Desjarlais. 

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines. A member of Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Desjarlais is also a member of the Catholic Writers Guild. 

John Desjarlais’ interview can be seen on Friday, November 27th live at 10:30AM (EST) on CatholicTV where available (rebroadcast at 8PM). The show will also be streamed simultaneously at and will be available on the site’s archives starting Friday night. All videos at the website are viewable in full-screen. Paste this URL into your browser in order to access the “This is the Day” video archives. 

Readers may visit for reviews, photos, links related to the novel, and interaction with the author. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mostly Mystery Reviews

"An intriguing mystery. Weaves skepticism with who-dun-it."
--Mostly Mystery Reviews

Friday, November 13, 2009

guest blogger at Getting Medieval

I'm a guest blogger this week at discussing my medieval thriller, RELICS.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dappled Things and new reviews

Dappled Things, a Catholic literary journal, will publish my short story "Assisted Living" in the Advent/Christmas 2009 issue, along with a review of BLEEDER.

Another review appeared today at the web site for the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, here:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy All Saints Day

All I want to say is that this holiday (and the Latino counterpart, The Day of the Dead) is an important part of VIPER, the sequel to BLEEDER, which was ranked 74,000 at amazon today - whatever that means.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Death in the Choir

What I read this week:
“Death in the Choir” might be called a “Catholic cozy,” given its charming Decatur, Georgia setting and recently widowed heroine, Francesca Bibbo, who joins the choir at St. Rita’s in order to resume her social life and find romance. Lovelorn and self-conscious about her weight (even her cat is named Tubs), Francesca quickly discovers the disharmony in the group. The catty sopranos compete for solos, and the director and the pastor are at odds over purchasing a new organ to replace the old wheezing one. When the director, Randall, appoints Francesca to be his administrative assistant and then asks her out to dinner, her lonely heart goes pitter-patter - but it seems that he has been doing this with other widows in order to make a fundraising pitch for the organ. At a rehearsal party, Randall continues to ‘play the field’ yet string along the desperate Francesca. Later that night, when she drives by his house, she sees that one of the sopranos, Patricia, has parked her car there, whereupon she loses hope of winning him. Then, in the morning, Patricia phones Francesca to report that she found the director dead. The police rule the death a suicide, but plucky Francesca suspects foul play. When she digs into the records Randall put in her care and begins to pry into his past, she discovers shocking sexual secrets about Randall and other choir members that put her in grave danger. And the handsome police officer she’s been falling for may not be able to save her in time.
Lorraine Murray delivers an entertaining puzzle-mystery with a likeable protagonist who is a practicing Catholic in a realistic parish that has its flaws, just like Francesca. The book can be forgiven its conveniently unlocked doors and chance meetings for the way it builds upon an innocent search for romance and remarriage toward a mystery involving divorce and deviance. Lighthearted and ‘safe’ at first, the story turns dark and dangerous in its page-turning conclusion.
The story is respectful of Catholic Church traditions and practices, and at the same time brutally honest about the fallen natures of its members. Thankfully, the priests are portrayed as real men with their own troubles, but not bad: the weary senior pastor longs for a stiff drink and a long smoke he has been denying himself, and the upstart young associate is angular and sternly orthodox. Francesca is genuinely good, and the reader is often pulled into her conflicted, anxious thoughts and prayers as she worries about surviving widowhood and, in the end, just surviving.

Death in the Choir
By Lorraine V. Murray
Tumblar Books, 2009
181 pages

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kishwaukee College book signing

I’ll give a brief talk on “The Rules for Writing Mysteries” and sign copies of BLEEDER at the Kishwaukee College Library in Malta, IL, tomorrow, October 21, 1 pm - 2 pm.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Booked for Murder book signing

Thanks to Sara and her staff at Madison's Booked for Murder bookstore in Madison, Wisc., for Saturday's author event. It was fun to mingle with dedicated mystery readers and talk with Michael Black, Louisa Buehler and Sam Reaves, Mystery Writers of America acquaintances who came from Chicago for the day. When the writer scheduled to arrive at 3 pm didn't show, I was asked to take that slot plus the 3:30 slot already assigned, and I was glad to fill in. Nearly 20 people showed up for my presentation, and I'm grateful for such a good turn-out. I sold a few books, too. Unlike some other signing events where I keep all the profits or donate a percentage to the host, the bookstore (which managed the cash transactions) kept 1/3 and I kept 2/3, namely $10, which is close to my own cost per book of $9.87. So I basically broke even, especially if one disregards the cost of travel to Madison for the event and the enchilada lunch I had in the restaurant next door. 

ps: BLEEDER is ranked 30,000 today at, for what it's worth.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Madison book signing reminder

Just a reminder that I'll be signing copies of BLEEDER at the "Booked for Murder" bookstore in Madison, WI on Saturday, Oct 10, at 3:30 pm.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Latest Amazon review of BLEEDER

(5 0f 5 stars) A real page-turner, October 6, 2009 By
Gerard Webster (Jacksonville, FL USA) -

Reed Stubblefield--a college professor on sabatical--is a wounded man...both physically by a student's random shot and emotionally by his wife's recent death. He retreats to his brother's remote cabin in the small town of River Falls, Ill. in hopes of writing a book on Aristotle. It's the middle of March and Reed expects the campsite to be empty; but he's both disappointed and aggravated when he finds that the campsite and town are overflowing with throngs of believers--sick pilgrims seeking a cure from "the stigmatist" priest. Not only that, but Reed suspects that his brother deliberately set him up for an encounter with "Fr. Ray" in the hopes that it would lead to his physical and spiritual healing. Reed's skepticism and Aristotelian logic are an offset to the sometimes blind devotion of the believers. His natural curiosity and desire to find logical explanations are what leads him into becoming more embroiled in the frenzy going on around him. But when Fr. Ray dies suddenly in the middle of a church service, Reed's skepticism and unique physical ailments place him in the position of being a prime suspect in the priest's murder. Now he must rely on his intellect and training to find the real killer. BLEEDER was an exciting read from the first page to its satisfying resolution. I found myself turning the pages quickly to see what would happen next. The story builds in a crescendo like a symphony--beginning with the muted strings of questions unanswered to the crashing cymbals of its exciting conclusion. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BLEEDER review: The Catholic Company

Here's a review I received today from The Catholic Company (photo at right: insurance agent Selena De La Cruz, a minor character in BLEEDER):

I love reading about the Catholic faith. I love reading mysteries. To be able to combine the two makes for a very happy person. So when I saw a new mystery, titled Bleeder by John Desjarlais, I thought I should give it a try.

I'm glad I did.

The author, a former producer of Wisconsin Public Radio, now teaches journalism and English at a small college in northern Illinois. Although this is his first mystery, he has a couple of novels to his name and has written for a variety of Christian and secular periodicals. All this writing experience comes to use in his first mystery novel with a very complex plot, multi-issue characters and an amazing climax scene when the mystery is solved.

The basic premise? Reed Stubblefield, a "sort of" Presbyterian (in other words, he went to the Presbyterian church when he was younger, but no longer believes in much of anything) and Artistotelian scholar heads to a small town in Illinois to recuperate from a gunshot wound which has left him with a shattered hip and the need for a cane, which he calls "Citizen Cane". To further exacerbate Reed's health issues, his wife died of cancer two years earlier and so he has episodes of depression and grief. On strong pain medications and anti-depressants, Reed is easily disoriented and his almost-50-year-old body is in pretty bad shape. His older brother lends him a cabin in the Illinois woods in a small town where there is a priest who allegedly bears the signs of the stigmata -- the five wounds of Jesus -- and is credited with miraculous healings. Reed knows nothing about the "healing Padre" and ends up limping into a hornet's nest of issues in this small town.

The writing is taut and well-researched, with appropriate quotes from Aristotle scattered throughout, tons of medical information, and well-defined characters. The supporting cast of characters span the spectrum from heretical charlatans to well-meaning cynics to good Catholics trying to understand the events occuring in their little town.

Desjarlais obviously spent much time and effort to build a mystery around the premise (stated by Fr. Ray Boudreau, the healing padre):

"There are no coincidences, Mr. Stubblefield. Coincidences are just God's way of remaining anonymous. "(pg 41)

That quote really sums up all that occurs in this many-threaded plot. A plot that at times seems completely disjointed, until I turned the page and it came together again.

I have a couple of small quibbles, though: Reed knows too many of the technical liturgical symbols, items, and traditions of the Catholic Church -- seemed far-fetched for a self-described "sort of Presbyterian". I also thought the author tried too hard to include a budding romance; it just didn't read naturally. Also, the text of the "newspaper" articles quoted in the book read like creative writing rather than fact-based (and usually quite terse) journalism.

The quibbles aside, I'd recommend this book for adults, especially those who like a good, fair mystery with lots of red herrings, plot twists, and side issues. Bleeder is a mystery that plays fair with the reader by hiding-in-plain-sight the clues that lead to the solution. I particularly love the last page ... wonderful!

(OK, the newspaper articles were proper for their respective venues: a tabloid report is going to be over-the-top sensational. The Weekly Observer stories are exactly as they typically appear in small town weeklies. But I don't want to sound too defensive. My thanks to the reviewer for a considered evaluation).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wisconsin Book Festival

I’ll be part of the Wisconsin Book Festival in two events on Saturday, October 10. First, I’ll participate in a mystery writer panel at the Mount Horeb Public Library, 105 Perimeter Road (in Mount Horeb, of course), at 1 p.m. Later, I’ll be at Booked for Murder, 2701 University Avenue in Madison at 3:30 p.m., as part of an afternoon-long series of presentations by regional mystery authors. I’ll have copies of BLEEDER for signing at each event. Hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Amazon Reviews

The first reviews are coming in to Here's the latest one:

5 stars. Smart, Suspenseful and Soulful, September 16, 2009
By Lisa M. Hendey "Lisa, Webmaster" (Fresno, CA United States) - I just finished reading John Desjarlais' fascinating work of fiction, Bleeder. From the initial pages of the book through its great conclusion, this novel was action packed and quite thought provoking. The main character, Reed Stubblefield, finds himself in a small town looking to heal from his physical and emotional wounds. He strikes up a begrudging friendship with Father Ray, a priest who is widely believed to be a stigmatic and a miracle healer. When Father Ray dies suddenly during the Good Friday service, Reed finds himself accused of the murder of this beloved priest. This book is incredibly well written, and enhanced by the inclusion of quotations and teachings of Aristotle - these fit into the story since Reed is a professor, on sabbatical, looking to write about Aristotle. The novel's Catholic setting is never heavy handed or preachy, but rather contributes to the richness of the story told and the mystery that unfolds. Reed, a skeptic who finds himself surrounded by believers, must question some of his long held beliefs and philosophies. I loved Bleeder and raced to the end to learn "whodunnit". At this point, I will likely go back and reread the book again to enjoy Mr. Desjarlais' stunning writing and the intricacy with which he creates and shares the lives of his characters. Strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for a great mystery!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How's the book doing?

Friends and colleagues are politely asking me "How's the book doing?" - BLEEDER, that is - in terms of sales. The polite answer is 'there's really no way to tell, especially this early.' The title was released 4 weeks ago and today its ranking was 122,000 (at about 7:30 pm Central). I guess that's pretty good since Amazon lists 3.5 million titles. The rankings are updated every hour at Amazon, and hardly anyone has figured out how to translate the erratic rankings into real sales numbers. There is a terribly expensive computer program that publishers use to track the numbers, but they are guarded with the figures and authors rarely learn the sales figures until quarterly or semi-annual royalty statements arrive in the mail. So I just do the next thing and don't think about it, except to note that Amazon last week said the title was out of stock and more were being ordered. But I wonder how many they order? 5? 50? It's a mystery.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Aristotle on Single and Double Action Plots

To continue with Aristotle on storytelling, a discussion begun earlier...

Plots can have a single or double action, Aristotle says in "Poetics." In a 'single', one character is changed, whereas in 'double,' two are changed, generally in opoposite directions. He uses the Odyssey as an example of a double action plot. Odysseus comes to a good end, while the suitors come to a bad one. A good biblical example is in First Samuel, where Saul descends into self-pity and despair, while David ascends to power and the throne.

As much as Aristotle admires the Odyssey, he prefers the single action plot where a good and noble man comes to ruin through an error or personal flaw he doesn't recognize, as in Oedipus Rex, his favorite play. When an audience experiences such a downfall, there is a strong emotional reaction that Aristotle calls 'Catharsis,' the subject of the next posting.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

BLEEDER signing tonight

I'll speak about mysteries and sign copies of BLEEDER tonight at the Byron Public Library, 6:30 pm. C'mon by!

Monday, September 7, 2009

BLEEDER on blogtalkradio

I'll discuss BLEEDER on the Ken Hudnall Show at this Tuesday, September 8, at 8 pm Central. It's an hour program.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bohemian Matinee

That was his track name, but he's been called "Bobby" for a couple of years in a home that has to give him up. So we're taking this quiet, friendly 7-year-old brindle greyhound to live with us. He's housebroken and accustomed to stairs, so there will be less training than is otherwise needed with an adopted retired racer. We have pillows and bowls and coats and other gear from our previous grey, so we're ready for him. When we met him at the rescue kennel, he cozied right up to us, including our other dog, a rescued mutt. So as the saying goes, you don't pick the hound, the hound picks you. Pretty soon we'll see the other common saying come true: Gain a hound, lose a couch. They're couch-potatoes and love to curl up on soft spots for hours.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Simple and Complex Plots

In Aristotle's categories, “Simple” plots involve a change in fortune where there is no recognition or reversal. “Complex” plots include a recognition and a reversal that turns on surprise. The “Complex” plot is superior – in tragedy, anyway.

It’s possible to get too complex, however. Novelists can get into a problem when they have too many characters, too many incidents, too many recognitions and reversals, just too much happening. Aristotle’s antidote: create a pitch. Come up with a compelling three-sentence summary of your story that’ll make an editor cry. Well, he actually says this:

“The plot should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with emotion at the incidents.”

So think about how to describe your story to a friend in 30 seconds, in just a few sentences. This will clarify the story in your own mind. It might help to identify any clutter you should cut. And it will prepare you to pitch the book to agents and editors later.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Complication and crisis

This is a continuation of a discussion about Aristotle's theory of drama.

For Aristotle, “Man IS his desire.” A story is built on what a character wants, or wishes to avoid. If you figure out what your character desires and what he fears, you’re on your way. Plot arises out of the character acting on those desires – to achieve something, or to avoid something. To attain a goal, or escape the worst. But you cannot make it easy. If it’s easy, you have no story. Jimmy desperately wants the red bike in the window but it is expensive. Grandpa comes to visit and buys it for him. End of story. Instead, we need Mom to say, “I don’t have the money. You’ll have to earn it.” So Jimmy becomes a paperboy. After a while he earns enough and he buys the bike. Still no story. What needs to happen? Someone has to steal his papers, or swipe the money left out for him by customers, or he gets mugged on his way to the store, or when he gets to the store the bike is sold. These are ‘complications.’ “Complications” are obstacles to achieving a ‘want’ or an incident that brings the feared thing closer to happening. Things must get harder for your character, things must get worse every time he takes an action to attain the goal. There is always a gap between what the character expects as a result of a decision and what he actually gets. These complications, these setbacks, these new directions build toward a ‘crisis.

A ‘crisis’ is a moment of change where nothing is as it was before. The complications have led up to this change, this crisis, inevitably. This ‘change’ or ‘crisis’ is characterized by a major recognition and reversal.

RECOGNITION AND REVERSAL: or ‘a discovery and peripety’:
Good plots always have a major recognition and reversal near the end arising from all the action that has preceded it. Immediately following a startling recognition, an astonishing realization, a surprising revelation, there is a reversal – a change from one state of affairs to another. Aristotle’s favorite play and the best example of this is Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus recognizes who he really is and what he has truly done – murdered his father and married his mother – with an immediate and stunning reversal of fortunes into misery. The recognition and the reversal happen simultaneously. But this can happen in all kinds of stories, not just a tragedy. In a mystery, there is often a surprising recognition of who the real killer is and that you, the sleuth, have been chasing the wrong one all along – or your chief suspect has just been killed - and the killer is sitting next to you – recognizing that you are realizing the truth. This results in a reversal of your attitude toward the person and a change in your next action.

You’ll probably have smaller recognitions and reversals earlier in the book, occurring at every major turning point or ‘plot point.’ In a mystery, that could be the discovery of a clue, a recognition of a false alibi, a revelation of someone’s real identity – and each of these causes a reversal of some kind: a changed relationship, a changed plan, a changed suspect list.

Discoveries can occur without reversals – a narrator learns something about her past. Reversals can happen without some recognition involved – a happy wedding reception is spoiled by a shooting. But emotional power in a story comes from a recognition accompanied by a reversal.

Does your story have an interesting discovery or two, and is there a reversal as a result within the character, in a relationship, in the direction of the action?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

BLEEDER released today!

Today is the official release date for "BLEEDER: a mystery" (Sophia Institute Press)! It is available at and will be in bookstores soon.

A stigmatic priest bleeds to death on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. A miracle? Or bloody murder? Aristotle professor Reed Stubblefield needs to know. After all, police say he's the prime suspect.


ISBN 781933-184-562-51495

trade paperback

272 pages


Friday, August 14, 2009

Aristotle on 'Unified Action' and 'Scope'

“The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of a story, is the plot,” Aristotle wrote. So today I'll focus on 'plot,' especially Aristotle's notions of 'unified action' and 'the scope of the plot.'

UNIFIED ACTION: Of absolute importance in the structure of a plot is this: that it be unified, whole, and complete. It has a beginning, middle, and end – which sounds obvious – but it must begin in a way that nothing else is needed before it, and it must end in a way that nothing needs to follow it.

Some writers fail with beginnings because they tack on a prologue they think is needed to understand the opening action, when in fact this information probably needs to come later in dialog or a subtle flashback. Other writers fail with beginnings when they start with action but then quickly do a backstory dump, dropping in narrative background to explain what is going on. This puts the brakes on the story. Work in the backstory in pieces later.

The same thing happens to endings, especially in short stories. The writer goes on too long or tries to explain what happened in the story.

As for middles, the incidents must be so arranged that if any were placed differently or omitted, the sense of wholeness would be lost. If the presence or absence of anything makes no difference, cut it – it is not part of the whole. Aristotle’s science – especially medical/biological science – emphasized the necessary unity of constituent parts. All the parts that make up the whole must be necessary and connected. You don’t need to include everything about your character or things that happened to your character in the past – include only that which advances character and advances story at the same time.

The worst plots and actions, for Aristotle, are those that are ‘episodic.’ The episodes or incidents succeed one another without a necessary cause-and-effect sequence. The episodes are simply strung together. That might have worked for Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers,” and “Don Quixote” is an episodic novel, but if you want a story with surprise, wonder and emotional punch, every incident must necessarily lead toward the end.

SCOPE OF THE PLOT: Aristotle advises writers to write with the END in view. That way, the action leads to an inevitable but unpredictable end. The ‘plot’ is an arrangement of incidents that are in a natural and necessary consequence. Granted, there are more arrangements possible in modern fiction than the strictly chronological. But it still must make perfect sense. Even that which seems to be a coincidence or an accident should be perceived as part of a design. Aristotle doesn’t mind a coincidence or two (As far as I'm concerned, a coincidence is just God’s way of staying anonymous). What makes a plot ‘defective’ is when it lacks logic in the sequence, or adds unnecessary things – scenes, characters, narrative descriptions, whatever - to the sequence, and especially if the ending drags.

The writer will END when the work has achieved sufficient ‘magnitude,’ a size or length appropriate to the subject matter and giving a sense of unity and completeness. Oedipus Rex is just the right length, with a unity of time and space, performed in about an hour. But imagine if it was the length of the Iliad, Aristotle asks. It would lose its unity. Could the epic tale of the Iliad be told in a one-hour play? Hardly. In addition, in a long work like the Iliad or the Odyssey – or the modern novel, for that matter – each part of it has its own ‘magnitude,’ its own proper proportion. When you edit your book, consider the proportions of your scenes and sequences. Are some too long? Too abrupt?

These separate parts of a long piece, following several lines of action at the same time, enlarge the dimensions of the story, Aristotle observes. We watch Odysseus make his way home; we see what is happening in his home with Penelope, then back to Odysseus. It can play with time by presenting many events simultaneously, adding 'mass and grandeur' to the overall effect. And Aristotle recommends that the writer provide relief to the hearer (or reader), with varied episodes and varied pacing. While each part has its own unity of time and space and magnitude, they all work toward a satisfying sense of fullness for the entire piece at the end.

An ending Aristotle hates is when a character is rescued by a ‘god out of the machine,’ the deus ex machina, where a god or goddess is lowered onto the stage by a crane and resolves everyone’s problems or provides a way of escape, as when Medea is given a flying chariot by the gods at the end. Characters must solve their own problems and struggle through complications and obstacles on their own. That is the subject of the next posting: middles.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Aristotle lists 6 elements of drama in this order of importance: plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle.

PLOT: This is the most important, being ‘imitation of action,’ which is what drama is in essence. Action (on the stage or on the page, in our case) is what is important, not what a person says he is or what he believes. What is important is what a character does, his actions. (That constitutes “Ethics” for Aristotle, too, where virtues are only real in actions that become habits that become a person’s character). All that we know come through the senses, Aristotle says. In drama, we see and hear action. By this, we infer character. This has come down to us as “Show, don’t tell.” When we see a man kicking the dog that brought him his slippers, we make a logical inference: the man is mean, or in a bad mood. When we see other acts of mean-ness, we conclude the man is mean. We don’t need someone calling from the side of the stage, “That man is mean,” just like we don’t need a writer to write “Joe was mean.” Show, don’t tell. Use action, not summary or author explanations. There can be more reflection and commentary in modern fiction, using a first-person narrator or an objective, omniscient narrator. But for Aristotle (and most genre fiction), it’s all about the action on stage.

While ‘plot’ and ‘action’ are most important to Aristotle, “character’ is a close second because characters make choices which result in actions and that constitutes the ‘plot.’ More on characters later.

“Thought” is the third element, a character’s reasoning process, his motivation, and the choices that result from these motives. Characters must be strongly motivated to act. Their motive, their ‘thought,’ is revealed in dialog or speeches. The dialog or speech always reveals something about the character’s motivation and shows what he wants, or what he wants to avoid, resulting in a decision that advances the action of the story – the ‘plot.’

What we end up with is this:

Action <-> Thought <-> Character

Start at either end you like. Action (which makes a plot) derives from the decisions that result from someone’s moral make-up, or ‘character.’

Or, in reverse: A person’s inner character leads to certain choices which result in actions taken that (looping back) affect the character. More simply: Characters are motivated to take actions. Whenever they do, the plot advances.

Aristotle’s emphasis on plot (or action) rankles many writers today who emphasize ‘character’ first and who – in a somewhat elitist way - make a distinction between ‘character-driven fiction’ and ‘plot-driven fiction,’ whereby ‘character-driven fiction’ is more subtle and ‘literary,’ and ‘plot-driven fiction’ is inferior, commercial entertainment. For Aristotle, such a distinction is irrelevant. Plot comes first, but plot is only possible with a strongly motivated character. The story is everything.

I hope some of this is making sense!

The other elements are embellishments, of a sort:

Diction is what we’d call ‘style,’ the effect of certain words in creating a mood, a tone, a voice, an attitude.

Song, which Aristotle identifies with the chorus as well as music, is not really a concern for you unless you sell the movie rights to your book. Even so, some writers like to imagine a soundtrack for certain scenes and listen to music as a way to get in the mood to write a particular scene.

Spectacle refers to special effects and is only the concern of the guy who works the crane that makes gods and goddesses fly around on stage, Aristotle says.

So let’s return to “plot.” “The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of a story, is the plot,” Aristotle wrote. That will be our focus next time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Aristotle's Secrets of Dramatic Storytelling

Why do we cry at movies? Or cheer? Why do thrillers put us on the edge of our seats? What is it about stories that pull such emotional reactions from us? Aristotle – who analyzed everything – wanted to know.

He didn’t write plays himself but noticed that successful plays had things in common. His analysis of what makes drama work, recorded in a little book called the Poetics, has defined the way writers talk about storytelling since. The book covers the art of tragedy; the book on comedy is lost. And while most writers today aren’t writing tragic plays, Aristotle’s principles apply across genres (and are particularly suited, I believe, to detective fiction, which involves tragic acts and surprising discoveries).

The book is actually a collection of notes taken by an astute student, which explains why the text sometimes feels disjointed and repetitive. Still, it is possible to lay out some principles in order – as Aristotle would have preferred. That is what I’ll be doing over the next several postings. I’ll begin with an overview of Aristotle’s 6 elements of drama in the next posting, and then I’ll re-visit each element in more detail.

Aristotle lists 6 elements in this order of importance: plot, character, “thought”, diction, song, and spectacle. We’ll go over these next time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Aristotle on the Art of Storytelling

Last week I spoke at the Catholic Writers Guild Conference LIVE! in New Jersey on two subjects: plotting and character development. For "Plotting," I outlined Aristotle's principles of drama as found in his little book, the Poetics. Since a number of people could not attend but expressed interest in this talk, I'll post the transcript here in small, digestible bits over the next several days. It is similar to the presentation I give in my college creative writing class, sans exercises.

Last I heard, EWTN Radio was considering broadcasting the recording of this talk. If you hear it on the radio, please let me know so that I can send an appropriate 'thank-you' note.

So stay tuned, dust off your college copy of the Poetics, and take good notes. Aristotle's little book, after all, is actually a bundle of notes collected by an astute student of his, which explains why the book seems to be a bit disorganized and repetitive here and there.

Monday, August 10, 2009

BLEEDER at Amazon

BLEEDER is now listed at for pre-orders. The official release date is August 15.

I'll be interviewed on WTBQ FM 99.1 Warwick NY (covers NYC area) Wednesday, August 12, at 7:15 Eastern.

Monday, July 27, 2009

BLEEDER radio interview

I’ll be interviewed about BLEEDER on Thursday, July 30 at 8:35 am Pacific Time on KZSB AM 1290, by Baron Ron Herron. The program airs in Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Los Angeles County. The show is rebroadcast on KNRY AM 1240 in Monterey, Salinas, Santa Cruz and Pebble Beach; KNWZ-II AM 1270 in Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Indio and Rancho Mirage. So if you’re in those areas, please tune in.

The program is delayed broadcast in Australia on 99.7 FM in Queensland and to another 30 radio stations via ComRadSat.

I've prepared short answers to the most likely questions, so I'll have a 'cheat sheet' to quote from in a natural voice - if I don't freak out!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What a Character!

I’m speaking at a writers’ conference in August on character development in fiction, and here’s the tentative outline of my talk. You can imagine how it will fill in, with definitions, quotes and examples from my work and other places. I’ll invite participants to offer examples, too, from their own writing. How’s it look to you? Anything I left out? It looks like ‘dialog’ is left out, but that’s treated in Section IV A.
One way Selena de la Cruz is developed in BLEEDER and VIPER is by her clothing. As with many Latinas, her shoes make an important statement.
Me? Sears Roebucks.
OK, here's the outline:

What a Character!
John Desjarlais

I. qualities of well-dramatized fictional characters
A. motivation
B. consistency
C. plausibility

II. types of characters
A. flat
B. round
C. static
D. dynamic

III. character changes
A. within the possibilities of the character
B. sufficiently motivated by the circumstances
C. allowed sufficient time for a change of its magnitude to take place

IV. presentation of characters
A. Directly – what the reader is told
1. by the character himself/herself
2. by other characters
3. by the author
4. by the character’s thoughts
B. Indirectly
1. reactions of others
2. Externals
a. physical appearance
b. surroundings
c. clothing
d. possessions
3. character’s speech
4. character’s actions
5. character’s name

That ought to fill an hour, huh?
Hmm - looks like the 'editor' didn't preserve the indenting. That's ok; it's still readable.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Writing Media Releases part 2

(That's Selena over there, making an important decision as usual)

In my previous posting I outlined some steps to take when writing "Media Releases" to help promote a new book. Once your book is 'out there' and you begin to line up public appearances in bookstores, libraries, book clubs, conferences and so on, you'll need another kind of media release to announce the event. Some independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble stores will put an announcement in their newsletters or in-store flyers, but it will usually be up to you - no matter what the venue - to notify local media with what they call an 'advance story.'

It's really quite simple. All you need to do is remember the "5 W's and H" of basic journalism: who, what, when, where, why, and how. And like the other media release that announced your book, this one should be free of hyperbole and puffery. Keep it short and straightforward. Just the facts, please. Don't see it as an ad; see it as a really short news item. Some newspapers will run the basic info in a 'community calendar' listing and not run it as a story (unless you have a big platform and are becoming a celebrity!).

Set up the Media Release just like the other one, with your contact info at the top left and a release date (or "For Immediate Release") at the top right. Provide a short headline (in present tense) if you like. Then, in third person, tell readers who you are, what you'll be doing, where, on what date and at what time (and for how long). Provide any other details in descending order of importance. You can provide a brief bio or other background, but expect it to be cut off. Kinda like this:

Mystery writer plots murder in local bookstore

Mystery author John Desjarlais will speak on "How to Plot a Murder and Get Away With It" at (store/library) located at (address) on (date) from (time-to-time - y'know, from 7 pm-8 pm or whatever).

He will also sign copies of his latest book, BLEEDER, released August 15 by Sophia Institute Press. Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to (name charity or library here).

The event is free and open to the public. Wine and cheese will be served (only say this if it's true!!). Attendees will be entered in a drawing for a prize.

Desjarlais, a member of Mystery Writers of America, lives in (name the town if you're a local) and teaches English and journalism at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill.

-30- (remember, this symbol means 'the end')

Notice how the story maintains an objective tone and avoids the excitement you actually feel about doing this. You'll want to write, "...will sign copies of his AWESOME book (title), destined to become a BESTSELLER so be sure to come and not miss out!!" But don't do it.

With all media releases, consider what other material you may need to send with it, especially photos such as your cover art or your mug (in .jpeg if sending electronically). By mail, you could include a business card or a bookmark.

Finally, remember to post your release in web social spaces, your blog(s) and other places as appropriate. Just be careful not to become a spammer ;-)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

BLEEDER Media Release and writing releases

Here is the Media Release I'm sending out to announce the publication of my contemporary mystery, BLEEDER. Actually, it's one of a few, as I'm targeting others for different audiences: libraries, radio stations, and so on. This is the more 'general' version suitable for newspapers. With an official issue date of August 15 (as I just learned), now is the time to send out the news so every recipient has a little lead time to process and schedule it. Some papers will run it 'as is,' some will re-write to suit their style, and others will use it as a news lead, calling me for a personal interview (I hope).

A few notes about 'releases' -- First, it should look professional and follow the usual format of a media release, with contact information up front and a release date (if time sensitive). The body ought to look like a regular news story, in format and language, without puffery or self-congratulatory statements. You have to imagine someone else - a sympathetic reporter, perhaps- writing the thing on your behalf. So it will be kindly disposed, yet have an objective tone, referring to you, the author, in third person ("I am SO excited to announce that my new book is FINALLY being published and I'm sure you'll LOVE it!" won't do).

Paragraphs should be kept very short so the piece is easy-to-read in a narrow newspaper column, without huge blocks of text that readers skip. Write an engaging opening (the 'lead'), include a brief summary of the story (something you did when you pitched the book to agents and editors already), provide purchase info and links to your web site and blog. Let media people know where to find and download .jpg photos for their coverage (a mug shot of you, cover art for the book). Include a couple of brief 'quotes' by yourself, as though someone had interviewed you for the news story. A 'kicker quote' at the very end is a time-honored journalistic technique.

Most newspapers prefer to receive "Press Releases" online and their sites might do away with all your paragraphing/formatting (Social Space blogs do that too - very annoying). That's ok. The important thing is to send it and provide a link to your web site where they can copy/paste to their liking.

At the end of the Media Release, write -30-, a symbol to indicate that the article has ended. It dates from telegraph days when reporters wired stories and ended their transmission with XXX - which is 30 in Roman numerals.

OK, here is the Media Release (without some of the italics and a few other formatting things). Copy and paste and forward it hither and yon, to thine kith and kin, maybe to your own local newspapers and radio stations, bloggers, whoever - please!

Media Release

For Immediate Release

John Desjarlais
(you'd put your mailing addy and phone here)

Mystery novel BLEEDER explores higher mysteries

Novelist John Desjarlais has “the usual suspects” in his contemporary small-town mystery Bleeder: a smart amateur sleuth, a cunning villain, baffled police and colorful locals.

But in considering the mysterious death of a stigmatic priest – a priest bearing the wounds of the crucified Christ – Desjarlais explores ‘higher mysteries.’

“I don’t necessarily mean ‘religious’ mysteries,” Desjarlais explains. “Murder mysteries in general get close to our deepest motives and fears, showing humans in extremis. Such stories have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries – not just the mystery of death, but the mystery of undeserved suffering.”

In Bleeder, classics professor Reed Stubblefield, wounded in a school shooting, retreats to a cabin in rural Illinois to recover and to write a book on Aristotle in peace. But the town of River Falls is filled with the ill and infirm -- all seeking the healing touch of the town’s new parish priest, reputed to be a stigmatic.

Skeptical about religion since his wife’s death from leukemia, Reed is nevertheless drawn into a friendship with the cleric, Rev. Ray Boudreau, an amiable Aquinas scholar who collapses and bleeds to death on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. A miracle? Or bloody murder?

Once Reed becomes the prime “person of interest” in the mysterious death, he seeks the truth with the help of Aristotle’s logic. But not everyone in town wants this mystery solved.

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines. A member of Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

Desjarlais’ medieval thriller, Relics, set in Crusader Palestine, was re-issued by Thomas Nelson Publishers in May this year and is available at

Bleeder (Sophia Institute Press, trade paper, 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-933184-56-2, $14.95) will be issued August 15, 2009 and will be available at and bookstores everywhere.

Readers may visit for reviews, photos, links related to the novel, and interaction with the author. A 30-second video trailer is at

“I wrote Bleeder as an entertaining read, a requirement of the mystery genre,” Desjarlais says. “But I hope it also leaves a reader thinking – and in wonder.”


(Some formatting stuff was lost in the copy/paste but that's ok. Please let me know if you forward this to any person, store, or media outlets so I can follow up. Thanks!)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Meet Selena de la Cruz video

To celebrate reaching page 200 of VIPER, featuring insurance agent (and ex-DEA Special Agent) Selena de la Cruz, I produced a little video profile for her. Check it out here:

Animoto no longer has an upload link to YouTube, so I'll have to figure out another way to post it there.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

5 things I wish someone told me about publishing

When you're writing, your focus is all about the story and the craft. But there are things about writing and publishing you're never really told along the way. Here are 5 things I wish I'd been told:

1. Just when you think you are done and the manuscript is in its best shape and finally accepted for publication, the agent or editor will ask for lots of re-writing. In my first book, nothing was changed at all. In my second book, the editor requested a few adjustments, nothing big. Those experiences were 15 years ago. Publishing has changed. Today, the competition is so fierce and the output of books so overwhelming (about 20 books PER MINUTE published in the USA) that agents and editors are much more involved in shaping and perfecting the book in order to stand out. My editor for BLEEDER asked the beginning to be shortened a great deal, the ending to be a bit more spectacular, and the motive for the killer to be deepened. There were other things throughout, too many to list - let me just say that at first I was surprised and a little hurt. But - being professional - I agreed that the changes strengthened the work and cranked out the revisions quickly. It is a better book - but I wish I'd known that there was a lot more 'intervention' these days even after acceptance. Well - maybe not. I might have gotten discouraged.

2. You won't believe how many times you'll read your own book in the proofing process. You do want it to be perfect and avoid typos and such. But what tedious work.

3. Promotion and marketing are harder than writing the book, more time-consuming, and potentially a real hindrance to writing. 15 years ago, my publishers invested in my titles with advertising, solicitation of reviews and other things. We've all heard how little publishers are putting into marketing these days, backing only their top-sellers who don't need much publicity anyway. What has made everything harder is the shift culturally from old media to new media, adding loads of work for authors to get noticed in cyberspace as well as public space. Many bookstores are reluctant to host book signings (it's more work for them with little return) and blogs and social spaces can soak up a lot of time with a questionable return. I hope I don't sound like I'm whining - I'm just saying that the business side of writing, the selling side, is a real challenge. There's always something you could be doing, and this can bite into the work you like most - writing.

4. Your book might not get into your local stores or libraries. "But I'm a LOCAL author," you say. That's a plus, but chain store buyers aren't local and don't know you from boo. The smaller, independent stores are better about this, though they check the sales record of your earlier books and if the numbers aren’t great, they won’t carry your new book. Libraries today are strapped for money and many are not purchasing new titles. If you try to set up an event at their place, some want you to donate a copy of your book to the collection (a proposed alternative is to ask if you can sell copies on the premises after your presentation/workshop, and donate 5%-10% of the proceeds to the library book-purchasing fund and then hope they buy a copy of your book with that).

5. If your book DOES get into stores, it won't be there long. The shelf space in a store is valuable real estate, and books are rotated very fast, sometimes every few weeks. That's not much time to create a buzz and build good sales numbers. That's why so much promotion has to be done BEFORE the release date of the book. And if the sales numbers aren’t super – especially if there’s no ‘sellthrough’ (meaning all or most of the copies printed were sold), then your chances of getting published again are smaller, even if you’re a pretty good writer.

All of this is not deterring me from moving ahead with my next book, the sequel to BLEEDER (tentatively titled VIPER). But I know that when I'm done with it - I'm not.
(BLEEDER is due out in August 2009. Look for it at Amazon).

Friday, June 19, 2009

VIPER trailer on YouTube

The galley proofs for BLEEDER are nearly ready, and I'm about 200 pages into the sequel, VIPER, with Selena De La Cruz as the protagonist (pictured right; photo credit: This week I hit a plot snag, and to stay motivated I produced a video trailer for it even though it isn't under contract for publication yet. I figure that as I get into the broad and terrifying middle of the novel, I'll need to maintain my vision for it. This is one way. You can see it here:

A RELICS Fan Letter

A writer hopes for good reviews for his books but the best ones come from readers. I thought I'd share a letter I received about RELICS:

Dear Mr. Desjarlais,

I have just finished RELICS and want to thank you for an entertaining and enlightening time.

Part way through, I began to chuckle. I realized that though Jean-Michel (the hero) was not the brightest character in the world he was good. As you took him through one scrape after another, rubbing him against one scamp after another (men and horses), he blithely oblivious to God's hand on him, I found myself wishing that I had his same purity of heart.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

BLEEDER Final Cover - almost

I received the 'almost' final version of the cover for my mystery BLEEDER today, in two forms: one uses a beard, one doesn't. I preferred the beard image (the publisher wondered if it was distracting). But the story mentions a beard on the cleric and stigmatics usually have a beard as another way of identifying with Christ who had one, too. There is a dramatic reference to this in one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, long understood by Christians as pointing to Jesus' passion:
"I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting."
(Isaiah 50:6, italics mine)
So I hope the publisher will keep the beard image. It's his call, though.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sacramental Reading of the Bible

In my previous post, I considered some reasons why Catholics - devout, practicing Catholics - are largely unfamiliar with the Bible. I must add, however, that when Catholics do read the Scriptures, they read them in a sacramental way, consistent with their approach to Christian spirituality.

What I mean is that, instead of being interested in Bible 'study' per se, they tend to be more interested in a spiritual experience of hearing the Holy Spirit in the sacred 'space' of the page. "Lectio Divina" is an important and ancient practice of reading the Scriptures slowly, line by line, listening for the voice of God there, seeking to encounter the Living Word. It's not about acquiring 'head knowledge' but 'heart knowledge' of the One revealed therein. This isn't to say Protestants don't do the same thing because they do (and more of them are becoming interested in old monastic practices such as Lectio).

Daily devotional guides such as "Magnificat," which are nearly all Scripture, are especially interested in joining the praying person to the rhythm of the overall Church's prayer life. This underscores the Catholic mentality of being part of a community. This sensitivity is much stronger than in Protestant circles, where 'the individual' tends to be more emphasized (A simple illustration of this is the way the creeds are recited in services. Protestants prefer the Apostle's Creed that begins "I believe..." and Catholics use the Nicene Creed that begins "We believe...')

Then there's the praying of The Divine Office, another ancient practice whereby the whole Church, as though breathing together in unison, works through a series of prayers and Bible readings a few times a day. Clergy and 'religious' (people in Orders) do this daily and many laypeople join in. Again, I find it interesting that many Protestants are picking up on this, too, especially Vineyard congregations.

Back to my main point: While Catholics in the pews may be unfamiliar with the Bible, the Church at large is intimately bound to the Scriptures, especially in its worship and prayer life. It would be too much of a generalization to say that while Protestants are studying the Bible, Catholics are praying it. But it wouldn't be far off.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Don't Catholics Know the Bible?

My online "Bible as Literature" class begins today and as students introduce themselves I hear a lot of this: "I was raised Catholic and, despite years of private Catholic school education, I have a limited knowledge of the Bible."

I reassure all students that it's ok to come to the course unacquainted with these ancient texts and no one should feel awkward about it. It's very common.

Still, I find it odd that this is so awfully common among 'cradle Catholics' and I wonder why this is so. I have a few thoughts about it.

First, many life-long Catholics see their Catholic ID as more of an ethnic thing rather than a personal faith thing - kinda like being Jewish but not really believing. Lacking some decisive, self-conscious moment in their lives when they made a clear commitment to belong to Christ wholly - apart from baptismal promises made on their behalf as infants - the 'religious' aspect of being Catholic is de-emphasized - except for making sure all the practices are correct. This may result from a lifelong faith education that tended to focus on traditions of behavior and practices, rather than Biblical study, theology and church history. The fervor of the convert wasn't there. This is a somewhat generalized statement, I know, and I apologize for casting such a wide net. But I find that most college-aged Catholics have been poorly 'catechized' and as a result they reject something they never really understood, and more often than not because they had it 'shoved down my throat' - a phrase I hear often. And they certainly never got any Biblical backing to what they were taught.

But leaving 'cultural' and highly secularized Catholics behind, let's consider those who take their faith more seriously. Even among these Mass-attending, rosary-praying folks, there is very little knowledge of the Bible. Part of this is a religious issue of where the 'authority' lies. For Catholics, it is found in three places:

1. The Bible (although it isn't really taught systematically). For years before Vatican II, laypeople were not encouraged to read the Bible at all, perhaps out of a concern that untrained readers might mis-interpret stuff and get odd ideas, and the Church is big on holding fast with
integrity to a passed-down body of received truths, called "the deposit of faith.' While this attitude has officially changed, there has not been a habit of Bible-reading in Catholic homes for generations, unlike devout Protestant homes.

Even so, there are 4 Scripture readings at every Mass - an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an epistle, and a Gospel reading. These are carefully chosen and beautifully interwoven according to a theme so they relate to each other. They are selected so that a congregation gets through most of the Bible in a 3-year cycle. However, despite years of exposure, most Catholics don't know the Bible. You can really tell when the readers (lectors) get up to read and stumble all over the passages as though they'd never seen them before. This is astonishing to devout Protestants, who love the Bible, know its books and writers, the historical background, the characters and storylines of narrative sections, and commit passages to memory.
2. The second source of authority is "The Magisterium" of the church, a fancy word for the official teaching that is preserved over the centuries from error. The idea is to keep the 'deposit of faith', received from Jesus and the original 12 apostles, intact and consistent. Study of "The Catechism" is held to be more important, since this is where the teaching of the Church is clarified and systematized. The new version commissioned by John Paul II is elegantly written, by the way. There are loads of great Bible refences in the footnotes. But the discussion of those passages and the ideas in them as explained in the Catechism are considered more important. This is hinted at when 'Learning the Faith' is the phrase you hear most often, not 'learning the Bible.'

3. The third leg of this 'stool' of authority is something called 'sacred Tradition,' a religious term referring to the teaching of the apostles and their official successors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as promised in John 14:26 (in particular, the successor to the See of Peter, the bishop of Rome). Protestants have a particular problem with this usually because they confuse it with the burdensome legalistic 'traditions' Jesus harshly criticized in Mark chapter 7. Catholics mean something different - as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 - and this is an unfortunate area of semantic misunderstanding.

Anyway, my point really was this: The Bible is only one of three areas where Catholics derive their understanding of what is true and good in belief and practice, whereas most Protestants (especially more conservative ones) look to the Bible ALONE as their source of spiritual
authority (well, at least their denomination's understanding of it). The Protestant 'battle cry' was 'solo Scriptura' - Scripture alone. As a result, they study it a lot more regularly as individuals and in groups and know it much better. It is the Word of God and it speaks with full and final authority (II Timothy 3:16 is quoted to support this). I don't mean to say that Catholics hold
the Bible in lower regard - they affirm II Timothy 3:16 (if they know it) and regard these texts as inspired and authoritative, too. What Catholics will add is this: remember that the Church was there - and fully authoritative - before the New Testament was put together. The New Testament derives its authority from the Church, which had the final say about which books were genuine and which were spurious. The Bible's authority, historically speaking, rests on the Church's authority. It's an excellent point. But the consequence is this: less Bible reading among Catholics, because the authority is considered to be in the Church, and not so much in the Bible (even though, officially, it is the authoritative Word of God). St. Jerome said "Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ." The Living Word is found, figuratively speaking, in the written word. I wish more Catholics followed Jerome.

Well, I hope some of that made sense. I'd like to see comments from Catholics about why there is so little familiarity with the Bible among Catholics, besides the fact that way too many of them are 'nominal' and 'cultural' Catholics and simply don't care.

One final thought: even the configuration of church design says something about this issue. Protestant churches have the lectern/pulpit front-and-center, a design change since the Reformation when the "Word of God" was declared to be the only source of authority and so it took center stage. Preaching from the Bible is the central part, often the longest part, of Protestant services. For Catholics, the pulpit is off to the side and the 'homily,' usually a lot shorter than any Protestant sermon (and rarely as good), is one brief part of the Mass. Instead, the altar is front-and-center, because that's the central emphasis of worship - experiencing the atoning sacrifice of Christ as it is 're-presented' there in sacramental elements (not
'repeated,' as too many Protestants misunderstand). So Protestants emphasize "the Word," and Catholics/Orthodox divide their worship into two equal parts, the liturgy of the Word and the sacramental liturgy of the Eucharist.

Catholics really ought to become more familiar with the Bible and I'm glad to see earnest Catholic students in my class. My tone will remain objective and academic and they are free to take away whatever religious value they want. Becoming basically "Biblically literate" is important for any educated person and that's all I'm really after.

You know, there are notable efforts to get Catholics to read and understand the Bible; Dr. Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Marcus Grodi and others have active ministries trying to get Catholics to read and study the Scriptures.

It isn't surprising that these guys are all former evangelicals.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"But is there spiritual content?"

I visited a local Lemstone/Parable book store today to say hello to the book buyer and inquire about a possible author event in late summer or fall to promote my medieval thriller/romance RELICS. She knew and trusted the publisher (Thomas Nelson Inc.) but it didn't seem to matter as much as the answer to her question: "But is there spiritual content?"

I said something about the protagonist struggling to be accepted by his father and in the process learning what it means to be accepted by the heavenly Father. And it's true. But the themes are much broader and deeper than some simple spiritual "lesson"' the reader is supposed to take away from a 320 page novel.

Isn't there "spiritual content" to any thoughtful novel? If done well, novels are about what it means to be truly human -- made in God's image, but fallen. Crime novels like RELICS (and BLEEDER, due out in August) in particular are "spiritual" in content not because they have a not-so-subtle religious message or moral or trite "Biblical basis" but because they deal with greed, fear, revenge, anger, hope, grief, suffering, justice and injustice, social tensions and sometimes redemption. They present homo extremis -- human beings at the extreme of emotions and choices. That's spiritual.

But I knew what she meant by the (innocent) question and she surely meant well. She wanted some assurance that the book was authentically "Christian fiction," inoffensive to conservative customers who come to the store with certain expectations: That it would be as 'safe' as the row of Amish-heroine romances on the shelf behind me in the store, and that it would be inspiring in a way to reinforce one's faith.

What I told the woman was true. But I hope the book is more emotionally complicated than what I told her. The old saying holds true for "Christian" writers as all others: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." A novel that tries to do so ends up as an illustrated lecture.

I just wanted to tell a heck of a story. Any 'spiritual content' as a take-away value is up to the reader.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

BLEEDER Trailer Revised

Since some images in my draft version were low-resolution and therefore fuzzy, and there were too many medical pix, I adjusted the BLEEDER video trailer yesterday and came up with this:

And this is Selena De La Cruz, a minor character in BLEEDER - a Latina insurance agent who will be the protagonist in the sequel. Yes, she's nice to look at but don't mess with her. She learned a few moves at Quantico and can kick your butt. And her car - a juiced-up '69 Dodge Charger - can kick your car's butt.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

BLEEDER chapter 1 excerpt

by John Desjarlais
Chapter One Excerpt

My Volvo’s windshield wipers slapped away spots of mid-March drizzle, chanting shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t. The traffic thinned, the road narrowed to two lanes, the sky turned gun-metal gray, and the Chicago music stations crackled away into static.
The patchwork fields of rural Illinois rolled away from the ditches in soft waves, with snow laying in stripes across the rows of cornstalk stubble, like a lathered but unshaven face. The rusted road signs became harder to read through the chilly mist. When I saw more cows than cars, I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. To err is human, to forgive bovine, I told myself, checking the cell phone. Was the signal too weak to reach any place civilized? Even if it could, I’d wait a long time for Triple-A to show up out here in the boonies if I had any trouble.
I imagined the operator saying We need a street address, sir. There isn’t one, I tell you; I’m in the middle of nowhere. What is the nearest address, sir? I’m near a barn with a faded Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco ad. Community college teachers can’t afford a new car with a global positioning system or the monthly fee to have the service on a cell phone Even I have that, sir. That’s great; maybe it can tell you where I am. Very funny, sir. The truck will still need a number.
I glanced at the torn Triple-A map, draped on the passenger seat. The blue capillaries of county roads spidered out from the state roads’ red arteries. The towns pimpled the white page like blackheads on a freshman’s face. A muscular pick-up truck hissed past, spitting into my windshield. Gun control means using both hands, snickered the bumper sticker. Distracted, I ran over a dead raccoon and the thump of it turned my stomach.
That’s when a familiar heat arose in my chest and my breastbone pressed into my heart, crushing it. The double yellow lines in the road writhed like serpents. I slipped my foot off the gas, angled the wheel, and rolled to a stop in the gravel shoulder. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out. Focus on something. That sign up ahead—the one with the big red star.
It’s not uncommon for gunshot victims, the doctor told me. Anxiety attacks can be a response to a stressful event: an act of violence, a job change, the loss of a spouse by divorce or death. Lucky me: I had all three. I was shot. I was on a Leave Of Absence from the college. And Peggy died when the leukemia came out of remission two years ago.
Breathe in, two, three. Breathe out, two, three. Wait quietly. It will pass. You are not going to get lost. You are not going to die in this lonely place.
The sky lightened. My breastbone released its grip. A pick-up with a horse trailer whooshed by and the Volvo shuddered. My heartbeat returned to a trot from a gallop. You are going to be OK. Keep going. The roadkill and that bumper sticker set you off.
Gun control means using both hands.

The sign ahead was for Red Star Gas and I decided to swallow my city pride and ask for directions. The concrete was veined with cracks and the weeds reached up from them like the hands of buried men clawing their way out. One pump, shrouded in silvery spider webs, was out of service. Discolored paint flaked off the building like scabs. A man with high Indian cheekbones and black hair spraying from a White Sox cap reached my window before I gathered the nerve to unbuckle my seat belt and get out.
“Hey, meester?” He knocked at the window with a gold ring. Tik tik. “You want fill ‘er up?”
His corn-colored teeth spread in a two-octave grin and the dark eyebrows undulated like caterpillars. I checked the gauge, nodded and popped the gas-cap lock.
While he circled to the back, I shouldered open the door and swung my cane into position. The film instructor gave it to me in the hospital and we joked that it should be called Citizen Cane. I dug the rubber tip into the cement, gripped the brass head, and rehearsed how to get out. For six weeks after the hip surgery, my physical therapist Paula taught me in the transfer training how to sit up, how not to twist or cross my leg, since the pin was screwed in, not cemented. She said I’d be OK to drive after two months, provided I kept up with the treadmill, the isokinetic leg presses with ankle weights, and the balancing exercise where I walked through the rungs of a ladder laid on the floor. I’d been good about it, all so that I could retreat to my brother Dan’s hunting cabin by mid-March and get started on the book I’d always wanted to write on Aristotle in peace and quiet. I just expected to do it during a sabbatical leave. Not like this.
The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances, Aristotle reminded me.
I levered out.
“You Chicago, eh?” the leathery attendant called.
He aimed the gas pump at me like a pistol.
“Yes,” I replied.
“All the way out here?”
“Visiting relatives.”
“Yeah, sure.” He lowered the nozzle, pumped gas and pointed at Citizen Cane. “What’s wrong with the leg, señor?”
“I was shot. In December.”
The eyebrows turned into Mexican jumping beans. “Ay, caramba,” he said with a whistle. “An accident, no?”
“A college girl with a touchy 9 millimeter in her purse. She pulled it on a rival in a hallway catfight over a boy. I broke it up and—”
When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of Peggy. Is this what it feels like to die, not in pain, really—the shock prevented that—but in wide-eyed surprise, that it should come so soon and so stupidly? Once the second shot shattered the head of my right femur where it forms step in the acetabular groove of the pelvis and I dropped to the tiles with my blood fanning across the floor, I wished Peggy could have gone like this, not by having her blood poisoned by leukemia, draining her life away.
“¿Señor? Then wha’ happen?”
“Well, I got in the way, that’s all,” I concluded.
“Anyone else hurt?”
I shrugged. “Just me. Some guys have all the luck.”
“So you are here to see the healer, eh?”
I squinted at him. “The what?”
“The healer in River Falls? You know, for the leg.”
“I’m going to River Falls,” I conceded, “But I’m not going to see any—”
“Ees ok,” the man said with a cackle. “I talk to a dozen people like you today who are lost. The only reason people from Chicago are on this road is to find him. I hope, señor, you have made your motel reservations.”
“I’m staying in my brother’s hunting cabin in Tall Pines Park.”
“That is good, very good,” the man said with a wag of his head, “for there are no rooms for twenty miles around.”


A miracle? Or bloody murder?

Coming August 2009

Sophia Institute Press
for more information, visit

Monday, June 1, 2009

RELICS trailer on YouTube

I posted a video trailer on RELICS today at YouTube. You can see it here:

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Poem for Pentecost

It seems that Pentecost is the only major Christian holiday that hasn't yet been co-opted by the secular culture and made banal by generic 'holiday' symbols and consumer customs. But - what if it were?

If Pentecost Was Commercialized

Doves dangle in shop windows.
Sale! Get in the Spirit!
Special deals on fans to blow a wind in any upper room.
Spicy dinners to give everyone a tongue of fire.
Songs with lyrics no one can quite understand
but if asked they say
“She rides a Honda in Shandala.”
Kids dressed as holy ghosts
sing Happy Birthday to god-knows-who.
And in Peter’s honor, the drinking starts at 9 a.m.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Made a :30 trailer for BLEEDER today. Watch at these locations:

A miracle? Or bloody murder?
Coming this August from Sophia Institute Press

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Deconstructing the Cathedral

Here's a link to the essay that took Honorable Mention in the 1997 Writers Digest competition and appeared in (the now defunct literary online journal) New Pantagruel.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

BLEEDER is coming August 5

My contemporary mystery, BLEEDER, is due for release during the first week of August, in time for the Catholic Marketing Network Convention and Catholic Writers Guild Conference LIVE! held concurrently in Somerset, N.J., and in plenty of time for Bouchercon, the country's biggest mystery conference coming in October.

Better yet, Sophia Institute Press says the title will go to a print run immediately and be part of their bookstore automatic shipment program, instead of being listed only at their web site for three months. That means the book will be distributed through B&T, Ingram, and Amazon right away, and available in stores from the get-go.

If you are a retailer browsing here, you'll find the following information useful:


by John Desjarlais

ISBN: 978-1-933184-56-2
Format: Paperback
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5 inches
Page Count: 257
Price: $12.95 (probably)

Sophia Institute Press Business Terms:

Our Foreign Distributors:

Our Contact Information:

Individuals can order in these ways in August:

Orders can be placed online:
by phone: 1-800-888-9344
by fax: 1-888-288-2259
by email:

and, of course, by visiting your favorite book store.

Monday, May 18, 2009

NASA Finds the Hand of God

"I am He, I am the First and the Last. Indeed, My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has stretched out the heavens."

-Isaiah 48:12,13