Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Show all posts

16 May 2017

Until a Split Infinitive Do Us Part

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eighteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Amy Marks
As we close in on the end of family fortnight at SleuthSayers, I’d like to introduce my wife Amy. Some of you may know her already. But whether you do or not, hopefully you’ll get to know her a little better here. Over the years she’s become my editor, my “Max Perkins”. I think every writer needs a Max Perkins and I’m very lucky to have her. And lucky, too, that she likes editing. We’ve had some “discussions” about some of her suggestions, but she’s a great and intuitive editor, and I go with about 75-80% of what she suggests. Our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up in June, so something must be working. And they said it wouldn’t last. —Take it away, Amy:
— Paul





I’m not a writer, but I’m married to one. Which is kind of like that old commercial, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” In fact, I’m not really much of a reader either—or wasn’t when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and I love reading. But when I was a kid I stubbornly refused to wear the glasses that had been prescribed to me from the age of six. I hated them, but without them, reading was a chore. The only time I would wear my glasses is when the lights went out in the movie theater and I would sneak them out of my purse and put them on, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I got contact lenses that I began to enjoy being able to see clearly…and read.

So how did I end up married to a writer? Well, it wasn’t because I was hanging out at literary events. It was because both of us had friends who roped us into “volunteering” to make phone calls to raise money for Unicef. They were doing an old-time, live-audience radio show on Halloween and needed volunteers to call people up and ask for donations. Phone calls, and particularly phone calls asking for money, is not something I enjoy doing… But my one good deed led to meeting Paul, so I guess it was good karma.

When I met Paul he was a screenwriter/script doctor, I’d never read a screenplay before and was curious, so I asked if I could read some stuff. Paul said I could only if I agreed to give him honest feedback and criticism. He didn’t need someone just to tell him how wonderful it was (he had his mom for that). I said, “Sure! No problem.” So I read a couple of screenplays and Paul asked me what I thought of them. And I said, “They were great. I enjoyed them!” And then he asked me why. And I said, “I don’t know, I just liked them.”

Paul "cracking the whip" in the early days.
Well, that didn’t really help and I knew I wasn’t doing him any favors if I just blindly liked everything he wrote.

It took me a while, but I started to learn how to read critically. In fact, one story Paul wrote I didn’t like at all and I told him so. He asked me why I didn’t like it. And again I said, “I don’t know.” I realized it was just as hard to define why I didn’t like something as it was to define why I did. I had to learn how to think critically and how to articulate those thoughts.

At some point I started not only reading and providing feedback, but doing actual editing on Paul’s work. While my day job is as a trust administrator for a bank, I like having this sort of alter-ego, creative side that I can change into when I get home. I love my day job, but I also like being able to stretch out and be an editor. Sometimes it’s a challenge and Paul and I don’t always agree on things. I’ve learned to speak my mind and stand up for my point of view. Sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t.

Paul and I arguing about edits.
I guess I could have not gotten involved in Paul’s writing at all. I could have said, “I’m not a writer. That’s your thing, not mine. I’ll just sit here and do my own thing while you write.” But I wanted to be involved in his work. I loved his writing. I loved his ability to create stories and characters. To turn words into experiences and feelings. I wanted to share in that experience. So we became a partnership, a team, a rock band (without all the break-ups or the replaceable drummers).

Over the years of our marriage, and as Paul transitioned from screenwriting to short stories and novels, I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I never would have had to learn or experience if I hadn’t met him. I’ve had to learn why I like something and why I don’t. Why one book is memorable and another is a bore. I had to understand my own tastes and preferences and learn how to be objective (if one can be objective). I’ve also had to learn a whole bunch of things that might not mean a lot to most people, but that to a writer are important: the difference between an en dash and an em dash. When to use a comma (well, sometimes, I still struggle with when a comma is really necessary). The three act structure. The difference between a shot and a slug line. The difference between it’s and its. What’s a character arc? What’s purple prose? What’s a plot twist? A reversal? And even the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic. And I love being able to keep learning new things.
Paul and Amy in the early years

Some people have asked me if I’ve ever wanted to write my own stuff. No way. I get my fun out of reading and editing, contributing ideas and thoughts. My creative juices flow more towards visual arts, I like to paint and draw, and problem solving and brain storming, just as I like solving real puzzles. In fact, when we were in New York just a few weeks ago when Paul won the Ellery Queen Readers Poll award, I met Peter Kanter the president of Dell Magazines/Penny Publications and told him how much I like their logic puzzles. When we got home, there was a package waiting at our P.O. Box full of Dell puzzle books and logic puzzle books in particular. How cool is that? Thank you! Yes, I’m a puzzle geek and in another life I probably would have been a mathematician or a detective.

And there are a lot of other perks. Meeting cool and interesting people, other writers and people in the publishing industry, traveling. And tons of free books all over the place. So many that we’re being “booked” out of house and home…

If I hadn't met Paul I wouldn't have met that other Paul
and had backstage passes for Paul McCartney.
And that was really cool!
I’ve read some of the other blogs from family members over the past few weeks and it’s struck me how everyone has the same challenges. I just read Art Taylor’s interview with his wife Tara Laskowski and realized we’re not alone in how time-crunched we are. And we don’t even have a five year old, but we do have two big dogs and until recently two cats! That’s like having a five year old or two… And I related to Robyn Thornton’s story about being frustrated when her husband Brian was too busy to help her put together a stool. It can be hard to put up with the demanding writing “mistress” taking up all their time.

But I also love coming home at night where Paul and I will plunk ourselves down in front of our side by side computers and dig into the writing work. We usually don’t break for dinner until around 8 or 8:30 pm. Dinner is often microwave frozen stuff—nothing that takes more than 10 minutes, maybe catch the end of a murder show on TV and try to get to bed by 10 pm. And, I have a confession to make: our house doesn’t get cleaned very often… If you meet a writer with a clean house, I would suspect writer’s block has something to do with it.

Paul and I at a Sisters in Crime Holiday Party
- photo by Andrew Pierce.
Have there been times when I’ve wondered what it would be like to not be married to a writer? What it would be like to come home and sit in front of the TV, veg out for a couple of hours, take a leisurely bath and sleep eight maybe nine hours? Yes, and to be honest, I think I could do that for a few days (it’s called vacation). Then I’d probably be bored out of my skull.

We work hard, but we have fun doing it. We get to work on stuff together, learn stuff together and sometimes (or often) make mistakes together. And we are never, never bored.


Oh, yeah, we have fun!
And then there’s that other thing that many of the other family members who’ve blogged this past few weeks have mentioned: understanding that writing is not a job, it’s not a nine-to-five vocation. You don’t turn off the lights and lock the office door at 5 o’clock. You don’t put it away for the weekend. You live and breathe it every day.

So, it’s crazy and fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love that we can work together and that we understand each other. I understand his need to write. And he understands my need to not be a writer, but to be the one figuring out where to put the commas and how to keep the machinery running smoothly.




And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.





25 April 2017

Still Crazy After All These Years

by Paul D. Marks


Daniel Sickles
Tomorrow, April 26th, is the anniversary of the first time the temporary insanity defense was used in the United States. So, since we’re all a little insane, temporary or otherwise, to be writers, I thought I’d mention it and Daniel Sickles, the first person to use that defense.

Danny Boy (October 20, 1819 – May 3, 1914) was born to a wealthy New York family and had his share of scandals in his life, most notably killing his wife’s paramour, Philip Barton Key II (April 5, 1818 – February 27, 1859), the son of Francis Scott Key, the dude who wrote the little ditty we sing before ballgames, the Star Spangled Banner.

Key and Sickles had been buds, good buds. Sickles was a Congressman and Key was the District Attorney for the District of Columbia (DC).

At Sickles’ behest, Key would often accompanied Sickles’
Teresa Bagioli Sickles
wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles (1836–1867), to various events when he couldn’t attend. Now that’s a good friend, and a trusting one on Sickles’ side. But the relationship between Key and Mrs. Sickles went from platonic to romantic…and, of course, complications ensued.

Key, who was reputed to be the best looking man in Washington, would stand across Lafayette Square from the Sickles house, waving a handkerchief to Mrs. Sickles as a signal to meet. Sickles figured out what was going and eventually confronted his wife, forcing her to write a letter of confession.

“Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home. You must die!” Sickles shouted on seeing Key waving the kerchief on February 27, 1859. Sickles pulled a pistol, shooting Key, who begged for his life. Maybe the noise of the shots caused Sickles to go temporarily deaf too because Key’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Sickles pulled another pistol and shot him in the chest.


Whether either was singing the Star Spangled Banner at the moment is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Sickles very clearly murdered Key.
Philip Barton Key II

While Sickles was detained in jail awaiting trial, he was visited by Congressional colleagues, government officials and received a letter of support from Prez James Buchanan. The public was also on his side.

Edwin M. Stanton (December 19, 1814 – December 24, 1869), future Secretary of War for Lincoln, and the rest of Sickles’ legal team came up with a brand, spankin’ new defense: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Stanton argued that his wife’s affair caused Sickles to temporarily not be in his right mind when he shot Key, thus he was temporarily insane (just long enough to do the deed of course) and, therefore, shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. (I want that lawyer!) Newspapers torched up the torrid affair in their pages. That won over most of the public. In court, Stanton argued that Teresa’s infidelity drove Sickles mad, that he wasn’t in his right mind when he shot Key. And Sickles was acquitted. And the rest, as they say, is history. Though Sickles’ history didn’t end there.

The fact that Sickles murdered someone, and that that someone was the son of a very well-known person and an important person in his own rite, doesn’t seem to have hurt his career at all. After that little detour he became a Union general in the Civil War, actually serving with distinction: He was awarded the Medal of Honor. He lost a leg in the war, which he sent to Washington to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery so he could visit it on occasion (not kidding!).

After the war he did a Wild Wild West spy mission to Colombia. He also served as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874. And he was elected to Congress more than once. And we know from his past that he was eminently qualified for the job...

Both Sickles and Teresa claimed to have forgiven one another, which provoked outrage from the public. Though in reality they were estranged from each other. She died young of tuberculosis in 1867. He later married a Spanish woman he’d met while posted in Spain after the war. They had two children.

Sickles’ final resting place is Arlington National Cemetery, so next time you’re out that way stop by and say hello. Though I’m not sure if he was buried with his amputated leg or not so you might have to make a separate trip to pay your respects to it. (Actually, it’s at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, so you will have to make a separate trip. Bummer.)
The Trial of Daniel Sickles

So next time you’re on trial, considering a plea of temp insanity, be sure to remember Sickles and Stanton in your prayers. ;-)

***

Note, while I appreciate any thoughts and comments you have, I might not be able to respond as I usually do this time. But I do appreciate them as I’m sure the others who read this will.

***



And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.


***

Anthony Nominations close soon. Which means you still have time to read my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the 12/16 Ellery Queen. And which was voted #1 in Ellery Queen’s Readers Poll for 2016. It’s available FREE on my website along with “Nature of the Beast,” published on David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp, and “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” published in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir. All from 2016 and all eligible. Click here to read them for Free.




26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.

29 January 2017

Titles & Expectations

by R.T. Lawton

In days of yore, people used words and phrases that have fallen out of usage in modern times, but words and their use were as powerful then as they are today. Change one word in a phrase or a title and the whole meaning can change.

Take for instance, the medieval era where titles let everyone know what position in life a titled person had and therefore gave expectations as to how you perceived that person and what their duties were. At the top of the hierarchy were the kings and queens. Everyone expected that the ones holding these titles would rule over the people and lands where they held dominance. Next level down were dukes, barons and others, depending upon how the king set up the organizational chart. Your next class of titles, if you will, were more of a job description than a rank, but they still gave everyone an expectation for what the person with that title did in life. These titles fell into labels such as blacksmith, huntsman, cook, scullery maid, etc. However, you add one word to the front of that title, such as head or assistant and that huntsman can move up or down in job position. The power of words and the receiver's expectations.

This brings us to story titles. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, the book became a bestseller. The author then put out two more books with titles which started with the same first two words. Next thing you know, there are lots of titles starting with The Girl... Agents, editors, publicists and yes, even authors, quickly realized the potential salability of a book with a title starting with the words The Girl... So now you have The Girl on the Train, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, The Girl With No Past, The Girl with The Lower Back Tattoo, The Girl You Lost and several others. The marketing thought here being that there would be a positive carryover from the success of Stieg Larson's novels to the expectations in potential buyers of books with similar sounding titles. And, that marketing thought seems to have some credibility. Once again, the power of and  the expectations of words.

Thus, the words you choose for your story titles should produce the type of expectations you want in potential buyers of your works, plus help convert those buyers into becoming continued readers of your future publications. A kind of gather ye fans while you may, sort of thing. Naturally, to do this, it's best if you have a title that's intriguing, gives the reader an idea of what's in the story and maybe even brands the stories (assuming they are a series) for the author.

In my case, I tried to do all three for the ten titles in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. All of these titles have either the word bond or bail in the title. In these stories, the firm's proprietor and his bail agent manage to obtain some high value collateral from dastardly criminals and then render these clients as deceased, thus making extravagant profits from their demise. The one story with the word bail in it, "The Big Bail Out," is a play on words, since it involves both bailing out a financially troubled corporation and the crooked officers of that company having a fondness for their hobby of skydiving.

"Resolutions"- 9th in Holiday Burglars
AHMM Jan/Feb 2017 issue
In the fourth of my five series in AHMM, the Holiday Burglars series, each story is connected to a caper during a holiday. In this series, I put a play on words in each title. For instance, "Click, Click, Click," the first in the series concerns Christmas. Many of you probably remember some of the words to the song Up on the Housetop. "...up on the housetop, click, click, click, down through the chimney with good Saint Nick..." Well, in this case, Beaumont and Yarnell dressed as santas have entered the back door of a residence in order to steal the cash a drug dealer temporarily conceals in Christmas packages under the tree. Unfortunately for them, the counted houses from their position in the alley instead of from the street side like their informant gave them the information, therefore they have now entered the home of a fanatical NRA member. The clicking sound the two burglars hear is not reindeer hooves on the roof, but rather the clicking noise a big handgun makes when the hammer is being cocked.

For anther title in the series, Labor Day," yep you guessed it. Beaumont, Yarnell and their protege The Thin Guy are descending in a creaky old elevator from the penthouse they just burgled while its owner was off on a Labor Day excursion. The elevator makes a few stops on its way down to take on and unload passengers. Shortly after a very pregnant lady gets on, the elevator becomes stuck between floors. The baby picks this time to enter the world. Firemen, police and news crews are soon aware of the stuck elevator and the pending birth. The only person on the elevator who is remotely qualified to assist in procedures involving anatomy is The Thin Guy who used to be employed as an assistant mortician. The words are all done in fun.

So how do you create your titles? Do you brand? And how? Do you find particular words as powerful or intriguing or more likely for potential readers to buy your story? Or, even for you as a reader to pick up a book in the store and open it to see if your interest continues beyond the title? Do words commonly seen in titles, words such as devil, blood or murder affect your thinking in titling or purchasing a book?

Chime in on your opinions, creative thoughts and branding ideas through titles.

25 December 2016

Christmas Past & Present

by R.T. Lawton


Since this is Christmas Day and many of you will be busy with friends and family, I will merely use today's blog to share some Christmas cards with you. The following are custom made Christmas cards based on some of my short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for certain years, one card a year for fifteen years. These cards are created by a friend of mine (Mike) with some great artistic talent, but then Mike can also fly a Huey over, under or around things while using a delicate touch on the stick. Each card is then mailed to Linda Landrigan in AHMM's office in Manhattan during the month of December for that year as part of my marketing plan. Hopefully, these cards will keep me in the editor's mind, remind her that she published at least one of my stories that year and then prompt her to think kindly of me when she reads my next story in her slush pile.

So, here's the artwork part of the card for this year. It's based on the escape of The Little Nogai Boy and The Armenian from the Chechen leader's mountain fortress in "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue. Santa doesn't appear in the story, just in the card to give it a seasonal flavor. Part of the mystery in the story was where the rope came from for the escape.




























This one is the artwork from last year's card featuring "Ground Hog Day" from the Holiday Burglars in AHMM May 2015 issue in which Yarnell and Beaumont tunnel into the mansion of a crime lord to steal a painting. Naturally, nothing goes the way they planned.
































Here's one from "False Keys" in my 1660's Paris Underworld series (AHMM December 2006 issue) involving a young orphan who survives as an incompetent pickpocket in a community of criminals.










And, here's "Across the Salween" (AHMM November 2013 issue), from my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia in a time of opium warlords and mule convoys with armed guards to protect them from rival warlords. The Chinese on the card is supposed to say Merry Christmas, but then I neither speak nor write Mandarin, Cantonese nor Simplified Chinese.


Well, hopefully Santa will find you and yours, wherever you happen to be during these special holidays.

In any case, regardless of your religion or personal feelings for this winter time period, I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Joyuex Noel or whatever else you choose to celebrate at this time.

Have a good one !!!

25 September 2016

There's Always Hope

by R.T. Lawton

Nine or ten years ago when I was a member of the board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America, I was in Manhattan for the annual Edgars Awards Banquet. At the time, all board members in attendance were supposed to show up at the Nominees' Champagne Reception and be wearing their name tag. The idea was to greet the nominees, engage them in small talk and make them feel comfortable before the banquet and the awards ceremony.

The Mysterious Bookshop
As I was standing in the Nominees Room with a glass of champagne in hand, an attractive, young lady walked up to me and said, "You're R.T. Lawton." I thought nothing of it because clearly, I was wearing a name tag that displayed that information on the face of the tag. She then went on to puff  my ego by telling me that she was a reader for Otto Penzler and that my stories had come close to making it into his (annual) Best American Mystery Stories anthology.That little tidbit of conversation kept me motivated for the next year with hope, and well, a lot more hope. I didn't know how close I'd come to getting a story into his anthology, but I did know none of my stories had made it into any of Otto's anthologies so far, plus I had never found my name listed in the Honorable Mention column of any of Otto's books.Verbally close, but no cigar. None the less, hope sprang anew, year after year.

In 2013, I was in lower Manhattan at The Mysterious Bookshop for a signing of The Mystery Box, MWA's anthology for that year. Since the third time's the charm, I'd finally gotten a short story into one of MWA's annual anthologies, and this was the one. Also, since Otto Penzler owns The Mysterious Bookshop where the book signing was, I got to meet the man, shake his hand and exchange a few quick words. Figured that just might be as close as I ever got to having any business dealings with the man.

Then in June of this year, an unexpected e-mail slipped out of the ether and landed on my computer. My wife read it first (she generally gets up earlier in the summer) and called it to my attention. In short, Otto had sent an e-contract and was asking permission to include "Boudin Noir," one of the stories in my 1660's Paris Underworld series in his The Big Book of Rogues and Villains anthology scheduled for publication in 2017. Several years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine had paid me $480 to publish "Boudin Noir" in their December 2009 issue, and now here was Otto sending me a check in the amount of $250 for reprint rights. That made a total of $730 for just that one story. Amazing. Call it manna from heaven, found money, secondary market, or call it what you will, it was another ego booster.

Two items of business soon came to mind. One, how could I take advantage of this type of secondary market for other stories? Since the author has very little, if any, control over this type of market, I couldn't figure an angle. If you've got one, be sure to let me know. I'll buy you a drink at the next writers conference. And two, one of these years, I still might get a short story into Otto's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology.

There's always hope.

13 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Hitch!

by B.K. Stevens


On August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was born in London. True, 117 is not generally regarded as a milestone birthday, but if I wait around until one of Hitchcock's true milestone birthdays falls on a date when I'm slated to write a SleuthSayers post--well, I'm not clever enough to figure out when that might happen, but I'm pretty sure I won't still be around when it does. So I'd better celebrate his 117th. I welcome any chance to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock. I admire his movies, I have fond memories of his television programs, and I'm a loyal, grateful Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine author. When the topic for this post first occurred to me, I checked on how many of my stories have made it into the magazine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine steps, thirty-nine stories--it felt like a sign. I had to write a post about Hitch.

But although I'm a Hitchcock fan, I'm by no means a Hitchcock expert. I don't have any insights weighty enough to develop into a unified post. So I dipped into a couple of books, looking for any thoughts or scraps of information that might be of interest. I re-watched several favorite Hitchcock movies, watched a few of the less famous ones for the first time. And I got a little help from my friends.

Alfred and Edgar

(or, why short story writers love movies) 

In a 1950 interview for the New York Times Magazine, Hitchcock explains why he sees "the chase" (which he defines broadly) as "the final expression of the motion picture medium." For one thing, as a visual medium, film is ideally suited for showing cars "careening around corners after each other." Perhaps even more important, "the basic film shape is continuous." "Once a movie starts," Hitchcock says, "it goes right on. You don't stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette."

That reminded me of a comment Edgar Allan Poe makes in an 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, when he argues that works short enough to be read in one sitting can have a more unified, more powerful effect than longer works. A poem short enough to be read in one hour, or a prose tale short enough to be read in no more than two, can have an "unblemished, because undisturbed" impact: "The soul of the reader is at the writer's control.  There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption." If a work is so long that the reader has to put it down before finishing it, though, "worldly interests" intervene to "modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book." Maybe that's one reason that short story writers (or at least the ones who hang around this blog) seem to have such an affinity for movies: The movies we watch, like the stories we write, can be enjoyed without interruption and therefore, if Hitchcock and Poe are right, with an undiminished impact.

Some of Hitchcock's most memorable movies--Rear Window, The Birds--are based on short stories, and I think they do benefit from the sort of concentrated focus Poe describes. But I wouldn't want to argue that Hitchcock movies based on plays or novels are less focused, not if writers and director have done a good job of adapting them to their new medium.

Just the other night, I re-watched one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock movies, 1954's Dial M for Murder, and enjoyed it just as much as I always have. With these thoughts in mind, though, I noticed that Dial M for Murder has an intermission (perhaps partly because it's based on a play, and plays traditionally have intermissions). Lots of movies used to have intermissions, too, but I can't remember the last time I went to a new movie that does. I doubt that's because movies have gotten shorter--plenty still last two hours or more--or because theaters are now less eager to have a second chance to sell popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it's because movie makers have become more and more convinced that, as Hitchcock puts it, "the basic film shape is continuous." Maybe they've decided an intermission breaks the mood, interrupts the suspense, and dilutes the movie's effect. But I'm just guessing. If anyone has inside information about why movie intermissions are less popular than they used to be, I'd be glad to hear it. (I should mention a relevant SleuthSayers post here--Leigh Lundin's 2015 "Long Shots," which comments on Hitchcock's use of the continuous tracking shot in Rope.)

Columbo's Uncle? 

Speaking of Dial M for Murder, when my husband and I were watching the final scenes, he commented that Chief Inspector Hubbard reminded him of Columbo--the determined police detective who gets a strong hunch about who the murderer is and won't give up until he confirms it. Like Columbo, Hubbard pretends to be sympathetic and self-effacing while setting up a clever trap to catch an arrogant, socially superior villain. And he wears a raincoat (which makes more sense in London than it does in Los Angeles). The thing that really caught my husband's attention, though, was that at one point Hubbard says, "Just one other thing" as he questions the person he rightly suspects to be guilty. That made the similarities too striking to ignore. True, Hubbard is more elegant and fastidious than Columbo. It's hard to imagine Columbo whipping out a tiny comb to smooth his mustache. (For that matter, it's hard to imagine Columbo with a mustache.) But did this supporting character from a 1954 Hitchcock movie inspire one of America's most beloved television detectives?

I have no idea. I wasted a couple of delightful hours Googling about and found many intriguing hints but no definite link (an inside joke for Columbo fans). The information I did find wasn't completely consistent--one site says one thing, another says something slightly different--but apparently the Columbo character first showed up in a 1960 short story written by Richard Levinson and William Link and published in--where else?--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character next appeared on the television program Chevy Mystery Show, in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope." Levinson and Link later reworked that into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which eventually became the pilot for the Columbo series. The titles recall Hitchcock titles, and the plot and form of Prescription: Murder bear significant similarities to the plot and form of Dial M for Murder. A suave, nearly emotionless husband schemes to get rid of his wife and get his hands on her money; he underestimates the police detective assigned to the case; the audience knows from the outset that the husband is guilty. Maybe all that is coincidence. Or maybe not. Here's something that's almost certainly coincidence, but I find it charming: John Williams, who played Chief Inspector Hubbard both on stage and in the Hitchcock movie, is featured in the 1972 Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind," playing murder victim Sir Roger Haversham.

Alfred and Edgar, Part 2

(or, not taking suspense too seriously)

In a 1960 article called "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark," Hitchcock comments on ways in which he and Poe are similar, and also on ways in which they're different. Hitchcock was sixteen, he says, when he read a biography of Poe "at random" and was moved by the sadness of his life: "I felt an immense pity for him because, in spite of his talent, he had always been unhappy." Later, when Hitchcock was working in an office, he'd hurry back to his room to read a cheap edition of Poe's stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" got him thoroughly scared, he says, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience led him to an important discovery: "Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." A "gruesome story" can be terrifying, but "as one finds oneself in a familiar surrounding, and when one realizes that it's only imagination which is responsible for the fear, one is invaded by an extraordinary happiness." Hitchcock compares the sensation to the relief we feel when we're very thirsty and then take a drink. It's an interesting idea. When we scream through the shower scene in Psycho, is it the fear itself we enjoy? Or do we enjoy the relief we feel when we stop screaming, look around, and realize we're still in a dark but safe theater (or, these days, when we realize we're still in our well-lit family rooms, with our cats dozing in our laps)?

Hitchcock acknowledges a kinship with Poe. "We are both," he says, "prisoners of a genre: suspense." Further, "I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe puts in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." Even so, he says, 
I don't think that there exists a real resemblance between Edgar Allan Poe and myself. Poe is a poete maudit and I am a commercial filmmaker. He liked to make people shiver. Me too. But he didn't really have a sense of humor. And for me, "suspense" doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.
You probably already know what poete maudit means. Despite five years of high-school and college French, I had to look it up. According to the Merriam Webster website, a poete maudit is an "accursed poet," a "writer dogged by misfortune and lack of recognition."

I find these comments fascinating. I don't know enough about either Hitchcock or Poe to speak with any authority--I don't know how honest Hitchcock is being, or how accurate his views of Poe may be--but he seems to present himself as a happy, successful artist who has won the sort of recognition that eluded Poe. He creates terrifying movies but stands at a distance from them, well balanced enough to realize the stories he tells are "perfectly unbelievable." Does Hitchcock imply that Poe lacked such balance, that the nightmares he created reflect his own experience of life? Perhaps. At any rate, Hitchcock presents himself as someone who makes scary movies because he enjoys making people "shiver," not because he shares the sorts of torments he depicts. So no matter how horrifying the visions on the screen become, he can see the humor in the situation.

Many would challenge the idea that Hitchcock was happy and well balanced. His sense of humor seems hard to deny. In a 1963 Redbook interview, Hitchcock comments, "In producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humor." And in the New York Times Magazine interview mentioned earlier, he says comic relief can be effective even during a chase, as long as the humor isn't too broad and doesn't make the hero look foolish. We probably all have favorite examples of comic relief in Hitchcock movies, of moments when we laugh out loud even while cringing in fear. For example, there's the climax of Strangers on a Train. (If you haven't seen the movie, please skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next paragraph, too. Then please go see the movie.) Hitchcock cuts from one frightening image to another as hero and villain grapple, as people on the carousel scream, as an old man crawls slowly toward the off switch, in danger of being crushed at any moment. It's terrifying.

But it's funny, too. The old man looks like a comic figure, not a tragic one--he's chewing on something as he inches forward, and at one point he pauses to wipe his nose. And amid all the screaming, scrambling people on the carousel, one little boy sits up straight on his horse, smiling broadly, clearly having the time of his life. Maybe he's unaware of the danger. Or maybe he's enjoying it.

That brings us to "The Enjoyment of Fear," an article Hitchcock published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (Remember when women's magazines used to include some articles with real substance?) It echoes some ideas I've already mentioned, but I can't resist the temptation to quote a passage that, I think, gives us an additional insight into Hitchcock's technique, and into the nature of literary suspense. He says again that viewers can enjoy the fear of watching a frightening movie because they know they're safe--they're not on that madly careening carousel in Strangers on a Train. Then he takes things one step further:
But the audience must also be aware that the characters in the picture, with whom they strongly identify themselves, are not to pay the price of fear. This awareness must be entirely subconscious; the spectator must know the spy ring will never succeed in pitching Madeleine Carroll off London Bridge, and the spectator must be induced to forget what he knows. If he didn't know, he would be genuinely worried; if he didn't forget, he would be bored.
Over the years, I've gotten addicted to several television dramas that kill off secondary characters at a sometimes alarming rate. Whatever dangers they may face, we know Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Carrie Mathison will survive more or less intact, at least until they reach the final show of the final season. Even then, if there's any chance of a follow-up movie or a reunion show, we know the protagonist is safe. But we also know their friends, co-workers, and lovers are fair game at any moment. That's one way to keep the audience in suspense. Hitchcock describes a more delicate approach: Deep down, we know the protagonist is safe, but the suspense reaches such a height that we forget. That sounds almost impossible, but I think it happens. Think of a moment when a Hitchcock protagonist seems to be in mortal danger. Don't we forget, just for a moment, that Hitchcock wouldn't really kill Jimmy Stewart?

And then, of course, there's the shower scene in Psycho. (If you haven't seen Psycho--but everybody's seen Psycho.) Doesn't that violate the trust between director and audience, the trust that allows us to enjoy being scared? Maybe--maybe that's why many would say Psycho crosses the line between suspense and horror. But I think Hitchcock tries to make sure we don't "strongly identify" with Janet Leigh's character. After all, she's a thief. And the first time we see her, she's in bed with a lover--that might not alienate many viewers today, but I bet it alienated plenty in 1960. Also, before we have time to get deeply attached to her, she's gone. Her violent death shocks us, but I'm not sure it saddens us all that much. If Cary Grant plummeted to the base of Mount Rushmore, I think we'd be more upset.

Last Thoughts

As I said, when I started work on this post, I decided to get a little help from my friends. A birthday tribute should include some sort of biographical perspective, but I didn't feel up to doing the necessary research myself. So I turned to a promising young scholar, Shlomo Mordechai Gershone (a.k.a. my ten-year-old grandson, Moty). He contributed these insights:
I read Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? and learned a lot. Alfred Hitchcock was a very interesting person. He was big, loud, and funny, but also wrote things that were full of suspense and mystery. He told stories about being locked in a jail cell at the age of five. He would say that five minutes felt like five years to the young Hitch. That suspense was expressed in his movies, his television shows, and the stories in his magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (Where have I heard that before?) He spent his whole life talking and writing about mystery, but passed away peacefully in his sleep. (Anticlimax)
An ability to say a great deal in a short space, a sense of humor, a critical perspective--maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think this young man has a future as a writer.

Also, I thought it would be fun to do a quick survey of my Facebook friends (mostly mystery readers and writers), asking them to name their favorite Hitchcock movies. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this survey, but perhaps it points to at least some of the Hitchcock movies that are standing the test of time.

Rear Window topped the survey with nine votes. Shawn Reilly Simmons saw it when she was quite young and still remembers "jumping out of my seat at the suspense." (Many other people put Rear Window second or third on their lists, but I decided to count only the first movie each person mentioned.) Vertigo came in second with five votes. Art Taylor admires it for many reasons, "but really what may fascinate me most is the fact that so much of it is told purely through images." Rob Lopresti is also enthusiastic, saying the movie has a "ridiculous plot that I believe completely when I am watching." (That reminded me of Hitchcock's statement that he tells "perfectly unbelievable" stories with such strong "hallucinatory logic" that viewers think "this same story can happen to [them] tomorrow." I think Hitch would love Rob's comment.) Three movies tied for third place, with four votes each--Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Birds. (Diane Vallere, the next president of Sisters in Crime, made Rear Window her top choice but loves The Birds so much she once created a Halloween costume inspired by it.) Several other movies scored one or two votes--Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, Foreign Correspondent. So even in this tiny sample, there's plenty of disagreement. In my opinion, that points to the vitality and breadth of Hitchcock's achievement: He created many masterpieces that, decades after his death, still have passionate advocates.

Finally, I'll add a couple of personal notes. As I said, thirty-nine of my stories have been fortunate enough to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. One of them, "A Joy Forever," is a Macavity finalist this year. If you'll be voting on the Macavity awards, and even if you won't, perhaps you'd like to read the story. You can find it on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/a-joy-forever/.

And two nights ago, when I took a break from working on this post and checked my e-mail, I learned that AHMM has accepted a fortieth story, "Death under Construction." I've been watching my e-mail for some time, hoping for this news. Thank goodness the suspense has ended.

(I won't be able to respond to comments on Saturday, 
but I'll respond to every comment on Sunday. I promise.)

31 July 2016

History behind the Story

by R.T. Lawton

(NOTE: this blog article is a re-post originally written for AHMM and posted at Trace Evidence on 07/12/2016.)


Out of history comes a story: "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:


Imam Shamyl
For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossaks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen's saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details..

Murid followers
Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion of the Caucusus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of the hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It's now time to invoke the writer's famous What if...clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

     The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells "The Great Aul" story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So let's get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian's return.

It's a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things can happen to the Armenian along the route and the boy doesn't know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market and making his own plans for escape just in case things don't work out according to the plans of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that's all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam's son is returned, you'll have to read the story yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. It allegedly made the editor cry.



29 May 2016

One-Oh-One & Counting

by R.T. Lawton

Hi. I took a few months off from blogging at SleuthSayers on Fortnight Fridays in order to work a term as chief judge for the 2016 Edgars Award in the Best Novel category for those hardcover mysteries published in 2015. Turns out, reading 509 books in a nine and a half month period, plus all those admin duties, writing my own stuff, taking care of two young grandsons and finding that my warranty was expiring at a faster rate than I cared for, wore me down. Appears I'm not as bulletproof as I used to be.

My 31st story in AHMM is in this issue
For those of you who joined the SleuthSayer family in my absence, I'll bring you up to speed with a short bio. I'm a retired federal agent, Vietnam vet '67-'68 (man, was that a long time ago), served three years on the Mystery Writers of America national Board of Directors and I primarily write short stories. The latter of which brings us to today's topic. And yes, you should probably consider this as having a couple moments of BSP.

For a writer just starting out, the first acceptance, check and publication is electrifying to that writer's ego, which contributes to their desire to write more. In the time that follows, each and every additional acceptance, check and publication is greatly valued and quickly becomes a statistic to be carefully recorded in said writer's bibliography. In my case, the first was a $250 biker story to Easyriders magazine and was submitted under a double alias. As federal agents, we weren't allowed to have outside employment of any kind, so the story byline was a street nickname from the bike gangs and the check came in one of my undercover aliases for which I had a driver's license. It went from there.

Obviously, a short story author with any proficiency can stack up stats faster than most novelists, mainly due to the difference in word count required for each of the two categories. Which also means a short story author can submit a new manuscript more often and has less time involved in each writing project than does the author of a novel. I always thought my bent to create short stories was based in some aspect of short attention span tendencies, but now as I write this, I also suspect a desire for more instant gratification for my writing labors. Unfortunately, one does not get rich writing short stories.

As the years rolled by and I updated my bio as a panelist for various writers conferences, I always had to increase the numbers for those short stories of mine that had been published in the past. Sometimes, the increase in numbers merely crept along and other times they took nice jumps. Of course, if I turned out as much writing material as our fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd, I would have entertained the notion of acquiring some of those little, yellow minions to keep track of my submissions, acceptances, publication dates and to run all those Woman's World magazine $500 checks to the bank. (John, did the bank ever give you a free toaster for depositing that bucket load of checks?)

French church with St. Leonard's remains
Anyway, in the middle of April 2016, I received an e-contract from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for "The Left Hand of Leonard." In case you're wondering about the title, the story concerns the remains of St. Leonard in a time when holy relics were bartered, sold and even stolen. It is the 6th story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving a young orphan, incompetent pickpocket, and is my 34th story to be sold to AHMM. You probably won't see it in print for another year. It is also my 100th short story to be accepted for publication. Okay, that's the BSP.

So now that I've reached this numerical peak, the problem is how do I keep score for the future in my bios after one more sale occurs? I assume that the acceptable method for that point is "over one hundred short stories." But, at what point do the numbers change after that? Increasing by single digits would be tiresome after a while. The same with increasing the amount by tens. Surely, "over 150 short stories" would be acceptable when and if  the time comes. However, I don't know that I could live long enough to wait for "over two hundred short stories." If anyone knows the proper etiquette for this type of situation, please let me know. Other than that, it's good to be back in the family.

NOTE: After I wrote the above blog, I got an e-mail on May 8th from Greg Herren, the editor for the 2016 Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou. That meant I had to change the blog title. Seems my story, "Hell Hath No Fury," has been accepted for their anthology. There is no pay, all benefits go to support the New Orleans public library, but that acceptance does go toward my 101st publishing credit, so it's a win-win situation and I'm happy.

See you again in a month.

14 May 2016

Size Matters

by B.K. Stevens

I don't remember exactly when I wrote the first draft of One Shot. All I know for sure is that it was before Prince Charles and Princess Diana got divorced.

Back then, I'd already published several stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, including one introducing police lieutenant Dan Ledger: "An Ounce of Prevention," published in --good grief!--1989. One Shot (then titled "Fatal Distraction") was supposed to be the follow-up. But the draft ran several thousand words too long.

At first, that didn't worry me. Every Hitchcock story I've written, before or since, started out too long, Cutting's part of the process. I'd come to enjoy watching stories snap into shape as they got tighter.

But this story, I realized, needed expanding, not cutting. Characters begged for more development. And Ledger never found the murder weapon. In real life, true, the police often don't find murder weapons. In this story, though, since the victim's a prominent gun-control advocate, the gun that kills her has ironic significance. Leaving it unfound felt sloppy.

Maybe, I thought, this story's really a novel. I changed the title to First Things, developed characters further, decided where to hide the gun and how Ledger finds it. The plot felt solid, but the book hadn't reached novel length. I added subplots and sent it out.

It came close. Several agents requested the full manuscript before rejecting it with regrets. It reached the final round of a contest that would have led to publication. But it never quite made it.

Discouraged, I put it aside. I created other characters for Hitchcock but didn't write about Ledger again. The second part of his story hadn't been told. Skipping ahead felt wrong.

The television script came next. Years later, while watching Columbo, I had the crazy thought that my story might work as an episode. I'd have to make huge changes--reshaping a whodunit into a how-will-he-solve-it, replacing Lieutenant Ledger with Lieutenant Columbo--but in other ways, the story seemed right for the series. So I wrote the best query letter of my life and mailed it directly to Peter Falk, asking him if he'd read a script. Incredibly, he wrote back personally. Even more incredibly, he said yes. I bought a book on screenplay format and got to work. The subplots felt tacked on now. I dropped them and mailed the script.

But I knew I hadn't really transformed Ledger into Columbo. My detective now ate chili, said "one more thing," and had a sad-eyed basset hound waiting patiently in his car. Unfortunately, I liked Ledger too much to change him in more fundamental ways. When the gentle rejection came--from Mr. Falk's assistant this time--I wasn't surprised.

More years passed. I started reading about online publishing but felt skeptical. How can something be published unless it's printed on paper? Then I read that online sales sometimes rival print sales, and that one online publisher, Untreed Reads, was looking for mystery novellas.

I searched the garage, found the box of Ledger manuscripts, and started revising--again. With all the manuscripts stacked on my printer, I went from one to another, culling the best from each, combining, cutting. Scenes I liked had to go. Undoubtedly, though, the pace improved. Switching from third-person to first-person made Ledger's voice stronger and emphasized the humor. Also, writing the novel had helped me get to know my characters. I could bring their personalities out in fewer words. And I changed the title to One Shot. Obviously, it was the perfect title, the only possible title--why hadn't I realized that before?

I made other changes, too. In the novel, a reporter declares she wants to cover the big stories– "Rain forests! Charles and Di! AIDS!" Oops. Now, she yearns to cover "Global warming! Brad and Angie! Terrorism!" (By now, "Brad and Angie" sounds dated, too.)

I'd thought I'd finish the novella in weeks. It took months. Frustrated, I told my husband, "If the damn thing doesn't get published this time, I'll damn well rewrite it as a limerick."

But Untreed Reads did publish it. After waiting over two decades, Dan Ledger made his second appearance in 2011. One Shot hasn't exactly been a best seller, but it's still out there, somebody buys a copy every so often, and the people who read it seem to enjoy it.

Ironically enough, after the first few years, Untreed Reads decided to reclassify it as a short story and lower the price. So you could say One Shot ended up where it started out, except that this version of the short story is a lot longer than the original one--and, I think, a lot better, too.

Lately, I've been thinking about writing another mystery for Dan Ledger. Will it be a short story, a novel, a television script, a novella? Not a television script--one attempt at that was enough to convince me it's not my strength. Other than that, I'm not sure. I just hope I don't have to rewrite it half a dozen times to figure out how long it should be.

By the way, I did write that limerick, just in case. It begins "The victim was shot in the chest" and ends with "Now in prison the killer must rest." I won't reveal the middle lines--they'd give away the plot. But if a market for mystery limericks ever develops, I'm ready.



We regret to inform readers of the following: While foiling a daring plot masterminded by the notorious Coke brothers, Bonnie suffered injuries. The NSA remains mum but Al-Jazeera reports she prevented the petro-chemical conglomerates from cornering the global market of caffeine. Unfortunately when ejecting from her F-22 Raptor, Bonnie broke her right arm, although USA Today notes she can shoot effectively with either hand.

Or something like that. As I said, the NSA isn't talking and Bonnie's unable to type at the moment, having undergone surgery. We SleuthSayers wish Bonnie well during her recovery, and hope to see her in two weeks, in time for the clandestine medal-pinning ceremony.

— Editor

09 April 2016

Short Takes: The 2016 Nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha

by B.K. Stevens

"Being short does not mean being slight," Flannery O'Connor maintains in "Writing Short Stories." "A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience in meaning." I think all the nominees for this year's Best Short Story Agatha would agree. The nominated stories include whodunits, suspense stories, and character studies. They include contemporary stories and historical mysteries, serious stories and humorous ones, realistic stories and stories laced with fantasy or whimsy. But all the nominated stories, I think, are long in depth, offering readers a variety of experiences in meaning.

All the authors of the nominated stories have contributed to this post. Each picked an excerpt from her story and commented on it briefly. I hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories and also hope you'll decide to visit the Malice Domestic website to read the stories in full. And if you're going to Malice, I look forward to seeing you there.

 


"A Year without Santa Claus?" by Barb Goffman
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2015

Here's the passage:

"Look at this email from Santa."

"First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger," Stan read aloud. He turned to me. "Doppelganger? Who's he trying to impress with his fancy language?" 

Stan had never been a big fan of Santa's. Something about not getting a certain potato gun he'd wanted as a kid. I sighed loudly and tapped the tablet. "Read."

"Okay, okay." He looked back down. "First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger. Then my look-alike was run down. And now someone's offed an Easter Bunny impersonator. Shot him between the ears. New Jersey's too dangerous for me this year. Sorry, Annabelle. Maybe next Christmas. Love, Santa." Stan's eyes returned to mine. "Uh oh."

Uh oh indeed. I shook my head. This was a catastrophe. Santa couldn't skip out on our kids.
It's two weeks till Christmas, and Santa has just notified Annabelle, the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey, that he's not coming there this year. A murderer is on the loose--it's not safe, he says. Annabelle can't let the poor kids suffer, so she sets out to catch the murderer. But even with her magical powers, Annabelle can't just conjure up whodunit. So she sets off to investigate the old-fashioned way, asking questions and taking names. But will it be enough? Can Christmas be saved?

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Goffman_Year.pdf


  



"A Questionable Death," by Edith Maxwell
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

In the following passage from "A Questionable Death," 1888 Quaker midwife Rose Carroll has brought a pregnant client of hers to see David Dodge, a physician at the new hospital in the neighboring town. Rose's client, Helen, has been showing symptoms of illness not related to her pregnancy.

"I'll need a small lock of your hair," David told Helen when he was finished examining her.

It had taken us twenty minutes to find a hack, we had to wait a bit to see David, and he had taken care with his examination, so it was now getting on for five o'clock.

"Why?" Helen asked, taken aback.

"Just to aid in assessing your health," David said, slipping me a look behind Helen's back. He handed her a small pair of scissors.

Helen shrugged, but handed the scissors to me. I clipped off a small bit from near her neckline and handed the deep brown lock to David, along with the scissors.

"Thank you for coming in," he said. "I'll have an answer for you within a day's time. And Rose, thanks for bringing her. I'll summon my carriage and driver to take you both back to Amesbury."

"That's very kind of thee," I said.

"I'll need to use the outhouse before we leave." Helen blushed a little.

"Oh, we have the new chain-pull toilets," David said with a note of pride in his voice. "The lavatory is just down the hall to the right. It's labeled Ladies." He pointed the way.

After the door closed behind Helen, I gave him a quizzical glance.

"My teacher in medical school would call it gastric fever." He gazed at me. "I suspect poison."

"Poison?" I whispered, moving to his side.

"Arsenic. I'll tell you for certain after I've analyzed the hair." His brows knit, and he went on, "Don't let on to her. Yet." 

This short scene comes about a third of the way through the story. It reflects the rapid changes in the late 1880s--the new chain-pull toilets in the hospital, the technology to analyze arsenic from a clipping of hair--contrasted with the horse-drawn carriages and Rose's Quaker way of speaking. It also gives the reader a likely cause for Helen's symptoms, which Rose will continue to investigate, and shows that she and David have a relationship as medical professionals in addition to their romantic one.

To read the story: https://edithmaxwell.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/questionabledeath.pdf 





"A Killing at the Beausoleil," by Terrie Farley Moran
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2015

My Agatha-nominated story, "A Killing at the Beausoleil,"is a prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat  cozy mystery novels, including the Agatha Award winning Well Read, Then Dead, as well as Caught Read-Handed and the soon-to-be-released Read to Death.

In this excerpt we meet Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield on their first day in Fort Myers Beach. The building manager of the Beausoleil is showing them their new rental apartment.

Bridgy leaned in. "Sassy, what a gorgeous place to start our new lives."

Pleased with her comment, K. Dooney went for super-wow. He tugged on one cord of a wall's worth of creamy vertical blinds, and, like a well-trained platoon, they made a snappy left turn. Florida sunshine streamed in between the slats and danced all around the room. I fell into an instant fantasy of sipping my morning coffee while sitting on the terrace, drenched in sunlight. Mr. Dooney yanked another cord, and the slats marched in unison, half column left, half column right.

Below us, great white birds with wingspans measured in feet, rather than inches, circled lazily around fishing boat bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico. The horizon pushed on forever.

A view that might seem nice enough standing on the beach appeared majestic from the fourth-floor window. I let out a deep sigh of contentment.

Usually the bouncy one, Bridgy was more restrained. She tapped K. Dooney on the arm. "Who is that man sleeping on our terrace?"

In Well Read, Then Dead Sassy mentions that she and Bridgy moved to Fort Myers Beach three years ago. A number of readers contacted me because they were wondering how Sassy and Bridgy settled into their life on Fort Myers Beach. So at the urging of the readers, I decided to write this prequel short story, which was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

This particular scene comes early in the story. It is a favorite of mine because it gives the reader a glimpse of the vibrant south Florida setting while indicating trouble to come in the person of the "sleeping" man.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Moran_Beausoleil.pdf




 "Suffer the Poor," by Harriette Sackler
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

Anne Heatherton, my story's protagonist, tours London's East End with a group of philanthropic women of means. The conditions that exist here in the 1890s appall the ladies. The group's leader expresses her view of how they should proceed.

"Well, ladies," Mrs. Pinckney, the group leader, announced, "we have a great deal to think about. But I am truly confident that we can make a difference. I believe it is our moral duty to share the blessings of our fortunate circumstances with others. But certainly not to be patronizing or morally superior. Don't you agree?"

The women nodded emphatically and whispered to each other as they moved toward the outskirts of the East End.
 This passage illustrates the dilemma of offering assistance to people who suffer from abysmal poverty and yet seek to maintain their pride and independence.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Sackler_SUFFER_THE_POOR.pdf

"A Joy Forever," by B. K. Stevens
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March 2015


In "A Joy Forever," narrator Chris, an aspiring photographer, travels to Boston hoping to take a picture that captures "the spirit of New England." To save money, Chris stays with his crude, domineering uncle, Mike Mallinger. After a miserable day of failing to find a good subject for the photograph, Chris returns to the house, where Mike's second wife, Gwen, is working on an embroidery project. Gwen seems to be meek and submissive, seems to have surrendered utterly to Mike's bullying and abuse. She sympathizes with Chris's artistic frustrations and recommends patience, because "sometimes, you can't make good things happen right away." Here, Chris responds.

"You're sure patient." I walked over to look at her tapestry. "That's lovely, Aunt Gwen. Did you design it yourself? Are you going to fill in all that space with those tiny flowers? That takes more patience than I'll ever have."

The design consisted of a mass of flowers--not arranged in a landscape or vase, not forming a pattern in any usual sense, but a joyous profusion ordered by a harmony I could feel but not define. The colors were dazzling, the variety of flowers amazing. No two were exactly alike, and some, I was sure, bloomed only in her imagination, never in any garden. And each flower was composed of dozens of tiny stitches. Each must have taken hours to create.

She blushed--a proud, vibrant blush this time. "I'm glad you like it. I've been working on it for a long time. A long, long time. I take it out whenever I have a spare minute. So I can't do much at a time. But I work on it every day." Her smile hardened. "Every single day. I'll never give up, not till I finish. And when it's done--why, when it's done, it's going to be wonderful."
I hope this passage hints that Gwen may be keeping secrets, that she may be neither as helpless nor as harmless as she seems. I hope readers will sense that everything Gwen says may have a double meaning. She's talking about her tapestry, yes, but is she also talking about some other project she's been working on "every single day" for "a long, long time," some other project she'll "never give up"? Whatever that project is, "when it's done, it's going to be wonderful"--it's going to be a joy forever. This passage also continues the flower imagery I've tried to develop since the story's first paragraph, the imagery that represents Gwen's independence and suppressed creativity. And it juxtaposes, for the first time, Gwen's tapestry and Chris's photograph--two artistic projects that will come together again when the story ends.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf

The Authors

Barb Goffman has won the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for her short crime fiction. She's been a finalist seventeen times for national crime-writing awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. Her award-winning story collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, includes seven of her nominated stories. She has two new stories scheduled to be published later this month. "Stepmonster" will appear in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (on sale 4/26), and "The Best-Laid Plans" will appear in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (on sale 4/28). Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service focusing on crime fiction. http://www.barbgoffman.com/

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Food Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her "A Questionable Death" is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from Delivering the Truth, which releases on April 8. Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors, and you can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her website, edithmaxwell.com.

Terrie Farley Moran is the best-selling author of the Read 'Em and Eat cozy mysteries series. Well Read, Then Dead, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel 2014, was followed by Caught Read-Handed in 2015. Read to Death will be released in July 2016. Terrie's short mystery fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and numerous anthologies. Her short story "A Killing at the Beausoleil," prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat novels, has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. She also co-writes Laura Child's Scrapbooking Mystery series. Together they have written Parchment and Old Lace (October 2015) and Crepe Factor (October 2016). website: www.terriefarleymoran.com

Harriette Sackler serves as Grants Chair of the Malice Domestic Board of Directors. She is a multi-published short story writer. Her latest story, "Suffer the Poor," appears in History and Mystery, Oh My! and has been nominated for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. She is a member of Dames of Detection and is co-owner, co-publisher, and co-editor at Level Best Books. Her nonfiction book about House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary will be published in 2017. Harriette lives in the D.C. suburbs with her husband and their two dogs. website: www.harriettesackler.com

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Some of those stories are included in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a collection being published by Wildside Press. B.K. has won half a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. This year, both Fighting Chance and "A Joy Forever" are nominated for Agathas. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, and four perfect grandchildren. www.bkstevensmysteries.com