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

06 June 2017

New York, New York

by Paul D. Marks

First up, let me congratulate O’Neil De Noux on his Shamus nom. Good luck!

***

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. Or is it the other way around? Amy (the wife) and I recently spent a week in New York City and I’m still not sure.  (Well, I am, but it plays better the other way.) And now the legally required disclaimer: I wrote about this trip for another blog a few weeks ago as my last slot for SleuthSayers was the family blog post that Amy did. So I didn’t have a chance to talk about our trip here. But it was writing-related and so great and so much fun I wanted to share a slightly revised version with SleuthSayers too.

Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building
The trip came up very unexpectedly when I got an e-mail from Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, telling me that my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill had won the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll and inviting us to come to the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards ceremony, as well as to be their guests at the Edgar Awards. I think I was in disbelief for several days, so we made no plans to head to New York…until the wonderful reality actually sunk in and we headed off to The Big Apple from The Big Sour, I mean, Big Orange.

We booked out on Jet Blue because we heard about their great on-time record. We got lucky—they were late both coming and going. I guess someone has to be the exception to the rule.

The week was a whirlwind of adventures and some sightseeing, much of it filled up with literary events. We arrived Monday night and since the hotel is next door to Grand Central Terminal we decided to check it out and have dinner at the famous Oyster Bar. Talk about a cool place. Then we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel late into the night.

On Tuesday we went to the Ellery Queen offices for tea with Janet and Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Jackie Sherbow, senior assistant editor for both EQMM and AHMM. Also there were Doug Allyn and his wife, Eve. Doug’s stories came in #2 and 3 in this year’s poll. But he’s been #1 11 times. I think it will be a long time before anyone can top that!

From L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Doug Allyn, Linda Landrigan,
Janet Hutchings, Me
Everyone was very gracious. And it was good to talk with Janet again and Linda, who I’d met briefly before. And to meet Jackie for the first time in person, but who I’ve had a lot of correspondence with.
Me and Jackie Sherbow.
After the afternoon tea, Jackie very graciously offered to be our guide on the subway, something I really wanted to do. So we subwayed to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop for a gathering of Edgar nominees, authors, publishers and more (I think we fell into the “more” category, though now that I think about it I guess I’m an author too). It was crowded, it was fun. It was great to see the famous bookstore. And to meet Otto Penzler himself. And to see some people I know, including Edgar nominee Jim Ziskin and many others. And Doug Allyn was kind enough to introduce me to several people.


In the subway: L to R: me, Eve Allyn,
Doug Allyn and Amy
After the party at the Mysterious Bookshop, Jackie was once again our subway guide, taking us to a real New York pizza place that she likes. So she, Doug and Eve, and Amy and I, braved the rain to get to the subway and then the pizza place. And in a scene that could have been out of a Woody Allen movie, we stepped just inside a local market to get out of the rain for a few minutes. I was waiting for the “nasty” New Yorkers to kick us out, but nobody was nasty and nobody kicked us out. Eve grabbed some plastic bags from the produce section to cover our heads and we ventured back out into the rain. We still got soaked by the time we made it to the pizza place. But the pizza was good and it was all worth it. After dinner, Jackie headed home. Doug and Eve, Amy and I took a cab back to the hotel. And this was the one loquacious cabby we had the whole time we were in New York and he was a riot. When we were just about at the hotel he nudged through a crosswalk and some guy in the walk started yelling at him, challenging him to a fight. Now we felt like we were in New York.

Jackie guiding us through the subway.
Wednesday we had a free day, so we played tourists (which we were). Lots of other tourists all around us. We did a tour of Grand Central Terminal, which was right next to the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we were staying and where the Edgars would be held the following evening. (On the other side of the hotel was the Chrysler Building, which we had a view of from our window. Now that’s pretty cool to be sandwiched between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central. During our tour we had another “New York” experience when some jerk called the tour guide a “dirty scumbag” and neither she nor any of us on the tour could figure out why or what she’d done. But despite that, most everyone was really friendly and nice and we had no problems with anyone.

Grand Central Terminal
After our tour of Grand Central we followed Clint Eastwood’s “Speed Zoo” example from the movie True Crime, where he jams his kid through the zoo at the speed of sound, and did “Speed New York.” We bought tickets for the hop on-hop off buses—buses where you can get on at one location and off at the next, hang out, then get back on and go to the next location. This way we saw a lot of the city in one day. Everything from the Empire State Building to the Flat Iron and various neighborhoods. We also hopped onto the Staten Island Ferry. From there we could see the Statue of Liberty. We ended the day in Rockefeller Center and then Times Square and dinner in a pretty good Italian restaurant off Times Square. Our meal was served family style—and being only 2 people we ended up with enough left over to feed everyone in Times Square.

The next day was the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards, held at a specialized library not too far from the hotel. And it was a truly terrific experience. But the best part (besides picking up the award of course 😉) was being able to meet people in person that I know online but hadn’t met for one reason or another. Fellow SleuthSayer David Dean. Tom Savage. Dave Zeltserman, who published some of my stories early on in his HardLuck Stories magazine, and whose Small Crimes was just made into a movie on Netflix that released recently, so check it out. Besides hanging with Janet, Linda and Jackie, we also got to hang with Doug and Eve Allyn again, both of whom were great to hang with.
Me and Doug Allyn at the Ellery Queen Cocktail Party

And, of course, it was more than a thrill to win the award!
Me receiving the Award

And then it was off to the Edgars that evening. Very exciting. And all was going well, I even liked the food (and who likes the food at these things?), until the Master of Ceremonies, Jeffrey Deaver, stumbled and then fainted on the stage while doing some introductions. That was scary. Luckily he was okay, though whisked off to the hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. I believe tests showed that it wasn’t—hope so.

That’s the litany, now for the real deal: While we loved New York and all of the events, the best part of anything like this, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, etc., is the people. The community of mystery writers is a very warm, very supportive group. And, as I’ve mentioned, it was great to see old friends and also meet new people. We saw Jim Ziskin and Catriona McPherson, and had a nice chat with both of them. Met Otto Penzler. And it was good to meet Sam Reaves, Dave Zeltserman and too many others to name here. And great to spend time with Janet, Linda and Jackie.
Amy and Jackie at the Edgars.

New York has a bad rep in some ways and people who know me thought I’d hate it (as I haven’t been there in years…decades). I loved it. I loved the crowds. I loved the energy. I loved the writing community. I loved this whole unexpected trip. And I’m more than appreciative to Janet Hutchings for publishing Ghosts of Bunker Hill and taking a chance on my first story for Ellery Queen, Howling at the Moon (which, by the way, made it to #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll). And to Linda Landrigan for publishing my story Twelve Angry Days in the current (May/June 2017) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. And to Jackie for everything she does to keep the wheels turning. And last but certainly not least to the people who voted for Ghosts of Bunker Hill and made it #1.

***

Something else that hit me while in NYC was the use of location.  Setting plays a major role in most of what I write. Author S.W. Lauden has said about my work, “I just read your next novel Vortex. I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters.”

To me, location can sometimes be a driving force for the characters. Of course, they have inner motivations, but where they live, the zeitgeist, ambience and flavor of the city or desert or whatever locations the stories take place in adds to their motivations. And being in New York really made me notice the different energies and vibe of different cities. They really do have personalities of their own and those personalities influence and affect the characters. There are some stories that could only take place in New York and some that could only take place in LA, and not just by mentioning a street name or a location, it’s more than that. It’s the spirit of the place that comes through.  For me that location is often, though not always (see my story Deserted Cities of the Heart in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir and set there, of course) Los Angeles. And even though LA’s been done to death you might say…you haven’t seen my LA.

For more on my relationship with the City of Angels, please check out this link to my very first SleuthSayers post:
http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html 

***

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, on sale at newsstands. Or click here to buy online. If you like food and you like mysteries, I think you might like this story.



***

I'll be at the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City, June 10th and 11th. I'm on a panel called "The Long and Short of It: Short Stories and Novellas vs. Novels" with William Kent Krueger, Kate Thornton and Travis Richardson, moderated by S.W. Lauden. Hope to see you there!
http://www.ccwconference.org/


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.