Showing posts with label Malice Domestic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Malice Domestic. Show all posts

12 June 2018

Paneling

by Michael Bracken

Paneling at ArmadilloCon 2012
I have participated in panels at several science fiction/fantasy conventions and a few mystery conventions, and I’ve noticed a distinct difference in approach. I have only once participated in a panel at an sf/f convention in which the moderator contacted me in advance, yet I’ve had pre-convention contact with the moderators of every mystery convention panel in which I’ve participated.

On several occasions, the moderators of the sf/f panels didn’t realize they were the moderator, and on more than one occasion the moderator didn’t bother to show up, leaving panelists to draw straws for the task. While a panel in which none of the participants is prepared can be, and sometimes is, wildly entertaining, more often it consists of five writers saying variations of, “I don’t know why I was selected for this panel. I don’t know anything about Transsexual Taiwanese Tyrannosauruses” and one blowhard spouting variations of “Look at me! Buy my book! Look at me again! Buy my other book!”

Gathering the masses before starting the “Make it Snappy
panel at Malice Domestic 2018. L-R: Me, Gretchen Archer,
Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian,
and Art Taylor.
(Photo by Eleanor Cawood Jones)
When offered the opportunity to moderate “Make it Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic 2018, I followed the best-practices example set by all the mystery convention moderators and one sf/f convention moderator with whom I have paneled: I contacted all the panelists in advance, introduced myself, and sought information that would help me formulate questions. Once I had the information I needed, I developed questions specific to each panelist (though I did not have time to ask them all), shared with them my plan for the panel and, once at the convention, had the opportunity to meet all of the panelists prior to gathering onstage.

I think the panel went well, but I’m not here to tout my skills as a moderator. I’m here to share some tips for successful paneling from the perspective of someone who has attended many panels, participated in several, and moderated a few.

EIGHT TIPS

1.  While you may be there to promote yourself and your work, the audience is there to be entertained and informed. So, entertain and inform.

2. If you have never been told by a parent, teacher, or significant other to use your “inside voice,” practice projecting. Use any provided microphones, especially if the panel is being recorded.

3. If you’re a moderator, know your panelists. At the very least, read their bios in the program.

4. If you’re a panelist, know your moderator. At the very least, read her bio in the program.

5. Asking generic questions and having each panelist answer in turn is a lazy moderator’s approach. So, prepare questions specific to each panelist and try to foster a dialog among the panelists.

6. Share the limelight. For moderators, this means ensuring every panelist has the opportunity to speak. As a panelist, this means speaking up if you’re shy, and it means curtailing your tendency to bloviate if you’re not shy.

7. Allow time for questions. If the audience is engaged, they will ask great questions. For the benefit of the rest of the audience, repeat or paraphrase questions before answering.

8. Start on time, end on time, and clear the stage for the next panel. If you are lucky enough to have fans swarming the stage afterward to ask questions and seek autographs, encourage them to follow you into the hall.

I have also participated in panels at writing conferences. The audience—primarily writers and would-be writers rather than genre fans—expect more information and less entertainment, but otherwise all the tips apply.

EMULATE BILL

One writer whose paneling skills deserve emulation is Bill Crider. Every time we paneled together, he was the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and best-known writer on stage, and many of us would have sat at his feet in rapt attention while he talked for the entire 50 minutes. Yet, he never took advantage of his stature. He shared the limelight and regularly used his time to tell the audience something they might not know about one of the other panelists, or to direct a comment toward or ask a question of one of us.

That’s in direct contrast to several authors so enamored of their own voices that other panelists might as well not exist, and when moderators—either unable to unwilling to interrupt—let the blowhards take over, everyone suffers.

I’m not much good with small talk, but put me on a stage and ask me about writing, and I can bend an ear with the best of them. So, if you’re ever paneling with me and I start to bloviate, please kick me under the table and remind me to channel Bill Crider.

We’ll all be better off.

My romance “Too Close to School” appears in the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), released in May.

24 April 2018

When an Amateur Writes a Police Procedural

by Barb Goffman

I'm not a sheriff, and I've never played one on TV. So when it came to writing mystery short stories, for a long time I avoided writing police procedurals. There were too many ways I could screw things up. Too many important details I'd need to research, and more important, things I might not even realize I was getting wrong. And that's still the case today.

But a few years ago, I heard a fictional sheriff talking to me in my head. So, with misgivings, I started writing her story. To try to ensure I didn't make any mistakes, I imposed some rules on myself. The most important: the story had to be solved quickly through interviews and observation, not using blood work or DNA or other modern investigative methods with which I could easily make mistakes. In this way, my sheriff would operate kind of like an amateur sleuth, relying on her wits, but with the benefit of knowledge the sheriff would have and the power of her badge to induce folks to speak with her and to get warrants when needed.

This approach worked well and resulted in my first story about Sheriff Ellen Wescott. "Suffer the Little Children" was published in 2013 in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even. I've now brought Sheriff Wescott back for a second case in "Till Murder Do Us Part," which was recently published by Wildside Press in the new anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies.

In this new story, a man who runs a business putting on weddings in a converted barn on his farm is murdered. The body is discovered on a Sunday morning. The day is important. I didn't want to have to deal with the sheriff getting phone records and other CSI-type evidence to help solve the case. While a judge's warrant could be secured on the weekend, I figured it would be harder to get a phone company to act quickly on a Sunday. I also wanted all the characters I needed to be believably and easily available. On a weekday, some of them would be at work, but on a Sunday, it would be much easier for them to gather.

So my story is set on a Sunday, and my sheriff and her deputy--through interviews and investigation of items found at the crime scene--try to piece together what happened. That's the basics. I don't want to reveal any more for fear I'll give away too much, but I will address one point: Does this tale sound a little dry to you? It does to me, just explaining it. I don't like dry stories. I like to introduce pathos or fun (maybe both) into my stories to make the reader want to turn the pages. So it helps that law enforcement officers often enjoy black humor, as I do.

That's where the cows come in. You see, every story in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies involves crime and critters. We have several stories involving dogs. They were the most popular animal in the submitted stories and in those accepted. But we also have animal diversity. We have stories with crows, cows, crickets, and cats; rabbits, ferrets, an octopus, and rats. And fish. Mustn’t forget the fish. My story is the one with the cows.

As I said above, "Till Murder Do Us Part" involves murder in farm country. It also takes place during the worst heat wave since the state began keeping records. What happens when it's really hot and there are cows around? Yep, they explode. Or they can. But don't worry. I don't just use the cows for black humor. They play a role in the plot. I won't say more because I don't want to give things away, but I will add with delight that New York Times bestselling author Chris Grabenstein--who kindly wrote the introduction to the book--called my story "extremely clever," and I think it's because of how I used the cows.

To read my new story, and the twelve other great stories in the book, pick up a copy of Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies. It's available in trade paperback or e-format directly from the publisher by clicking here or through Amazon or independent bookstores.

If you'll be at the Malice Domestic mystery convention later this week, the book will be available in the book room. In fact, most of the authors with stories in the book will be at the Wildside Press table in the convention's book room at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday to sign books. And if you'll be in the Washington, DC, area on Sunday, May 20th, please come to our launch party from 2 - 4 p.m. at the Central Library in Arlington, Virginia. But you don't have to wait until then to get some goodies. If you see me at Malice, ask me about my cow tails. I might just have some candy on hand for you.

And speaking of Malice Domestic, let me get in one last plug for the five short stories nominated for this year's Agatha Award. I'm honored to have my story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet up for the award. You can read it here. The other finalists include my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, who is always stiff competition, and three other authors I'm proud to call my friends: Gretchen Archer, Debra H. Goldstein, and Gigi Pandian. You can read all their nominated stories here through the Malice Domestic website. Just scroll down to their story titles. Each one is a link. You may not be able to get a lot of reading done before the voting deadline this Saturday, but I hope you can read all the short stories.

I'm looking forward to seeing many of you writers and readers at the convention, which starts in just two days. Malice or bust! But in the meanwhile, getting back to police procedurals, I'd love to hear about your favorite authors writing police procedurals today, especially ones who don't have law-enforcement background but still get the details right. Please share in the comments.

13 April 2018

Agatha Award Finalists: Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

The annual Malice Domestic convention is right around the corner—April 27-29 in Bethesda, Maryland—and two of us SleuthSayers have stories up for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story: Barb Goffman with “Whose Wine is it Anyway?” and me (Art Taylor!) with  “A Necessary Ingredient” (mine with ties to other SleuthSayers as well, since the anthology which includes it, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, was co-edited by Paul D. Marks and features stories by several members of our group too). Three other fine writers/fine stories round out the slate: Gretchen Archer’s “Double Deck the Halls,” Debra H. Goldstein’s “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” and Gigi Pandian’s “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” The Agatha Awards will be presented at the annual Agatha Awards Banquet on Saturday evening, April 28.



In advance of the big weekend, I invited the finalists to answer a question about their nominated stories, and I’m glad to share these reflections here. Please note that you can read each story for free through links in the paragraph above and in the headers to each response below. 

Here’s the question: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing your particular short story and how did you overcome it?

And the responses, in alphabetical order by last name:

Gretchen Archer on “Double Deck the Halls”

The biggest challenge I faced writing “Double Deck the Halls” was also the most fun. One of my characters, in dire need of salvation, couldn’t speak. She could only communicate by humming Christmas carols. My mission, as her author, was to find appropriate song lyrics for her to hum so she could help her rescuer, a senior citizen with nothing but the retirement accessories she had on her person, save her. First, the lyrics had to fit the story, as in answer specific questions and convey detailed instructions. Not only that, the lyrics had to be in the public domain for me to use them. Writing a character who could only communicate in holiday tunes was so much fun. (And challenging!) 

Barb Goffman on “Whose Wine is it Anyway” from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet 

My biggest challenge in writing the story was overcoming the issue that I rarely drink wine (or any alcohol) and didn't know enough about cabernet to use it properly in a story. (I know. Sacrilege!) The anthology requirements were that the story had to involve a mystery/crime involving cabernet and it should be lighthearted. So I started doing research. I scoured the internet, reading wine websites, wine blogs, even newspaper stories involving wine. The most interesting item I came across was a Japanese hotel that fills its hot tubs with red wine, but I couldn't come up with a good idea stemming from that tidbit.

 Finally I read about how some people can be fatally allergic to the sulfites in red wine, including cabernet sauvignon, and an idea began forming. What came to me was a story about a seventy-year-old woman, days from retirement from a job she's loved for decades. But in these final hours, she realizes she hasn't been appreciated as she should have been. So she decides it's time to teach some lessons about the importance of caring more about people than appearances, and what I learned about wine allergies enabled me to make the story work. So the moral of my personal writing story here is that you don't have to be an expert on a topic to write about it. You can always learn the information you need to make your story work. Just keep at it.

Debra H. Goldstein on “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine 

“The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” combines the impact of an exchange between a nine-year-old boy and an adult during a Civil Rights era evening where there is a murder in a house where the sheets are changed more than once a night. My biggest challenge was to make the voices of the child and the adult believable and recognizable to the reader. It was easy to establish the heat and tension of the setting of a 1960’s non-air-conditioned kitchen through references to the linoleum floor, catching a breeze through the screen door, and grabbing a glass from the drainboard, but making the characters’ voices realistic rather than stereotypical required nuanced layering of details. Rather than pounding the reader with what the characters said, wore, thought, and did, my challenge was to present a sufficient build up of these things, sentence by sentence, to trigger each reader’s personal reactions and memories. By engaging the reader through evoked recollections or associations, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” hopefully succeeds in establishing and resolving a crime while contrasting the innocence and bravado of childhood as it is lost with an adult’s acceptance of life as it is. 

Gigi Pandian on “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn”
 
I write fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, stories in which a big part of the fun is that clues are hidden in plain sight for the reader. “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” is a locked-room mystery, the style of mystery popularized in the Golden Age of detective fiction that takes puzzle plots to the extreme by solving a seemingly impossible puzzle.

Whenever I begin writing a new locked-room story, my biggest challenge is to set up a clever twist so the big reveal is satisfying to the reader—something that seems impossible, but if you pay attention closely, you can see what really happened.

I’ve always loved puzzle plot stories with a satisfying twist; they epitomize why I love mystery. Locked-room mysteries are the ultimate puzzle, and can be the foundation to build so much more into a story. Impossible crime stories frequently include hints of the supernatural, creating a Gothic atmosphere that’s like reading a ghost story—but there’s always a rational explanation.

To meet the challenge of coming up with fresh ideas for impossible crime stories, my process is that I work first on a paper notebook that I fill with ideas. Sometimes a short story comes together quickly, and sometimes it can take years between when I think of an initial idea and when the ideas come together to make the twist successful. There’s one story draft I wrote five years ago, and I’m not yet satisfied with the ending so I haven’t send it out yet! But happily, I’ve written enough impossible crime stories that turned out successfully that I have a collection of Jaya Jones locked-room mysteries being published later this year.

The twist in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” was also challenging because there’s a double-twist at the end. That made it one of my most challenging—but also satisfying—stories I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Art Taylor on “A Necessary Ingredient” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea

Though I was pleased to have been invited to contribute a story to a private eye anthology and though I love and often teach works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, etc. in my classes at George Mason University, I’m not actually a regular writer of private eye stories and don't think I've ever written anything traditionally hard-boiled. I think I’ve only had two PI stories published before—one a parody, the other steeped in the fantastic—and while I wanted to write this one a little more straight, the small-town North Carolina setting (my assigned region to help the anthology’s stretch “from sea to shining sea”) also posed some challenges  in terms of any potential hard-boiled leanings: No mean streets in my town for my main character to go down, for example.

My solution? With "A Necessary Ingredient," I tried to put yet another twist on the conventional PI tale—Ambrose Thornton has “Private Detective” on his office door but he’s really just an unassuming guy seeking a quiet spot to read old crime novels—and then I drew as much on the traditions of regional crime fiction, in the spirit of Margaret Maron, for example, as I did on the legacy of Hammett, Chandler, or Macdonald in terms of crafting character, setting, and plot. When a new chef in town tasks Thornton with finding a special bean prized in French cooking (a bit of gentrification, this little restaurant), our detective sets out not down any means streets but instead on a tour of local farmer’s markets, roadside vegetable stands, and greenhouses. And while Ambrose references a couple of classic gumshoes here and there, a key twist in the story offers my own nod toward Maron's influences—hopefully keeping the balance of several traditions in play and satisfying readers across a wider spectrum.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Malice in just a couple of weeks! 

03 April 2018

And the Nominees Are ...


Many people dream of writing a novel. Few start doing it. Fewer get to typing The End. Fewer still make the leap to published author, with their first book out in the world for others to buy and read and … they hope … love. The authors visiting SleuthSayers today have done all these things, and they've accomplished one more thing very few ever will: their books have been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. These authors and their books, all published in 2017, are: Micki Browning, Adrift; V.M. Burns, The Plot is Murder; Kellye Garrett, Hollywood Homicide; Laura Oles, Daughters of Bad Men; and Kathleen Valenti, Protocol.

Attendees of the Malice Domestic mystery convention will vote for the winner during the convention at the end of this month. In the meanwhile, the five nominated authors are rightly basking in the glow of being a finalist. And today they are visiting us here at SleuthSayers, sharing a little about their books and themselves. I hope you'll welcome them. We'll start with some Q and A. Author bios are at the end. — Barb Goffman
There are so many great first novels published each year. What do you think makes your book especially stand out? The voice? An unusual setup? Something else? 

Micki: I'm still gobsmacked to be included in such a fabulous group. Perhaps my story stuck a chord because of its setting. The setup for Adrift takes place underwater, and the protagonist is a data-driven marine biologist who eschews the paranormal possibilities surfacing around the event. Neither of my critique partners are scuba divers, so I took great pains to make sure I painted vivid underwater scenes without the book becoming a tech manual for diving. I share a love of the ocean with my protagonist, and it makes me smile when readers tell me it felt like they were in the water with Mer.

Kellye: Discovering new authors is always so much fun, and I love that the Agatha Awards help shine a light on newbies each year. For me, Hollywood Homicide has a few things that make it stand out. The obvious is that the main character is a black woman, which is something you don't see a lot in traditional mysteries.

Another thing is that it's based on my eight years working in Hollywood. Everything from behind-the-scenes tidbits about movie premiers to even Dayna's background as a commercial spokesperson comes from either my own experience, from someone I met, or from something I've heard from someone.

Laura: There really are so many fantastic first novels published each year, and being nominated for an Agatha for Best First is a tremendous honor.

One thing that readers and reviewers have noted is that they appreciate the fact that Jamie has no love interest. In Daughters of Bad Men, I made the intentional decision to not introduce a romantic relationship because I wanted Jamie, her skills, and her decisions to take center stage. It was important for readers to get to know her first before bringing in a romantic entanglement. She needed to stand on her own.

Valerie: There are a lot of amazing first novels published each year, which is great because there's something for everyone. One thing that makes The Plot is Murder stand out is the story within a story.

Whether you like contemporary or British historical mysteries, readers can get both in this series with two mysteries to solve in each book.

Kathleen: There are, indeed, so many wonderful debuts published each year, and I'm incredibly honored that mine is among those recognized by this nomination.

I think Protocol made the list because of its technology-plus-Big-Pharma premise, flesh-and-blood characters, and combination of suspense and humor. So I guess it's not one thing, but a variety of things, and I'm grateful that readers have responded so positively.

You each created an interesting setting, be it a town or a place of work. What made you choose it and what role did it play in the plot?

Laura: Port Alene, Texas, is the fictional sister of Port Aransas, a coastal Texas town my family considers a second home. It made perfect sense to create Jamie's world in this town's image, but Port Alene is a grittier place than its inspiration.

I decided that Port Alene would be a sibling rather than a twin. I drew my own maps of Port Alene, fashioning roads and landmarks, bars and restaurants, bait shops and trinket traps. Jamie needed these locations because they would prove important in her life. She just didn't know it yet.

Valerie: In The Plot is Murder, Samantha Washington dreams of opening a mystery bookshop in her hometown of North Harbor, Michigan. Opening a mystery bookshop also happens to be one of my dreams. When I started writing the book, I lived in Benton Harbor, Michigan, which is located on the shores of Lake Michigan. I dreamed of buying a building but was thwarted by an unscrupulous Realtor. Unlike my protagonist, Samantha Washington, I walked away from the deal. Writing a mystery where a deceitful Realtor is murdered was cathartic and helped me work through my disappointment.

Kathleen: Protocol's primary setting isn't Maggie's fictional hometown of Greenville, nor the equally imaginary city of Collingsburg, but the laboratories and cubicles of Rxcellance.

Maggie's workplace isn't just the backdrop against which the action happens, but another character in the book. Like other characters, the pharmaceutical development firm seems to have its own hopes and secrets, and it's these elements that give the book ambiance and move the plot forward.

Micki: I never considered setting the Mer Cavallo Mysteries anywhere but the Florida Keys. The USS Spiegel Grove, a shipwreck off the coast of Key Largo, plays a pivotal role in the mystery of Adrift.

After I retired from law enforcement, I relocated to the Keys to dive and decompress. One night when I was working for a dive shop in Key Largo, a real-life medical emergency occurred on the Spiegel. The diver fully recovered, but it got my what-if gears grinding. The result was Adrift.

Kellye: I'm a Jersey girl who has read a lot of mysteries over the past two decades, very few of which are set in New Jersey. I can remember being so excited when I recognized a real-life location in books by Harlan Coben or Valerie Wilson-Wesley. So I wanted to do the same thing with Los Angeles in my Detective by Day series. Even if you don't live in LA, you might have visited for fun once in your life, so I hope that someone can read about the Warner Bros. studio lot or paparazzi-hot-spot Robertson Boulevard and get just as excited as I was when I could say, "I've been there! I know exactly what she's talking about in this book!"

Fill in the blank: Readers who enjoy books written by _______ should enjoy my book too because _______. [[Hat tip to the Bethesda Public Library in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I first saw book recommendations made this way. — Barb Goffman]]

Kathleen
: Readers who enjoy books written by Maggie Barbieri and Kimberly Belle should enjoy my book too because my style is reminiscent of Maggie's and Protocol has a similar sense of suspense (albeit for different reasons!) as The Marriage Lie — or so I've been told! (Comps are so tough!!)

Micki: Readers who enjoy books written by Kathy Reichs should enjoy my book too because we both write about smart women who use their brains to figure out where the truth is hiding.

Valerie: Readers who enjoy books written by Dorothy Gilman should enjoy my book too because both my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series and the Mrs. Pollifax series feature senior citizens who are vibrant, active, and highly engaged in solving mysteries.

Kellye: Readers who enjoy books written by Janet Evanovich should enjoy my book too because it has a similar sense of humor and a very broke but very relatable narrator.

Laura: While I would never compare my work to hers because she is a legend, readers who enjoy books written by Sara Paretsky should enjoy my book too because we both feature strong and self-reliant female investigators. 


Is your nominated book a stand-alone or the first in a series? What's coming next from you?

Kellye: I have a three-book deal with Midnight Ink, so there will be at least two more Detective by Day mysteries hitting bookstores and libraries. The second, Hollywood Ending, is out on August 8, 2018. My main character Dayna is now an apprentice PI, and she looks into the murder of an awards-show publicist who gets killed during a botched ATM robbery after a swanky Hollywood party. The third book will be out in 2019.

Laura: Daughters of Bad Men is the first in the Jamie Rush mystery series. The second Jamie Rush book will be out toward the end of this year, and I'm also working on a stand-alone.

Micki: Adrift is the first of the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. Beached released this past January. I'm currently at work on a stand-alone domestic thriller, and then it's back for the third Mer Cavallo Mystery, Chum.

Kathleen: Protocol is the first book in the Maggie O'Malley Mystery series. The second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22nd. It follows Maggie in the aftermath of all that happened in Protocol, interrupting her "new normal" when the husband of Constantine's aunt Polly is murdered.

Valerie: The Plot is Murder is the first book in a series. The second book in the series is scheduled to be released on April 24th. In addition to the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series with Kensington, I also have two other series, which will both release this year. Travellin' Shoes, the first book in the RJ Franklin Mystery series, will release on July 1st, and the first book in my Dog Club Mystery series, In the Dog House, will release on August 21st.


Author Bios

A retired police captain, Micki Browning writes the Mer Cavallo Mystery series set in the Florida Keys. In addition to the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel, Adrift has won both the Daphne du Maurier and the Royal Palm Literary awards. Beached, her second novel, launched in January 2018. Micki's work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines, and textbooks. She lives in South Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for "research." Learn more at www.MickiBrowning.com.

V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born in Northwestern Indiana and spent many years on Southwestern Michigan on the Lake Michigan shoreline. She is a lover of dogs, British historic cozies, and scones with clotted cream. After many years in the Midwest, she went in search of milder winters and currently lives in Eastern Tennessee with her poodles. Receiving the Agatha nomination for Best First Novel has been a dream come true. Valerie is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime. Readers can learn more by visiting her website at www.vmburns.com.

Kellye Garrett writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: homicide detective. The first, Hollywood Homicide, won the 2018 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery Novel and was recently nominated for Agatha and Barry awards. The second, Hollywood Ending, will be released on August 8, 2018, from Midnight Ink. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for the TV drama Cold Case. The New Jersey native now works for a leading media company in New York City and serves on the national board of directors for Sisters in Crime. You can learn more about her at www.KellyeGarrett.com and ChicksontheCase.com.

Laura Oles is a photo-industry journalist who spent twenty years covering tech and trends before turning to crime fiction. She served as a columnist for numerous photography magazines and publications. Laura's short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including Murder on Wheels, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her debut mystery, Daughters of Bad Men, is a Claymore Award finalist and an Agatha nominee for Best First Novel. She is also a Writers' League of Texas award finalist. Laura is a member of Austin Mystery Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Writers' League of Texas. Laura lives on the edge of the Texas Hill Country with her husband, daughter, and twin sons. Visit her online at www.lauraoles.com. 

Kathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O'Malley mystery series. The series' first book, Agatha- and Lefty-nominated Protocol, introduces us to Maggie, a pharmaceutical researcher with a new job, a used phone, and a deadly problem. The series second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22. When Kathleen isn't writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family, where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at www.kathleenvalenti.com.


Barb here again. Thank you, ladies, for joining us on SleuthSayers. Readers, I'm sure you have questions or comments. Have at it!

20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice

by Michael Bracken

My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.

GOT IT?

I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”

IT WAS, WAS IT?

It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”

THAT THEN?

Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”

HAD ENOUGH?

I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”

13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business

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

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

12 May 2017

Two Writers—And a Third in the Making?

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

Earlier in our Family Fortnight series, Brian Thornton asked his wife Robyn to contribute a post about being married to a writer—a terrific and insightful essay all around, ending with Robyn inspired to start writing herself. I'd already planned on getting my wife, Tara Laskowski, involved in my post, but in our case, Tara and I are both long-time writers—which at times may seem double trouble (more on that below!) and at other times may give us at least glimpses into what the other person is going through, whether that's a burst of creative energy (needing time for ideas to play out, for the imagination to indulge itself) or a stroke of self-doubt (needing support and encouragement).

Art and Tara at Malice Domestic, April 2016
Tara and I first met at George Mason University, where we were both working toward our MFAs in creative writing. We were in fiction workshops together, sharing and commenting on our respective stories, and it was our mutual admiration for one another's work that led first to friendship and then to more. Since graduation, we have both been very fortunate with the generous attention our writing has received, especially in more recent years—and even recent days. Since my last post here at SleuthSayers, my story "Parallel Play" won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and in recent weeks, Tara's collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize and her story "The Jar" was named by Wigleaf among the top 50 flash fiction stories of 2016. We're grateful on all counts, of course, but while friends and acquaintances have sometimes complimented us how how easily we seem to navigate being writers alongside managing day jobs and raising our son Dash, the truth is that behind the scenes... well, let's get straight to the interview.

Art Taylor: We talk sometimes about navigating our various day-to-day roles and responsibilities, but too often that “navigation” seems more like steering a foundering ship through tempest-tossed seas. (This sentence is, of course, the most creative writing I’ve done in a while.) Can you give folks a glimpse into our writing processes? How do we accomplish things as two writers in the same household, parenting a five-year-old and more? 
Tara Laskowski: I don’t know. How do we? Do we actually accomplish anything? Sometimes I feel like we are super-hero bad-asses. Other times I feel like we are fumbling and failing. I suppose that’s part of your tempest sea, right? The up-and-down motion of the waves. Sadly, I get really seasick, so this isn’t boding well for me…

Ok, writing process. Well, you have the summer and winter breaks in between classes to do massive crunch time writing since the academic year provides a challenge. I have a 40-minute train ride to and from work each day to try to fit in my work. I guess that’s how we’ve been managing it, with a few luxurious-seeming writing retreats and an occasional “I need an hour to do this thing” on the weekend request. It all feels very piecemeal at times, but it seems to be working for us, right now anyway.
Earlier this week here at SleuthSayers, Melissa Yi wrote about her children telling her, “Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us” and “You’re always on your computer.” Do you get those questions or feel that pressure as well? And if so, how do you deal with that—by which I mean both deal with the question and deal with it internally, emotionally, etc.?
Oh yes. That is a horrible guilt. Every time I pick up my phone to check something with Dash in the room, I hear the "Cats in the Cradle" song start playing in my head. That is a constant struggle. So much of what we do is device-related. It's not even just writing—although I often suffer from "novel head" where I'm working on a scene or thinking about a character while going about my normal daily life. If I have a second, I usually am reminded of something I need to put on our grocery list (which is on my phone) or someone I need to email back. Or we're talking and we can't remember who wrote that song or what the weather is going to be like the next day. The worst thing Dash ever utters to either of us is "Come play with me!" when we're doing something on our phone or computer. I think we try with varying degrees of success to put the phone away, but it's definitely not something that either of us has figured out how to conquer. Would you agree?
I would—and you’re right that it’s not just writing but everything. I still remember a small epiphany back during those first couple of years, when I was teaching online classes and evening classes so I could take care of Dash during the day. I had ended up in a middle of a tense series of emails with a student complaining about a grade, and I felt this urgency to keep responding. Even though Dash and I were out at a playground and Dash was pulling at me to pay attention to him, I kept peck, peck, pecking at my phone and—and suddenly I realized that the email could wait and that in the long-run this student wasn’t going to remember me or the class, but that the little boy in front of me…. well, short-term, long-run, he was the one who meant the most. I put the phone away, and these days I put it away each evening until after Dash is in bed, just to keep my attention centered.

Shift in focus now. The year that Dash was born, I read a story—a Derringer Award finalist—that was about the abduction and then return of a child, and even though references to abuse were only hinted at instead of explicitly depicted, the story was nearly crippling to read. And yet, not long after that, I wrote a story myself that was about a child in peril and a parent’s determination to protect her son and about the anxieties of parenting in general. How has your own writing or your reading changed since Dash was born?

I am a huge horror fan. Before Dash, I’d watch pretty much any horror movie, even the torture porn (though it was never my favorite). After Dash, that changed dramatically. I still love the genre, but I can’t read or watch anything that involves kids or even something very domestic (think Funny Games). I trend more toward the supernatural scares now, I guess. Part of it is just some parental instinct, I think—you can’t help but project yourself on the things you watch/read, and you certainly cannot bear to think of your child being in harm’s way. But more than that, I’ve realized how senseless some of the kid stuff is in horror. It either seems like a cheap device to get an emotional reaction out of the consumer, or it is just badly done.

I’ve also found that I write more about kids now that I have one. I was always hesitant to put children characters in my writing because I didn’t think I knew them well enough—knew how they thought, acted, etc. (See my above gripe about this being badly done.) But now that so much of my life is interacting with these little people, I feel like I have a slightly (slightly!) better understanding of how they work. And that is: they never want to brush their teeth, they never want to put on their shoes, they never want to take a bath, they never want to get out of the bath, they never want to go to sleep, they never want to get up in the morning. So they are, basically, just like me.
Dash at his first writing conference:
Bay to Ocean, Maryland, March 2016
I can’t recall if it was after I'd been away at Malice Domestic one year or after Bouchercon, but I do remember the evening that we caught Dash sitting up in bed, his stuffed animals arranged in a semi-circle in front of them, and each of them with a book tucked next to them. “We’re at a conference,” he told us, when we asked what he was doing.

And then there was the time he tried to explain to his preschool teachers that he’d been at a book launch over the weekend, and he got frustrated when they didn’t understand the phrase. (“You bought a book and then had lunch?”) How do you think it impacts Dash’s life to have two writers as parents?
I think Dash will either completely embrace reading and writing as his life or he will rebel against us and do something completely, utterly different. I do not care. I mean, I care a little; obviously I’d like for him to be a lit geek. But as long as he has a passion for learning and creativity in whatever form that takes—computers, math, fine arts, dancing, video game design, dinosaurs, baseball—I’m cool with it. I hope that in seeing how passionate we are about our craft, Dash will understand the importance of keeping at something even when it’s difficult, even when you fail sometimes. That’s all I ask.

28 April 2017

Contributors' Notes: Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Historical

By Art Taylor

The annual Malice Domestic mystery convention ranks among my favorite events of the year (major holidays included!), and it’s always a pleasure to see how warmly the Malice community welcomes and celebrates crime writers and readers both old and new. As other people have often said, Malice is like family, and as the convention opens today in Bethesda, Maryland, it's certainly going to feel for many of us like a family reunion.

I’ve been honored and humbled by the generosity and goodwill the Malice community has offered to me and my work over the years, and last summer, it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to give back. For several months I served with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson as part of the selection committee for the anthology Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical, reading and scoring more than 100 stories, all blind submissions. The final slate of authors, including a few invited guests of honor, featured John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O’Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

Tonight’s 9 p.m. welcome reception at Malice includes the anthology’s launch and signing. As a preview of that event and the anthology in general, I reached out to a handful of contributors and asked them to introduce their selected stories—with particular attention to each story’s time (given the historical theme) and perhaps to the inspirations behind the story, the genesis of the tale.

Hope you enjoy some of these glimpses, and hope you’ll check out the full anthology as well—available here or at Malice itself, of course.

Susanna Calkins, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier”
“The Trial of Madame Pelletier”—my first and only published short story—features the trial of a presumed poisoner in a small town in 1840s France. My story was inspired by a true cause célèbre, a real “trial of the century” that I had stumbled upon years ago when conducting research as a doctoral student in history. At the time, I’d been struck by how the “Lady Poisoner,” so dubbed by the press, had been tried twice, once as a criminal in the assize court at Limousin, and again as a woman in the court of public opinion. While my story differs dramatically from the trial that inspired it, I did want to convey that same sense of a woman being tried on many levels. Moreover, ever since I read Agatha Christie's “Witness for the Prosecution,” I have wanted to try my hand at a courtroom drama.

Carla Coupe, “Eating Crow”
“Eating Crow” is set in a bucolic Devonshire village in late 19th century England—the type of place whose photo graces a calendar for May or June. My protagonists, teenager Beryl Mayhew and her crow sidekick, Hermes, came to life in “As the Crow Flies” when the Chesapeake Crimes anthology Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (available spring 2018) asked for stories that featured an animal. Now I love dogs and cats, but wanted to write about something a little more unusual. An octopus? Nah, too limiting. As I looked out my office window, I saw some crows. Perfect! They’re intelligent and curious. As I researched just how intelligent crows are—I didn’t want Hermes to do something crows aren’t capable of—I was amazed at their cognitive abilities and complex social structure. In this story, Hermes is more of a foil than a sleuth—but I’m sure he would have solved the case if he could read!

P.A. De Voe, “The Unseen Opponent” (De Voe is also an Agatha Award finalist in the Best Children/Young Adult category for her book, Trapped: A Mei-hua Adventure)
Why this setting? I’m fascinated with China’s long, documented history and culture, so I placed “The Unseen Opponent” in early 15th Century Ming China. By this time, middle-class Han-Chinese women were embracing the tradition of foot-binding, called lotus feet, as the norm. Foot-binding made it impossible for women to walk without pain. At the same time, non-Han Chinese did not practice foot-binding, giving their women more freedom of movement. In researching for the story, I also discovered the Chinese developed an inflated ball used to play kick-ball or cu-ju in the earlier Tang Dynasty. Furthermore, playing the game of kick-ball had been popular among Chinese women—before foot-binding became prevalent. Information about the first inflated ball dove-tailed so well with my interest in foot-binding, that I knew I had to use the kick-ball game as the stage for my story. 

Liz Milliron, “Home Front Homicide”
“Home Front Homicide” takes place in Buffalo, NY in 1942, the early years of WWII. People forget, but with Bethlehem Steel right there, Buffalo was a big part of the war production. Bell Aircraft had a plant in Wheatfield, not far outside the city limits. My protagonist, Betty Ahern, works for Bell. She is very loosely based on my grandmother, who was a Bell employee during the war while my grandfather was in North Africa. Women in manufacturing was a new idea and not everyone liked it. So what would happen if the female-friendly shift supervisor was killed at the plant? Betty is supporting a family since her dad is disabled and her older brother is in the Pacific; she needs to find out and keep her job. My grandmother never solved a murder, but I’d like to think she’d be tickled at being the inspiration for the story.

Valerie O. Patterson, “Mr. Nakamura’s Garden”
Appropriately enough, the idea for “Mr. Nakamura’s Garden” came to me while I was attending last year’s Malice Domestic.  I read the announcement that the 12th Malice Domestic Anthology would be historical mysteries set before 1950. Already I was intrigued because I love historical mysteries.  I also happened to see an ad in the Malice booklet for Left Coast Crime, announcing that its next convention would be held in Honolulu, Hawaii, one of my favorite places.  My thoughts turned to Hawaii just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into WWII, a period I lectured about in a civil liberties class, a period rife with undercurrents.  Then, a voice came to me with a first line—“This is what the boy remembers”—and the whole story frame became clear.  As writers, we sometimes get lucky when the small pieces of story coalesce and capture a moment and, in this case, murder.

Keenan Powell, “The Velvet Slippers”
One autumn morning in 1895, aging housekeeper Mildred Munz slips out of Lawrence Fairweather’s bed and tiptoes towards the kitchen to warm his arsenic-laced porridge. Having devoted her life to service in Fairweather’s North Adams, Massachusetts mansion, her devotion became more personal when his wife died. His lover by night and servant by day, she is tired of waiting for the inheritance he promised so long ago. Her plans go awry when Lawrence’s greedy nephew, Edmund, catches her sneaking from the master bedroom. Lawrence surmises his own inheritance is in jeopardy, and noting his uncle’s failing health, he calls in a doctor.
This story was inspired by Victorian mansions I saw in North Adams during a genealogy research trip a few years ago.

Shawn Reilly Simmons, “You Always Hurt the One You Love”
I've had a fascination with gangsters since I was young. I saw The Godfather for the first time when I was twelve, and that experience influenced how I saw movies from that point forward. I remember being the only girl in school (in the mid-1980s) who looked forward to White Heat and The Public Enemy coming on TCM. My story, "You Always Hurt the One You Love," takes place in the 1940s and is inspired by my love of the gangster genre. I originally wrote the story to read at my first Noir at the Bar event in Washington D.C. this past summer. Encouraged by the positive response it received, I reworked it a bit and submitted it to the anthology. I'm thrilled my first ever gangster story appears alongside stories by authors I've long admired, and that I've paid personal tribute to a genre of which I'm a long-time fan.   

Mark Thielman, “The Measured Chest”
As a former prosecutor, my favorite cases almost always could be found at the intersection of a compelling victim and forensic evidence—a story to make the jury want to do right coupled with the proof to make a conviction possible. When crafting fiction, I try to combine both elements: a historical narrative to grab the reader’s interest paired with an application of forensic science.
In “The Measured Chest,” the captain of a U.S. naval sloop during the War of 1812 directs the ship’s carpenter to explain the disappearance of the purser. Was he murdered by a crew member or did he fall prey to the mysterious spirits which have long haunted sailors?

The inspiration for the story can be found in a two-thousand-year-old forensic science technique from India. Once read, I knew this bit of history needed to find its way into a mystery. The solution to “The Measured Ches” turns on a 19th Century re-imagining of this tale.

Victoria Thompson, “The Killing Game” (Thompson is also a finalist for the Agatha Award for Bet Historical Mystery for Murder in Morningside Heights)
The story takes place in New York in July 1917. It is a prequel of sorts to my new Counterfeit Lady Series, which debuts with City of Lies in November 2017. The characters are con artists, so the story revolves around The Killing Game con, so called because the mark thinks he’s going to make a killing on a fixed horse race. When someone is murdered and our heroine’s partner is falsely accused of the crime, Elizabeth must run another con to clear him and find the real killer.  The trick she uses is based on one used by “America’s Master Swindler” J.R. “Yellow Kid” Weil, as recounted in his autobiography.

Elaine Viets, “The Seven” (Viets is also this year's Malice Domestic Guest of Honor)
“The Seven,” my short story set in the early 1950s, is based on conversations overheard when I was growing up. We lived in a split-level in a new St. Louis suburb. My mother's friends would stop by for coffee, cake, and conversation. Thanks to a well-placed heating duct in my bedroom, I could listen to them talk about how trapped they felt as stay-at-home mothers. They'd had careers before marriage, and longed to return to the office, but their husbands decreed "no wife of mine will ever work," and the conventions supported that idea. Wives were supposed to be satisfied with "good providers" who gave them clothes, food, and well-furnished homes. I heard many of these women say, "I'd do anything to escape the house and go back to work." Would they go as far as the ladies in "The Seven"? Read it and see.


My Own Malice Schedule (Back to Art)


I'll be at the anthology event as well—in addition to several other officials events, thanks in part to my story "Parallel Play" having been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens! (You can read all of our stories through links at Malice Domestic's Agatha Awards page here.)

Below is my full schedule—and look forward this weekend to seeing all my Malice friends and to making some new friends too!
  • Opening Ceremonies • Friday, April 28, 5 p.m.
  • Welcome Reception & Anthology Signing for Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical (as part of editorial selection committee) Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
  • Panel: “Make It Snappy: Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” with Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and B.K. Stevens, moderated by Linda Landrigan • Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m.
  • Agatha Awards Banquet • Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m.