A word about the title of today's piece: It might not be imaginative, but it's appropriate. This is, after all, a column that was posted on Saturday morning. The subject of the column is appropriate as well, I hope, because it deals with writing in different genres and coming up with characters and story ideas and targeting certain pieces to a certain publication. In my case, it was several stories of mine that have recently been featured in The Saturday Evening Post.
Only one of those three stories, which appears in the current (May/June 2014) issue, has a mystery at its core, and even that one is not primarily about the mystery. It's more of a story about the love between two unlikely friends, set in the rural South of the 1970s. More about that in a minute.
Exchanging guns for roses
A little over a year ago, I was informed that The Saturday Evening Post publishes six pieces of short fiction every year--one in every bimonthly issue--and that that market might be a possibility for some of the stories I like to write. Since that time, due primarily to an oversized dose of blind luck, I have managed to sell three stories to the Post.
The first, a 2600-word story called "The Outside World" (March/April 2013 issue), dealt not with my usual crime-related themes but with injury and hardship and the rays of hope that can sometimes appear in seemingly hopeless situations. The inspiration for it came in part from my vague memories of Mark Hellinger's short story "The Window," in which an elderly woman in a sanitarium tells her bedridden roommates what she sees from her window every day. My characters were based on people I have known, which probably isn't surprising: author Greg Iles said in a recent interview that any writer of fiction who says his characters aren't based in some way on himself or his acquaintances is lying. What was surprising, at least to me, is that this twisty-plot story of mine sold to that particular magazine. Not that I spent much time analyzing how or why; I just counted my blessings and wrote another one.
That second story, "The First of October," sold to the Post as well, a few months later (the November/December 2013 issue). This one was short, around 1600 words. In truth, it was more of a romance story than anything else, but it also dealt--as the first one did--with folks who have experienced and overcome physical and mental obstacles. The idea for it first appeared one night when my wife and I were watching an episode of As Time Goes By, a BBC series about a couple who'd fallen in love long ago, were then separated during World War II, and years later met by chance, rekindled their love for each other, and were married. My story once again featured characters from my past, or at least composites of people from my past. and again didn't contain any of the murder and mayhem that I usually enjoy sprinkling throughout my fiction. Who says old mystery writers can't learn new tricks? I will confess, though, that it too contained several plot reversals--no matter what the genre, I can't seem to resist those.
Writing what you know
My third story, "Margaret's Hero," which is in the current issue of the Post, is a bit different from the first two. For one thing, it's longer--about 5500 words--and it does include some criminal activity. What I set out to do in this story was to point out that the racial tensions that have always been present in the Deep South are sometimes overruled by the genuine love people can have for one another, the kind that transcends age and race and social status. Unlike the previous story, this isn't romantic love--instead, it's the strong feelings that develop between a little white girl named Margaret Kindy and a grandfatherlike African American named Gus Newberry, who is the foreman of the ranch/farm owned by Margaret's actual grandfather. It's also a tale about rural life and tornadoes and dysfunctional families--this is the South, remember--and about the attachment between Margaret and a horse she and Gus decide to raise from a colt, and the ways that the horse affects both their lives. The title itself has a double meaning: Hero is the name the child gives her pony. And, once again, there's sort of a surprise ending.
The foreman--the story's real hero--is patterned closely after someone from my own childhood: an old, wise, and always cheerful black man who often took me hunting and fishing with him in the swamps and bottoms near my hometown when I was barely ten years old. Almost everything about this character, from his kindness and patience to his salt-and-pepper hair to his great size to his bib overalls and baseball cap, was true to life, and brought back good memories throughout the writing process. The setting, too, was comfortable to me, because I grew up in a tiny Mississippi town that was almost the same as living out in the country. We owned a horse and other livestock and raised many of our own crops, and at Margaret's age I happily roamed the woods and pastures every chance I got.
NOTE: I've included links to all three of my Post stories in the text above, and I should mention here that although the version of "Margaret's Hero" in the printed magazine is complete, the version posted at the S.E.P. web site accidentally omitted a paragraph (?!?) from the middle of the story. That works out well for me, actually, because if you decide to read it online and you think something might not sound exactly right, I have a built-in excuse . . .
NOTE 2: I said earlier that luck played a big part in my selling that first story to the magazine. Well, I was lucky afterward as well. In the issues immediately following the ones that featured my first two stories, the LETTERS section of the Post included two glowing reviews from readers, along with requests that the editors publish more of my stories in the future, and I suspect that that was a factor in their decision to accept my next efforts. I didn't know those two kind readers (no, they were not my mother and my sister), but I will always be sincerely grateful for their letters to the editor.
My point, here, is that even though I certainly prefer writing mystery/crime/suspense, it's sometimes fun and even profitable to reach beyond the genres you're used to and try writing something different. It's also fun to occasionally test some previously untried publications with your stories.
The worst they can do is say no, right? And you might even get a pleasant surprise.