26 July 2014

Stranded Again

by John M. Floyd

As I was trying to decide what to write for today, it dawned on me that some of the columns I have enjoyed the most by my fellow Sayers of Sleuth were those that revealed the "story behind the story" for certain pieces of their fiction. In fact I've always been interested in behind-the-scenes, how-I-do-it peeks into the processes writers use to come up with their creations. So, to make a long story short (pun intended), I'm going to try to do some of that today.

First, a little background . . .

In November 2011, not long after SleuthSayers began, I posted a column called "Stranded." In it I mentioned one of my short mystery stories, "Turnabout," that had recently been published in The Strand Magazine. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have five more stories in The Strand; the latest, called "Molly's Plan," appears in the current issue (June - September 2014). Down here in the Southern hinterlands, I saw a copy of this issue for the first time at our local Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and bought one for me and one for my mother (my Biggest Fan).

The glimmer of an idea for "Molly's Plan" began long ago, when I worked for IBM. My job title for many years was Finance Industry Specialist, which sounds more important than it really was; what I did was work with IBM banking software applications, like teller networks, ATMs, check processing systems, etc., which required me to spend most of my time with clients at their business sites. For me, those sites--or work locations, if you want to call them that--were banks.

One of the zillions of financial institutions I visited in the course of my career was a big gray lump of a building with white columns along the front, at the end of a narrow street that was always jammed with traffic. It was a branch of a regional bank, but it looked more like the fusion of a plantation home and a medieval prison. Even its layout was strange: it offered very few parking spaces, no drive-up windows, and limited access in just about every way. Simply stated, it was hard to get to and hard to leave. Because of this--and because my devious mind leaned toward deviousness even back then--it occurred to me that this bank would be extremely difficult to rob. Or at least difficult to escape from, after being robbed. I mentioned that to the branch manager one day, who confirmed my observation. He told me there had never ever been a robbery there, not even so much as an attempt, and probably never would be. As I later noted in the short story that resulted from all this, "Smart rustlers tend to avoid box canyons." The manager was so confident he didn't even bother to have a rent-a-cop on guard duty.

Bottom line is, my impressions and memories of that real-life location formed, years later, the setting for my story. As you might suspect by now, the plan in "Molly's Plan" was to steal a fortune in cash from the vault of this bank, and get away with it.

In the eye of the beer holder

The only other thing I might mention about the story is that, unlike most of my mysteries, this one includes a lot of different points of view. One scene is from the POV of an unnamed narrator, several are from the bank robber, others are from his wife, from a police officer, from a teller, etc. That's a lot of POV switches, for a story of around 5000 words. Most of my short mystery stories, certainly most of the ten that have so far appeared in The Strand, have only one POV--that of the main character.

So why are there so many points of view, in this story? The answer is simple: I felt it would take that many to properly tell the tale. In this case, I wanted to introduce suspense on several levels, and even though I understand the advantages and intimacy of the first-person and third-person-limited points of view, the one big advantage of third-person-multiple POV is that it allows the writer to build suspense and misdirection in ways that are not possible otherwise. Handled correctly, it can be a win/win situation: the writer can conceal certain facts from the reader by revealing only what a particular character sees and knows at a particular time--and the reader, by seeing the action through the eyes of several different characters over the course of the story, can know things about the plotline that the other characters might not yet know. Maybe there's a burglar hiding in Jane's basement, or the money John found under the park bench belongs to the mafia, or the friendly neighborhood cop is actually one of the killers. Or--as Alfred Hitchcock once said in an interview--oh my God, there's a bomb under the table!

Does that approach work, in this instance? I hope so. All a writer can do is try to sell the editor or publisher on his story, and then trust that if it's accepted the reader will enjoy it as well.


Do you, as writers, find yourselves calling on personal experiences to come up with most of your fictional settings? If so, how close do you come to the real thing? Do you think that kind of familiarity is necessary, or do you let your imagination supply most of what you need? How much detail do you include?

What type of POV do you use most, in your fiction? Does it depend on the form--flash, short, novella-length, novel-length? Or does it depend mostly (as in my case) on the plot? I once heard someone say that your choice of POV should be dictated by how much you want your reader to know and how soon you want your reader to know it.

Have any of you tried submitting to The Strand? If you've not sent them something, I hope you will. They publish three issues a year with four or five stories in each, and their guidelines say they prefer hardcopy submissions of 2000 to 6000 words. (All of mine so far, I think, have been between 4000 and 5000.) Contact information: Andrew Gulli, The Strand Magazine, P.O. Box 1418, Birmingham, MI 48012-1418. And here's a link to their web site.

Try them out--it's a darn good publication, with a great editor.

As for me, I hope to be Stranded again someday. One never knows.


  1. A good piece. You're right, sometimes a location just screams for a story.

    I'm glad someone has had luck with The Strand, as I've found that submitting to them is like dropping a manuscript into a black hole, with no response even to followup queries a year or more after submission!

  2. John, my favorite point of view for a novel is first person narrative, but my short stories are almost always third person, one or at most two views.

    I've only sent two stories to The Strand, and like Janice, I've never heard anything from them. I'd appreciate at least a rejection to add to my collection.

  3. John, loved the blog title.
    The seed for most of my stories comes from a person I met, an event I witnessed or a place I've been, or a combination. Then the imagination runs (daydreamer that I am). Sometimes, the seed gets planted in a different time in history and gets enriched by information from that time period. Hopefully, just enough facts and detail as is necessary to tell the story. Those details which don't work or don't contribute to the story get tossed.

  4. I, too, have submitted to The Strand - three stories - and I've heard nothing, for ten years and counting on one story, two years and counting on another, and one year and counting on the third... I notice that Janice and Fran have the same issues - does the editor actually read work that has a female by-line? Or have the men here had similar experiences?

    Meanwhile, yes, I use landscapes, buildings, people I've seen, met all the time. Those are the seeds. And then I warp them. :)

  5. Thanks, Janice -- I have sort of a mental card file of interesting (at least to me) places that I plan to eventually use in a story.

    As for responses, I too have sent them stories that never received a reply. I've come to believe that they treat rejections the way Reader's Digest used to: they don't reply unless it's an acceptance. I've been lucky there, but they certainly don't accept every story I send them. Wish they did.

    Fran, do you find yourself using multiple third person mostly in mystery/crime stories, for suspense purposes? I still do first person now and then, but mostly third. I think I'm just more comfortable with it.

    R.T., I've heard that any writer who says he doesn't base characters at least in part on people he knows, is lying. And the same could probably be said for places he's visited. I agree that only necessary facts should be included, although I suppose the definition of "necessary" varies. Stephen King once said he's never seen a need to describe characters or settings in great detail.

  6. Eve, the "warping" of those real places, people, etc., is part of the fun, I think. Almost all the characters I've ever used were composites of different folks I've known, plus whatever my imagination adds.

    As for the gender question, I would hope submissions by females are treated the same as those by males. I know New York author Lyndsay Faye has appeared in their pages many times, along with Judith Cutler, Catherine Aird, etc. In fact, L. Faye wrote one of the best stories I've yet read there.

  7. John, I don't think my not hearing from The Strand had to do with my gender, but even a printed slip put back in the SASE would be better. In any event, in order to avoid any gender prejudice with them in the future, I will begin writing for them under two pen names--John Floyd and Stephen King.

    My mind plays "what if?" all the time, so stories come from everywhere. I personally like stories seen from more than one pov, and that seems to tell some stories better.

  8. John, as I told you privately, I read and greatly enjoyed Molly's Plan. It had the "John Floyd" touch--great story.

    As for Strand, I have had the same problem of response. I did get a rejection on one story along with a note from Andrew Gulli saying he liked my style and would like to see more of my work. Of course I sent him another one. That was six years ago. No response. I am assuming he won't be buying it.

  9. Fran, I can assure you (from personal experience) that writing under my name will probably guarantee more rejections than acceptances!

    Thanks, Herschel, for the kind words. I'm glad you liked my story. Regarding The Strand's lack of response to submissions, I can't explain that and I don't want to appear to be defending it. I, too, don't usually receive a response from them for stories they don't accept. I can only say that submitting your work to them can be worth the effort; one "yes" can erase a lot of "never-heard-back-from's."

  10. Hi, John,

    The Strand is obviously a fine publication, but not very responsive. Congrats on your success.

  11. Nice article and it's good to hear that someone is actually in communication with the Strand. Until I read the comments, I thought I held a record of 700+ days without an answer. (Nor an answer to any of the inquiring emails sent asking about the status of the story.)

    Do you suppose sending a physical letter to the address you provided might cause a reply? If not, I suppose I should just give up on them.

    Again, thank you for sharing your experiences and congratulations on placing stories with them!

    Andrew MacRae

  12. It has been a very long time since I have submitted anything to anyone, but The Strand also did not reply to my submissions. I don't have access to my records right now to detail how many years and months it has been on each one. I can say say there were three over about a decade submitted at various times. They never used the SASE enclosed at time of submission nor did they use the SASE sent later when I followed up on each one.


  13. Thanks, Jacqueline -- it's good to see you here.

    A quick note about response times (and the failure to respond at all): What I usually do, with any market, is wait a bit longer than the response time stated in the guidelines, then send a note inquiring about the status of the manuscript, and then (if I get no response from the inquiry) send that submission someplace else, with no guilt feelings whatsoever. I did that once, after never hearing back from a submission to The Strand, and wound up selling that story to another market. Almost exactly two years after I had first submitted it, editor Andrew Gulli contacted me and said they'd like to buy the story, and asked if it was still available. I of course had to say no. But I then sent them a second story, and this one was accepted. The lesson I learned here was that, as we writers have agreed, there's often no rhyme nor reason to all this--we just have to keep writing and keep trying.

    I must point out, though, that I have found Andrew Gulli to be as kind and competent and professional as any editor I've worked with. No matter what you might think about their response policy, I believe it's worthwhile to give The Strand a try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  14. Loved the story behind the story, John. Thanks for writing it. As for the Strand, I have submitted there a couple of times, but never heard back. And as for POV, I do it all, first, third, multiple, depending entirely on the story. Usually stick to single for short stories, but not always. Much more apt to have multiple in novels, but not always. As always, LOL, it depends.

  15. Andrew and Kevin -- Thanks to both of you for stopping by.

    Andrew, my policy on inquiries has always been to send them the same way you sent the submission. If you submitted via email, inquire via email, and if via snailmail (which is the case with The Strand), inquire via snailmail. Whether either kind of inquiry will always get a response, I can't say.

    Kevin, as I mentioned in my comment to Jacqueline, I often just resubmit my manuscripts someplace else if I don't hear back from the first market within a certain period of time. I agree that that can be frustrating. (As if writing isn't already frustrating enough . . .)

  16. I do the same and always wait for awhile after the stated response time. I have also linked this piece to my blog. Congrats on the sale.

  17. Pat Marinelli26 July, 2014 15:59

    Congratulations on the sale, John.

    Regarding POV, I write in what ever POV the character tells me to. I've used first and third depending on genre for my short stories and I've used two POVs depending on length. I've got to get a copy of your story because the multi-POV intrigues me.

    I usually make up my characters but have been know to use real settings if it enhances my story.

    Haven't submitted to The Strand as yet.

  18. Thanks, Jan! It's good to hear I'm not the only person who uses all kinds of POV depending on the kind of story I'm writing.

    I've even used the detached POV at times, which means never getting into the heads of ANY of the characters. Screenplays are of course written using that POV, and it can sometimes be handy in the case of a twist ending, since the ending wouldn't be a surprise if you'd been allowed to see the characters' thoughts beforehand. (Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is the best example I can think of, at the moment.)

  19. Hi Pat -- welcome to SleuthSayers!

    I think anyone who limits himself/herself to using one kind of POV for all stories is missing out on much of the fun of writing, as well as limiting the range of stories he/she could tell. I remain intrigued by the fact that some writers, like the late Robert B. Parker, used only first person for an entire series (his Spenser novels) and used only third person for another (the Jesse Stone novels). I think I would find myself constantly--and accidentally--lapsing from one POV into the other.

  20. I prefer first person POV as it allows me certain freedoms that 3rd person does not. This, of course, precludes the use of multiple POV. And there are times when it won't work at all. I find it difficult to use multiple POV and on the rare occasions when I have, it has to be a separate scene or a complete break.

    As for detached POVs like those in the movies, I would say that the POV becomes that of the reader or (in movies) the viewer.

  21. Herschel, I think we'd all agree that first person is the most limited and intimate POV a writer can use, and offers the closest possible connection between the writer and reader. Several of my reader (not writer) friends have even told me they always prefer first-person stories and novels. I actually think I read more fiction written in third person than first, but again, it's probably because I love suspense and sometimes it's easier to generate certain kinds of suspense with third. I've heard it said that strictly-mystery mysteries should be written in first person so the reader never knows anything before the protagonist does, but that thrillers should be written in third so the reader CAN know things before the protagonist does, and thus heighten the tension the reader feels.

    I too think the best way to separate these third-person-multiple POVs is via a scene break. I've seen some top authors ignore that to good effect (Larry McMurtry, Carl Hiaasen, and many others) but in general I think a too-abrupt "switch" between POVs can be disruptive and sometimes even confusing.

    As for your comment about detached POV, Herschel, I think you're correct. It becomes the reader's (viewer's) POV. Nothing can be revealed about a character's thoughts except what can be seen or heard via actions or dialogue.

  22. Your article took me back to the Bank of Mississippi on the Pearl River and Billy Fenwick. One of the funniest stories Billy told me was his entering the bank by rowboat during the floods surrounded by snakes. If bad guys could have got their act together, I could picture a burglary attempt by boat during one of the many great floods.

    To answer your question, my PoV has to fit the plot. I've dismantled stories and started over because I felt a different PoV would be better.

  23. Leigh -- Like you, I have completely reworked stories because I decided in mid-stream to change the POV. (The risk you run, in doing that--especially if you're changing from, say, first person to third-person-limited--is not to leave in an "I' that shouldn't be there.)

    Good ole Billy. I'll tell him you said hello, Leigh--he's doing well, just gettin' old like the rest of us.

    The bad guys, by the way, were probably afraid of the snakes . . .

  24. Loved the story behind the story, John! Congratulations on so many Strand stories. I've heard so many stories about people not hearing back that I've never subbed to them, but will remedy that. I subscribed to the magazine last Christmas, and am due an issue. Hope to be able to read your story there. And my mind works the same way--especially when I'm in banks and such. LOL

  25. Thanks, Bobbi--good to hear from you! I wish you the very best, and if you read my story I hope you'll enjoy it.

    There will always be times when writers (of both novels and shorts) get discouraged by rejections and by a failure to respond to submissions. But I think the old adage applies, here: I can't promise you'll be published if you submit, but I can promise you won't be published if you don't.

  26. John, thanks for the hands-on POV on both publishing and writing. I'm particularly fascinated by the nuts and bolts of the creative process...and sometimes its rust.
    Regarding POVs, for me you answered the question yourself: whatever makes it play best. If you can't imagine a story told any other way, you know the author nailed it: "The Tell-Tale Heart," Philip Marlowe yarns, "Lolita," etc.
    As for where the "stuff" comes from, mine's almost entirely imagination. And where does my imagination come from? It can't create out of a vacuum.
    Now about POVs and blogs...

  27. Congrats, John. That is quite an accomplishment. I have sent five stories to Strand and the only reply I have ever received was a purchase - 11 months after I sent it. FWIW, that sale came two months after I won the Black Orchid Award.

  28. POV - I'm a first person gal, for novels. I need to be in the skin of the protagonist to write for 80,000 words and 1000 hours. For short stories, I am half and half.

    Re write from experience - ahem. Can never admit to that, John. After all, I write about a)the mob and b) sexy time travel. 'Nuff said.

  29. Thank you, Ben. I rely on imagination a lot also--my life has probably been too routine for me to come up with all these crazy adventures otherwise. I guess I'd have to say my characters and settings are often based, at least loosely, on people or places I've known, but the plots are mostly a pack of lies.

  30. Rob, if I remember correctly, that Strand story of yours also won the Derringer Award in its category. Good work! And thinking back on it, I agree with you--I believe the only responses I have received from them were for those stories that were accepted.

    Melodie, I posted my response to Ben before seeing your comment. As I sort-of mentioned there, imagination is something we HAVE to use, when we write about things like time travel, alien spacecraft, werewolves, etc. I like the old saying, "You don't have to write what you know; you have to write what you feel comfortable writing."

  31. I take a leaf or two from Rod Serling and Stephen King's books and I write down ideas from dreams (and nightmares!) I've driven delivery trucks to small Kansas towns for years, settings as unusual and fantastic to this suburban-bred city-dweller as Atlantis, so of course I've written about them!

  32. Good for you, Jeff. You have one of those jobs that sends you to a lot of different places and puts you in contact with all kinds of different folks--and all are opportunities for story ideas. Keep doing what you're doing!

  33. Great article! I use personal experiences all the time and have done just that with my current WIP. These were a couple of scary moments I used to outline a dark comedy turned just plain dark

    I haven't read the Strand, but will sign up to receive issues moving forward.

  34. Thanks, Stephen! Good luck with the current project.


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