25 November 2016

Guest Post: Tara Laskowski on Writing Crime Fiction (Without Being a Writer of Crime Fiction)

Tara Laskowski
Today, I'm pleased to welcome a very special guest: my wife, Tara Laskowski! Tara is the author of two collections of short fiction, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders, and since 2010, she's edited SmokeLong Quarterly, one of the leading flash fiction journals in the business. As she'll explain, while much of her success has been in more literary circles (including the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International), she's also published short stories in the anthology The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology and in both Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; in fact, she was the sole American author in EQMM's recent All Nations Issue, celebrating the magazine's work with writers around the globe. While many of our SleuthSayers have written for non-mystery magazines and are planning to share stories about that crossover, today Tara talks a little about moving in the other direction and the challenges and pleasures she's found in the process. Hope you'll enjoy! — Art Taylor

Writing Crime Fiction
(Without Being a Writer of Crime Fiction)
By Tara Laskowski

Earlier this year, I tried for the first time to write an actual mystery story.

While I’ve had a few stories published in crime magazines and anthologies, they were never stories I had intentionally written for those audiences. I am, for the most part, considered a literary writer, and most of the publications I have on my resume are in literary and general fiction journals, books, and magazines. My stories tend to hover on the themes of family, friendships, and women's issues. I write and edit flash fiction, which is often experimental and focused on language and rhythm over plot—closer to poetry in some ways.

But I also love the dark side. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators and Stephen King's novels and stories. I was born on Halloween and am obsessed with horror movies. I love a good scare, a good creep-out, a wicked villain.

So my stories usually have some of that crime, noir, supernatural element to them—although those darker elements usually creep in after the fact. That is, I don’t intend to write a crime story—and most of the time my crime stories hover in the gray areas between genres, part domestic drama, part murder mystery, part ghost story.

So intentionally sitting down to write a traditional mystery story? The thought kind of gave me hives. Plot and all its intricacies do not come easily to me, and I struggled with how to drop clues and red herrings in ways that weren't completely obvious and stupid, all while trying to move the story forward, make sure the characters were interesting, and not drive myself completely batty in the process.

(Side note: I have profound respect for Sophie Hannah in her plotting of the new Hercule Poirot mysteries. I have no idea how she does it. I cannot even keep a 25-page story straight, let alone a massive novel. Standing ovation, Ms. Hannah. Standing ovation.)

It is a completely different way to write a story. Usually when I am working on something new, it starts with a character and a moment and unfolds from there. I discover what the story is about as I’m writing it, and the language and descriptions carry it forward. But in this case, I started with a scenario and had to build out the plot. I had a character named Nancy Drew who hated the fact that she was named that and who was on a date with a man who thought it was funny to bring her to a murder mystery dinner. And of course, I knew that in the middle of the dinner, someone at her table would have to go missing. But who? And what happened to that person? And how would she solve it? And what would happen with her and her boyfriend? Would this mystery bring them together, or pull them apart for good?

All these questions were swirling around in my brain, and I felt that I had to know what was going to happen before I started writing the story. I sketched an entire outline. Then deleted it. Then reworked it. Then put it aside. Then tried again.

Want to know how long it took me to finish the story after I got the initial idea? Ready?

Ten years.

Nope. Not kidding. Ten years.

Clearly those “putting aside” moments were long ones—in some cases, years—but from initial idea to completed, submitted story draft, it was almost ten years in the making.

The good news: the story recently was accepted by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, so you’ll be able to find out what happens to Nancy soon—sooner than it took me to figure out what happened to her, anyway.

My point in all this is that mystery fiction does not come easy to me. I love writing it, and I especially love reading it, but I don’t naturally think that way and it’s been interesting to focus my efforts in that direction. For one, the mystery community is extremely generous and welcoming. Despite all the folks killed off in the pages of their books, crime writers are quite lovely and kind in real life.

Plus, there are great reasons to expand your style and topics. I feel like the stories I publish in crime and mystery publications are more widely read than the ones I've published in before. Or, at least, I get a different audience than what I normally would get. Exposure to new readers is always good—and if a writer can expand outside her normal genre she might find new fans and bigger book sales. When I publish in a lit journal, the folks who I hear from who read it are all people I know. But when I publish in a mystery magazine, I will hear from readers I don't know at all—and that's always a treat.

The other perk for me is that crime pays! No, not that crime, silly. Crime fiction. Selling one story to a major mystery magazine gets me more money than the royalties from my books. Getting paid for your work is something that most literary writers aren't used to. We're used to giving away our work for free. We're used to running online journals as labors of love. The idea of paying artists for their work is refreshing to see in the mystery world, and an idea that I hope spreads and grows.

All that said, I love having the privilege of publishing widely, in both crime and mystery publications and in university journals, online and print literary magazines, and anthologies. No matter where my stories show up, they are always in good company with writers I admire and continue to learn from, and that's one of the best perks of being a writer in the first place.

Thank you to everyone for allowing me to contribute here! I recognize I am the other perspective in this special series, and I look forward to hearing what crime writers say about writing for non-mystery publications.


  1. Very clever, a character named Nancy Drew. Just that bit sells me.

    Welcome, Tara. I enjoyed hearing about your crime plotting. Yours is the perfect article, being able to inform readers about your work, tell them something they don’t know without falling back on BSP. Nicely done.

    I’ve heard a rough rule of thumb that it takes 10 years to learn how to write– it turned out true in my case, but of course you had other literary ventures taking place.

    Glad to meet you, Tara. I look forward to seeing Nancy in AHMM.

  2. Congratulations on you newest AHMM story!

  3. Tara, your "ten years" story proves the power of never giving up on anything. And congratulations on the sale to AHMM.


  4. Thanks for the comments already, folks--and thanks to Tara for guest-posting today!

  5. Leigh--Thank you for your kind words! And I think it's taking me a lot longer than 10 years to learn how to write. Always new things to learn, for sure.

  6. Paul--persistence pays off, I guess? As do hundreds of drafts.... Thank you!

  7. Tara, what a great post. I appreciated reading your experience with crime writing. And, as someone who struggles with plot, I found it encouraging. Yes, perseverance pays off! Thanks for your message. And, Art, thanks for having Tara as a guest.

  8. Fantastic column, Tara! It's so good to have you here, and to hear about your "experiment" that turned out so well. I usually have a hard time when it comes to trying new things, so I admire you all the more. Sincere congratulations on the sale to AHMM--I can't wait to read your story there--and on all your accomplishments.

    What a great writing team!

  9. I suspected that we were kindred writing spirits, Tara, and now I know it. Though I write primarily crime fiction, I go about it in the same way as you do literary fiction.

    By the way, fellow Sleuth Sayers and readers, if you haven't read any of Tara's work, you really should. It's terrific stuff and I'm a big fan.

  10. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Tara! I've read several of your stories and enjoyed them all. I've had stories and story ideas that have spent ten years or more in limbo--a number are still stuck there, and I revisit them from time to time, hoping to find a way to nudge them forward. I look forward to reading your next story in AHMM.

  11. Tara, welcome to the SleuthSayers family. I enjoyed your article and look forward to reading your story in an upcoming Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

  12. Thank you everyone! This has been such a fun experience.

  13. Tara, thanks so much for your article! I consider myself lucky to have been published anywhere! Am looking forward to your story in AHMM. (By the way, this Nancy Drew doesn't know three guys named Pete, Bob and Jupiter, does she? :) )

  14. Jeff----AAAHHHH!!! Jupiter is my spirit animal!!!

  15. A family with at least two writers! That's marvelous! I enjoyed how you constructed the story. Quality tells!


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