01 December 2018

Two Strand Stories: Behind the Scenes

I always find something to like about SleuthSayers posts, whether they stick to the subjects of mysteries and writing or veer off into something else--but some of those I've enjoyed the most are the ones where an author talks in detail about specific stories or novels he or she has written. Sort of an insider's view.

With that in mind--and hoping others might feel the same--I'd like to look at two of my recent stories, one of them in the previous issue of The Strand Magazine and the other in the current issue.

A quick peek

The first story, "Foreverglow" (original title "The Foreverglow Case"), appeared in The Strand's June-Oct issue. It's the story of a regular and not-overly-bright guy who meets and falls for a young lady who, as it turns out, has what she feels is a brilliant plan to steal a fortune in diamond jewelry from the store where she's employed. They manage to work together to pull off the heist--but what happens next was not in their original plan.

The second story, "Lucian's Cadillac," appears in the current (Oct-Jan) issue, which they're calling the Twentieth Anniversary Collector's Issue. It's a tale about three lifelong but unlikely friends--a genius, a "little person," and an ex-football player--who happen to witness a double murder. They testify against the killer, and later wind up on his payback list when he escapes from the state prison. It's sort of a High Noon/Cape Fear kind of story, with three over-the-hill seniors as the targets of revenge.

What's interesting, to me, about these two stories is what I found when I started comparing them. At first glance, they have a lot in common. Here are a few of the


- Both stories have protagonists with common, everyday lives and jobs. I find myself doing this a lot. Heroes don't have to be superheroes.

- Both are about 2500 words in length. This is actually a little short for Strand stories; I think the guidelines still say between 2K and 6K.

- Both are mysteries. This just means a crime is central to the plot.

- Both have characters who are romantically attracted to each other. The two thieves in the first story, and the viewpoint character and a female sheriff in the second. A romantic element, even if minor, can add a level of interest and/or conflict.

- Both are told in past tense. (I probably shouldn't have listed this, since all my stories are past tense. But it is a similarity.)

- Both are standalone stories. One of the two could conceivably become a series, but I have no plans in that direction.

- Both, except for some violence, have family-friendly content. Hell no, the priest and the Republican senator are NOT having an affair.

- Both are set in the present day, and in fairly small and unnamed towns. In one of the stories I mentioned that Atlanta was nearby, but otherwise I didn't see a need to use real, it's-on-the-map locations.

Both have only a few named characters but a LOT of dialogue. (One story has two speaking roles, the other has three.)

- Both include major plot reversals. I find this hard to resist when I write, because it's the kind of thing I like to encounter myself in the stories and novels I read.

But . . . here are some things about those stories that aren't alike at all.


- In one story, the protagonists willfully break the law; in the other they don't. Asking the reader to root for the bad guys doesn't always work--but sometimes it does (Get Shorty, The Godfather, Butch Cassidy, etc.).

- One is written in third person, the other in first person. This wasn't even a conscious decision on my part--it just seemed the right way to tell these particular stories.

- One has several different scenes; the other has no scene breaks at all. A factor here is that in one story the action includes different places at different times, and in the other story everything happens at the same location--a neighborhood bar owned by the protagonist--in the space of only an hour or so.

- In one, the romantic element drives the story; in the other it's incidental. What can I say?--Love is mysterious.

One's a heist story; the other's a tale of revenge and survival. As a result, one of the stories has no specific named antagonist, while the other does.

- In one story, the characters are fairly "average"; in the other there'a a lot of diversity. The group of close friends in the second story includes a brilliant scholar, a dwarf, and an overweight former linebacker. Plus a lady sheriff.

- One contains no violence; the other does. This makes sense because one's a try-to-escape-without-getting-caught story, and the other's life-or-death, do-whatever-you-must-to-stay-alive.

- In one, the main characters are young; in the other they're old. The ages, here, are appropriate to the plot: the jewelry thieves are confident but inexperienced, and the three old men facing a deadly enemy are experienced enough not to be confident--besides being physically challenged.

- One has a surprise ending; the other does not. Although I hope both endings are satisfying.

So the two stories have many things in common, including some style/structure elements, but they're vastly different. I think that's to be expected with my stories, and probably with yours as well. If they're too much alike--even those that are "series" installments--they'll be boring to write and boring to read. This applies to novels as well as shorts.

Advice and opinions

For you writers out there, how different from each other are the stories you create? Are most told in the same viewpoint? Do most have the same kind of geographical setting? The same time period? The same tense? The same length? Complex plots? Happy endings? Surprise endings? How about the amount of dialogue? Violence? Sex? Profanity? Humor? Is there any one thing that you find yourself always including, or always avoiding?

Here's some sage advice from Elmore Leonard, and supposedly from Alfred Hitchcock as well: Leave out the parts that people skip.

Easier said than done.


  1. Nice analysis of your stories.

    So now I have an early-morning assignment.

    1. How different from each other are the stories you create?
    I'm all over the place. A long time ago I decided to write at least a couple stories in just about every genre: crime fiction, historical fiction, children’s fiction, mainstream fiction, mystery, science-fiction, suspense, fantasy, horror, western, literary, religious, romance, humor and erotica. I've had stories published in each of these genres. I also write some in present tense, some in past tense in different settings, some in series, some not. It confuses editors and readers, which is not good.

    2. Are most told in the same viewpoint?
    No. Again, I'm all over the place.

    3. Do most have the same kind of geographical setting?
    Yes. New Orleans, but I've set stories all over the world and on a couple planets.

    4. The same time period?
    Again, no. I love historical fiction and set many stories in the past, many in the present.

    5. The same tense?
    No. I like using the past and present tenses, sometimes in the same story.

    6. The same length?
    No way.

    7. Complex plots?

    8. Happy endings?

    9. Surprise endings?
    On occasion.

    10. How about the amount of dialogue?
    Lot of dialogue.

    11. Violence? Sex?
    Mostly offscreen. Except for the novels.

    12. Profanity?
    Not in stories I want to sell to magazines but many of my characters use profanity in my novels, yes.

    13. Humor?
    As much as I can put in, even in the somber stories. Humor in all my novels.

    14. Is there any one thing that you find yourself always including, or always avoiding?
    I try to avoid annoying readers. Not easy since I am an annoying person.

  2. Congratulations on your two Strand stories, John. And the great analysis of them.

    As for my stories, they run the gamut, from straight PI stories like Windward to satirical stories like Continental Tilt. And even stories with a touch of the supernatural like the Ghosts of Bunker Hill series. Then there's noir and hardboiled and pretty much everything in between. I think it's fun to change things up sometimes and try new things.

  3. O'Neil, thanks for all those answers, and the detail. I already knew you write about everything, in many different genres--but I didn't know it was THAT different. Sounds as if you feel as I do on that--if you vary your subject matter enough, the writing remains a lot of fun to do. I've written stories in mystery, romance, SF/fantasy, horror, and western, but not in the range that you've done. And congratulations on your success with that. (But stick with the mostly New Orleans settings--I love that about your stories and novels.

    Paul, your stories vary all over the place as well, and you too have been successful doing that. We haven't said much about paranormal elements, so I'm glad you mentioned that. I also like to put that into many of the stories I write. I once heard that it's not necessary to write what you know; instead write what you feel comfortable writing.

    Thanks again, guys.

  4. My stories range from stand-alone set on a cruise ship ("The Seven Day Itch") to series set in Laskin, SD (and even there, there are two different first-person narrators - Grant Tripp and Linda Thompson - and a third person narrator for the John Franklin ones). Also one (so far) set in 1880s SD ("A Time To Mourn" - which made the honorable mentions for Best American Mysteries 2012) and one (so far) set in 1947 Vienna ("Miss West's First Case). I go where my brain takes me, and I am not entirely in charge.

  5. Eve, sounds like your brain takes you to some interesting places!! And interesting times as well.

    Once again, I love the fact that so many writers use varied settings and varied POVs in their work. I'm not saying I don't like stories/novels by writers who stick to one way of doing things (Lee Child comes to mind), but I know I find it fun to experiment a little with different things in different stories.

    I also realize that short-story writers have more of an opportunity to try different techniques than novel writers do, because they're able to produce so many more individual pieces of work.

    Thanks for the comment, Eve!

  6. Great post, John, especially the important questions you ask.

    Most of my short stories are standalones, and many are from the POV of the bad guy, and usually involve some humor. A few feature characters from my series, but short stories are where I like to experiment with different techniques and ideas. If it's not working, it's only a few thousand words i might be able to recycle somewhere else instead of 80K that might just sit on a flash drive until I can use a little piece of description or dialogue.

    I used to read the Strand regularly until it disappeared from shelves in two of the three local bookstores. Now, I can't even find anything on the website about submissions. Do they still take over the transom submissions or are they by invitation?

  7. Hey Steve. Thanks for the input. I'm in firm agreement with you about inserting humor into stories (even, as O'Neil said, into "serious" stories). Interesting that you often focus on the POV of the bad guy. I do that from time to time also.

    Yes, the Strand does still take unsolicited submissions. And our two chain bookstores here (Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble) still carry it on their newsstands, thankfully. I have a subscription but when I have a story in there, I usually buy another copy for my sister at one of our stores.

    Thanks for chiming in!

  8. Congrats on these stories and thank you for the analysis. Valuable compare/contrast details for those who’d love to sell a story to The Strand someday (i.e., virtually every mystery shorts writer on the planet).

    Also enjoyed the comments about writing different kinds of stories. My own stories range from humorous whodunits to dark suspense stories. My general preference is to write (and read) dark mysteries laced with cynical humor, but some stories want to drift off-course from that general preference toward one end of the range or the other. Nothing I can do except follow them.

  9. Thanks, Peter, for stopping in, here--and for your kind words. The Strand has indeed been kind to me, these past few years.

    As several have said here today, it IS fun to put humor into these mystery stories, but I agree that some stories lend themselves to that and some don't. I certainly prefer to use it whenever possible. I also agree that you're correct to try to write the kinds of stories you most enjoy reading.

    Keep up the good work, my friend!

  10. Fun to read about your stories, John (though more fun to read them). As for mine, I'm writing a lot more stories now than ever before, and one result is that they've gotten more different from each other: three series, present day and different historical periods, adding more point of view characters and in one case a new protagonist to an established series, more standalones in more varied subgenres with different differences of the kind you describe: for example, murder first (ie a mystery) vs murder last (psychological suspense or sometimes a story I don't know how to categorize). Funny vs serious, and I agree, it's not a matter of choice. The story tells you what it wants to be.

  11. Liz, sounds like you're having fun. I know how good you are with historical fiction, and with series also. And, hey, it doesn't matter whether they fit into a set category or not!

    Looking forward to reading some of these--keep me posted.


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