08 October 2019

Open Your Heart and Bleed

What are your stories about?

I’m not interested in elevator pitches—“My stories are about a plucky private eye who searches for missing labradoodles with the aid of her grandfather’s long-dead schnauzer.”—but rather about the underlying themes in one’s work.

I’m pondering this question, as I have many times before, because Barb Goffman, moderator of “Short and Sweet but Sometimes Dark,” a short story panel at this month’s Bouchercon, asked participants to send her two recently published or about-to-be published stories to aid in her preparation.

As I looked through mine, I was reminded of how often I write about the lingering impact of expired relationships. Whether relationships end by choice or not, former lovers (survivors, in the case of death) carry emotional weight all the rest of their days, and this weight, in one form or another, informs much of my fiction.


Michael Bracken, Heartache-bound
I had known Vickie since sixth grade, and she sat behind me in homeroom when I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader at Mason Junior High School in Tacoma, Washington. I visited her home, where we played games, watched television, and dined with her family. Our first date—an unchaperoned date, no less—would be the first dance of the school year, held in a multi-purpose room with a stage at one end, theater seating at the other end, and a hardwood gymnasium floor between the two. Because Tacoma had public transportation, I would take the bus from home—a mere block from the junior high school—to hers a mile or so away, return with her, and attend the dance.

Between the time I asked Vickie to the dance and the day of our date, I learned that my parents and I would be moving to Fort Bragg, California, and we were leaving the morning after the dance. I told no one.

As planned, I picked Vickie up at her home and we traveled by city bus to the junior high school. We sat in the theater seats, listening to the music and watching some of our classmates on the dance floor. Vickie repeatedly asked me to dance, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to tell her I was moving, but I couldn’t.

After a while, she grew frustrated and left. Alone.

The next day I climbed in the back seat of my parents’ car, and we moved to California.

I never saw or talked to Vickie again.

I never told her I was leaving, I never said goodbye, and I have carried that weight for nearly fifty years.


I did not have another girlfriend until I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Yvonne, a junior, served on the school’s newspaper staff with me, and we dated during the last semester of my senior year, the same semester my mother died during heart surgery. More than a girlfriend, she was one of the few people (along with my best friend Joe and my English teacher Mrs. Richmond) who helped me cope with the loss of my mother.

Even so, I struggled with my mother’s passing, and my stepfather and I did not get along. So, my grandmother traveled to Fort Bragg to take me home with her.

I think I told Yvonne I was leaving—I hope I did—but once again a budding relationship was truncated by events beyond my control, and at least two years passed before I again opened my heart.


Over the years, I have survived many additional heartaches—the deaths of loved ones, the slow disintegration of relationships that began with such promise, relationships truncated for reasons beyond my control—and those heartaches bled into, and continue to bleed into, my fiction.

So, when I selected two stories for Barb, I found myself unable to find two in which the end of a relationship didn’t play at least some small part in the tale. I chose “Who Done It,” coming next month in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Woodstock,” forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (I didn’t select “Love, Or Something Like It,” forthcoming in Crime Travel [Wildside Press], which Barb edited, because the theme is much too obvious.)

I could have selected any of several other stories because dealing with the emotional weight of expired relationships has long been an underlying theme in my work, just as it has in my life.

Still, if you prefer the elevator pitches, catch me when I’m feeling less confessional.

My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” published last year in Tough, has been named one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. This is the second time one of my stories has made the list (the first, “Dreams Unborn,” made the 2005 list); last year my story “Smoked” actually made it into the anthology.

Join us at the launch party for The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down and Out Books) at Murder By The Book in Houston on October 21. Seven of the contributors—Chuck Brownman, James A. Hearn, Scott Montgomery, Graham Powell, William Dylan Powell, Mark Troy, and Bev Vincent—will join me to discuss the anthology and their stories, and to sign copies. If you can’t get to the signing, contact Murder By The Book. I suspect they’ll let you preorder a copy that we can sign for you and that they can ship after the event.


  1. Wasn't it Freud who said that lies ( ie fiction for us) were more revealing that truth? You are absolutely right, good stories reflect our lives even if they are in a certain format, whether genre mysteries or sonnets.

  2. Lot to think about here. Heartaches. Like the William Faulkner quote, “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

  3. I think it's hard for us not to revisit certain themes from our lives in our stories, Michael. They just sort of seep in, even if we're not consciously aware of it.

    And congratulations on your story/stories in the Best American Mysteries series.

  4. Oh, old heartbreaks last a long time. Did anyone but me ever notice that in almost every novel Steinbeck wrote, a man (usually a minor character) can never forgive himself for (inadvertently) causing a woman's death by not getting her to a hospital soon enough? We keep trying to work it out.

  5. Occasionally the Blogger software decides it hates someone and won't let them comment. This happened to Josh Pachter today. This is what he tried to write:

    Josh Pachter I tried to comment on SleuthSayers, Michael, but for some reason the system wouldn't let me. (Have I been exsleuthmunicated?) Anyway, this is a powerful piece. Thanks for sharing these personal stories and thoughts!

  6. Funny thing, Michael, is when I was reading your piece I immediately thought of your story "Chase Your Dreams," another about lost love.

    It is interesting to think about recurring themes. In my early writing years a lot of my stories involved threats to or actual violence to old men. Don't know what that was about. Eventually I wrote as story in which the old man did the killing and that seemed to have ended that pattern...

  7. Robert, "Chase Your Dreams" is a clear example, and one of the the best examples, of how the theme informs my stories, and thanks for remembering it!

    You're right, Paul, about how themes seep into our work, and it's only when we look back at what we've written that we begin to realize how often some themes recur.

    Eve, I hadn't noticed that about Steinbeck...but it's been quite a while since I read any of his work.

    Janice, O'Neil, thanks for your comments.

  8. As your article opens and queries writers' themes, I was thinking of what James Lincoln Warren said about my work. And then, as I continued reading, the poignancy of your early relationships seemed far more personally significant.

    I'd like to think Vickie figured it out and I bet Yvonne knew. Wow, those are touching. Kids don't know what they're doing to begin with, and boys have such trouble opening at the right moment. It's amazing we survive at all.

    How would you feel about contacting them now?

    Shrinks say people tend to repeat bad relationships– alcoholics, abusers and users– in an unconscious effort to get things right the next time. Maybe some smart writers work it out on paper to make things right.

  9. My grandmother used to hum a sad, sad song, After the Ball. For some reason Vickie's and your story makes me think of it.

  10. Leigh, sometimes a memory—good or bad—is best left as a memory.

  11. G'day. Wanting some info on joining the FB SMFS group. I've applied several times, but I don't know how to turn FB completely to public. I'm not a bot (checks, no, not yet anyway).
    I'm not a writer, but a reader of short mysteries from AHMM and EQMM Magazines.
    Would love to chat with others who also read. Short fiction only.

  12. Hi, Michael! My heart bled for you not being able to say good bye. Obviously, very traumatic for you as you use this in your writing. I tend to use people aren't what they seem in my theme.

  13. Unknown, you might first with to join the SMFS's Yahoo Group: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Shortmystery/info

    On the other hand, if you're Paul Sholtz from Australia, I think you figured it out before I noticed your comment to respond.

    Thanks for your comments, Vicki!


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