07 December 2019

More Experiments

In last week's column I talked a bit about experimental writing, and gave as an example one of my recent stories, which was told in such a nonlinear way almost the whole thing flowed backward. In that post I mentioned (and most of the readers' comments agreed) that trying new writing techniques can sometimes pay off, not only in sales but in the enjoyment of writing these "different" kinds of stories.

The more I thought about that, the more I looked back through my old stories, trying to remember other times that I'd broken or at least bent the rules of storytelling. For what it's worth, here are thirty examples that I found:

"Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, 2018) -- A single story consisting of three different mystery cases and three different crimes.  (This was an installment in a series, so I felt a little safer trying something like that.)

"The Home Front" (Pebbles, 1995) and "Command Decisions" (The Odds Are Against Us anthology, 2019) -- Two stories told only in the form of letters mailed between characters.

"Life Is Good" (Bouchercon 2017 anthology) -- A story told in three scenes about three separate characters, each in that character's POV. All three scenes have similar beginning lines and similar ending lines. (If you've read it you know what I mean.)

"Careers" (AHMM, 1998) and "Radio Silence" (new) -- Two stories told using only dialogue.

"Benningan's Key" (Strand Magazine, 2012) -- A 4500-word story using no dialogue at all.

"Denny's Mountain" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A 20,000-word mystery written in two parts, and sold and published as two separate entities.

"In the Wee Hours" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A story that takes place entirely in a dream.

"Mission Ambushable" (flash fiction contest, 2008) -- A 26-word story told with each word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. (The link is to a 2013 SleuthSayers post about this story.)

"The Willisburg Stage" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A Western horror story.

"On the Road with Mary Jo" (EQMM, 2019) -- A 4000-word story in which almost half the dialogue is from an Alexa-like device in a self-driving car.

"A Stranger in Town" (Amazon Shorts, 2006), "Over the Mountains" (Dreamland collection, 2016), and "The Miller and the Dragon" (new) -- Three very long stories told only in verse, reminiscent of Robert W. Service's poetry style.

"Lucy's Gold" (Grit, 2002) and "The Donovan Gang" (new) -- Two stories about passengers inside a stagecoach. (The link to "Lucy's Gold" is to a reprint of that story in Saddlebag Dispatches, 2018)

"Christmas Gifts" (Reader's Break, 1998) -- a story about passengers inside an elevator.

"The Red-Eye to Boston" (Horror Library, Vol. 6 anthology, 2017), "Business Class" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2015), and "Creativity" (Mystery Time, 1999) -- Three stories about passengers inside an airplane.

"The Barrens" (The Barrens collection, 2018) -- A children's fairy tale, with witches and monsters.

"Perfect Crime" (Woman's World, 2014) -- The only story in my longest-running mystery series that's told from the villain's POV. This was more risky than experimental. I was surprised they published it.

"The Midnight Child" (Bouchercon 2019 anthology) -- A story told in reverse.

"Dreamland" (AHMM, 2015) -- A present-day mystery/fantasy story using characters based on Robin Hood and his men.

"Mum's the Word" (Flashshot, 2006) -- A 55-word story using only dialogue.

"The Music of Angels" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2018) -- Sort of a romance story whose three main characters have the first names of our oldest son's three children. (This story was written for them; I think they liked it.)

"Dentonville" (EQMM, 2015) -- A story that includes the killing of a pet--something I don't like, editors don't like, and readers don't like. But this pet is a devil-dog whose death is justified (think No Country for Old Men) and necessary to the plot. The story also includes a seven-foot-tall woman, so it's different in several ways.

"Mythic Heights" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A mystery using nursery-rhyme characters: Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, etc.

"An Hour at Finley's" (Amazon Shorts, 2006) -- A story told in three equal parts (scenes), with each part "titled" with the name of its POV character.

I admit that these aren't stellar examples of experimental writing, but all are far different from the way I usually write, and--again--all of them were a lot of fun to create.

Having said that, I want to mention once more that almost all my stories are mysteries told the usual way--linear, past tense, first- or third-person, traditional beginning/middle/end, etc. I'm not as adventurous as my characters. I am, however, fond of inserting plot reversals if possible, not only at the end but throughout my stories--because that's something I like to encounter when I read the stories of others.

To continue my questioning from last week: What are some of the rule-breaking stories and/or novels you've written? Are you working on any, currently? When you do write "experimentally," do you know it ahead of time or do you discover, as you write, that doing things differently might be better? Can you give some examples, and maybe even some links to any that might be available online?

Thanks for indulging me, on all this. See you in two weeks.


  1. Kudos to you John for being a risk taker in your writing. Look forward to checking out On the Road with Mary Jo. 

  2. Hey Larry. Thanks--but I think most writers take a lot more risks than I do. These examples are few, and my "safe" stories are many. But I was honest in that it's great fun to try something a little out of the comfort zone.

    If you see the Mary Jo story I hope you'll like it. It was in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of EQMM.

  3. Now that's a listing, you risk taker.

  4. I don't often intentionally experiment when writing; I'm usually in search of the best way to tell whatever story I'm trying to tell. Even so, two stories come to mind:

    "Only Heroes Die," published in Espionage, November 1985, was written in reverse—last scene first working toward first scene last. The editors revised the story prior to publication so there's no evidence that's what I intended. Is the story better for the revision? Damned if I know, but that was early in my career, the story was published, and I was paid, so I'm not complaining.

    "Sleepy River," recently accepted by AHMM, is written from the POV of a young girl, and maintaining her voice throughout meant making some word usage and grammatical errors that I would not intentionally make in most of my writing...so many that I worried it might appear I didn't know what I was doing.

  5. John, you definitely have taken some risks with your stories, and I think it's great!

    I have written two mysteries set in a future where medical technology can keep you living indefinitely - for a price (they're out looking for a home right now).

    And I have the Crow Woman tales, in which a mythical Lakota woman and her partner / true love Dark That Rides (who is not human; exact definition unavailable, so far) are major characters. Sometimes they come to people's rescue; sometimes they come to their deaths.
    “Dark Hollow.” Space and Time, New York, NY. Fall, 2000.
    “At The End of the Path.” Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, New York, NY. July/August, 2002.
    I have a third, "The Four Directions", but haven't yet found a home for it.

  6. O'Neil, I doubt a lot of risk was involved in mine--mostly these stories just weren't the kind I usually write. The truth is, you've been writing different kinds of fiction for a long time, some of which I'm sure requires a LOT of research to make it convincing and accurate. That kind of thing, to me, is riskier than tweaking genres or trying different narrative structures, etc. (I do wonder, though, why some authors even bother with style differences, like the absence of quotation marks, etc. What point does that make?)

    Good examples, Michael. I too have fiddled around a bit with unfamiliar POVs, and I understand why you were concerned--sometimes that's hard to do well. The nonlinear timelines are, I think, the most fun.

  7. Eve -- Your futuristic mysteries sound like they'd be hard to write but fun to read!

    I somehow missed "At the End of the Path." Those Crow Woman stories sound great--I'll make it a point to try to find and read them. As for your comment about attempting to "find a home" for the third in the series, that's a problem that I've faced several times: If you get a series going someplace and one of the installments gets rejected, where do you send it? But I think the advantages of writing a series (of stories OR novels) outweigh the disadvantages.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  8. I'm not as prolific as you are by a long shot, but I love to experiment with short stories. I wrote one in second person present tense, one in third person, one with six points of view (and placed in a contest with it), one recently in which one woman is dreaming the second woman's life and vice versa (placed in a contest with that one, too). My very first published story was written as two parallel stories that converged at the end. I have a couple of serial short stories going, but they've all been published in different places, until Wildside brought one series together as a "Thrillogy." You say you don't set out to break/bend the rules, but that's awfully fun to do.


  9. John, after reading about some of the odd things you've done in your stories, I'm convinced of something I've long suspected: the best writers are a little bit crazy. ;-)

  10. What an interesting idea! Thanks John I enjoyed this read.

  11. Kaye, I congratulate you on your successes, and for even attempting a second-person story. I don't think I'd do a very good job of that. As for setting out to break the rules, a few of these stories were planned that way, and several more just turned into "different" stories along the way. And yes, it's fun any way you wind up doing it.

    Earl, ALL writers are a little bit crazy. We have to be, to come up with all this stuff, right? And I would argue that many of the stories and novels that we remember most by famous writers are the "odd" ones.

    It's a fascinating subject, Deborah. Thanks for the comment!


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