30 April 2022

Building a Dollhouse


As writers, we all have ups and downs, and so far this year I've been fortunate at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: they've published two of my stories--one in their Jan/Feb issue and one in their current (May/June) issue. Not since 1999, when I had stories in AHMM's March, May, and June issues, have I had stories appear there so close together. (I once went 3 1/2 years between publications at AH--unlike some of my superhero friends who seem to have a story in almost every issue.)

The funny thing is, my two recent Hitchcock stories, "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" two months ago and "The Dollhouse" now, are quite a bit different from each other. "MatMM," which was originally titled "MacGuffins," was fairly short, was made up almost entirely of dialogue, and included no real mystery except for some deception in the way the two protagonists overcame the villain. "The Dollhouse" was longer and contained not one but two mysteries, real mysteries that the hero had to solve and that (if I did my job) the reader could figure out as well. There were a few similarities, too, in that both were set near where I live and neither had a lot of on-screen violence--but otherwise they were worlds apart, especially in that the first was a standalone story and the second was a series installment.

A series situation

The series/standalone difference is a big one. "The Dollhouse" was the eighth story I've sold featuring Mississippi sheriff Raymond Kirk Douglas and his ex-lawyer girlfriend Jennifer Parker--five have appeared in AHMM and one in Down & Out: The Magazine, and two more have been accepted at AH but haven't yet been published--and all those stories were written in a certain way. (More about that later.) Also, the stories in the series always have a sideline about the two main characters and their crazy on-again/off-again relationship. My standalone stories at AHMM are a whole 'nother ballgame. Those might be Westerns or science fiction or fantasy or humor or YA or anything else as long as they contain a crime, and they might be any length from flash to novella. During the writing process, the series stories provide more structure, the standalones more freedom. Both are fun to write, though, and I really can't say which I prefer. I think the series stories are probably easier to write, because in those the only thing I have to worry about is the plot. The main characters have already been created and can usually be depended on to act the way they're supposed to.

As I've mentioned, "The Dollhouse" features two puzzles in the same story. Investigating one of them is done as a favor to a high-school principal who's an old friend of the sheriff's, and involves nothing earthshaking or life-threatening. The other mystery is serious: the death of a local lawyer who left behind a vague clue to the identity of his killer. As usual the sheriff''s lady friend takes an active though unofficial role in the murder investigation, and (as is often true in real life) she provides most of the brainpower.

NOTE 1: My choice to include two mysteries instead of one in the same story is typical of the series, and I hope that adds a little extra oomph. Of my eight Ray Douglas mysteries so far, three of them--#1, #3, and #5--contained only one traditional mystery each, but #4, #6, and #7 contained two separate mysteries each and #2 and #8 featured three each. Making those multiple storylines interconnect was challenging but fun.

Building blocks

In "The Dollhouse," the less-important, school-related crime is introduced in the opening scenes and resolved in the final scenes, with the homicide investigation taking up the entire middle section of the story. My obvious reason for that is that I wanted the law-enforcement folks to spend most of their time on the more serious of the two matters. I did figure it was reasonable, though, to include the less-urgent mystery in order to offset and "bookend" what would've otherwise been a more intense story. Who knows if that was the correct decision--but  it felt right to me, during the planning and writing and re-writing.

I also wanted the story title to tie into both of the plotlines. I did that by having one of the players in the more minor crime have a background as a dollmaker and letting that be meaningful to the solution of that part of the story, and also by giving the murder victim's law firm the name Dahl, Hauss, Stanley, Wells, and Yates--Dahl Hauss for short, so it's known as the Dollhouse to everybody in the county. This kind of thing is part of the fun of writing, and, as my wife can tell you, I'm easily amused anyway.

Also, like all the other stories in this series, it used an inside-joke Tuckerism in that it featured a sheriff's deputy named Cheryl Grubbs, which is also the name of one of my childhood schoolmates. I think I've mentioned before at this blog that I ran into Cheryl a few years ago at a booksigning after having not seen her since high school, and she told me she'd been a longtime fan and had always wanted to be in one of my stories. Well, be careful what you wish for; I told her I was about to start a new series and promised her I'd put her in it. (Truth is, Deputy Grubbs is now such a big part of these stories the sheriff can't fire her, so the real-life C. G. might've gotten more than she bargained for.)

NOTE 2: Since a lot of writer friends seem to be interested in these kinds of statistics, I submitted "The Dollhouse" to AHMM on 11/20/19, it was accepted on 8/25/20, and it was published on or around 4/15/22. This one took a little less time than usual from submission to acceptance and a little longer from acceptance to publication, but otherwise it was a pretty typical timeline, for my stories there.

Wrapping this up

A few quick questions. If you write "series" short stories, have you found them to be either easier or more enjoyable to write than standalones? Why? Or is it the other way around--and, again, why? (Nosy SleuthSayers want to know . . .)

In closing, sincere congratulations to my friend R.T. Lawton for his Edgar win this past Thursday night. What a huge honor. Well done, R.T.! 

See you next Saturday.


  1. John, congrats on the stories! I love series stories and have written a few; they come in handy when one writes a weekly flash fiction story for a blog. But these weren't intended to be more than one-shots. I have one about a closeted gay teenager in the 1970s who runs across the country to avoid being put in a boy's home. He runs into the spookiest things in a series unconsciously emulating Manly Wade Wellman. that may be my favorite and I have a full-length story in this series half-plotted out!

    1. Hey Jeff -- I too have done some flash series stories, and yes, I think those are a LOT easier than flash standalones, because there's not room for much character development, and certain no backstory, etc. Your teenager series sounds interesting right off.

      As for one-shots, most of my series "pilot" stories started out that way, and then the character found a way to live on in other stories.

  2. Interesting and pretty cool, man.

    As for your question, when I started writing I was all over the place. Lately, most of my short stories feature characters from my novel series. As you say, it’s easier using an established character and setting.

    I do like writing stand-alone short stories and a few my recent ones sold quickly.

    PS This is the fourth time I’ve tried to comment on this posting. Hope this one goes through. I even switch computers and switch web browsers. Don’t know what the heck is wrong with our blog.

    1. O'Neil, I think most of us have to find out, over time, what kind of things we like to write and how we like to write them. I certainly never dreamed when I started out that I would one day be writing a lot of series short stories.

      As for commenting, I'll send you an email with some of the ways I've found to get around some of our weird Google/Blogger problems. They'll run you crazy.

      Thanks for fighting through the obstacles in order to comment--it's always great to have your thoughts on all this stuff.

  3. Congratulations! I just got the AHMM issue and will read it ASAP.
    I write a lot of series stories set in Laskin, SD, with my regular narrators - Grant Tripp or Linda Thompson. I like doing series stories, because I know the characters so well now, and I can feel them informing the plot, so to speak.
    But I also do standalones, because there are some storylines that won't fit Laskin, including sci-fi mysteries (one of which "For Blood" is coming out soon in Black Cat Mystery Weekly - check it out when it comes!).

    1. Eve -- I never thought of it quite that way, but sure enough, sometimes these familiar characters do seem to help the writer along, in the plot.

      Looking forward to reading your SF story in Black Cat Weekly!

      Hope you'll like my story in this AHMM--let me know.

  4. An interesting analysis of the difference between the two forms. I do both stand-alones and series, and overall I think I like the series ones better. Anita Ray is loads of fun to write about, so I've done over a dozen of those, several them showing up in AHMM. My copy of AHMM just came so I'll get right to it.

  5. Thanks, Anonymous. Hope you'll enjoy the AH story.

    You said several of your Anita Ray stories have shown up in AHMM--does that mean you've also published some of those in other places, or just that you've written more that haven't yet been published? I was at first reluctant to try a series installment in a different place from where the others have appeared, but it doesn't seem to matter much. Hopefully mystery readers who like a particular series also read stories in different publications.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  6. Congratulations John! I guess AHMM couldn't have changed the title of your Dollhouse story, even if they wanted to. I look forward to reading it.

    And congratulations to R.T. for his Edgar-winning story!

    1. Hi Elizabeth -- Nope, original title stayed, this time. They told me before the Jan/Feb issue that they'd like to change my title from "MacGuffins" because they'd like to use "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" for the cover illustration. (Hey, Woman's World has changed about sixty titles of my stories so far, so I'm used to that.) I do hope you'll like "The Dollhouse"--I had a great time writing it.

      Yep, R.T. made us all proud the other night!

  7. Always a good read to hear you describe your process. Look forward to reaidng this new AHHM. You are definitely one of my favorite contemporary authors
    Congrats !!!!

    1. Joan, how very kind of you! I hope you'll still think that after you read this story. As I said before, it was fun to write, and I think one reason was juggling the two different plotlines. Let me know if you like it.

      Thank you again, and thanks as always for stopping by SleuthSayers.

  8. My AHMM copy just arrived, so I'll dig right in here. I'm amazed at your equally terrific quality and quantity. I learn each time you share the thoughtful approach behind it all.

    1. Hi Bob -- Still waiting on my AHMM. Sure hope you'll like my story.

      Thank you for the kind words. I'm not sure how thoughtful my approach is to some of these, but--as you know--each story is always interesting to try to put together. I think the differences that are always there between stories, and the challenges each one presents, are some of the reasons we keep on doing this.

      Take care, and thanks again!

  9. Nice article. It's always interesting to learn where story ideas come from. I enjoyed "Mayhem," and (perfect timing) my latest AHMM arrived in today's mail! I think I'll read your story first.
    As far as series characters go, I've always struggled with that. Had a detective in three stories -- only sold the first one. My few other attempts came up empty. I was always pleased with the first story, but never satisifed with the follow-up.
    Oh, well. I just keep writing.

    1. Bob, sometimes those stories that immediately follow the "pilot" in a series are the hardest to do, but I think once you get past those it gets easier. I suspect you'll find homes for those other stories in your series--As I think I mentioned earlier, those sequels can certainly be marketing to other places than the one that published the first one.

      I was selling stories to magazines for eight years or so before it ever even occurred to me to try a series--and that was at the suggestion of an editor. So I too really enjoy writing the standalone stories.

      Thanks as always for your thoughts, here. Keep writing!

  10. My AHMM came Tuesday, and I loved your story, John, as usual. The standalone vs series characters is something I haven't thought about as much as I should. When I was sending queries to agents about my Woody Guthrie novels, I wrote two or three stories using the Detroit cops from that series. None of them sold, and I eventually rewrote them to remove the cops or change POV, and a couple of them finally did sell.

    My two Black Orchid Novella Award stories both use Woody Guthrie from my Detroit series, though, and I tried a novella later with Zach Barnes from the Connecticut series. It got honorable mention.

    Outside of those, I think all my stories are standalones. A character from a series locks me into a certain kind of story--I think so, anyway--and sometimes I want to try something different. Standalones give me the chance to experiment more, and have fun doing it.

    1. Good points, Steve. (And I'm glad to hear you liked my story!)

      I hadn't thought about it before, but you're correct that series characters do lock you into a specific kind of story. In fact, I think one of the advantages of a series (novel OR short story) is to give both the writer and the reader familiar ground, and let both of them know pretty much what should be and will be expected. You're also correct that that's reason enough to make the writer choose to write standalone stories now and then (or maybe mostly).

      I write far more standalones than series installments, and probably will continue to do that. I wonder sometimes how writers like Robert B. Parker was able to write SO many series novels with rarely a break. Just another interesting question about this crazy business/pastime/hobby of ours.

      Thanks for stopping in, and for bringing this up!

  11. John, my copy of AHMM was here when I got back from NYC. I always enjoy your stories, so I will get to it soon.

    My first sale to AHMM was a standalone in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. The background went on to make a series, but with different main characters. The elderly protagonist in the standalone was good for a one and out. However, when the two half brothers in a later story started their feud, the plots and stories kept coming, and thus they became a series in the same geographic area. My Edgar story ("The Road to Hana") may stay a standalone. I could always bring the detective protagonist back to Maui on vacation for a second crime to solve, but by the 5th and 6th crimes, the circumstances would become a little wearing and people might stop taking vacations in the Hawaiian Islands.

    Congratulations to you and Michael on your Derringers!!!

    1. R.T., you were one of the folks I was thinking about, during this discussion of series short stories.

      I've felt the same way you do, about the possibility of taking one of my stories, like your "The Road to Hana," and expanding it into a series. Sometimes that seems a great idea and sometimes I wonder if it'd work. Who knows how much is too much, of one kind of thing?

      Anyhow, keep doing what you're doing, because it's obviously been successful. So proud of you, for that Edgar win!

      Thanks as always.


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