14 March 2023

Do You Taboo?

 I have a story in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, my 38th appearance there, I believe. 

"The Accessores Club" involves a group of criminals discussing a crime one of them has committed.  If you want to know why I chose that premise, you can find out in a piece I wrote for Trace Evidence, the magazine's blog.  What I want to write about today is a little different.

You see, I had to decide what sort of crime my characters would be discussing.  And as I have said before, plotting (as opposed to premise or character) is the hardest part for me.  

But I had recently come up with a plot device I thought would work: a nifty method for kidnappers to retrieve a ransom payment.  I had a problem with using that, although I'm not sure whether to call my dilemma an ethical issue or an artistic one (if I can use a great big grown-up word like art to describe my stuff).

I have written about kidnappings before.  In fact I have invented so many tales about swiped children that a co-worker of mine said he wouldn't let me near his offspring.  He was kidding.  I think.

But those tales had always been told from the viewpoint of the good guys (well, at least good-ish), trying to catch the kidnappers.  The premise of this story would require the kidnapper to be the protagonist.  And I was not comfortable with giving the main role to someone doing such a heinous deed.  Especially since I was hoping this would be a funny story.

On the other hand, a ransom demand doesn't necessarily require a human victim, does it?  And so my bad guy swipes a rare orchid plant and demands a hefty payment to return it.  

Which struck me as kind of funny.  And my characters agreed.  “Did you have the plant on the phone crying for mercy?” one asked.

So I chose that approach and it worked well enough to sell.  But would it be appearing in AHMM if I had made another choice?

Maybe not.  None of my stories about kidnapped children made it into those pages - although all of them found happy homes in other publications.

Every publication has its taboos (or at least strong preferences) and our field as a whole seems to have at least two. 

For example: Why didn't I have my protagonist kidnap, say, a dog?

Because the conventional wisdom for many years has been that in a mystery you don't hurt an animal.  I have been to panels at several conferences over the years where writers spoke with bemusement about the fact that you can massacre half of a small English village and still describe the book as a cozy, but heaven help you if, even in a noir thriller, you harm one whisker on a kitty's head.  It's a weird thing.

I'm not sure the rule about harming children is as deeply ingrained.  A few year ago I read in rapid succession novels by two well-known authors in which kidnapped children were murdered.  Both books were well-written and the violence was not gratuitous, but I will admit it didn't make me eager to read their next volumes.

Last year I started work on a story inspired by actual events.  I thought I had found an interesting way of recounting the tale but I froze up halfway through when I realized that two animals, family pets, were shot to death.  Did I really want to write about that and endure the fury that would follow?

I decided I didn't so I put the story aside.Then one day the Muse said: Hey dummy!  You write FICTION!

Oh, right.  So I went back to the scene, laid  my godlike authorial hand on the shooter's weapon and deflected the bullets.  The dogs may have suffered psychological trauma but they were otherwise unscathed.

Whether the story sells is, of course, up to different hands.

Meanwhile, what taboos do you refuse to write about?  Or read about?


  1. I LOVE the orchid as the kidnap victim! Brilliant! Me, I've had it with noir. There's too much noir all around me in this world. But I would absolutely read about a kidnapped flower! Thanks!

  2. Kidnapping a plant! Great idea. Wish I’ d thought of it. In one of my Ronnie and Jake stories Ronnie kidnaps a dog, but the owners don’t want it back. The reason: the dog has lot of gas. Ronnie is forced to keep him. They grow attached. But Ronnie has to sleep with his bedroom window open.
    Edward Lodi

  3. Kidnapping an orchid--brilliant idea!

  4. I just read and enjoyed Feasting with Felonies on the AHMM site! Thanks for mentioning it in the blog.

  5. Nero Wolfe would pay the kidnapper anything asked, and then find the bastard and have him arrested.
    Meanwhile, yeah, I've noticed that British fiction (and movies) doesn't mind killing anybody, including kids, but don't touch the animals! And in America, killing kids is taboo in magazine settings at least.
    The only things I will not read or watch are serial killers as protagonists or torture porn. That's my firm line in the sand.

    1. Eve, now that you mention it I'm surprised Rex Stout never thought of the orchid snatch. Yeah, I don't care for serial killers as protagonists (although Silence of the Lambs is brilliant both in book and movie form).

  6. I've included dead animals before. In one story, a goat dies before the story opens, and the death is the inciting incident for everything that happens thereafter. In another, I put a dog in jeopardy. I hated to do it, but it was essential for the story (and the dog comes out okay in the end). But I cried when I wrote the key dog-jeopardy scene, and I've heard from others that they cried when they read it. So, yes, I've dealt with taboos. I worried I'd lose readers with the dog-jeopardy story, worried readers would stop at the jeopardy point in the story and not realize he comes out okay in the end. It is a hard decision for a writer, dealing with animals. Ultimately, I think the use of an animal in that manner has to be necessary for the story and not graphic. If it's not necessary and if it's graphic, that will definitely push the reader away.

    Sometimes, though, even if necessary and not graphic, the use of an animal in this way can make a story too dark. I had one story in which I planned to make a missing (ultimately dead) cat the inciting incident, but when I got to that point in the story, I couldn't do it. I couldn't kill the cat. So, at the suggestion of a good friend, I changed the cat to a pot roast. It lightened the entire tone of the story. A kidnapped plant provides the same light tone.

    Looking forward to reading the story, Rob.

    1. I remember the pot roast, Barb. Very original!

  7. Elizabeth Dearborn15 March, 2023 12:27

    I don't like horror, either in books or in movies. The only horror movie I've ever seen that I liked was the original Psycho. But last night the husband & I were looking for something to watch, & found ourselves at tubi.tv where they were promoting a movie called Extraterrestrial (not to be confused with E.T.) ... he often plays a puter game called Xcom & it seems to have very similar artwork to the movie, so we watched. But I'm kind of sorry I did.

    1. I agree on horror in general and Psycho as well.

  8. A lot of the recent stories I've been writing and submitting involve kidnapped children. I have a 1940's-1950's era heist caper where a couple of theives kidnap a wealthy family's mentally disabled daughter to prevent her lobotomy. Ot has been rejected at AHMM and EQMM. Have written several stories now sitting on the docket at AHMM about a single mother investigating missing child cases while dealing with her two special needs sons ( they even go missing in one story). Each of them are novella length.

    I have a couple short stories even more taboo than the above. One is a horror tale rejected by an anthology where a single mother picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be the man who murdered her three kids. It now sits on the submission docket of The Saturday Evening Post. If rejected, I've inserted and edited a couple scenes to fit one of the above novellas. Another tale I've written involves an Astronaut who travels to the far end of the galaxy investigating why and an intergalactic being wiped out half the solar system's population. Only to reveal her two sons were among them. It has now been submitted to an anthology. Hell, even wrote a five minute short film script about a single mother rescuing her two sons from a cave.

    And no, the recurring themes, characters, and motifs aren't lost on me.

    1. Your story about the lobotomy reminds me... My sister Diane Chamberlain is a writer. One of her best books, Necessary Lies, is about a social worker in 1960 who is ordered to prepare the paperwork for secretly sterilizing a pregnant teenager...

  9. I don't think I've written anything particularly taboo, not that I would hesitate.

    Rob, I know of a true plant abduction story that took place at an Indiana farm not far from my parents' place. The crime occurred in broad daylight, as they say, in plain sight on a US highway. A pair of giant black walnut trees that began growing about the time our nation was founded framed the farm's entry lane. A crew zipped in and cut down more than two centuries of history worth tens of thousands of dollars. To my knowledge, the thieves were never caught.

    1. Leigh, wass it just vandalism or were they doing something with the wood?

  10. I love the kidnapped plant! The more I think about it, the more it grows on me.

    The female protagonae (Latin feminine plural?) in my two series both have cats. I wrote a scene years ago for a novel I never finished in which two cats attack a killer and distract him long enough so the heroine can get to her handgun. I remember writing a scene in which a dog was being injured, too. I don't think I ever finished that story, either. If I did, it never sold.

    The taboo line I may have crossed in two of my novels is rape. In both cases, a graphic scene was vital to the plot. Several readers communicated that they were disturbed by the first one, but they did agree that it was necessary.

    One novel involves a child being abused. It happened years ago and is never described, but the child victim grew up to have dissociative identity disorder, which we commonly know as multiple personality disorder. Again, it was vital, but in retrospect that book is my least favorite novel because of all the research I did for that character. Sometimes, you're sorry you asked...


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