16 April 2024

Killing in Different Ways

Recently, Agatha Award-winning short-story author Toni L.P. Kelner asked if she could run a guest post here on SleuthSayers, highlighting this year's Agatha Award finalists. Toni will be moderating our short story panel next week at Malice Domestic. I happily agreed.
— Barb Goffman

Killing in Different Ways
by Toni L.P. Kelner

Television performer Stephen Colbert says, “I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way.”

Since not all of us had crushes on people who hated their teachers, we’ve had to look elsewhere for our inspiration. In my case, I’ve written a story inspired by Scooby-Doo (“Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park”), another set in the restaurant where my grandfather ate breakfast every single workday for decades (“Kids Today”), and one after reading a book about life as a carney (“Sleeping With the Plush”). And I’m always inspired by the stories nominated for the Agatha Awards.

In preparation for moderating the panel “Make It Snappy: the Agatha Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic, I asked this year’s nominees about their inspirations. Every answer was different and pretty darned inspiring.

Shelley Costa

Author of “The Knife Sharpener”

My inspiration to write short stories came in waves. When I was five, I took my pencil and paper, set down some words, and was amazed that I could make thing up. Things that had nothing to do with lullabies before bed, or struggling to learn to tie my shoes, or dealing with offending vegetables on my dinner plate. It was a kind of magic, or maybe a kind of power. In my high school creative writing class, the teacher was inspiring because she gave me a lot of latitude to write tortured love poetry and tortured love stories that even had a bit of suspense. I loaded all the poetic forms and devices she taught us into a speedy little vehicle for my imagination. And this teacher spent time exposing us to great stories, which was followed up with assignments to write “in the manner of” Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner.

nominated book cover
"The Knife Sharpener" appeared
in the July/August 2023 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

I believe it was during my junior year at Rutgers when something changed in me about writing stories. I felt it became more than a pastime. I had a glimmer of a life’s work. I declared an English major and got serious. One prof in particular, David Burrows (a ringer for D.H. Lawrence) was an inspiration to me just then. I took his Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner course, bedrock American fiction masters, and asked the prof if, instead of essays, I could write short stories inspired by their work. I got the go-ahead. We’ve all had profs that come at just the right time for us. In the Tao Te Ching, one of the teachings says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Because Prof. Burrows could tell he had someone on his hands who needed to show understanding of the subject in a different way from what was on the syllabus, I wrote a story inspired by the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, set in Paris of the 1920s...and that story, “Cup of Kindness, Cup of Cheer” was my first story sale. I was 22 when I sold it to the start-up Oui Magazine, a subsidiary of Playboy, and felt a professional writing career was unfurling right before my eyes. Could it be that kind of easy? No, it couldn’t. When the magazine underwent a big editorial change, my Scott and Zelda tale fell to the wayside, and the story has never been published. But that, too, became part of the professional writing career.

Although we can find inspiration in stargazing or surfgazing or a Beatles lyric, it really all comes down to the people along the way. It doesn’t take many. Just a few. The ones who hand you the pencil and paper at five, accept your earnest excesses at fifteen, nod at your bushwhacking your way into real storytelling at twenty-one – the ones who, all along, look at you and know. I’d like to think that inspiration goes both ways.

Barb Goffman

Author of “Real Courage”

When Toni asked us to write about someone or something that inspired us to write short stories, I’m sure she was expecting positive, heartfelt responses. Essays that would uplift the readers of this blog. Perhaps she’ll get that from the other finalists. But I’ve always liked to take the road less traveled, to quote a famous poet who truly knew about writing short. 

nominated book cover
"Real Courage" appeared in issue
14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine

So, my inspiration? It was, simply, revenge. I took off an expensive ring while washing my hands in a public restroom at Sleuthfest in 2004 and stupidly forgot it on the sink. In the ten minutes it took me to realize my blunder, it was found by someone who never turned it in to the hotel or convention organizers, despite my pleas in every session. I took that bad incident and turned it into something good, my first professionally published short story, “Murder at Sleuthfest,” in which I killed off the person who found my ring. I received my first Agatha nomination for that story, and it inspired many more involving revenge. These days, I don’t write a lot of revenge stories, but every now and then I do because payback can be fun. (For the recipients, it might be a bitch, but who cares about them? Wink.) 

Now that you’re hopefully smiling—I do love writing humor, even though “Real Courage” isn’t one of my funny stories—I’ll quickly mention a couple of people who believed in me long before I started writing crime fiction: First, Frank Scoblete, who was my high school newspaper advisor. He told me that there was always room at the top, and that’s where I belonged. Perhaps he said that to a lot of students, but he still buoyed my confidence. Second, one of the editors at the Cincinnati Enquirer, whose name I can't remember, but whose words I do. I was an intern, and when he asked about my plans for after grad school, I mentioned that I’d loved living in DC, but I couldn’t expect to find a reporting job there. It was the big league. He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “Why can’t you be in the big league?” These two men believed in my writing talent, and their faith in me gave me confidence when I decided to try writing fiction. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I thank you.

Richie Narvaez

Author of “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective”

One day my brother brought home a book he had been reading for a class on crime fiction: The Great American Detective (New American Library, 1978), edited by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer. The class was done, and since he was more concerned with car payments than collecting books, he said I could have it. The book changed my life. Oh, I had read some mystery and murder fiction—mostly comics. And I had seen my fair share of Cannon, Columbo, Baretta, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Streets of San Francisco, Barney Miller, etc., etc. Hell, even every episode of The Snoop Sisters. But this book was a revelation. I dove into crime fiction and never surfaced.

nominated book cover
"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective"
appeared in Killin' Time in San Diego

The subtitle on the cover reads “15 Stories Starring America’s Most Celebrated Private Eyes.” I had to look that up because my well-worn copy no longer has a cover. And, while they’re not all strictly PIs, the short story collection does feature some of the most famous detectives who ever existed on the page, from before the Golden Age and up to the ’70s: Nick Carter, Race Williams, Sam Spade, the Shadow, Hildegarde Withers, Philip Marlowe, Ellery Queen, Lew Archer, even Mack Bolan (think Jack Reacher, but shorter). But one particular sleuth stands out, in light of my story getting nominated for an Agatha.

“Bullet for One,” by Rex Stout, was no doubt my very first exposure to Nero Wolfe. In it, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the murder of an industrial designer. It’s long, it’s talky, but Wolfe fiercely leaps off the page. Which is about as much moving as he ever does, but it’s immensely impressive. It was Wolfe who inspired my story, “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective” (published in Killin’ Time in San Diego, Down & Out Books, edited by Holly West). “Shamu” features what you might call a Nero Wolfe from the multiverse—a killer whale who, through the use of cybernetics, is not an armchair detective but a poolside detective, and whose tough-talking assistant, Angie Gomez, does all the (literal and figurative) legwork. If not for encountering Wolfe, et al., in The Great American Detective, I might never have become as obsessed with the hard-boiled and clue-laden flummery of crime fiction as I am today.

Kristopher Zgorski

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

As a former English major, I have read hundreds of short stories. So many of them impart lessons about the craft of writing—as well as about life, in general. There are probably about fifty of them that attached themselves to my soul and to which I continue to return to over and over again.

nominated book cover
"Ticket to Ride" appeared in
Happiness is a Warm Gun

“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker (of The Color Purple fame) is one such story. This story first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1973. I am touched by its subtlety. In just a very honest exchange between family members, readers learn so much about Black culture and the nature of family dynamics. In the story, Mrs. Johnson is waiting on her lawn for a visit from her older daughter, while her younger daughter, Maggie—who is disfigured by burn scars and has never left home—waits by her side. College educated Dee is coming over to collect some “artifacts” from her Mom to display in her new home. Once she arrives, Dee informs her family that she has changed her name to a more “traditionally” African name (Wangero) and introduces her new Muslim husband. Eventually, a conflict arises over some heirloom quilts that Dee (Wangero) wants to take to hang on the wall. But Mrs. Johnson says she promised those to Maggie. Wangero’s argument is that this is crazy, since Maggie would just put them on the bed and use them—which the mother points out is the true “purpose” of a quilt. 

What is fascinating about this story is that while it is told from Mrs. Johnson’s point of view, readers who spend the time imagining themselves in each character’s place will see that they all have valid arguments and reasons for their beliefs. It is with that realization that the story elevates from a domestic squabble into a cultural study. In just a few short pages, Alice Walker weaves in the legacy of slavery, loyalty to family, generational trauma, and above all Love (with a capital L). It’s a beautiful short story that is not easily forgotten.

Dru Ann Love

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

I never had a desire to write, but when given the opportunity, I had to take it. My inspiration for writing the short story was my collaborator, Kristopher Zgorski. I knew he had the writing bug and if I could help him get a short story out to the world, I was going to help him achieve this goal.

nominated book cover
"A Good Judge of Character"
appeared in Mystery Most Traditional

Tina deBellegarde

Author of “A Good Judge of Character”

Unfortunately, Tina was unable to participate in this blog. If you read her work, you can tell she’s got plenty of inspiration, but what she’s short on right now is time. As I write this, she’s preparing a wedding reception for her son and new daughter-in-law. But don’t worry. After the festivities, she’ll be attending Malice Domestic.

If you’re coming to Malice Domestic 2024 and want to hear more from these inspired—and inspiring—authors, come by Ballroom B/C at 2 PM on Friday, April 26.

And Malice Domestic attendees, don’t forget to read these authors’ stories before the Agatha Award voting deadline (1 PM, Saturday, April 27). To read each one, click on the story titles below.

"The Knife Sharpener" by Shelley Costa

"A Good Judge of Character" by Tina deBellegarde

"Real Courage" by Barb Goffman

"Ticket to Ride" by Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski

"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective" by Richie Narvaez


  1. I love reading about these inspirations - all different! See you all in North Bethesda next week.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Edith. Looking forward to seeing you at Malice!

  2. Hi Barb! Thank you for posting this! See you all soon!

    1. You're welcome, Richie. It's my pleasure. See you next week!

  3. Enjoyed reading. Good look to all the nominees.
    Denise Martin

  4. Thank you so much, Toni and Barb, for this peek at the nominees’ inspirations. Looking forward to this panel!

    1. Our pleasure, Shari. Looking forward to seeing you next week!


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