21 May 2024

Answering the Call

How do you approach the challenge when writing to a call?

Is a theme a fence or a gate? Does it constrain writing, limiting where the author's imagination might go? Or does it open opportunities, spurring the writer to take prose in a direction they might not have considered going without the prompt? 

My answer probably depends on whether I like the prompt. 

Private Dicks and Disco Balls, an anthology of 1970s private eye stories edited by fellow SleuthSayer, Michael Bracken, was released earlier this month. I'm honored that Michael included a story of mine, "The Kratz Gambit," within the pages. 

I like writing stories set in the past. Typically, however, my historicals occur earlier. The opportunity to put a story in a decade I lived through poked me to try something a little different. 

The 1970s are the first decade I remember. I was around for much of the swinging '60s, but for me, that meant playground swings and tires suspended from ropes tied to tree limbs. I wasn't old enough to have a feel for much of the vibe of that decade. 

But for a '70s anthology, I got totally stoked. I dusted off my good threads, the powder blue leisure suit, tied on my puka shells, slapped in an 8-track tape and fired up my Smith Corona. Seriously, I didn't do any of those things. The suit doesn't fit anymore and might be life-threatening if worn around an open flame. I no longer own the necklace, the typewriter, or the sound machine. I did, however, reminisce about the decade so that I might draw from my experiences. 

The terms of the call were straightforward. Michael sought a story featuring a working private eye and incorporating a significant event from the decade. 

As with any themed anthology, the touchstone must be the call. Which happening from the decade caught my attention? My mind ticked off possibilities. The Vietnam War, Watergate, and Elvis's death presented possibilities.  

I skipped the center-of-the-plate events. Although I needed to incorporate something significant, the decade's episode I chose must make my story unique. I wanted to stand out in the crowd. I think it's a good rule for answering a call. Where might a writer go that, while remaining true to the ask, presents a different take? Avoid the obvious choices and pass on the low-hanging fruit. The editor, finicky guy that he is, would likely only accept one Watergate story. I sought something at the margins. 

I settled on the chess match between Bobby Fischer of the United States and the Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. The 1972 chess match became nightly news. The games captured national attention. Television stations across America had chess nerds demonstrating the moves on oversized boards. (Spoiler alert: the American beat the Ruskie.)

The Fischer/Spassky matches not only presented an event I thought few writers would tackle, but the games were also personally significant. My friends and I followed this micro battle between the world's two superpowers. We learned to play chess. In my case, I learned to play badly, but at least I knew how the pieces moved so that we could follow what the man on television described. 

The chess metaphor--move and countermove with one player trying to outwit another--worked great for a mystery story. But as I prepared to write my story, the events behind the tale conjured up a memory. Although my friends and I aren't reflected in "The Kratz Gambit, " I had a personal connection. Thus, my second suggestion for writing to a themed anthology. Find that personal piece. What's that thing you bring that no one else can or might? 

When plotting, I often engage in random internet searches. Into a search engine, I type words tangentially related to my story. I look to see what connections the internet might make. Random searches might open a possible direction for the tale. An article might shut down something I previously believed to be accurate. Some possibilities open while others close--gates and fences. Marry your experience to the research. 

My third thought about writing for a themed anthology should be obvious. Give the editor what they are seeking. I hit the required word count and followed all the submission rules. Although I read the titular "Disco Balls" as a cultural reference rather than a specific request for a music-themed story, I sprinkled in song titles from the period. I wanted to recognize my editor's interest in music. The songs also helped tie the story to 1972.

The advice may sound basic: pay attention to the theme and give the editor a story that fits the call and word count. But look at the theme's margins and incorporate personal experience supported by a bit of research. A writer can craft a story that will hopefully surprise the editor and secure a place in the anthology. The plan worked with "The Kratz Gambit." I'm glad Michael liked it. I hope the readers do, too. 

Until next time. 


  1. I am a lifetime member of the United States Chess Federation (USCF). I absolutely love chess and it's because of the Fischer-Spassky match (the Match of the Century), following every game with my brothers. To this day, I still play in chess tournaments and follow the World Chess Championship games. I purchased the anthology and will read your story first. Great article and great memories of that decade.

  2. " I dusted off my good threads, the powder blue leisure suit, tied on my puka shells, slapped in an 8-track tape and fired up my Smith Corona." Careful! That's how Christopher Reeve transported himself into the past in Somewhere in Time. Otherwise a great idea.

    1. That's why I keep a shiny penny on my desk. Thanks, Mike.

  3. Mark, you write about a time just before me - and it sounds great fun! I always thought the kids who were in college while I was starting high school, were there in the best time. It will be fun to read this anthology and your story. Melodie

  4. Ah, the 1970s. I remember driving around the US in an old milk truck, with an 8-track tape of Traffic's "The Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys." And a few other things...

    1. Eve, I look forward to the day when we can sit at a Sioux Falls coffee shop and you can finish telling me the stories you so often hint at. MT

  5. This is great advice. I always panic for a bit and then something comes to mind.

  6. What a smart choice, Mark, one I could identify with but not be clever enough to think of. I truly am impressed. You triggered memories from that match, the whole point of the story, right?


    I was a fulltime NYU student but also a fulltime Wall Street employee when the match occurred. From the US-Russian competition, I learned a clever defense opener, building a black fortress on the left. It might have been a Spassky innovation, I don't recall.

    One of my colleagues put out a call for chess players and did two things: followed the Fischer/Spassky match move for move, and set up an in-house competition. I'm not a speedy player and, because sometimes work would interfere, we fortunately didn't use clocks. Eventually I wound up playing head-to-head with my colleague, and we broke for the evening with him arguably ahead. The next day I played the most exhilarating match of my life. My colleague had recorded it, and I wonder if he still has it?

    Congratulations on the story, Mark. I look forward to reading it.


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