Showing posts with label AHMM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label AHMM. Show all posts

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








28 June 2020

Lend Me A Scene


Last month, you read my blog article about the creation of "St. Paddy's Day" and the process of brainstorming that story. Today's topic is about the concept of borrowing for a story.

Some writers say borrow from the best. I say borrow whatever works best for the story you are writing. Borrow from wherever it is and from whoever wrote it. I'm not advocating that you should plagiarize someone else's writing, you understand. What I'm talking about here is borrowing the concept of that writer's idea or scene and putting that idea or scene into your own words to use it to best advantage in the story you are currently creating.

4 of the 9 stories in this book are in
my 1660's Paris Underworld series
This brings us to "Green Eyes," the 9th story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series. This is the one I sold to AHMM in May of this year. It is the 47th story the editors of that magazine have accepted over the years, but at the same time I'd prefer not to also think about the prior rejected submissions, nor those sure to come in the future.

For this 9th story in the series, it went like this. I needed a story line and a character arc. Then, I remembered a scene from the memoirs of Eugene Francois Vidocq. Vidocq as you may or may not recall, spent the first part of his life as a master criminal in France and the last part of his life as the Director of the French Surete catching criminals. Literary Note of Interest: When Victor Hugo wrote his novel, Les Miserables,, he loosely based the two main characters, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, on the two parts of Vidocq's life.

Anyway, in his memoirs, Vidocq wrote about trying to locate a robber so he could arrest the man. After much searching without success, Vidocq decided to try a different method. He was fairly certain that the criminal's wife knew where her husband was hiding out, but would not be willing to tell anyone the location. So, he devised a clever scheme relying on the emotion of jealousy as a catalyst. Enlisting the help of a female criminal who owed him a favor, Vidocq had this female pad her stomach area under her dress and go to the robber's house with a story. The now pregnant-looking female told the wife that she needed to see the wife's husband. When the wife asked what business the female had with her husband, the female patted her ample stomach and replied that the wife's husband knew what business, and then left.

Vidocq, who had been staying out of sight, watched while the wife locked up the house and walked briskly away. As she went through the winding streets of Paris, he followed her until she found her husband. Vidocq then promptly arrested the previously hard-to-find felon.

Okay, if that idea worked for Vidocq in real life, surely in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, I could use something similar for one of my main characters (the Chevalier) who needs to locate the thief who stole his money. The narrator for this series is a young, orphan boy trained as a pickpocket. He is rather incompetent in his occupation, which usually gets him into trouble, plus in previous stories, he has also proven himself to be an unreliable narrator. Being naive and lacking experience in life, he doesn't always realize that some events and actions he witnesses are not quite what they appear to be.

At the opening of "Green Eyes," the orphan sees a man steal money the Chevalier has hidden away in the old Roman ruins where the orphan, the Chevalier and Josette live together in the criminal community on the bluffs above Paris. Later, when the thief becomes hard to find, the Chevalier turns to Josette and some well-placed padding. The orphan boy/narrator, who has a crush on Josette, surreptitiously follows the Chevalier and Josette as they follow after the wife. Not being in on the full plan, what the boy observes confuses him and raises his own emotions. For me to tell more would spoil the story and the ending, so look for "Green Eyes" in a future issue of AHMM. Evidently, the borrowed scene worked great.

How many of you have borrowed an idea,  scene or action from another author because you really liked it and saw a way you could use it in a story of your own? Let us know how well it worked out for you.

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


The July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstands yesterday (are there still newsstands?) and I am delighted to report that I have a story  in it.  (After I typed that I saw the cover.  Wow!  AHMM has really been on a roll the last few years with great covers.  I am proud to benefit from that again.)

"The Library of Poisonville" is full of literary references, appropriately enough.  The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges' great story "The Library of Babel," which inspired my piece, and also to a work by Dashiell Hammett.  Most of the references are obvious, but I thought I would write about an author who my story only touches on tangentially.

John Collier was born in London in 1901.  He was reading Hans Christian Andersen by age 3.  As a teenager he told his father he wanted to be a poet.  Believe it or not, that was fine with dear old Dad, who never required him to get a job or even go to university.  (His work contains several  odd father-son relationships.)

By age thirty he had switched his emphasis to fiction which gave him the chance to show off his, um, unique imagination.  (In what way unique?  Well, his first novel was entitled His Monkey Wife, or I Married A Chimp.)  His story collection Fancies and Goodnights won both the Edgar Award and the International Fantasy Award.    And how often has one book scored both of those?

My favorite Collier story - which I list among my all-time favorite fifty crime tales - is "Witch's Money." In spite of the title this is no fantasy, but rather a tale of cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the arrival of an American painter in a village in southern France leads, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, to utter destruction.

His writing style tended toward the flowery and sardonic, reminding me of Saki, Roald Dahl, Avram Davidson, and James Powell.  His work has been adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays for the Hitchcock show and movies; most importantly he was part of the team the wrote The African Queen.

Of all of his works the one that has been adapted for other media the most is probably "Evening Primrose," about a poet who rejects society by living what might be the ultimate consumer dream: dwelling secretly in a department store.  It was even turned into a TV musical starring Anthony Perkins, with songs by Stephen Sondheim!

"I sometimes marvel," Collier once wrote, "that a third-rate writer like me has been able to pass himself off as a second-rate writer."

Here are some of my favorite lines from this first-rate writer:

"Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture.  In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code." - Over Insurance

"How happy I might be if only she was less greedy, better tempered, not so addicted to raking up old grudges, more affectionate, with slightly yellower hair, slimmer, and about twenty years younger!  But what is the good of expecting such a woman to reform?" - Three Bears Cottage

Actress and screenwriter: "I think I'd like to play Juliet."
"It's been done."
"Not as I shall do it.  You shall write a new script, especially for me." - Pictures in the Fire

"So Mrs. Beaseley went resentfully along, prepared to endure Hell herself if she could deprive her husband of a little of his Heaven." - Incident on a Lake

"Annoyed with the world, I took a large studio in Hampstead.  Here I resolved to live in utter aloofness, until the world should approach me on its knees, whining it apologies." -Night! Youth! Paris! And the Moon!

"As soon as Einstein declared that space was finite, the price of building sites, both in Heaven and Hell, soared outrageously." -Hell Hath No Fury

"The young man was greatly taken aback to hear a gorilla speak.  However, common sense reminded him that he was in a city in which many creatures enjoyed that faculty, whom, at first sight, or at any hearing, one would hardly credit with sufficient intelligence to have attained it." -Variation on a  Theme

"It is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves."  -Sleeping Beauty

"The first cognac is utilitarian merely.  It is like a beautiful woman who has, however, devoted herself entirely to doing good, to nursing, for example.  Nothing is more admirable, but one would like to meet her sister." - Old Acquaintance

If you have read this far I have an offer for you.  As I said, my reference to Collier's work in "The Library of Poisonville" is obscure, but it should ring clear to any fan of the man.   If someone can tell me which of his stories I referred to - and where - I will send that person an autographed copy of the magazine or something of equally dubious merit.  First responder only!


31 May 2020

How It All Came Together


At the time, I had eleven short stories in my Holiday Burglars series. That's my humor series, at least as far as I'm concerned. All eleven stories had been sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and all of them had seen print in their magazine. Now, it was time to write another story in the series.

10 of the first 11 stories are
now available in paperback

So there I sat, with a list of holidays in one hand and a list of potential valuables to steal in the other hand while staring at a blank computer screen. No title, no plot. Just two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, impatiently waiting for me to tell them what shenanigans they are up to for in this next episode. I can hear Beaumont saying, "Get a move on, bud. We don't like being unemployed. We need to go steal something."

Okay, they need something to steal. Preferably an exotic item or an object which is out of the ordinary and reader-attention-getting. We'll have to work on that part. Normally, the holiday comes first in the brainstorming process and that leads to the item to be purloined which leads to the weird situation our two burglars subsequently find themselves in.

So far, we've used up eleven different holidays in previous stories. What's left on the list? Cinco de Mayo? Nope, no current ideas for that one. How about Chinese New Year or Vietnamese Ahn Tet? Sorry, nothing there for now. Well, St. Patrick's Day is on the horizon and you do know some people from your old Texas Street neighborhood in Rapid City, friends who really liked to party. Yeah, of course, the Texas Street Hereford Society.
L to R: Scott, Dan, Fast Eddie, R.T. (holding the tail) and Bob
L'il Tex is the bucket calf in front.
(he just got run through the car wash at the dealership
and doesn't have a clue what's going on)

Let's tighten the focus down to Fast Eddie in the middle. (How this five-member society came into being and some of its subsequent antics can be saved for another time.) Fast Eddie was the heir apparent to a car dealership, a Registered Black Angus ranch and a working commercial cattle ranch. He was also well known in all the bars in Rapid City. The rest of us society members always said that if Eddie died first, we would bungee cord his body to a refrigerator dollie, put a drink in his hand and wheel him through all his favorite bars for one last Grand Tour.

That gives us drinking, St. Patrick's Day and a story character like Fast Eddie after he has passed on. Time to brainstorm the story plot.

What if Yarnell has just entered an Irish bar on St. Pat's Day to meet with his partner in crime, Beaumont? Over green beers and loud Irish music from the jukebox, Beaumont informs Yarnell that they now have a contract to steal a body.  Yeah, that should grab the reader's attention.

Moving on. It seems that a fellow burglar (Padraig, or Paddy as he is known to his associates) has died and his widow has arranged to have the wake at a funeral home. Some of the deceased's long-time drinking friends got into the party spirit, stole the corpse from his coffin while the widow wasn't looking, bungee corded the deceased to a refrigerator dollie and took him on a bar tour. The widow then hired Yarnell and Beaumont to find her wandering deceased husband, steal him back and get him to the funeral home in time for scheduled services, else the contract is void and thus no payment. The story is now open for anything to happen.

As a side note, while the widow may have thought Padraig (Paddy) was a potential saint while he was living, by the time he is returned to the funeral home, there may be evidence that his reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

The resulting story, "St. Paddy's Day," 12th in the series, was submitted to AHMM on 06/13/19 and accepted by their editor on 04/16/20. If I had to guess, I'd say it will probably see print in their March/April 2021 issue.

And there you have it. Another brainstorming session turned into a salable story.

Wish they all turned out that well.

BUSINESS NOTE:   Normally, the acceptance e-mail says that a contract will be coming via e-mail in about 30 days, but I usually get the e-contract in about two weeks, print and sign two copies and immediately mail them to DELL Publishing's contract person. Then, I wait for the check. However, due to the pandemic, the e-contract for the above story took about 42 days to arrive and the instructions were different. For this contract, I printed out and signed one copy. This signed copy was then scanned and e-mailed to DELL's contract person. Saves me postage on mailing the signed contract back to them. We'll see how long it takes for this check to arrive. Hey, I'm just glad to still be selling.

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks


As I mentioned  here not too long ago, I think one of my writing strengths is premises and one of my weaknesses is plots.  A result of that is a notebook full of ideas which will probably never bloom into short stories.

Several pages of said notebook are devoted to Shanks, the crime-writing character who has appeared in a bunch of my stories.   Years ago I dreamed up this idea: Shank is on a committee trying to restore a Depression-era opera house in his city.  It would be called the World Theatre, which would let me use the title (snicker) "Shanks Saves The World."

I liked it a lot.  Only problem: What would my hero do to get the money for the restoration?

Sort of a big plot gap, right?  And so the story sat in my notebook for years.  But then I had a breakthrough.

I have mentioned before here that I also wrote a series of stories about Uncle Victor.  He is the elderly, eccentric relative of a crime boss.  His nephew reluctantly tolerates him because doing so was the last request of  the previous godfather.  So when Victor decides to become a private eye, nephew Benny pulls strings to get him a license.

Several stories about this odd duck made it into print but then my market for them, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, went the way of all periodicals and I moved onto other things.

However, I remembered that I had written a story in which an aging music producer hires Victor to hunt down some musicians he cheated and now wants to do right by  The draft was still sitting in my files.

So what if we offer Uncle Victor a well-deserved retirement and send Shanks to the producer instead, asking for a big donation for the theatre where, by a wonderful coincidence, some of the old man's bands used to perform?  And the producer says, to get my money you have to find these musicians I ripped off decades ago...

Suddenly I had a plot.  The result, titled (as you probably guessed) "Shanks Saves The World," is featured in the current (May/June 2020) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  It is my 31st appearance there, and Shanks' tenth.


I am especially glad the story made it into this issue because another Shanks story, a sort of sequel to this one, will coming out this summer in an anthology.  More on that in a later installment.

And speaking of more, if you want to read a completely different essay I wrote about "Shank Saves The World," you will find it at Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.

And I hope you enjoy the story.  Now back to my notebook...

08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By


Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.
 josephdagnese.com


30 October 2019

The Last Lesson: Queen vs Hitchcock



Two weeks ago I reported that I had been invited to speak to the Northwest branch of the Mystery Writers of American on the subject: "Ten Things I learned Writing Short Stories."  I listed nine of them and promised to deliver the last one this week.  Here goes!

10.  What's the difference between Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?  That's the second-most common question I hear about my writing.  (The first is the dreaded WDYGYI?)

For many years my reply was simple: AH buys my stories and EQ doesn't.  But since EQ has surrendered to my dubious charms several times I have to come up with some better distinction.  So here are a few.

Origin stories.  I mean the origins of the magazines themselves.  I think they are useful in thinking about how the editors think: What is in the magazine's DNA, so to speak?  Because as the old saying goes "What's bred in the bone, comes out in the flesh."

EQ was started in 1941 under the editorship of Frederic Dannay, one half of the author Ellery Queen.  Besides being an author and editor, Dannay was an anthologist and a historian of the mystery field.  He was determined to cover all aspects of the field (as opposed to Black Mask Magazine, for example, which had focused on hardboiled) and to stretch the definition of the mystery as well.  Therefore it was not unusual for him to print stories from around the world, stories from "literary" authors who were not considered mystery writers, and reprint stories that had been forgotten or that no one had previously thought of as belonging to the crime field at all.  EQ, for example, was the first American magazine to publish the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.  EQ retains a keen sense of the history of the mystery field, which leads to publishing parodies and pastiches.

AH, on the other hand, was founded in 1956.  The film director had no direct role in the magazine, simply licensing the use of his hame and likeness.  For many years the introduction to each issue was written in his voice.  The magazine was not inspired by his movies as much as by his very popular TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which actually filmed some stories that had originally appeared in the magazine.  Like the TV show, the magazine leaned toward suspense, twist endings, and a macabre sense of humor.  It still does.

Distinctions today.  EQ has regular departments.  Going all the way back to Dannay's day it has featured the Department of First Stories, which has premiered the work of up-and-coming artists who went on to fame such as Harry Kemelman, Henry Slesar, Stanley Ellin, and Thomas Flanagan.  Every issue features Passport to Crime, a story translated from another language.  EQ also owns the rights to the Black Mask name and often features a story in that magazine's hardboiled style.

My description of the beginnings of AH may have left you with the impression that their selection of story types is narrow. In fact, the opposite is true.  You can find examples of westerns and science fiction in its pages, as long as crime is front and center. Fantasy elements  may slip in.  (The rare ghost story can show up in either magazine; for some reason ghosts are the one bit of woowoo that is allowed in the mystery world.)

And some more quick generalizations.

EQ seems to lean more toward the grim, the longer, and the fair-play detection stories.

AH appears to favor the lighter, the shorter, and the twist ending.

It is important to be clear that everything I am saying here is about tendencies, not absolutes.  You can find exceptions in every issue, but if you are trying to decide which magazine to submit a story to first, this might help you.

One thing both seem to insist on, is high quality, which may explain why my overall sale record at AHMM is only about 33% and much worse at EQMM.

Your mileage, needless to say, may vary.


13 August 2019

Strange Impersonation


I was looking for a movie to watch and Strange Impersonation, directed by Anthony Mann, sounded interesting, so I put it on.

And since I’m going to use this movie to make a larger point I’m going to give away various plot elements. I could use other, better-known movies, but as this is less-known and will work just as well illustrating the point, I figure it’s better to give the store away here. I’m using this movie to make a point about most, if not all, movies that do this.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Here’s the basic plot as told by Bruce Eder on All Movie: “Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is a dedicated research scientist who is very close to a breakthrough in her field of anesthetics. She allows herself to be used as the subject of an experiment, and becomes the victim of sabotage by her jealous assistant (Hillary Brooke), who is her rival for the affections of the same man (William Gargan). Nora is scarred by the accident, but fate takes a hand when a vicious blackmailer (Ruth Ford), part of an extortion scam that was being worked on her, breaks in to her apartment. In the ensuing struggle, the lady grifter is killed and then mistaken for Nora, while the real Nora goes into hiding. Taking the identity of the dead woman, she realizes how she has been betrayed and maimed and plots an elaborate revenge, undergoing reconstructive surgery that changes her whole appearance. She then reintroduces herself into the lives of her former associates, in her new guise, and begins her revenge. Before her plans can be concluded, however, her masquerade backfires on her, when she finds herself accused by the police -- of the murder of Nora Goodrich” (https://www.allmovie.com/movie/strange-impersonation-v111934#ASyuCJD6Q4IVUJxw.99)


Okay, it sounds pretty convoluted, but just go with it, ’cause that’s not the point of this post.

It started going along pretty well. Nothing great, but I didn’t turn it off either.

So, after the ‘accident,’ and after the blackmailer dies and is mistaken for the scientist, the scientist leaves her fiancé and her life behind. She heads out west. Has plastic surgery to look like the woman who was blackmailing her. She then returns to the city as that person and begins on a course of revenge against her former assistant. She insinuates herself back into her former fiancé’s life, trying to steal him back from his new lover, her former assistant. Before she can pull it all together, everything backfires on her and she finds herself accused of murder—the murder of herself (though really, as we know, the blackmailer).


Okay, still convoluted, but interesting.

EXCEPT…

…that all of the revenge part of the plot turns out to be a dream. Everything after the explosion/‘accident’ didn’t really happen. It was all a dream in the scientist’s head after the accident. So all the emotion and excitement and concern that we invested in the character/s was for nothing. Because none of it was real. There were no real consequences. The assistant didn’t really make an explosive compound that disfigured the scientist. The scientist didn’t really get plastic surgery, return to exact her revenge, which was thwarted before should could finish it and she wasn’t really arrested for the murder of…………herself.

None of it happened. Because it was a dream.

And because it was a dream it’s a cheat. And it makes me angry and it makes me feel like I wasted 68 minutes of my life. I don’t like movies where major plot elements turn out to be dreams. I’ve invested myself, I’ve given over my suspension of disbelief. And then none of it matters.

I won’t name other movies or TV shows where things have turned out to be dreams, because I don’t want to give them away for those who haven’t seen them (with a couple exceptions below). But I can’t think of one that I like once I learn the events that took place were just a dream and didn’t really happen. There are, however, a couple of exceptions: one film noir that I like fairly well where much of it turns out to be a dream, but even that one which, if there is an exception to the rule is it, disappoints me in the end because again, there was no real jeopardy. There were no real consequences. So what did it all amount to? Nothing. The other exception is The Wizard of Oz, but that whole story is a fantasy. We’re not supposed to buy it as a real story as we are with other movies.

(Just as a side note here: I’m not talking about movies like Spellbound, where dreams are used to analyze a character and figure them out. That’s fine. I’m talking about movies where we learn that much of the action was a dream and thus didn’t really take place within the context of the story.)

Freud might have loved dreams and found them useful in psychoanalyzing people. But in my opinion, in a movie they’re nothing but a cheap cheat.

What do you think? Do you find movies based on dreams a cheat? Do you feel deceived after you’ve seen them? Let us know.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

28 July 2019

Finding Your Niche


by R.T. Lawton

When I was chief judge for the Edgars Best Novel Award a few years back, I started to notice how many niche books were out there in the mystery genre. Our panel of judges read approximately 410 novels for that one year, so I would say that makes a fairly good sample of what was selling to publishing houses at the time. Some of those books I'll call craft books because they used knitting, quilting or some other craft as a background for the mystery story to be set in.

Cooking was another setting some authors used. These novels usually contained a recipe or more to enhance the cooking part of the mystery. And there were wine specialty backgrounds, presumably for wine connoisseurs who liked their mysteries consumed with wine. Evidently, for some, there is nothing like selecting the right wine to pair with the latest suspect. Plus, there are mysteries set in pet backgrounds with dogs or cats or birds, and of course horses for those equestrians among us in the mystery reading audience. In the past, I've even seen bird watcher series where deceased humans pile up as birds get watched.

As I recall, none of the niche books scored high enough  with our panel of judges to make it into the Nominee Round, HOWEVER, upon looking at the list of prior books written by some of those authors contending for that year's Edgar, some of those lists ran to ten or twelve published books. I don't know how much money these niche authors were making, but they had found a background category with a large enough readership, that some houses considered those niches profitable enough to keep on publishing in them.

So, where am I going with this thread? Here's my thoughts. If you want to be a published writer and really think you have the writing and marketing skills to produce the next Great American Mystery Novel and sell it to one of the big traditional publishing houses, then go for it. See if you can reach out and grab the gold ring on your turn around on the carousel.

BUT, if for some reason, you don't make the big time--after all, the top of that pyramid is rather small and not a lot of authors will fit up there--and, you still want to be published, then you may want to find yourself a niche of some kind that no one else is currently using. Most of the craft, cooking and pet backgrounds are already taken, so unless you've got a new twist on those categories, I'd suggest finding your own niche in a different category. Find something fresh, something mind-catching, something where a jaded agent or editor can raise their hands and say, "Eureka, an author with a story we can sell!"

Now the hard part. You do realize you are on your own to find your special niche? Personally, I would recommend brainstorming sessions with other writers and possibly some with non-writers who are big readers. Rum and Coke has been known to lubricate the creative process of brainstorming, each to his or her own. And, remember that no idea is totally wrong, it may just need tweaking to make it acceptable. Some ideas may take more tweaking than others.

Here's some of my niche examples. When looking at the historical mystery market in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,  I found short stories set in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval England, old China, old Japan and the Old West. All well taken by other authors. So, I researched other historical backgrounds with inherent conflict already in place; locations no one else was currently using. One of my series became the Armenian, set in 1850's Chechnya where the Russians had designs on moving into India and Afghanistan.  The Tsars in Moscow fronted off the Cossacks as border guards to fight the Muslim Chechens.  The Cossacks disliked the Russian troops quartered in their homes, while at the same time had much in common with the Chechen culture and standards, the people they were fighting. Over 150 years later, they are still fighting in Chechnya, so every time that area makes the news, I get free advertising. My Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle with opium warlord rivalries during the time of the Vietnam War became another historical niche, as did my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving an orphan, incompetent pickpocket during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King.

Dave Zeltserman found a new short story niche by creating a new type of private detective sidekick, a miniature processor, named Archie, with the artificial intelligence capabilities of seeing and hearing. The human detective wears Archie as a stickpin on his clothes and uses him to gather clues in his cases. Naturally, since Archie has AI abilities, he tries to guess the solutions to various crimes in competition with his owner's decision as to who did it and why. For all the data available and the processing abilities Archie has, he is usually a mental step or two behind his human counterpart.

Chris Muessig found a couple of niches in AHMM and EQMM. One with his pro wrestling series and secondly with his Jake Miller during World War I series. I am a fan of Jake's journey from training camps on the East Coast to the ship taking troops across the Atlantic to the killing fields of France. There is always a great mystery involved.

Barb Nickless, a novelist, found her niche with her creation of a protagonist working as a railroad detective. When she needed access to a real-life railroad detective in order to do research for her series, I introduced her to one. It must have worked out, because she now has book four under contract. Her Ambush, book 3 is a great read.

All those examples noted above were niches other authors weren't currently using. And, they worked out quite well.

How about you? Any thoughts on the subject? Any niche that is working for you?

Don't be shy. We all love to hear about what worked, and...even what didn't work. As for me, my EZ Money Pawn Shoppe series, my Bookie series,  my 1900's Perfume River series and my 1900's Boer War series failed to make the cut. I'm still looking around for a new niche that piques my interest.


07 November 2018

Snow Job


In September I mentioned one of the rare snowstorms my city receives.  Today I am going to talk about a different, more recent, one.

The storm was harsh enough to give both my wife and I the day off and so we decided to walk the half-mile to our closest grocery store for a look around and some lunch.

My back yard
As we trudged off through the beautiful whiteness I had a sudden thought: With our ski masks and scarves and gloves we were dressed exactly the way banks tell us not to.  You've seen the signs: "For your safety and ours remove hats, glasses, and scarves before entering." Or words to that effect.

Because I suffer from CWB (Crime Writer's Brain) an idea immediately appeared in my skull.  What if some bank robbers decided to take advantage of a blizzard to stroll into a bank unnoticed? 

Hmm.  How would they make their getaway?  Obviously they would have to steal some snowmobiles!

When you get right down to it, that was a pretty stupid idea.  But the great thing about writing fiction is that even a stupid idea can make a smart story.

And speaking of stupid, I realized instantly that this was a case for Officer Kite.  This peace officer has appeared in two of my previous stories, "A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts," and "A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters."

Kite is not a very competent cop.  In his first appearance he got run over by his own police car..  That made him seem like the perfect foil for my snowmobiling bandits.

All the "Bad Day" stories are set in fictional Brune County, and involve strangers getting involved in a tangled mess of bad intentions and worse planning.  So far each story is longer and more convoluted than the last.

If you pick up the current (November/December 2018) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine you will discover "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests."  I hope you enjoy it.  And bundle up.

26 August 2018

A Parable?


Fables, parables and allegories are all similar. Roughly, a fable is a short story where animals or objects tell a story by speaking in order to teach a moral or religious lesson; a parable is a story designed to teach a moral or religious lesson with people doing the speaking; and an allegory is a story where ideas are symbolized as people. Sometimes a short story may be considered as more than one of these at the same time and sometimes in general conversation, people will interchange the three words.
When you think of fables, the first ones to your mind are probably the ancient Greek stories such as the dog in the manger and the fox and the grapes. Those types of old stories. Many old civilizations have used fables, parables and allegories as a method of teaching about life. One parable believed to be derived from early Taoism is the farmer whose horse ran away and all his neighbors lamented his bad fortune. The farmer's response was, "We'll see." The next day, his runaway horse returned to the farm with another horse and the neighbors rejoiced at the farmer's good fortune of obtaining a free horse. Again, the farmer said, "We'll see." The next day, the farmer's son fell off the new horse and broke his leg. The neighbors lamented the farmer's ill luck of his son having broken a leg. Again, the farmer said, "We'll see." On the following morning, the army came through the village and pressed all the healthy young men into service, but they left the farmer's son alone because he had a broken leg. The moral being, as the farmer had learned, was that life is unpredictable and you never know how a situation will turn out.

From old Hinduism came the parable of six blind men describing an elephant, but each blind man only felt one part of this elephant. One felt the trunk, another the tail, another a leg, another a tusk, another the body and another the head. Therefore, each man's description varied from the others, depending upon the part he touched. In the end, each blind man was partially correct, but none of them saw, or rather knew, the full picture. These days, you can easily apply this parable to various people in politics.

This issue also has a story by SS member
Janice Law, while James Lincoln Warren's
story gets the cover.
This topic of teaching lessons through various story methods brings us to my short story, "The Chinese Box," in the September/October 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. (The same issue that DELL Publishing is giving out at the 2018 Bouchercon in St. Petersberg, FL) This is the 5th story in my Shan Army series concerning the two sons of an opium warlord vying to inherit their father's empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia.

The story involves a wooden puzzle box with movable parts, probably much like ones you've seen and handled yourself. It also involves another inanimate object, however all the speaking and storytelling is done by humans, so the story is not a fable. Whether or not the story itself can be considered a parable, the younger half-brother sees the end result of the trek that he and his elder half-brother are on through mountain jungles to deliver their father's opium to dragon powder factories in northern Thailand to be a lesson in life being taught to them by their father. At the end of the journey, the younger son tells his old Mon scout the moral of what he's learned.

Several of my stories in the Shan Army series and in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series involve Chinese proverbs in the former and the sayings of Ghandi in the latter as key elements in the story line, but I don't know that I've involved or written any parables before this.

How about you guys? Have you written or used any parables in your own works?

22 June 2018

The Mysterious Women of Dell Magazines: Linda Landrigan



Linda Landrigan
Linda Landrigan
We complete our hat trick of interviews with the editorial staff of Dell's mystery magazines. Today we introduce editor Linda Landrigan.
— Robert Lopresti

Linda Landrigan is the editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. She edited the commemorative anthology Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense (2006), and the e-anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Presents Thirteen Tales of New American Gothic (2012). Before assuming the role of editor of AHMM, Linda served as the associate editor of the magazine under Cathleen Jordan for five years.



What are you reading right now?

I’ve been reading the Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, but I am taking a break right now to read The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig’s autobiography of growing up in Vienna.


What do you do in your free time?

I really enjoy weaving, knitting, and sewing, but I’m not very good at any one thing. I enjoy exploring my environs on my bike on nice days, too.


Do you have any pets?

Just a cat, Libby.


What’s the last movie you watched?

Black Panther.


What TV shows do you enjoy?

I love Vera and Shetland (Thank you, David Edgerley Gates, for turning me onto Shetland). I recently watched (and liked very much) an Icelandic series called Trapped.


What great short story or collection have you read recently?

I love rediscoveries. Though at this point not all that recent, Sarah Weinman’s anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is a terrific book. It’s always fun to see what Crippen & Landru are bringing out. I’m enjoying working my way through Martin Edward’s anthology Capital Crimes: London Mysteries right now.


Do you read any other periodicals?

I love the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and I always read the daily newspaper. I get my ideas for what to read next from Mystery Scene (If only I read faster!).


Have you always been a fan of mysteries?

My mother and grandfather were big fans (and AHMM subscribers) and always trading books, and when I was eight or nine and wanted to be part of their club, my mother handed me the 87th Precinct books. Later, after college, I rediscovered mysteries starting with P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh series. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine books were also early favorites.


What is your personal editorial philosophy?

I read for the melody of the prose, and am hooked by a well-drawn character. I confess a good plot is the last thing I look for when I read manuscripts. Though, if the plot is thin or poorly paced or relies on obvious tricks, I become frustrated and bored with the story.

What I like to find in a story are characters with honesty and integrity (whether or not they are good or bad at heart), who are touched in some way by the events of the story. I am turned off by affected language—straining to sound like Chandler or Hammett, for instance.


Thank you, Linda. We look forward to a never-ending supply of top grade stories. Thank you also, Janet and Jackie. Look for the women of mystery in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines.

20 June 2018

The Mysterious Women of Dell Magazines: Jackie Sherbow



Jackie Sherbow
photo by Ché Ryback

Leigh Lundin had the wonderful idea of inviting some of our favorite editors to sit for interviews. As the guiding hands at the mystery side of Dell Magazines (EQMM and AHMM) they have a huge influence on our field by bringing new readers and writers into it. Tomorrow we will feature Janet Hutchings, and Friday will star Linda Landrigan. But today we have the delightful Jackie Sherbow.
— Robert Lopresti

Jackie Sherbow is the Associate Editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She is also the editor of Newtown Literary Journal and her poetry has appeared in places like Day One, Moonchild Magazine, and Luna Luna Magazine. She lives in Queens, New York.



What is one thing you wish everyone would know about your publications?

First and foremost, that they (still) exist. This of course seems like child’s play to anyone reading SleuthSayers, but you don’t know how many people come up to us at events and say the words “I didn’t know you were still around,” or otherwise think we’re publishing reprints of older issues. It’s wonderful to speak with readers who have a long-time, nostalgic connection to the magazines (and/or have unearthed their parents’ or grandparents’ collections, which they remember from childhood), but I think there’s no reason why short mystery fiction shouldn’t have a wide and growing audience—especially since so many different modes of contemporary and traditional fiction fall under that umbrella and can be found in the magazines.


What are you reading right now?

I’m reading the short-story collection Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti, and Eye Level, poems by Jenny Xie. I am usually reading two or three books concurrently, and trying to catch up on magazine or journal subscriptions too—I try to balance my reading between short stories, novels, poetry, and nonfiction at all times. Looks like I need to pick up some nonfiction.


What other hobbies or jobs do you have?

I’m the editor of a community-based literary journal in Queens called Newtown Literary, and I’m involved with the nonprofit organization that publishes it. I am also a writer (of poetry) and a runner (albeit a very slow one).


Dottie
Do you have any pets?

I’ve somewhat recently adopted a small asthmatic cat named Dottie (after Miss Fisher’s companion in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). And now I’m the kind of person who has attached a photo of the cat to this e-mail.


What great short story or collection have you read recently?

I loved Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which came out last year from Graywolf Press and has received a handful of awards and nominations since then. A story that really unnerved me recently was “The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff, originally published in the New Yorker and reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 2017. I had to put it down and give it a break before finishing it. I read a lot of short horror as well as—naturally—crime and thriller, but I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a story. Very uncomfortable, but very memorable.


What do you love about short stories?

As a poet, I’m always impressed by fiction in general: what an author can pull off in terms of plot while also concentrating on theme and form—and as we know this is accentuated in a short story, where there’s less wordly “real estate.” As an editor and reader of short fiction, I particularly find intriguing the plot and character arcs in a short story (especially when there’s a mystery—which there almost always is!). I find that in a short story, imaginative leaps, experimental form, and other playful or innovative methods can be pulled off more successfully. And I really love how reading a short story on its own and then among others (whether in a single-author collection or a periodical or anthology) can bring out something new in the work. In terms of practicality, I’m a fairly slow reader, so short stories tend to strike me more in this way than a series of novels do.


Who is your favorite author?

Gabriel García Marquéz.


If you knew you’d be deserted on an island, what book would you bring?

One Hundred Years of Solitude.


What is your personal editorial philosophy?

In general I edit for clarity, consistency, and then refinement in service of the author’s voice and the entirety of the piece. I think that everything in a piece of writing matters, down to the smallest element of punctuation, but that it’s important as an editor to examine the power structures underlying the use of different types of language. I think it’s irresponsible not to do this. In everyday life, I think it can be pernicious to promote unsolicited, moralized adherence to traditional correctness without thinking about it. Language is a gift and powerful tool, and I think the words, style, and usages we choose to employ (or choose not to) have a cumulative effect on our communities.


Aside from short mystery fiction, what other parts of the genre do you enjoy?

I am a fan of mystery novels, television shows, and movies, and I am fascinated by true crime, but I would have to say the community of writers, readers, and fans. I think mysteries bring people together. Speaking of which, thank you, SleuthSayers, for inviting me, Janet, and Linda to participate.

Thank you, Jackie. Tomorrow, Janet Hutchings.