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

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.

28 April 2018

When is a Mystery not a Mystery?

by Melodie Campbell

Homeless. Not me, luckily. I still have four walls and a roof plus dog on the couch. But my kick-ass story, A Ship Called Pandora, that had a wonderful future and clear economic security is now homeless.

The genres are tricky things. If I write a mystery and set it in the past, it’s considered a historical mystery. So, if we are classifying it, we would call it a Mystery first, and then Historical, as a subgenre of mystery genre. Everyone’s happy.

But what if I set it in the future?

This is exactly what has happened to me recently. For the very first time, I was asked to write a crime story for an anthology, without going through the usual submission process. The anthology had the delightful premise: anything goes. That is, I could write any subgenre, and set it anywhere, anytime. *rubs hands in delight*

A particular story had been percolating in my brain for weeks, pounding to get out. My friends and readers know that I like writing from the other side of the crime spectrum. In The Goddaughter series, I write from the point of view of a mob Goddaughter who really doesn’t want to be one, but keeps having to pull off heists to bail out her family. The books are fun, and weirdly, justice is done by the end, regardless of her family connections.

So this new story was going to feature a kick-ass female marshal from the witness protection program. Her job is to arrange the ‘hide’ after someone has testified in court. Thing is, the transportation is by space travel, because the plot is set far in the future.

I sent it to the anthology editors. They loved it. One of my best twists ever, they said. They liked the fact that it was hard-edged – unusual for me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then two months later, they came back. The publisher was having second thoughts. He thought the science fiction setting would not be a good fit for a mystery anthology. *author reaches for gun*

So they asked if they could reprint one of my award-winning stories instead. I gave them a favourite (Hook, Line and Sinker) that was also hard-edged. This is the one that had me sharing a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood (Atwood won.) It would have a second life, which is always nice.
Meanwhile, I had this story on my hands, one that everyone loved, written especially for an anthology, that was now homeless. *pass the scotch*

This was the time of Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. I was hanging with the AHMM gang, who were recording me reading my own work, Santa Baby, for a podcast to go up on their site. (It’s there now *does happy dance*) So I asked if they would be interested in reading it.

Sure, was the answer. Sometimes they publish stories set in the near future. I didn’t think this one would qualify. I was right.

They didn’t take it. But they did suggest sending it to their sister Dell mag, Asimov’s Science Fiction Mag.  I might. But I'd rather have a mystery market.

My point is this: Usually, we classify a story as a mystery if the plot is a mystery. The setting comes second. A historical mystery is still classified as a mystery. A mystery with a strong romance element is still a mystery if the plot is a mystery plot. But in the case of a future setting, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The setting is key to the classification.

I probed a bit among my author contacts. One said that he had written a series billed as sci-fi mystery, and this was his baffling and witty conclusion: he managed to alienate the mystery readers, and confuse the sci-fi readers. Sales were a lot better when they reclassified the thing as sci-fi only

So to answer that initial question: When Is a Mystery not a Mystery? When it’s set in the future.

What about you? Have you come across this before? Any suggestions?

UPDATE:   The intrepid editors at Mystery Weekly Magazine say they love A Ship Called Pandora.  It comes out soon. 

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
on AMAZON


Here's another fun scifi crossgenre book: CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier… especially when you're also a spy!
(Good thing I had a traditional publisher for this one. Because I have NO IDEA where to promote this.)

04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?


by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't charged through the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine yet, I encourage you to get off the proverbial dime and do so.  You will find many good stories including appearances by three SleuthSayers: Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and your humble (oh, shut up) reporter.

It was R.T.'s story that inspired my sermon today.  (And if you missed it, you can read his own thoughts about the tale here.)

What I want to talk about is something much beloved of literary critics: the unreliable narrator.  The concept has appeared in literature for thousands of years but the phrase comes from William C. Booth in 1961.  It refers to a piece of literature with a first-person narration which the reader, for whatever reason, would be unwise to trust.

To my mind there are four varieties, all of whom can be found in mystery fiction.

The Lunatic.  This one goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.  (Hint: When a character begins by insisting that he is not crazy you would be wise to doubt him.)

The Liar. Agatha Christie did the most famous version of this, infuriating many readers.  Decades later something happened that I imagine went like this:
Critics: Of course, having the narrator secretly being the murderer is a one-off stunt, and no author could use it again.
Dame Agatha: Is that so?  Hold my tea.
And to everyone's consternation, she did it again.

I mentioned this a long time ago, but: One of my favorite examples of this category was The Black Donnellys, a short-lived TV series about Irish-American criminals in New York (2007).  The framing device is Joey Ice Cream, either a hanger-on or the Donnelly brothers' best friend, depending on who is telling the story.  Joey is in prison and he is being interrogated by the cops about the Donnelly's career.  And he is a compulsive liar, happy to change his story when they catch him fibbing.  YOu can see the brilliant pilot episode here. 

The Self-Deluded.  Not crazy and not deliberately lying.  This character is just so wrapped up in himself and so devoted to defending his actions that his views can't be trusted.  Think of Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy with his endless stream of explanations for his failures and dubious decisions.  I remember one book in which  he casually mentions breaking a man's arm "practically by accident."  My private eye character Marty Crow is quite trustworthy - unless he is talking about his gambling problem.  Problem?  What problem?

The Innocent.  This narrator describes accurately what he saw, but fails to understand it.  A famous example is Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut."  The barber describes a crime, and doesn't even realize it.

And that brings us back to R.T. Lawton's story.  "The Left Hand of Leonard" is part of his series about the criminal underground during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.  His narrator is a young pickpocket, not very skilled and not very clever, who is sent by the king of the criminals to help steal the bones of a saint.  Things go wrong and then seem to go right and the boy can't figure out what happened.  Ah, but the reader will, just as R.T. intended.

Do you have any favorite tales with unreliable narrators? And if you say you do, should we believe you?

04 March 2018

The Left Hand of Leonard

by R.T. Lawton


AHMM March/April 2018 cover
Con schemes have been going on since the serpent in the Garden of Eden sweet-talked Eve into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.

"Come on, baby, just one bite. You know you want to. It'll make you smarter, prettier and it'll taste better than anything you've ever had." Or something like that. Choose your own words.

From that time forward,  according to the Bible, innocence was lost. Man, and woman, then came up with various ploys to manipulate other people into parting with their wealth, possessions or other coveted objects. In the last few years, you personally have likely been warned about many of the recent scams and probably even been approached by a scammer or three. But by now, you're too smart to fall for those types of ploys. Aren't you? Right, but all a scammer has to do is find your soft spot.

So, let's go back several centuries and see what was happening then. A religious fervor had swept all of Europe. The Crusades became the rage, with kings, knights, nobles, soldiers, monks, peasants and even young children hitting the road to the Middle East in an attempt to save the Holy Land for Christianity.

Over time, some of those pilgrims returned home with wondrous tales of strange sights in foreign lands. Many of these survivors had visited places referenced in the Bible, places that most stay-at-home people knew about only from worship services by their local religious leaders. Only now, with these returning pilgrims to speak first hand of what they'd seen, the places became real to the listener, no longer just place names in a book or a sermon. Along with these returned pilgrims came religious relics from the Holy Land. A bit of bones from some saint, a piece of wood from a coffin or cross, all alleged to have been from a particular person or place referenced in the Bible. Churches and monasteries began to purchase or otherwise acquire these holy relics. The fame of these religious organizations grew according to the status of the relics they had obtained. Competition grew fierce, to include the stealing of relics from their owners.

NOTE: King Louis IX of France himself purchased some of these relics from Baldwin the Second, then emperor of Constantinople, for the price of 130,000 livres. Actually, the money was paid to the Venetians who were holding the Passion Relics as collateral for cash they had loaned to Baldwin. In any case, King Louis received the relics at Paris in August 1239 where he first housed them in a building known as Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel). One of the items was alleged to be the Crown of Thorns (now lodged in Notre Dame Cathedral). In 1246, Louis added alleged fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance to his collection.

Now, back to those returning pilgrims. If a knight or soldier returning alone (not with his lord and master) hadn't plundered, then he probably came home broke. Food and travel to get there cost money. Who's to say a little piece of sheep bone or a sliver of ancient wood to display during a dramatic tale wouldn't bolster a good story about the Holy Land. Make the telling seem more real. Might be good for a meal and a cup of wine from the listening audience. And then, miracle of miracles, what if some stay-at-home nobleman or church leader desired to purchase that now "holy relic." The scam played out.

St. Leonard's Church in Noblat, France
This brings us to "The Left Hand of Leonard," 6th in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, AHMM March/April 2018 issue.

Our young-orphan, inept-pickpocket protagonist has been summoned by the leader of their criminal enclave to go south with two of the leader's henchmen to steal some of the bones of Saint Leonard from a church. The bones, alleged to have certain medicinal powers, are to be sold to a nobleman in order to heal his wife. The two henchmen and the young orphan travel to southern France, where under the cover of darkness, they enter the church. Unbeknownst to them, a clever con has already been set in motion. For the rest of the action and the ending, you'll have to read the story.

NOTE: Saint Leonard, the patron of imprisoned people (to include political prisoners, prisoners of war and Crusaders captured by the Muslims), women in labor and horses, died November 6, 559 A.D. His first claim to real fame came from the power of his prayers which saved the wife and child of a Frankish nobleman during a premature birth. In return, he was granted a plot of land where a town and a church were later built. After his death, his bones ended up in St. Leonard's Church in Noblat, France. Here's a real saint with real bones, pretty much accounted for through the centuries.

Thus was a home grown saint found and used for a fictitious story. The historical backgrounds meshed and were too good for me to pass up.

SIDE NOTE: Since we're talking about religious relics, here's an interesting situation for those of you watching the Knightfall series currently on television. It seems that in 2014, two Spanish researchers claimed to have found the Holy Grail inside another object in a church in the town of Leon in northern Spain. The cup has been analyzed as having been made in about the appropriate time period, however there is no direct line on its early history. When you look at the photo and see the rich materials used to make and decorate the cup, you have to wonder who the rich patron was who donated this chalice for the Last Supper, but then a richly jeweled chalice was probably more preferable to the religious tastes of the upper classes in the earlier centuries than an everyday clay pottered cup would have been. You are now left to draw your own conclusions.


17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
by Robert Lopresti

I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer.  He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)



That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.


But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

01 November 2017

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves

by Robert Lopresti

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde

A few months ago I read a story called "Crow Mountain"  by John Floyd in the latest issue of The Strand.  A good story it was, but what amused me was that it included a plot twist that I had used a decade before.


I am not suggesting anything nefarious.  First of all, John needs to steal ideas from me like  Bryan Bowers needs me to give him autoharp lessons.  (Slow down, Bryan!  Make some mistakes!)  But most important - if he had read my story and instantly said I can use that it would have still been all right.  It would be what Lawrence Block calls "creative plagiarism."  You take the original idea in use it in some new and original way.

Here's what I mean by the shared plot twist: If you read John's story and then started mine when you got to a certain point you might say: "Huh.  I bet I know how it ends."  And you'd be right  Same if you read mine first, then John's.

I told John I liked the story and mentioned the coincidence.  I said it reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings: "Great minds run in the same gutter."

John graciously replied: "I’ll share a gutter with you anytime."

I mention this because I have a story in the new November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  (My 27th appearance there, he said modestly.)   And "The Chair Thief" definitely involved creative plagiarism.

I wish I could tell you who I stole from, but I don't know.  A few decades ago I went through all the mystery shorts I could find in the public library.  I fell in love with a tale by Lawrence Block and when his collected stories came out I looked forward to repeating my acquaintance with that one.  But it wasn't there.  

I emailed him, describing the story.  Larry politely replied that it sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't his.  So I'm stuck.

Here is the plot of that original story; A true paranoiac gets ready for his day, putting fresh tin foil in his hat to keep out the mind controllers, and wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to foil the death rays.  Then he goes out for a stroll.  Things happen.

My story, on the other hand, is about two office-mates who get mad at a co-worker.  

You might say "those two plots have nothing in common."  Well, maybe not.  But it comes down to what I said before: If you read them one after another you would probably guess how the second one ends.

But since the first one is lost, we don't have to worry about that.  

I hope you enjoy "The Chair Thief." And if anyone remembers the author and title of the other story, I wish you would let me know.

30 July 2017

Into the Jungle

by R.T. Lawton


Khun Sa
photo by Satham Pairoah
From roughly 1963 until 1996, a man with the chosen name of Khun Sa operated as an opium warlord in the region of Southeast Asia known as The Golden Triangle. This triangle consisted of a mountainous jungle area involving three countries: Burma, Laos and Thailand. The land was populated by many people of different ethnic groups, several of which were hill tribes. For centuries, Turks from the west, Mongols from the north and various waves of Chinese out of Yunnan Province had invaded this land and absorbed the local inhabitants. As a result, a great number of languages and dialects were spoken here. Religions ranged from Muslim to Buddhist to animalistic and variations.

#1 "Across the Salween"
AHMM Nov 2013
Khun Sa, which means Prosperous Prince in the Shan language, was a man with a murky past and a strong future. Most historians agree that he was born of a Chinese father and a woman from the Shan hill tribe in Burma. He lived in an atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances among the various opium armies where only the strong and cunning survived. And, he was a survivor, but like the Germans in World War II, he eventually found that he couldn't fight a war on two fronts at the same time. The Burmese Army had finally squeezed his Shan Army into a small area where he had his back to a river. Being a survivor, he surrendered to the Burmese government and went on to become a thriving businessman in his retirement from opium warlord status.

opium field in Burma
After creating four successful series for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (two other potential series didn't make the I'd-like-to-buy-it list), I was searching for something new to write. My first acceptance with AHMM ("Once, Twice, Dead")  had been set in the Golden Triangle at a time when the magazine's previous editor was looking for stories with an exotic background. This one was written as a standalone  with the protagonist not being a good candidate to start a series, however, the Golden Triangle was an intriguing background for a series. I'd been to Vietnam in 1967-68 (in-country in the highlands), so I had a feel for the area, plus reports on the mountain opium smugglers had crossed my desk over the years during my main career, and I now had a Chinese historian living next door at my current residence. True, his English isn't always the best, but his wife who speaks five languages, to include Mandarin and English, makes for an excellent translator when he looks up internet facts for the Chinese version of history's events, which are not always the same as the English version of the same happening.

#2 "Elder Brother"
AHMM Jan/Feb 2015
Then, I began brainstorming to come up with characters and story lines conducive to the Golden Triangle. With such a background location already rife with treachery, corruption and violence, it was easy to implement our frequently used writing technique of What If?  Since he real opium warlord supposedly came from a mixed race family, what if my White Nationalist Chinese (KMT) story warlord had two sons, one half-Chinese/half-Shan hill tribe and the second son was pure-blood Chinese. In oriental culture, the elder brother tends to have dominance, but a pure-blood considers himself as better than a mongrel half-breed. It now becomes a conflict between Elder Brother (the half-Chinese/half-Shan) and the younger pure-blood Chinese.

poppy dripping opium sap
from cut during harvest
Naturally, the elder brother is raised in the jungle and is comfortable in those surroundings, while the younger brother has grown up in the British school system in Hong Kong. The younger brother, our protagonist for this series, has studied Julius Caesar, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, yet has no knowledge of jungle survival. After his mother died in Hong Kong, the younger son (as a young adult) finds himself taken out of the civilized world and transplanted to a jungle camp in the mountains of Southeast Asia. As his opium warlord father says, it is time he learned the family business and made his own way in the world.

#3 "On the Edge"
AHMM Oct 2015
Elder Brother has the position of Staff Captain and is in command of some Shan Army troops, part of his father's army. The younger brother has the rank of Sub-lieutenant and is in command of some of his father's Kuomintang troops (KMT), the old White Nationalist Chinese soldiers originally under Chiang Kai-Shek that went south out of Yunnan Province after Mao's Red Army chased them out of China during their civil war. And, as the KMT generals said after being stranded in Burma, an army needs an income and opium was handy.

Woman of the Mon tribe
Thus, we are presented with two half-brothers from different backgrounds, who have no love for each other, not to mention that only one of the brothers can inherit the position of opium warlord upon their father's demise. The competition begins and the reader has a front row seat on the safety of the sidelines to see every move made by the warring brothers, though sometimes the reader should look below the surface of what appears to be happening. Not all the enemies are within the family; other organizations and opposing opium warlords are also seeking any advantage they can take.
#4 "Making Merit"
AHMM July/Aug 2017

So far, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan has purchased five stories in the Shan Army series with #5 being "The Chinese Box", while one more manuscript, #6 "Reckoning with Your Host," is soon to be submitted to her e-slush pile.

To add spice to each story, old Chinese proverbs are often quoted in dialogue by our protagonist. Sometimes these sayings can be taken at face value, other times the wording may be twisted to fit the circumstances. Any way you look at it, the ride should be a new adventure for readers into a world that once truly existed. Root for whichever side you like, they are still people you wouldn't want to marry your sister or daughter. And if you should be unwise enough to take one home for supper, be aware that the pain between your shoulder blades could be the steak knife missing from your silverware.


Sleep well, and be glad these real life characters are on the other side of the world.

29 July 2017

Four Stories


by John M. Floyd



July has been a busy month for me, in terms of the SleuthSayers blog--it has five weekends, so it was my duty to post three columns, on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays. For this last assignment, I thought it might be fitting (and, yes, easy) to talk about four of my short mystery stories that appeared in publications with a July 2017 issue date. Three of them were in magazines, one in an anthology.

Hitched with the team

First, I was fortunate enough to be featured alongside three of my fellow SleuthSayers--R.T. Lawton, O'Neil De Noux, and Steve Liskow--and two of my old friends--Joe D'Agnese and Robert Mangeot--in the July/August 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (which actually went on sale last month). My story there, called "Trail's End," is the first of a new series featuring rural sheriff Ray Douglas and his lawyer/mystery-writer friend Jennifer Parker. The two of them are in sort of an on-again-off-again relationship and, not surprisingly, wind up in the middle of a murder investigation on their way back from a trip to New Orleans.

NOTE 1: After finishing several drafts of this story, I was having a hard time coming up with a suitable title, so I changed the plot around a little, placed the murder scene at a motel, put it at the end of a road at the edge of a swamp in the middle of nowhere, and named the motel the Trail's End.

NOTE 2: Someone recently asked me why the women in my stories are usually smarter than the men. I replied that I try to write fiction that comes close to the way things are in real life.

One more thing about this story. An old friend from my hometown named Cheryl Grubbs told me a couple of years ago that she hoped I would one day use her as a character in one of my creations. As fate would have it, Sheriff Douglas's deputy in this story is named Cheryl Grubbs. And by the way, the second installment in the series has been purchased by AHMM and will appear sometime in the coming months, so Deputy Grubbs will be back again then. Cheryl, if you're reading this, I hope you'll like her.

The book thief

My second July story, "The Rare Book Case," also came out in late June, but appeared in Woman's World's July 3 issue--WW copies go on sale almost two weeks before the issue date--and is an installment in my series about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and her former student Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones. Most of the stories in that series were written for Woman's World, but other Angela/Chunky adventures have appeared in Amazon Shorts, Flash Bang MysteriesRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and my short-story collection Fifty Mysteries: The Angela Files.

This one is set on the Fourth of July, and involves the theft of a rare first-edition novel from a locked case at Abner Smith's bookstore. The thief, long gone now, was seen by one of the store's customers but not by the owner, and when the sheriff is summoned certain things in the customer's description of the suspect don't seem to add up. Fortunately the bossy Ms. Potts--who as usual is on the scene even though she probably shouldn't be--is especially good at that kind of math, and saves the (Independence) day.

Maintaining law and daughter

My third story of the month, in the Summer 2017 issue of B.J. Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, is a new episode in a series I've been writing for a long time, featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her mother Frances. Fran usually helps her daughter solve mysteries (whether Lucy wants her to or not), but her main goal is to get Sheriff Valentine married so Fran can become a grandmother, a mission that has so far been unsuccessful. Other stories about these two, which I've named the "Law & Daughter" series, have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mysterical-E, Woman's World, Futures, Mouth Full of Bullets, Seeds, Kings River Life, my short-story collection Dreamland, and several anthologies.

This story in Flash Bang is called "Ace in the Hole," and involves the gangland kidnapping of a guy named Ace McGee, who seems to be destined for a late-night burial in a pit at a construction site. Working with Fran and Lucy to try to keep Ace alive and above ground is teenaged genius Donna Fairley, which is also the maiden name of one of my old IBM co-workers. (Warning to my family, friends, and acquaintances: you guys have a way of showing up as characters in my stories, so you better be nice to me . . .)

A neo kind of noir

The last of my July-dated publications, "The Sandman," is a standalone story included in the anthology Noir at the Salad Bar, from Level Best Books. (Actually this isn't the last one, but until just before time for this column to post, I thought it was. My fifth publication with a current date, a story called "Crow Mountain" in Strand Magazine, is described below. Hang on . . .)

"The Sandman" is possibly the most intense of the stories I'm discussing here, but I still tried to plug a bit of humor in. The title refers to a character named Sanderford, and the plot involves a couple of underworld loan-sharks who target the owner of a local bar. This mystery is more of a howdunit than a whodunit, with a few twists thrown in (I can't seem to resist that), and was great fun to write.

I'm especially honored to have been featured in this book alongside friends Michael Bracken and Alan Orloff. Noir at the Salad Bar was released on July 18.

Getting lucky at WW

I also have another Woman's World story, called "Mr. Unlucky" out right now, but its issue date is August 7 so I'm not counting it as one of my July stories. (That issue appeared at our Kroger store on July 27, so I picked it up yesterday along with a jug of milk and a loaf of bread. Seriously.) This was my 89th story to be published in Woman's World, and in recent weeks I've sold them #90 and #91. So far, 82 of those have been installments in my Angela-and-the-Sheriff series.

"Mr. Unlucky" is a whodunit about a robbery at a local furniture store, and involves a mysterious note on which is written the name of an old TV show and movie called Mr. Lucky. I'm a certified, card-carrying movie addict, so anytime I can work something cinematic into one of my stories, it makes it even more fun to write. Upcoming is a Labor Day story scheduled for the September 4 WW issue (on sale August 24) and a murder mystery in the September 18 issue.

Breaking news . . .

I only just found out that I also have a story in the current (June-Sep 2017) issue of Strand Magazine, just released. Yes, as I said, I know that makes five stories rather than four, but instead of changing the title of this post at the last minute, I figured I'd tack this onto the end. The story is "Crow Mountain," about a fisherman who encounters an escaped convict deep in the woods, and what happens as a result. If you pick up this issue, I hope you'll like the tale--it's a little different. And I'm proud to have been featured alongside one of my longtime heroes, Max Allan Collins.


Anyhow, that's my midsummer report. (You might notice I didn't mention my rejections, which are many.) If any of you have recent--or not-so-recent--successes to announce (publications, acceptances, completions, etc., of either shorts or novels), please let me know via the comments section below. Everybody likes hearing that kind of news.



Speaking of fortunate events, today is our wedding anniversary. Carolyn and I were married 45 years ago in a galaxy far, far away (Oklahoma), and tonight most of our kids and grandchildren will be here at our house for dinner. I can't think of a better way to celebrate.

Familywise AND writingwise, I wish all of you the best.








26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.

26 June 2016

April in Manhattan

by R.T. Lawton


AHMM editor Linda Landrigan
 at Notaro's Ristorante
The plane lands at La Guardia and passengers proceed through the walkway. Now, it's down the stairs to claim luggage and find ground transportation. Out on the sidewalk, drivers for black Town Cars hawk $63 rides to Manhattan, but a taxi, even for two passengers, is a less expensive fare to the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Terminal. Check into the hotel, up to the room, unpack and we're ready for a little relaxation. Start with a draft beer at $9 each in the hotel lounge. The price alone lets you know you are no longer in one of the fly-over states.

3 SleuthSayers at DELL reception
R.T., Liz Zelvin & David Dean
Wednesday morning is breakfast at Pershing Square Restaurant across the street from the Hyatt and nestled under an overhead street. Nice atmosphere, short waiting line, good service. Eggs Benedict are fine and the final bill is fairly reasonable for breakfast in mid-Manhattan.

Supper that evening is with AHMM editor Linda Landrigan at Notaro's Ristorante, 635 2nd Avenue. This is a family owned business, the atmosphere is homey, the food is superb, the waiters are friendly and the prices are good. Try their Rigatoni alla Vodka with a glass of Pinot Noir. You'll come back to dine again. Even though we were all full, I got into a several minute discussion with our waiter about the Italian dessert Tiramisu and learned a few things. The waiter promptly returned with a plate of Tiramisu (on the house) and three forks. Best I've ever had, to include the one I ate in northern Italy where this dessert originated. Turns out our waiter is part of the family who owns the restaurant. It's not a large place, so I would recommend reservations. We will definitely eat there again.

Some of the fancy dessert
at Edgars Banquet.
Edgar is white chocolate.
Thursday afternoon is the DELL Publishing (AHMM & EQMM) Cocktail Reception. Editors Linda Landrigan (AHMM) and Janet Hutchings (EQMM), Senior Assistant Editor Jackie Sherbow, Carol Dumont (the nice lady who sends contracts and paychecks to writers whose stories are accepted) and other names on the masthead are there to greet attendees. Nicely, three other SleuthSayers (David Dean, Liz Zelvin and Brian Thornton) plus a gentleman from our predecessor Criminal Brief (James Lincoln Warren), all short story authors,  also showed up. This event is always a good time, where one gets to meet other short story mystery authors and discuss all sorts of topics.

Then, it's back to the Grand Hyatt for the Edgar Awards Banquet. The wife and I start with the Edgar Nominees Champagne Reception in a large room on the Ballroom level. As chief judge for the Best Novel category (509 hardcovers in ten months) it's interesting to meet and be able to chat with some of the Nominees. Best Novel Judges Brian Thornton and James Lincoln Warren are also in attendance.
R.T. presenting to Edgars Best Novel Winner - Lori Roy
Next comes the general cocktail reception, followed by the banquet itself. Supper is served, speakers talk and awards are presented. Winners (and their publishers) are elated, while the rest of the Nominees get to look forward to the possibility of their next work earning them the status of Nominee and maybe Winner at the next Edgar Awards Banquet. Still, it's a good time and you get to meet and network with lots of fascinating people. Meanwhile, outside the banquet room, publishers have set up lines of tables with free books of their Nominee authors. I'm still waiting for one of my stories to make me a Nominee in the Best Short Story category. For now, it looks like a long wait.

The Pond in Central Park
Reflections in Central Park
Friday is free time and an enjoyable walk north to Central Park. On the south end of the park where the horse and carriage drivers hawk their rides, we see two people sitting in the back of a carriage within an area that's been blocked off. The driver, wearing a top hat, is perched on his seat, but there is no horse in the harness. A closer look reveals two movie cameras, a boom mike and some guys holding huge light reflector panels. Someone says "action" and a man steps into the horse harness. He has a plume on top of his head like the horses wear and as he pulls the carriage  forward about fifty feet, he bobs his head like a horse would do so that the plume has a horse's rhythm to its movement. The driver even flicks his reins as if a horse is in harness. The camera is shooting over what would be the horse's head and into the carriage. The carriage stops, three men back it up to its original starting position and they do another take. Must be easier for men to move the carriage in both directions than to back up a horse. Wonder what the horse thought about all this process as he stood off to the side doing nothing.

Baltika #3 in the Russian Vodka Room
SleuthSayer Brian Thornton & wife Robyn
at Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal
Ate Nathan's hot dogs from a vendor's cart. Not bad. Don't know if this is what native New Yorkers do or if it's just tourists. Then, it's a walk south to the Russian Vodka Room where large bottles of Baltika #3 and Baltika #7 are only $4 a bottle. Beats the much higher prices at other lounges and bars, and it is a great tasting beer. Right next door, The Jersey Boys is playing at the same off-Broadway theater that it has for the last several years. Supper is in a nice Irish restaurant near Times Square and dessert is at The Oyster Bar in the depths of Grand Central Terminal.

It was a great trip. If you haven't yet been to the Edgars, you should try it one of these Aprils. Just plan on spending some money.

Saturday is an early taxi ride back to La Guardia and a flight home.

Catch ya later.

30 March 2016

The Fatal Cup Of Tea

by Robert Lopresti

Arlo Guthrie tells a story about performing in a bar in Chicago in 1971.  After the show a stranger came up and said he wanted to play him a song he wrote.

Well, Arlo had experienced that before and as a result had heard a lot of bad songs.  So he told the stranger, you can buy me a beer, and for as long as it takes me to drink it, you can do whatever you want.

Today he notes, dryly: "It turned out to be one of the finer beers of my life."   The stranger was Steve Goodman and his song was "City of New Orleans."  Arlo's recording of it reached the Billboard Top 20 and made them both a nice chunk of change.

I was reminded of that while pondering a dose of beverage that had a profound effect on my life, albeit not such a lucrative one.  It was tea, not beer, and I drank it in a little cafe in Montclair, NJ, about 30 years ago.

I was with my wife and a friend and while they were chatting I found myself looking out the window at the street and, being a writer of the sort I am, wondering: what if I saw a crime taking place?  And what if there was a reason I couldn't just leap up and do something about it?


Cut ahead two decades and "Shanks At Lunch" appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (February 2003).  I mention all this because the hero of that story, conceived in that Montclair coffee shop, is making his ninth appearance in AHMM  this month (well, the issue date is May 2016, but it is available now).

"Shanks Goes Rogue" was inspired by three different things.  First of all, I wanted to bring back Dixie, a character who had appeared in the story "Shanks Gets Killed."  She is an eccentric woman who runs the charity favored by Shanks' beloved wife, Cora, which gives her plenty of opportunities to annoy my hero, and that's a good thing for my stories.

The second inspiration was this: I had thought of a clue.  Clues are hard for me and I wanted to use this one.  I figured out how Shanks could take advantage of it.

And finally, I had a hole in the book of stories I was putting together.  To be precise: the last story ended on a gloomy note and that would never do for a book of mostly funny stories.  As the saying goes, the first page sells this book and the last page sells the next one.  So "Shanks Goes Rogue" was created to round out my collection of tales.

But then I had an unpleasant encounter with a telephone scammer, which led me to write a quicky story called "Shanks Holds The Line."  I decided as a public service to offer it to Linda Landrigan  for Trace Evidence, the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine website.  She put it up the next day.  But there was no reason I couldn't use it to round out Shanks On Crime, so I did.

Which left "Shanks Goes Rogue" looking for a home.  Linda adopted it and here we are, happily ensconced in the annual humor issue.  I hope it gives you a chuckle.   Personally, I will celebrate with a nice cup of tea.





20 May 2015

Telling Fiction from Fact

by Robert Lopresti 

(The excellent picture on the right is the illustration Tim Foley created for my story in AHMM.  It is used by his permission.  See more of his  work here.)


The Encyclopedia of American Race Riots.
 
The words above are the opening of "Shooting at Firemen," my twenty-fifth appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (July-August 2015, on sale next week).  I suppose when a short story opens with the title of an encyclopedia you can safely guess that the author is a librarian.   

But that book gave me more than my opening line.  It was the inspiration for the story as well.  When I saw it on the shelf of the library where I work I immediately grabbed it up and searched the index for the city where I grew up.  I didn't find it.  And when I realized why Plainfield, New Jersey's troubles had not made the book, I realized I had to write a short story.

What I want to write about  today is how to turn actual events into a piece of fiction, or at least how I did it.


You see, the hero of my story is a grown man who was a twelve-year-old boy in Plainfield when the riots struck in the summer of 1967.  So am I.  Like him, I spent that summer working as an unpaid junior counselor at a day camp for disadvantaged children.   (That picture shows me a year later, by the way.)

There are plenty more connections to reality - for example, the scene which gives the story its title is written down exactly as I remember it.   And I reported the details of the riot as accurately as I could, without overwhelming the plot.

But that's the thing.  Real events are not a plot.  And a riot, no matter how dreadful its crimes were, is not itself the engine for a crime story, at least not the one I wanted to write.  So in the middle of the chaos that occurred - burning buildings, stolen semi-automatic rifles, one brutal murder - I had to invent a  disaster on a small scale, one that my twelve-year-old boy could have an effect on. My inspiration for that was an actual event - an injury that happened to one of our African-American counselors as he tried to sneak past the National Guard, with no more nefarious purpose than trying to get home.  I raised the stakes as much as I could, fictionalizing both the cause and effect of the injury. A few of the characters in the story are based on real people I knew back then.  The villain was inspired by someone I met years later.

I want to mention one important change I made.  Throughout the story my protagonist reports on the events of the riot objectively, as certain of his facts as an omniscient narrator.  But there is one exception.

As I said, there was one brutal murder during the riots, the death of a police officer.  I don't mention his name in the story, but he was John Gleason.  His family doesn't believe the official version of his death -- you can read about the controversy here -- so out of respect for them in the story I reported that event differently.  It begins "[My mother] told me the version she had heard on the radio."  No guarantee that it was true.


Oh, by the way.  The reason Plainfield didn't make it into the Encyclopedia?  There was no room.   There were more than one hundred race riots in America that year.  And 1967 was just one of the so-called Long Hot Summers.

I seem to have a lot to add here.  For example: a few months ago my sister Diane Chamberlain wrote in this space about her new novel The Silent Sister, and how it was sparked by one of my short stories.  This is the one she was talking about.

And one more thing.  Back in those days I used to read a newspaper column by a guy named Sydney J. Harris.  One of his columns stuck in my head - or at least I think it did.  As I recall he gave a graphic description of a horrible riot.  Then he explained that it happened, not in Watts, or Harlem, but in Ireland in the 1920s.  The Protestants were fighting with the Catholics.

"Perhaps," he said (as I recall) "in forty years it will seem as ridiculous that we fought over race as it seems now that people fought about religion."  A good writer, but not a hell of a prophet.

I hope you enjoy the story.