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

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.

05 May 2020

A River Runs Through It


Although I’ve written and sold short stories in a variety of genres, my crime fiction primarily fits within the subgenres of private eye, hardboiled, and noir. I’ve written many stories in which violence is on the page, sex is on the page, and the climax involves someone getting shot. (The crime fiction I wrote for men’s magazines—prior to their demise as viable markets—often involved climaxes of a different sort.)

While I’ve done well working within these three subgenres, I realize restricting myself to them limits the number of publications that might use my work and relying on shooting someone for a climax lends a certain predictability to my stories.

So, during the past handful of years, I’ve made a conscious effort to expand my crime fiction into other subgenres. “Sleepy River,” in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is a good example.

STORY GENESIS

I envy fellow short-story writers—Art Taylor, John Floyd, Robert Lopresti, and several others—who write wonderful essays about the inspiration behind this story or that story. I often find those kind of essays difficult to write because I rarely know where my ideas come from.

For example, all I can find in my notes is that I created a Word document for “Sleepy River” on June 19, 2018, and I had, at some point prior to that, roughed out five pages of handwritten notes. There is nothing to indicate where the idea came from, but the key elements of the story—including a rough sketch of the dock where the story begins and ends—are in the notes.

GENRE-CHALLENGED

I’m uncertain what sub-genre “Sleepy River” fits into, but it’s clearly not private eye, hardboiled, or noir.

It’s about what happens to two young girls idling away their time during summer break. There’s no sex, no bad words, and only muted violence. But there are good guys, bad guys, and a dead guy. And nobody gets shot in the climax.

Enjoy.

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...

14 April 2020

Byte Me


Back up your files!

So many stories are no longer accessible.
I’ve been hearing this since the advent of personal computers, and I’ve always tried to adhere to what is, on the surface, good advice.

I no longer have the cassette tapes from my first computer—a Radio Shack TRS-80—but I have a collection of 5.25” floppy disks, 3.5” diskettes, Zip drives, and CDs containing word-processing files created with WordStar and various iterations of Microsoft Word on a variety of PCs and Macintoshes. Except for the CDs, I no longer have any working computers that can read the disks, and the self-extracting archives I created to store large documents and then copied over each time I’ve upgraded to a new computer no longer self-extract. So, even though I have backed up much of what I’ve written, I can’t access the work from the first few, post-personal computer, decades of my writing career.

More than four decades of writing.
On the other hand, almost everything I’ve archived on paper in my six files cabinets is still readable. The few exceptions are contracts I copied using my fax machine before I had regular access to a photocopier or my own copiers and scanners. (Faxes and copies created using thermal fax machines slowly darken over time.)

BLAST FROM THE PAST

How we submitted electronic ms.
Back in the day—sometime after the advent of personal computers with word processing programs and before the use of email for manuscript submission—several of the publications for which I wrote liked to receive electronic files on diskettes. So, I prepared a label with my (no longer valid) contact information as well as information about the disk and what was on it. I’m unsure why the disk pictured was returned to me, but apparently I submitted a story titled “I Hired a Private Eye,” which I saved in Rich Text Format as a file named PrivateEye.rtf on an IBM-formatted diskette.

MUSEUM PIECES

I’ve written before about my typewriters—“Three Typewriters and a Desk”—but I’ve never written about my computers. Alas, they have mostly just been tools to which I have no inherent emotional attachment.

My "computer museum."
My first personal computer was a TRS-80 connected to a small black-and-white television I used as a monitor and to a cassette tape player I used to back up files. I was never able to use it to write, and my most significant accomplishment was learning enough BASIC to create a short, text-based choose-your-own-adventure type game.

My next computer was an IBM PC, provided by a client who subcontracted consulting work to me, and since then I’ve worked my way through several brands of PCs before transitioning to Macintoshes and working my way through several generations of Macs.

I still use both PCs and Macintoshes on a regular basis, but the Mac has become my computer of choice, and I no longer own a functioning PC. Temple calls the collection of dead PCs in the garage my “computer museum.”

PLAN AHEAD

So, backing up your files is still valid advice—especially backing up unsold work and unfinished works-in-progress—but think ahead. How will you access those files next year or next decade when the software used to create the files no long exists and the media they are stored on is no longer accessible?

I certainly wish I’d planned ahead.


“Sleepy River” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, due out later this month.

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.


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


by Robert Lopresti

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.

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.