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

04 December 2021

The Z-Files


  

We've seen a lot of recent posts at this blog about mystery short-story markets--their editors, content, guidelines, response times, pay rates, preferences, etc.

Today I'd like to talk about preferences again, and specifically about a story of mine that was accepted by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine earlier this week. It's a 6000-word story called "The Zeller Files," one I wrote and submitted to them just over a year ago. It includes a crime that's essential to the plot--all mystery submissions should have that--but it's not your usual mystery/crime/suspense story. In fact it's as much science fiction as mystery, which as the months passed led me to suspect it might not stand much of a chance. But it also features something else that I thought made it an even bigger longshot, for publication: It's set during the pandemic.

I don't just mean it was written during the pandemic, although it was. I mean it includes references to the wearing of masks, social distancing, and other things most of us never even thought about until early last year. Some of that ties into the crime itself, which in this story is a bank robbery and its aftermath.

The plot

Here's what happens: Software engineer Eddie Zeller and his wife Lisa find out from their local newspaper's gossip-column that a couple named Fairmont from another part of the country are moving to their small town. The problem is, Andrew Fairmont and his wife were once famous because of their highly publicized report of being kidnapped and observed by aliens many years ago--and so was Eddie Zeller. (Lisa jokingly refers to Eddie's story as The Z-Files.) He and Lisa also know that the number of self-professed alien-abduction-survivors in the U.S. is tiny, and Eddie suspects that the federal government keeps a file and a close eye on all these victims and their activities. So, what are the odds that not one but two of these people would wind up in the same town as a third who already lives there? Could the Feds--or even the victims' otherworldly kidnappers--somehow be trying to gather all of them together for some reason? If so, why? 

Eventually the Zellers, who are unemployed and struggling because of the impact of Covid on their careers, resort to extreme and criminal measures to try to get the funds they'd need to get out of town, possibly even out of the country, to avoid whatever disaster Eddie is now convinced is being planned for them. During all that, they of course run into the Fairmont family, who have their own mysterious agenda, and Eddie soon comes to understand that it's not only the government who's been tracking them, all these years. 

Concerns and conclusions

My point is, this story has two liabilities. It is (1) mixed-genre and (2) set during the pandemic. The first oddity, since what I mixed in was science fiction, would automatically make the story unsuitable for mystery markets like EQMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the Strand, and others, and I was afraid the woo-woo element would make acceptance doubtful even for places like AHMM, which is a little more receptive to the occasional western, humor, fantasy, or SF story. Mostly, though, I was worried that the second odd thing--the Covid angle--might prevent it from being accepted anywhere.

Let me explain that. Since the pandemic began, I've written several mystery stories featuring the virus and the restrictions and requirements it presents. (After all, that's been the reality of our world for the past two years--and besides, how could a crime writer resist using a situation where everybody's already running around with masks covering their faces?) But alas, no matter how much I liked those stories and how much fun I had writing them, all were rejected soon after I'd submitted them. Some of them were rejected immediately, and some more than once. 

Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I finally got the message and started changing those stories by removing any and all references to the pandemic (enter Dr. Watson, exit Dr. Fauci)--and when I did that and submitted them again, every one of those stories sold. All, that is, except one. I had submitted "The Zeller Files" to AHMM almost fourteen months ago, on 10/6/20, so that particular story had not yet been changed. It had also not yet been rejected, since the jury was still out--and then, lo and behold, it was accepted by AH this past week. Say Hallelujah.

Here's what I learned from this: Never say never, with regard to questionable or controversial story content. If you believe it works, and if the guidelines for the market(s) you're targeting don't specifically say no, give it a try. The odds of success might be less, but--and I truly believe this--if a story seems to the writer to be good enough, it probably is good enough, and will eventually find a respectable home. As for "The Zeller Files," if you happen to see it when it comes out, I hope you'll have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Questions for the class

Now . . . what's your opinion on writing pandemic-based or pandemic-setting stories or novels? Have any of you tried it? Have you even wanted to try? I've heard some writers say it would be too depressing, for both the reader and the writer. And if you have written those stories, have you seen any success at placing them in a magazine or anthology? If you've created a novel containing pandemic references, have you been able to find a publisher for it? 

How about mixed-genre short stories? I feel sure you've written those, but have you submitted any of them to mystery markets? Any successes, there? What about stories that include both a different genre AND a dose of the virus?

In summary, I can certainly understand if the only masked characters you choose to put into your fiction are either committing a crime, skiing in Aspen, trick-or-treating, or riding a white stallion to the tune of "The William Tell Overture." But I'm here to tell you, you might want to try writing a Covid story now and then, and see what happens.

Sometimes it works.





28 November 2021

Using All Your Resources


I was in the process of writing this blog article about how writers should use all of their creative resources to get a new story started and then I got sidetracked. Was the correct word sources or resources? Might be best to have a look. I went to Google as the deciding judge. Sources vs. resources.

Uh huh.

They lost me in their definition examples when they used the sun as both a source of energy and as a resource of energy. So, I'm just going to use the word resource and you readers can decide on your own which word is correct under these circumstances, source or resource.

Anyway, to get back on track, I don't know how the rest of you authors get your ideas going in order to create a new story. Short story or novel, take your pick.

I usually go to sleep putting my brain on notice to come up with something and then wake up with a character in trouble in whatever type of scene, write the scene down that morning and then come up with a plot at a later time. Or take a walk and daydream along the way. That's probably why I have so many story starts setting in computer files waiting to be finished. Of course, this way I always have something to continue writing on.

Even so, my brain doesn't always cooperate at sleep time or on walks, in which case the well runs dry and any lowered bucket hoping to fill up with fresh elixir only bumps against moist sand. But, working undercover and with sly criminals for twenty-five years, I learned early on that it was best to have more than one trick in the bag.

So, I've got this Huey pilot buddy who has done a few things in his time that I'm not allowed to talk about and has a fine brain of his own. He is not a writer himself, but he does understand some of the basics and he likes mysteries. So, we get together every so often and bounce story ideas off each other. Maybe five percent of what he comes up with is pure gold. For instance, a few years ago, he came up with an Archimedes science solution to apply to one of my stories set in the 1660s Paris Underworld series. This solution gave me the second half of the story and an ending. AHMM subsequently published the story, "Of Wax and Watermarks."

And then, a couple of years ago during one of our brainstorming sessions, he produced two main characters and several very visual scenes set it modern day Italy. All I had to do was stitch the scenes together, add the dialogue and come up with the ending. It was like being handed an outline. The story felt like it almost wrote itself.

Did it get published?

Yes it did.

Mystery Weekly Magazine (now known as Mystery Magazine) snapped it up and placed it in their September 2021 issue.

I don't know if any of you writers out there have someone you can bounce story ideas off of as a resource, but you might consider the concept.

As for me, I'll keep the guy around as a resource. I might even ply him with a little Vanilla Crown Royal from time to time to loosen up the corners of his mind for creativity. As a sometime resource, he's gold.

So, what resources do you have in your bag of tricks?

31 October 2021

The Women in my Writing World


Kathleen Jordan

Thinking to give AHMM one more try back in the year 2000, I went to their website to see what type of story they wanted. Kathleen Jordan was the editor at the  time and the website said she wanted stories set in exotic locations. I just happened to have finished a story ("Once, Twice, Dead") set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. I figured you couldn't get much more exotic than that, so I sent it in. She bought the story and it was published in AHMM's Sept 2001 issue.

The high of being published in a major mystery magazine quickly ran into the speed bump of reality. What next? Or, was I merely a flash in the pan, a one-trick pony?  I had no story ready to submit next. And, any story I did come up with needed to be of high quality in order to obtain a second sale. It also needed to be different from other stories already out there. So, I looked around and decided to borrow from the best.

Isaac Azimov in his Black Widower series had a character who solved mysteries just by hearing someone relate the circumstances. Nero Wolfe had Archie bring him the clues he needed. And, on the darker side, Lawrence Block had his Ehrengraf series with a crooked attorney who always got his guilty clients off by shady means without going to trial. Plus, in a biography of Dashiell Hammett, it seems that Hammett was acquainted with a pair of brothers in San Francisco who operated as bail bondsmen and used their criminal clients to commit robberies and burglaries. All of this being perfect fodder for a new story.

What to name it if it became a series? Well, let's see, back in the early 1970s, Kansas City had a gang of bank robbers, dope dealers and killers known as the Black Mafia. Two of its members were known on the street as Twin and Twin Brother. Through several incidents on some of the darker streets of the city, Twin and I got to know each other quite well before he joined Twin Brother in prison. So, for a story series, let's have an intelligent but crooked proprietor of a bail bond firm solve mysteries from the clues brought to him by his minion, a not so bright bail agent who is afraid of his boss. And, perhaps all of their clients are guilty criminals who accidently fall from high places, go deep-water swimming without the proper breathing equipment, get hit by an errant taxi cab (but hey, they weren't exactly within the marked crosswalk at the time) or somehow managed to take up temporary residence in the morgue, while the bail firm always makes a profit on the transaction. Thus, the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series was born and Kathleen Jordan bought the first two stories.

Linda Landrigan

Kathleen passed and Linda took over as the editor for AHMM. Suddenly, I was an orphan, I'd lost my rabbi. My first introduction to Linda was when she asked for some changes to the second story in the series, a story already bought and paid for. Maybe this wasn't going to be a series after all.  I made the requested changes and submitted the third story. She bought it and seven more with the same characters. I had a foot in the new door.

At the Las Vegas Bouchercon bar, Linda bought the drinks and I got bold enough to inquire what she would like to see in my future writing. She suggested a Moriarty type character to go up against the proprietor of the bail bond firm. Therefore, in "The Other Bondsman" I created Herr Morden (Mr. Murder), the German phonetic of ermorden: to murder.

Years later at breakfast in Manhattan, I asked the same question again. Linda replied that in my Armenian series set in 1850s Chechnya, she would like a story told from the little Nogai boy's point of view. This was a character who in several preceding stories never had more than three lines of narrative and zero lines of dialogue. She got her story ("The Little Nogai Boy") which then got me a sale and a Derringer nomination. Goes to show that networking and personal relationships can help keep those acceptances coming. To date, I'm at a 66% acceptance rate with AHMM and have four submissions waiting in their e-slush pile.

Pat Dennis

When I went to the Las Vegas Bouchercon, I arrived a couple of days early in order to attend Jerry Healy's all-day novel writing seminar. As I'm sitting in the front row waiting for the session to begin, a lady dragging an oxygen tank on a two-wheel cart, walks up behind me. "You're my screen saver," she says. I had never met this woman before and at the time, I wasn't totally sure how I could be a screen saver. But, I was flattered to be recognized. Turned out she was the editor of the anthology Who Died in Here?. All of the anthology stories submitted had to be set in a bathroom of some type. Payment was $25 and an air freshener. She (Pat Dennis) had accepted my story, "Flying Without a Parachute," based on a real incident where a heroin deal had gone bad and the protagonist/defendant temporarily escaped arrest by leaping from a third story window. Defendants really should know that cement driveways make for a hard landing when you are three floors up. I had a lot of fun promoting that anthology. (acceptance rate 100%, one story.)

Johnene Granger

The Short Mystery Fiction Society had a posting several years ago about Woman's World magazine buying (at that time) 900-word mini-mysteries for the grand payment of $500. I sent them one and the column editor, Johnene Granger, subsequently bought nine more. Since I had a steep learning curve as to what topics were acceptable and what wasn't, my acceptance rate with this publication hovered around 33%. Sometimes, the column editor wanted the story, but for some reason the magazine's chief editor rejected the story. However, when Johnene moved on and a new column editor took over, I could not sell a single mini-mystery to them. So, I took my five thousand dollars and faded away, leaving  that market to our own John Floyd who has now sold over a hundred of his stories to them. You just can't beat success. Good on ya, John.

Kerry Carter

I kept reading posts about authors selling stories to Mystery Weekly Magazine, so I finally sent them a humorous story ("The Job Interview") about three individuals trying to rob the same bank at the same time. The editor, Kerry Carter, bought it.

In that time period, the magazine paid one cent a word through PayPal. I will admit to some confusion when PayPal then took a small fee. Through a small amount of research, I discovered that the magazine is a Canadian company in which case PayPal charges a conversion fee when converting Canadian Loonies to U. S. Dollars.

No sweat, I subbed them a second humorous story ("The Clean Car Company") in which a criminal can obtain a "clean car" the same way he can get a "clean gun" in order to commit a crime. The magazine subsequently raised their payment rate to two cents a word. I sent another submission ("The Story Game"), also accepted. Then they put out a submission call for humorous stories for an anthology (Die Laughing), so I sent them "Blue Light Special" My acceptance rate currently stands at 57% (4 out of 7).

And, as mentioned in a previous post, Kiti is my First Reader, part-time publicist, part-time social media person, all-around mental support and wife of 41 years. Guess my acceptance rate here must be okay to make it all those years.


ADDENDUM:

I can now happily add Barb Goffman to this list. She recently asked if she could reprint "Black Friday" (10th in my Holiday Burglars series) in an upcoming issue of Black Cat Weekly: Barb Goffman Presents. The manuscript has been submitted, the edits have been made and the contract has been signed. Now, I'm just waiting to see it in print. And, I may or may not be working with Barb again, depending upon whether it is Barb or Michael Bracken who edits my submission to our SleuthSayer anthology.


It's a good life.

07 September 2021

Maps


author Mark Thielman
Mark Thielman

     When my wife and I got married 30+ years ago, our friend Kathy gave us the Complete Atlas of the World as a wedding present. The book is an oversized coffee table volume with a jet-black cover. The blue marble of the world as seen from space adorns the front. It was intended as a metaphor for our new life. Kathy challenged us to explore and to dream of the places we'd go. We thought it was a cool gift at the time. We still do.

    What's interesting about pulling out that old atlas now is to see the changes written across the pages. The book seems heavy, fixed, and permanent. But there on page 50 is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one solid band of unified color spanning a huge piece of Eurasia. Or on page 98, the Africa map with its hard, unchanging boundaries for Ethiopia and Sudan. I could go on but you get the idea.

atlas

    I've been thinking a great deal about travel lately. This was supposed to be my first SleuthSayers blog after Bouchercon. I had assumed I'd jot down some observations about the conference, congratulate the winners, reference the people I'd been able to meet in person, and intersperse those thoughts with the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of New Orleans. That blog will have to be postponed until after the 2022 conference in Minneapolis. (I anticipate different tastes and smells.)

    I've been looking forward to traveling. I've missed waking up someplace different, knocking about exploring and discovering. I've missed seeing sights and trying foods. A couple of weeks ago in this blog, Robert Lopresti mentioned a bit of a conversation he overheard at a previous Bouchercon. Those lines made their way into a story. Let me add that to the list. I've missed collecting dialogue souvenirs. Not only have I missed going away, but I've also missed returning home to my familiar, and the simple joy of knowing where the things I use to construct my daily life are located.

    Although my wife and I haven't been hermits since the COVID onset, we have limited our venturing out to new places. The question, "where should we go?" as often as not has been replaced by "should we go?" Although the answer has sometimes been yes, spontaneity has seen an additional hurdle placed in its path.

AHMM

    The September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The Map Dot Murder." The tale is set in a small west Texas town. The high school's social studies teacher is murdered. His classroom is map festooned. Yet, most of the town's inhabitants are people who haven't gone anywhere. They've lived their lives within the town's boundaries. Some residents like it that way. Others resent it. A few have never bothered to think that they might have options.

    Just as I should have been finalizing my plans for Bouchercon– circling topics on the schedule of events, composing snappy answers to questions for my panel, and sending final emails to arrange get-togethers– comes my story about staying put. You know the timeline for stories. Tapping out the story on your keyboard takes a while. Rewrites, edits, and polishing add some more time. Then you send it off, drumming your fingers while waiting for an acceptance email. Finally, the movement to publication requires another chunk of time.

    The story should have come out as I was preparing to travel. Instead, it was published as I was sitting at home, folding my map from the journey I didn't take. Like the Complete Atlas of the World, perhaps it serves as a reminder about the illusion of fixedness.

    I hope you enjoy the story. And, whether you're at home or on the road, stay safe.

    Until next time.

woof

29 August 2021

The Good, The Bad, The Lemonade


 

 If you're writing short stories, I assume you have some sort of business plan for them. In which case, your plan may be as simple as:

Plan A: submitting only to prestigious and high paying markets. (Hey, you'll probably get more money this way, but your overall published stats won't be very high.)

Plan B: submitting to as many markets as possible without regard for pay or prestige. (In this case, your published stats will probably be up there, but you may not make much money.)

Plan C: this one is also known as a portion of the John Floyd/Michael Bracken Plan where you work frequently, write prolifically and submit enough stories in a year that you can do both Plan A and Plan B at the same time.

Now, let's go one step further. Don't some of your stories deserve a second life?

Plan D: keep your eyes and ears open for any reprint markets that accept previously published stories. My bank account knows I miss Great Jones Street, a short story on your cell phone company, which was conceived before its time. I received $500 for eight previously published short stories. There was also a nice chunk of change for a reprint in an Otto Penzler anthology about villains. You could probably get more information on how to find reprint markets from John  and Michael, but you generally need to know about these markets as soon as they open. Many of them are a limited time offer.

and, it's just possible that some of your short stories should get one more chance at a first life.

Plan E: gather your, preferably related, stories into collections. Submit them to a traditional publisher and see if you can get a contract. Of course, if you're in a hurry, or can't find a traditional publisher for your masterpiece, or don't like the terms of a potential contract, you can always put out your story collection in e-format or KDP Paperbacks,

BEST PLAN: if you are dedicated enough, creative enough and have enough time in the day, then combine all of the above plans and keep on going. Success for you as a writer may be just around the corner.

so, where am I at in all this?


The Good:

"Gnawing at the Cat's Tail" will be published in the Sep/Oct 2021 issue of AHMM. This is the 7th story in my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia during the time period of the Viet Nam War. It involves two half-brothers vying against their surroundings and each other to inherit their warlord father's opium empire. One brother was raised in the British education system of Hong Kong, the other grew up with the hill tribes in the mountain jungles.

The Bad:

It was a good run with seven published stories in the series. Unfortunately, Stories #8 and #9 were rejected. The reason given was that the stories were good, but the editor thought both stories worked better as part of a novel or in a serial rather than as standalone short stories. Since the editor is the boss, that is that. I will now go and make lemonade.

The Lemonade: 

I currently have six story collections out in e-format for Kindle and other e-readers, plus they are in KDP Paperback form at Amazon. So now in about March 2022, I will release 9 Tales of the Golden Triangle in e-format and KDP Paperback. This collection will include the seven previously published stories and the two rejected stories. It will be book number seven. Book number eight, to be released later that same year will be a second collection of historical mysteries, most of which were previously published in a magazine or an anthology.

THEY LIVE AGAIN !!!

and, that's part of my plan.

Tell us about yours.

18 August 2021

A Trend, An Anecdote, and an Exhibit



Sometimes I get a story idea in one nice neat package, a blast from the muse.

More often it comes in pieces.  I call some of those tales mash-ups.

It isn't that one type is necessarily better than the other.  Two brands of cars, but they both get you to the same place, if you're lucky.

Take "Taxonomy Lesson," my story in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which was published yesterday.  It is a definite mash-up of three elements:

A TREND.  I worked as a librarian in academia for more than three decades.  Like any other field, higher education has its trade publications that talk about what's new in the biz.  

And one trend I've been reading about for a decade has been sexual harassment.  The reports started long before the #Me Too movement. 

The classic scenario is a male tenured professor pressuring a female grad student with promises of support if she gives in and threats of punishment if she doesn't.  The power differential between, say, a Ph.D. student and a professor on her dissertation committee is extreme, the ability to make or break a career.  

There has long been a whisper network in academia (as in many other fields) in which women warn each other not to do field research with Professor X or, if you must go to a conference with Professor Y, don't go to his room for a chat, or even get in an elevator with him.

Dr. Karen Kelsey created a website called Sexual Harassment in the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey.   She eventually closed it to new entries due to trolls and hackers, but you can read enough to spoil your lunch.

I was ignored in meetings when I was the most knowledgeable about the content (in favor of a male new hire with less experience/education); inappropriate comments made about my body while pregnant; a female colleague was called a slut by our chair when she reported a job candidate had stalked her while they were in school.  When issues were reported to HR/Title IX/ Dean's Office, grossly inept responses were provided (Female Dean invited me to meeting to talk about these issues and then said "do you want to hear my stories? It could get worse" and proceeded to suggest that I do not fit in at my institution.  Ultimately, I was denied a promotion on the grounds of my pregnancy.

I knew I wanted to write about  this sort of thing in fiction someday.  But a premise is not a plot, and I needed more.  It turned out I needed...

AN ANECDOTE.  Back in 2015 Bouchercon was held in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A tiny but riveting  event happened there which I witnessed and the moment it happened I grabbed my notebook and started writing.  "That's going to go into a story!" I announced.  Amazingly enough, I was right.

I can't tell you what happened that day, but when you read my story you will probably have a pretty good idea.  

But I still didn't have my story yet.  That required...


AN EXHIBIT.
  My family enjoys visiting the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.  One of the parts we always explore is the Butterfly House which has live insects from around the world.  The last time we visited I noted an exhibit just outside on scientific names.  Homo Sapien. Helianthus Annuus.  Gorilla Gorilla.

And bingo.  That was the one missing piece.

My story is about a taxonomy professor - that is, an expert on how species are biologically related to each other, and on  scientific nomenclature.  He is at a conference where he will receive a major award for his work.  But alas, his relationships with  students haven't been as excellent as his research.  And that is about to become a big problem...

I hope you enjoy it.

 


25 April 2021

The Hat Trick


When a hockey player scores three goals in the same game, he is said to have performed "The Hat Trick." There are several myths as to where the term came from, however, it appears that the term was first coined in December 1933 when The Winnipeg Free Press described a hockey game in which Romeo Rivers of the Monarchs scored his third goal when he received a pass from his team mate who had drawn the opposing goalie out of position.

The term has since moved into other sports, referring to a player scoring three times in the same game. If the player happens to score two goals, it's called a "brace," and if he scores three consecutive goals in the same game, without another player scoring in between any two of his goals, that feat is then called "A Natural Hat Trick."

Transposing the above logic into the game of writing for AHMM, I think I can claim the simple version of The Hat Trick. To borrow someone else's phrase, someone a lot more famous than I am: "So, here's the deal."

1st Goal

The Nov/Dec 2020 issue of AHMM published my short story "A Matter of Values." Originally, I intended this Prohibition Era tale about an Irish bootlegger and his vice cop buddy to be a standalone. However, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I am now under pressure to turn the standalone into a series. To date, I have two story starts, "Whiskey Curb" and "On the Pad." Both are based on actual places and/or happenings in NYC during that time period. We'll see if either makes it to the finish line.

2nd Goal

The Jan/Feb 2021 issue of AHMM published "A Helping Hand," 8th in my 1660's Underworld series. This story involves a young, orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a criminal enclave in Paris during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King. Constantly being hungry, he is often drawn into the schemes of others in hopes of getting something to eat.

3rd Goal

The Mar/Apr 2021 issue of AHMM published "St. Paddy's Day," 12th in my Holiday Burglars series. In this one, Yarnell and Beaumont are hired by a woman to steal her husband's body and get it to the funeral home in time for his services the next morning. It seems the deceased's drinking buddies stole the corpse at the wake, bungee-corded it to a refrigerator dollie, stuck a drink in his hand and proceeded to wheel him through all his favorite bars on St. Patrick's Day. Our two protagonists took on the job because the deceased was a fellow burglar, not to mention the fee for doing so.


And, there you have it. I'm considering that writing for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine as one game, while writing for any different magazine as a separate game. Since I have a story in three consecutive issues of AHMM, I am hereby claiming a Hat Trick in the field of writing mystery short stories.

Hey, in our business of writing short stories, you aren't going to get rich, so you have to find glory where you can.

Now, get out there and write/submit/sell your own short stories and claim your own Hat Tricks.

17 February 2021

Brand New Cliches


 


Yesterday the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstand, assuming such institutions still exist.  I am delighted to be making my 33rd appearance in those distinguished pages.  "Shanks' Locked Room" is the eleventh showing there by my grumpy crime writer, so he stars in one-third of my tales  in that market.

You may notice the "locked room" in the title.  It is a subgenre of the mystery story, of course, going all the way back to the very first: Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  I thought it might be fun to play around with the old gimmick and I wound up turning it inside out.  The puzzle Shanks has to solve is not "how did the villain get into a room without a key?" but "why did the villain steal the key and not enter the room?"

I enjoy turning a cliche around.  I had written what I thought would be a follow-up called "Shanks' Last Words," involving the famous dying-message clue, but it turned out that technology had gotten ahead of me and made my story outdated.  Such is life.


One master of the upturned cliche was Jack Ritchie, a genius of the comic short story whom John Floyd and I have praised to the sky on this page.  He wrote a book about Henry Turnbuckle, a Milwaukee police detective.  Henry loved mystery fiction and was constantly being disappointed that reality cruelly ignored the cliches and motifs of the field.

For example, in one story two of the suspects are identical twins.  Alas,  in violation of every rule of mystery fiction that turns out to have nothing to do with the solution.  In another tale Henry gathers all the suspects and dramatically reveals the killer - only to have the suspects point out a fatal flaw in his logic, which involved a fact no one had bothered to mention to him.  Why is it in crime fiction the detective always gets all the necessary information?  Doesn't happen in real life.  

 By coincidence I was reading a story today and gave up on it because it stuck to a very tired cliche: The villain was about to kill the hero but first gave him a detailed explanation of his plan, and damned near a blueprint of the house where he was being held.  

This peculiar generosity on the part of some bad guys was brilliantly skewered in the movie Austin Powers.  


So, which cliches of the field bug you the most?



31 January 2021

A Helping Hand


The Story

My latest story, "A Helping Hand," is currently out in the AHMM January/February 2021 issue. It is the 8th in my 1660's Paris Underworld series. The protagonist, a young, orphan, incompetent pickpocket, tells of his adventures trying to survive in the criminal community of old Paris.

The Con

Like most of my mystery short stories, the storyline is based on my undercover experiences on the street where hardened criminals often looked on others as marks, or pigeons to be plucked, whether these street wolves were after your valuables or just to somehow gain an advantage on you.

A simple uncomplicated con, for instance, used by some of the heroin users in 1970's Kansas City when the users needed money for their next fix went like this. They would enter a large department store, go to a counter and request one of the store's empty bags with the store logo on it. Then, they would move on to the home goods section and pick out an appliance, say a toaster. When no one was looking, they'd place the toaster in the store bag they'd acquired at the first counter. Next stop was the Customer Service Desk where they produced the toaster in the store bag, claimed that a relative/friend/someone had bought it for them as a present, but they already had one, therefore they would like to return it for cash. That's why these days, most stores won't give you an empty store bag, plus you need a receipt to get your money back on a returned purchase.

But then, not all cons are for instant cash. We've all heard reports of pimps and other conmen hanging around bus stations to seek out naive youngsters and pretend to befriend them in order for the street criminal to take advantage of the unsuspecting new arrival. Unfortunately, the world has many predators out there.

The Story

While trying to lift the purse of a wealthy merchant, our protagonist is interrupted by a man with a scar on his face. Scar Face convinces the orphan pickpocket that he has done the orphan a favor by saving him from arrest by the city bailiffs. He continues by telling the orphan that while he did not get the merchant's purse, Scar Face has some comrades with a pending burglary which will make them all some good coin in the end. Seems all these burglars need is someone small enough for a special job. The orphan agrees to join the group and help with the burglary.

The Con

One ploy of many cons is to convince the mark that he is on the inside and that someone else is the victim.

The Story

Our young pickpocket protagonist is introduced to others involved in the burglary scheme. Gradually, Scar Face and his adult partner feed little bits of information to the young orphan about the pending crime. Since our protagonist hasn't eaten for a while and is quite hungry, he goes along with the plan as it is laid out.

The Con

Sooner or later, most cons involve a double-cross where the conman expects to end up with all the proceeds from the scam. The victim finds himself holding an empty bag. A good conman will then also make the situation appear as if someone else took the proceeds. This misdirection gives the appearance as if he too is a victim of unforeseen circumstances and not at fault for the misfortunate events which robbed the main conspirators at the last moment.

Back to the Story

The burglary is successfully completed and the loot is stored in a safe storehouse. Now, the plan is for the loot to be sold off in small lots and the resulting money to be equally divided amongst the four burglars, but Scar Face puts his double-cross into play.

Our young, incompetent pickpocket may not know all the tricks of the game, but he has lived in his criminal community of old Paris long enough to have learned some tricks of his own. He soon enlists the assistance of a couple of unlikely allies.

Get your copy of the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of AHMM, read the story and watch the con unfold.

So what would you have done if you lived on the streets of 1660's Paris and were hungry all the time?

15 December 2020

Four New Stories, Three This Week, Two Out Today, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree


This is a good month for me writing-wise:

  • I had a new story published yesterday: "Second Chance" in the anthology Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. 
  • Today is the publication day for two more stories: "A Family Matter" in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and "That Poor Woman" in the January/February 2021 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
  • A fourth story, "An Inconvenient Sleuth," is scheduled to be published later this month in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine
Except when I had five new stories published at once (when my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, came out in 2013 with five new stories and ten reprints), I've never had so many stories published in one day, one week, or one even month. I've also never had stories published in AHMM and EQMM at the same time. It's a nice way to end a year, especially this year.

I generally like to talk about stories when they're available for purchase. So here's information about the three new stories that are already out:

"Second Chance" is a tale of twin brothers who were placed in separate foster homes at age ten. Now eighteen, one finds the other, but the reunion is not the stuff of Hallmark movies. I hope you'll consider picking up a copy of Mickey Finn. It's published in ebook and trade paperback, with twenty stories perfect for the noir reader on your holiday gift list. You can buy it from all the usual sources, as well as from the publisher here.

"A Family Matter" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is set in 1962, the closest I've ever come to a historical story. In this tale, Doris and her neighbors are determined to move up the ladder of success together. When a new family that moves in next door doesn't know the unwritten social code, Doris makes it her business to help them conform. This story was inspired by something that happened to my mom when my parents and siblings (years before I showed up) moved into a new neighborhood.

"That Poor Woman" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is a flash story about a crime victim who takes the law into her own hands.

You can find individual issues of AHMM and EQMM at bookstores and newsstands. For a paper subscription of either magazine--or both, they make a great holiday gift--click here for AHMM and here for EQMM. As of 11 p.m. last night (Monday night), the new issues scheduled for publication today (Tuesday) aren't up yet on the AHMM and EQMM websites, but they should be soon.

You can also get electronic individual issues as well as subscriptions for your Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other readers. Learn more here about EQMM and here about AHMM. (Because I've had friends unable to easily find the Kindle pages before, here's the EQMM Amazon link and here's the AHMM link.)

I'll talk about "An Inconvenient Sleuth" next month, after the issue of BCMM comes out.

It's interesting that these four stories are all coming out in the same month because I didn't write them all around the same time. I wrote "Second Chance" in 2014, "A Family Matter" in January of 2018, "An Inconvenient Sleuth" in February of 2018, and "That Poor Woman" in October of 2019. As you can imagine, some stories take a long time to sell. (I submitted "A Second Chance" five times before Michael Bracken took a chance on it. (See what I did there?)) Other stories sell on their first submission. But no matter how long it takes for a story to sell and then be published, I'm always glad when a new story comes out. So that makes this week--and this month--a good time for me.

I'll be back in 2021. In the meanwhile, happy holidays and happy reading.

25 October 2020

Evolution of a Story


 Originally, I was going to title this one as "Three Strikes and a Home Run on a Bunt." But that is too long for a title, and as baseball fans know, technically a batter only gets three strikes and then he is out of the batter's box. He doesn't then get another chance to swing at the ball. So, pay attention here because this is the way this game went.

Strike One
Back in the 90's, another short story author proposed that he and I should write a private investigator story together, a story set in the corrupt river-town of Sioux City during the Prohibition Era. At the time, the proposing author had several more published short stories than I did, but he had also received several rejections from AHMM. So, our plan was to co-author the story and submit it to AHMM and he would then get a story into their magazine, well, at least half a story. Since he and I liked the same authors and the same type of stories, it should have been easy working together.

I wrote part of the story and passed it to him. He wrote the next part of the story and passed it back. And, so on until the story was finished. Were there any problems? Of course there were. We didn't agree on the title, the private eye's name or even his height, among some of the important issues. Consulting with other fellow writers as intermediaries resulted in evenly divided opinions or else a third suggestion which neither co-author wished to implement. In the end, there was a lot of coin flipping. I submitted the story with both author's names  for the byline to AHMM. They rejected it. The editor must've had her own coin. At separate times afterwards, my co-author submitted our manuscript to two small press magazines he had previously been published in. In turn, each magazine accepted the story, but then went toes up before a contract could be signed. The story never saw print. With all the fun I'd had on this joint project, I swore to myself to avoid any short story collaboration in the future. This worked for about twenty years.

 Strike Two
Now, we move forward to the 21st Century. An author, whom I highly admire and was already in AHMM, inquired about the two of us co-authoring a short story for AHMM. I explained my prior situation and declined the proposal. A couple of years later, the inquiry came again. By the third request, I decided what the hell, give it a try, see how it goes. I then created a partial story outline proposal involving a bent cop and a gangster during the Prohibition Era, but a completely different plot than the story in Strike One. Next, I wrote about 1,000 words in the POV of one of the two main characters and passed the partial outline and story start to the other author for his turn to write about 1,000 words in the POV of the other main character. After the pass, other projects seemed to have come along and everybody went their separate writing ways. No harm, no foul.

Strike Three
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about a gangster in 1930's New York City during (you guessed it) the Prohibition Era. Completely different plot than the ones in Strike One and Strike Two. I shipped the manuscript off to AHMM via e-mail in August 2017. The rejection came back in July 2018 with the editor's comments that it looked like I was setting the story up for a series. (Remember her comment for later.)  And, the editor was correct, I had intended for the story to become a series.

The Bunt

Looking through my story starts one day for something to write, I came across my old 1,000 word start from the abandoned Strike Two project. Years had passed without any progress, so I blew the dust off and continued the story. Only now, I changed the story to be written solely from one main character's POV, the bent cop. I finished the outline and the story as I wrote. The manuscript went to AHMM in February 2018 and was accepted in January 2019.

The Ball Keeps On Rolling
In the early part of August 2020, I got an e-mail from the Managing Editor of AHMM saying that I will have a story coming out in their Nov/Dec 2020 issue, but she had been on vacation and was trying to catch up, so she didn't yet know which story it would be. Since they had at the time six of my purchased-but-not-yet-published stories setting in inventory, I obviously didn't know which one it would be either.

The Home Run
In last August, Rob Lopresti e-mailed me with a link to the preview of the Nov/Dec 2020 AHMM issue. The last line in the 2nd paragraph in the Editor's Preview section says: "And R.T. Lawton introduces us to a new series in "A Matter of Values."

And yep, that's the bent cop and gangster story from Strike Two and The Bunt, but I wrote that one as a standalone story. Let's see now, one is a standalone, two is a sequel and at least three is a series, unless you count that as a trilogy, in which case it takes four. This means that in order not to disappoint the editor, I now have to come up with two or more new stories involving those same two main characters and then get contracts for each of those stories.. What a problem to have. Goes to show, you just never know how things will go in this game of ours.

25 July 2020

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


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

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

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

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

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

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

Which is why I love writing short stories.

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

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

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

Short stories are all mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








28 June 2020

Lend Me A Scene


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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