Showing posts with label Agatha Awards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Awards. Show all posts

30 October 2017

Odds and Ends


Jan Grape As usual on Sunday morning, afternoon and evening, I'm wracking (or is it racking or wrecking?) my brain for something cogent to write for my blog article. All you other Sleuthsayers, who have two or three articles already scheduled and two or three emergency articles online, are just too good for me. I envy you all. 

As I reject one thought after another it occurred to me that maybe I've just written all that my brain file cabinet holds. If it's true that each of us only have so many cells in our bodies before we die then perhaps my brain only has so many words, I've just used them all up already.

So I decided I'd share the odds and ends of thoughts that came to me today. None of which could possibly be a full length article. 

First I thought about cats and dogs. You can kill off any number of people in a book but heaven help you if you kill a dog or a cat. We are all a bit crazy about our pets. Some folks are total dog people. Others are total cat people. And a huge percent are equally in love with both canines and felines. Personally, I love both dogs and cats although I haven't had a dog is over twenty years. It's just easier for me to have  cats that I don't have to walk. I know it's good exercise but I don't live in a neighborhood with level ground or sidewalks. 

Another thought was reading about how several years ago when the color pink - especially the sickly pink of Pepto-Bismol made men feel weakened. Could this calm prisoners down? A couple of commanding Naval officers at a correctional facility in Seattle painted the holding cells a pink color. The name became Baker/Miller Pink, named after the commanding officers. For five months it did seem to work. 

Soon prisons, visiting teams locker rooms and even housing projects all over the country turned up pink. Did it really work?  Probably not. Maybe people just got ill from the color or decided they didn't like it but it soon disappeared. Have any of you ever used color as a calming effect on your bad guy in your book?

Another idea.  Marriages; is having an affair better than getting a divorce? There are divided thoughts on this from psychologist and psychiatrists. We mystery writers think murder is the quickest solution except the perpetrator must be caught. We all know you just can't GET AWAY with MURDER. 

Of course, you  get away with murder if you come up with a perfect murder plot in your book. I think a few writers have but then along comes, Agatha Christie, or Jack Reacher or Sam Spade who solves the crime.

Please let me know if y'all have any thoughts on these odd subjects. And my apologies to Time magazine for any ideas from their pages.

Happy Spooky Day






13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

12 May 2017

Two Writers—And a Third in the Making?


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Art Taylor

Earlier in our Family Fortnight series, Brian Thornton asked his wife Robyn to contribute a post about being married to a writer—a terrific and insightful essay all around, ending with Robyn inspired to start writing herself. I'd already planned on getting my wife, Tara Laskowski, involved in my post, but in our case, Tara and I are both long-time writers—which at times may seem double trouble (more on that below!) and at other times may give us at least glimpses into what the other person is going through, whether that's a burst of creative energy (needing time for ideas to play out, for the imagination to indulge itself) or a stroke of self-doubt (needing support and encouragement).

Art and Tara at Malice Domestic, April 2016
Tara and I first met at George Mason University, where we were both working toward our MFAs in creative writing. We were in fiction workshops together, sharing and commenting on our respective stories, and it was our mutual admiration for one another's work that led first to friendship and then to more. Since graduation, we have both been very fortunate with the generous attention our writing has received, especially in more recent years—and even recent days. Since my last post here at SleuthSayers, my story "Parallel Play" won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and in recent weeks, Tara's collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize and her story "The Jar" was named by Wigleaf among the top 50 flash fiction stories of 2016. We're grateful on all counts, of course, but while friends and acquaintances have sometimes complimented us how how easily we seem to navigate being writers alongside managing day jobs and raising our son Dash, the truth is that behind the scenes... well, let's get straight to the interview.

Art Taylor: We talk sometimes about navigating our various day-to-day roles and responsibilities, but too often that “navigation” seems more like steering a foundering ship through tempest-tossed seas. (This sentence is, of course, the most creative writing I’ve done in a while.) Can you give folks a glimpse into our writing processes? How do we accomplish things as two writers in the same household, parenting a five-year-old and more? 
Tara Laskowski: I don’t know. How do we? Do we actually accomplish anything? Sometimes I feel like we are super-hero bad-asses. Other times I feel like we are fumbling and failing. I suppose that’s part of your tempest sea, right? The up-and-down motion of the waves. Sadly, I get really seasick, so this isn’t boding well for me…

Ok, writing process. Well, you have the summer and winter breaks in between classes to do massive crunch time writing since the academic year provides a challenge. I have a 40-minute train ride to and from work each day to try to fit in my work. I guess that’s how we’ve been managing it, with a few luxurious-seeming writing retreats and an occasional “I need an hour to do this thing” on the weekend request. It all feels very piecemeal at times, but it seems to be working for us, right now anyway.
Earlier this week here at SleuthSayers, Melissa Yi wrote about her children telling her, “Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us” and “You’re always on your computer.” Do you get those questions or feel that pressure as well? And if so, how do you deal with that—by which I mean both deal with the question and deal with it internally, emotionally, etc.?
Oh yes. That is a horrible guilt. Every time I pick up my phone to check something with Dash in the room, I hear the "Cats in the Cradle" song start playing in my head. That is a constant struggle. So much of what we do is device-related. It's not even just writing—although I often suffer from "novel head" where I'm working on a scene or thinking about a character while going about my normal daily life. If I have a second, I usually am reminded of something I need to put on our grocery list (which is on my phone) or someone I need to email back. Or we're talking and we can't remember who wrote that song or what the weather is going to be like the next day. The worst thing Dash ever utters to either of us is "Come play with me!" when we're doing something on our phone or computer. I think we try with varying degrees of success to put the phone away, but it's definitely not something that either of us has figured out how to conquer. Would you agree?
I would—and you’re right that it’s not just writing but everything. I still remember a small epiphany back during those first couple of years, when I was teaching online classes and evening classes so I could take care of Dash during the day. I had ended up in a middle of a tense series of emails with a student complaining about a grade, and I felt this urgency to keep responding. Even though Dash and I were out at a playground and Dash was pulling at me to pay attention to him, I kept peck, peck, pecking at my phone and—and suddenly I realized that the email could wait and that in the long-run this student wasn’t going to remember me or the class, but that the little boy in front of me…. well, short-term, long-run, he was the one who meant the most. I put the phone away, and these days I put it away each evening until after Dash is in bed, just to keep my attention centered.

Shift in focus now. The year that Dash was born, I read a story—a Derringer Award finalist—that was about the abduction and then return of a child, and even though references to abuse were only hinted at instead of explicitly depicted, the story was nearly crippling to read. And yet, not long after that, I wrote a story myself that was about a child in peril and a parent’s determination to protect her son and about the anxieties of parenting in general. How has your own writing or your reading changed since Dash was born?

I am a huge horror fan. Before Dash, I’d watch pretty much any horror movie, even the torture porn (though it was never my favorite). After Dash, that changed dramatically. I still love the genre, but I can’t read or watch anything that involves kids or even something very domestic (think Funny Games). I trend more toward the supernatural scares now, I guess. Part of it is just some parental instinct, I think—you can’t help but project yourself on the things you watch/read, and you certainly cannot bear to think of your child being in harm’s way. But more than that, I’ve realized how senseless some of the kid stuff is in horror. It either seems like a cheap device to get an emotional reaction out of the consumer, or it is just badly done.

I’ve also found that I write more about kids now that I have one. I was always hesitant to put children characters in my writing because I didn’t think I knew them well enough—knew how they thought, acted, etc. (See my above gripe about this being badly done.) But now that so much of my life is interacting with these little people, I feel like I have a slightly (slightly!) better understanding of how they work. And that is: they never want to brush their teeth, they never want to put on their shoes, they never want to take a bath, they never want to get out of the bath, they never want to go to sleep, they never want to get up in the morning. So they are, basically, just like me.
Dash at his first writing conference:
Bay to Ocean, Maryland, March 2016
I can’t recall if it was after I'd been away at Malice Domestic one year or after Bouchercon, but I do remember the evening that we caught Dash sitting up in bed, his stuffed animals arranged in a semi-circle in front of them, and each of them with a book tucked next to them. “We’re at a conference,” he told us, when we asked what he was doing.

And then there was the time he tried to explain to his preschool teachers that he’d been at a book launch over the weekend, and he got frustrated when they didn’t understand the phrase. (“You bought a book and then had lunch?”) How do you think it impacts Dash’s life to have two writers as parents?
I think Dash will either completely embrace reading and writing as his life or he will rebel against us and do something completely, utterly different. I do not care. I mean, I care a little; obviously I’d like for him to be a lit geek. But as long as he has a passion for learning and creativity in whatever form that takes—computers, math, fine arts, dancing, video game design, dinosaurs, baseball—I’m cool with it. I hope that in seeing how passionate we are about our craft, Dash will understand the importance of keeping at something even when it’s difficult, even when you fail sometimes. That’s all I ask.

11 April 2017

The Curse of 2013


Like poor Rose at the end of Titanic, clinging to a piece of wood in the frozen Atlantic Ocean, using the last of her strength to blow a whistle to attract rescuers who've missed her, then weakly, hoarsely yelling, "Come back! Come back," I find myself wishing some people would come back too.
Well, my wishes are about fictional characters, but they feel like real people to me. And they've all been missing since 2013.

With less than two weeks until Malice Domestic (a wonderful fan convention held every spring in Bethesda, Maryland, honoring the traditional mystery), I find myself thinking about mystery characters I wish would come back. I'm not talking about characters created by authors who have died--there's no way they're coming back, not in their original author's form, anyway. And I'm not talking about characters whose authors regularly put out a new book every year or so. This column is devoted to characters whose authors seem to have moved on or are taking too long of a break (in this devoted reader's perspective).

With respect and love, I wish the following authors would get a move on:

Stephanie Jaye Evans

I'm starting with you, Stephanie, because you're scheduled to attend Malice Domestic, and I want you to be prepared. I am going to hound you at the convention, begging and pleading for more stories in the Sugar Land Mystery Series about family man and Texas minister Bear Wells, who becomes a sleuth. Here's what one reviewer said of Stephanie's wonderful first book, Faithful Unto Death:

“Praise be! A new series with a soul, a heart, and a down-home Texas twang. Preacher Bear Wells is an entirely original sleuth and author Stephanie Jaye Evans is that real rarity: a debut writer with dead-on dialogue, winning characters, and—mirabile dictu! —nimble plotting.”   — Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author of the China Bayles mysteries

Faithful Unto Death, was a finalist for the 2012 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Stephanie has a great second book in the series, Safe From Harm, which came out in 2013. For four long years I've been waiting oh so patiently, hoping for more. Please, Stephanie, may I have some more?

Chris Grabenstein

Chris, I know your heart--and your time--belong to middle-grade readers. Between writing books with James Patterson (how can I get in on that gig?) and writing your own extremely successful books for kids, you don't have time anymore for your mysteries for grown-ups. (I was going to write that you didn't have time for your adult mysteries, but that has a completely different connotation.) But I wish we could add more hours to the day because I miss your John Ceepak mysteries. Oh, heck. Let's be honest, I long for them. Yes, I admit it: I have a crush on your character John Ceepak, and given how long it's been going on, I feel comfortable saying it's not going away.

Ahhh. Ceepak. A cop with a moral code. A decent, generous, wonderful man. If I can't have this romance in real life, come on, Chris, let me have it on paper. Please! I long to return to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and investigate more cases with John and his partner, Danny Boyle. Sure, I could re-read the eight books in your Anthony Award-winning series, starting with 2005's Tilt-A-Whirl and ending in 2013's Free Fall. But it's been four years since the last book. I need more. Please, Chris. Just give me a little more.

Sara J. Henry

Sara, Your first novel, 2011's Learning to Swim, was nominated for a gazillion awards (and won the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first novel as well as the Mary Higgins Clark Award). It deserved every bit of praise. I loved Learning to Swim so much that I told practically everyone I knew in 2011 about it. I gushed, Sara. Gushed. It was disgusting. So you can imagine how happy I was to read the 2013 follow-up, A Cold and Lonely Place. I love watching your main character, reporter Troy Chance, as she struggles to right (and write) wrongs. Your books have been described as "compulsively readable," and I agree wholeheartedly. I long to be compulsive again. On behalf of your fans, give us more Troy books, Sara. Please please please.


Julia Spencer-Fleming

Unlike a lot of authors, you usually have a new book come out every two years instead of annually. And that's okay. When someone writes books as good as yours, you can take any reasonable amount of time you need between books. But come on, Julia. We're both nonpracticing lawyers here, so we know there are limitations to how far you can stretch the meaning of the word reasonable, and I think we've hit the limit. It's been four agonizing years. I need more Clare. I need more Russ. I need more murder in the Adirondacks.

I remember how taken I was with the small town of Millers Kill, New York, when I came upon your first book, In the Bleak Midwinter. It has one of the best opening lines ever and a hell of an engaging plot. My love for the town grew over the series' eight books. Despite all the murders, it seems like a lovely place to live. I know others agree with me. Your books have won practically every award out there. Your latest book, 2013's Through the Evil Days, can't be the end of the series. I need to know what happens with Clare and Russ and ... Well, I'm not going to ruin it for people who haven't read the book yet. But you know what I'm talking about, Julia. Come on. Please don't leave me hanging. I need more.

2013

And that leaves me with wondering what the heck was going on in 2013 that made all these wonderful authors hit the brakes. Could it be a coincidence that all of them haven't had a new book out since then (or, for Chris, an adult book)? We mystery writers don't believe in coincidence. So there must be a reason. Are you all working on a big book together?! No. That would be too much to hope for. Is there a curse going on? No, I don't believe in curses either. ... Well, I'm out of ideas. So I'll just have to end this blog with my plea one more time. Get plotting, get typing, and get publishing, people. In the immortal words of Oliver Twist: Please, sir (and ma'ams), I want some more.

PLEASE.

*****

While I have your attention, in case you missed earlier posts: the Agatha Award will be given out in six categories during the Malice Domestic convention at the end of this month. I have a short story, "The Best-Laid Plans," short-listed in the short-story category. The competition is pretty fierce. Fellow SleuthSayers B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor are up for the award, as well as authors Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read about all five of the nominated stories by clicking here, and you'll also be able to click through to read the stories themselves. I hope you'll check them all out and read before you vote. (I'm also blogging today at B.K. Stevens's blog, analyzing my thought process behind the first two pages of "The Best-Laid Plans." I hope you'll stop by there too. You can read that post here.)
  
Once you finish reading, it's time to start packing. I'm looking forward to seeing so many of you at Malice Domestic in two weeks. (Stephanie Jaye Evans, this means you!)

08 April 2017

The 2017 Agatha Short Story Nominees


All of this year's nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha have female protagonists, but that's about the only thing they have in common. And the protagonists themselves are a diverse bunch, ranging from a midwife still in her twenties to a mystery author who fears she's past her prime. The settings for these stories include a lavish casino, a play space for toddlers, and a small-town bar; the moods vary from light-hearted to ominous. Some stories are whodunits, or whodunits with a twist; some might be described as suspense stories or even as daylight noir. Together, I think, they reflect the vitality of today's mystery short story, and of the many variations it embraces.


All the nominated authors contributed to this post by picking excerpts from their stories and commenting on them briefly. I hope that the comments will give you intriguing insights, and that the excerpts will whet your appetite for reading the stories in full (you'll find links to each below).

The Stories

"Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" 

by Gretchen Archer

Henery Press


July Jackson's job as a Holiday Host at the Bellissimo Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi is more trick than treat when one of her Scary Rich slot tournament players croaks. Then $3,000,000 goes missing. And a couple dressed as condiments--he's Mustard, she's Ketchup--might be behind the spooky shenanigans. What's a Holiday Host to do? Call in the flying monkeys? July turns to the highest level of casino security and meets a boy named Baylor. Just Baylor. From there, it's all thrills and chills.

"Do you know how to shoot?"
I shook my head.
"Do you know how to point?"
I nodded.
He popped the clip out of the gun and passed it to me.
I couldn't remember being this scared or this calm before. It was an amazing sensation, the adrenaline mixed with the quiet confidence. The adrenaline was from what was about to happen. The calm was from him.
"Double Jinx" introduces July Jackson to the core cast of characters in my Davis Way Crime Capers. Not only does July go on to be Baylor's love interest, she gives up her job as Holiday Host and puts her Early Childhood Education degree to good use when she takes a nanny position for my main character's toddler twins in the just-released sixth full-length novel of my series, Double Up. I loved writing "Jinx." The holiday theme was so much fun, the Agatha Award nomination so unexpected (I cried) and such an honor, and then there are the bats. Have you seen the bats? "Double Jinx" has the cutest little bats ever.

You can read "Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" here.

"The Best-Laid Plans" 

by Barb Goffman

Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (Wildside Press)

 

When "The Best-Laid Plans" begins, my main character, celebrated cozy author Eloise Nickel, reads an article in Mystery Queen Magazine about the future of the traditional mystery novel. The article includes patronizing comments about Eloise from her long-ago former friend, Kimberly Siger. Both Eloise and Kimberly will be honored at this year's Malice International convention, Eloise for her lifetime achievement and Kimberly as guest of honor. Sharing the stage with Kimberly would have been hard enough, but now Eloise is livid. So she hatches a plan to get revenge at the convention. Nothing fatal, of course. Just painful. Eloise is cozy, just like her books. This excerpt is set on the day before the convention starts, with lots of people chatting in the hotel lobby bar.

I hadn't noticed when Kimberly walked into the lobby, but I figured it out pretty damn quick when the bar erupted in excitement and people ran toward the hotel's front doors. Not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people. It gave me the chance to reach into my purse for my lip balm. My aloe-vera lip balm. Kimberly was allergic to aloe. It's one of the things I remembered from being her friend so many years ago. Aloe made her skin itch and burn upon contact.

I slathered on the balm and watched Kimberly head to the bar. I planned to kiss her hello so everyone could see I was the bigger person. She looked better than I'd expected. Still thin from her love of exercise. No gray in her wavy, dark-brown hair. No lines by her eyes or mouth. Her skin was tight, her teeth, sparkling. Clearly she'd had work done.

"Kimberly." I rose and opened my arms in a welcoming gesture.

Her eyes narrowed for a second, seemingly confused. But she plastered on a smile and stepped toward me. Revenge step one, here I come.

"You're here," Malice board member Cherub Lapp shouted, jumping between us and hugging Kimberly. "I've been waiting for this moment all year. You are one of my absolute favorite authors. Can I buy you a drink?"

Kimberly grinned. "That would be a perfect way to start the weekend. Thank you."

And before I knew it, Kimberly had turned from me, and my chance was lost. Damn that Cherub.

Thankfully, I had other plans.
I'm often conflicted when I read or watch serial dramas because I want my favorite characters to be happy, to find success and love and contentment. But if they were to do that, they'd get no screen or page time, because happiness isn't dramatic. There's no meat to a plot about happy people. It's . . . sigh . . . boring. The best plots, writers know, involve characters who suffer. Not that authors have to be sadistic about it, but it's certainly more interesting to read, for instance, about someone whose revenge plans go wrong, who tries over and over to get back at her nemesis, with increasingly unfortunate results. The goal of a plot like that is for the reader to get invested, wanting the next plan to work because they like the main character, while also wishing that the plan flops, because watching the character suffer is so much fun. That's what I'm showing here. This is the first scene in which Eloise tries to get her revenge plans in action, and she gets her first taste of failure. It was fun to make Eloise suffer. (Yes, that's the sadistic side of me.) But I also enjoyed showing her pluck and sarcastic side. I hope that this scene makes readers eager to read more, to see how Eloise fares. Will she get her revenge? And how much will she suffer as she tries? As for you, dear reader, pick up "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out.

You can read "The Best-Laid Plans" here.

"The Mayor and the Midwife"

by Edith Maxwell

Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out Books)


In "The Mayor and the Midwife," the very real mayor of New Orleans comes to Massachusetts to visit his pregnant daughter. Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, from my Quaker Midwife Mysteries, is watching over the daughter. At the mayor's request, Rose takes him to meet her police detective ally, Kevin Donovan, because the mayor is struggling with corruption in his government wants to meet some town officials. The following scene takes place during that meeting.
"Has his wife been informed?" I asked. This kind of shock could easily bring on labor. Her baby might be mature enough by now to survive the birth, or might not.

"Not yet, ma'am," the officer said.

"I must go to her. My pauvre fille," Joseph said. "You'll come along, Miss Carroll?"

"Of course. Let me quickly pen a note to my next client saying I'll need to cancel. I can hail a boy outside to deliver it."

I looked at the detective. I'd assisted him in several cases by keeping my eyes and ears open in the community, especially in the bedchambers of my birthing women, where secrets were often revealed during their travails. Keven had reluctantly grown to accept my participation.

"If it's murder, I'd like to help by listening, watching, and reporting to thee as I have done in the past," I said.

Kevin nodded. "Then meet me at the Currier steamboat dock after you see to the wife, will you?"

This brief snippet shows the mayor reverting to his native French and the detective conceding to let Rose help with the investigation. It lets the reader know that Rose knows what she's doing when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, and we hear her musing about the places she can go where Kevin never could. Midwifery turns out to be a great occupation for an amateur sleuth.

You can read "The Mayor and the Midwife" here.

"The Last Blue Glass"

by B.K. Stevens

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2016

 

"The Last Blue Glass" begins with a brief description of a dinner party. Newlyweds Cathy and Frank Morrell are entertaining Frank's mother and brother, plus two close friends. Then the story shifts ahead:
Nine years later, Cathy again stood in the kitchen--not the kitchen of their apartment in Newton Upper Falls or of their house in Virginia, but of their condominium in Brookline. Once again, Mrs. Morrell and Will, and Faye and Brian, had come to dinner. But Frank was dead now, supposedly in an accident. Really, Cathy thought, it had been suicide by car, suicide by alcohol. Really, it had been murder. She thought back to that first dinner party. Even then, there were signs. If she'd seen them, could she have prevented it? Maybe not. And what she was doing tonight wouldn't really set things right. But it was her only way to strike back against things that were wrong.

She gazed at the last blue glass in the cupboard and touched the small bottle in her pocket. I'll fix a special drink for someone tonight, Frank, she thought, and serve it in the glass we chose together. That's all I can do for you now.
In one sense, "The Last Blue Glass" is a whodunit, challenging the reader to watch for clues as Cathy thinks back on her marriage. Which of her four guests does she see as most responsible for Frank's death? Who will be the target of her revenge? In another sense, the story is a portrait of a marriage that goes tragically wrong--not because Cathy and Frank are bad people, and not because they don't love each other. Instead, their marriage--and Cathy and Frank themselves--are destroyed by subtle weaknesses in their relationship, weaknesses hinted at even in the opening paragraphs.

You can read "The Last Blue Glass" here.

"Parallel Play"

by Art Taylor

Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press)


"Parallel Play" starts out with a simple mistake: Maggie, a young mother, realizes that she's left her umbrella at home and there's a major storm brewing just as her son Daniel's Teeter Toddler class is ending. Fortunately, Walter, the father of another boy in the class, offers to share his own and get Maggie and her son safely to their car. But more troubles are ahead--Walter points out that Maggie's tire might be going flat--and worse, generosity often comes with a price, since Walter soon shows up at Maggie's door for an impromptu playdate. Here's that scene:

Walter stared up through those smeared glasses. "I hate to barge in for a play date unannounced, but given the circumstances . . . "

Maggie shook her head, tried to hold back the tears suddenly welling up behind her eyes, finally found her voice. "It's really not a good time right now. My husband--"

"Away on a business trip." Walter nodded. "I heard you talking to Amy, that's what got me thinking about this, making sure you got home in one piece." He looked at Daniel again, smiled. "Surely you could spare a few minutes for the boys to play."

She nodded--unconsciously, reflex really. "A few minutes," she said. "A few, of course." Her words sounded unreal to her, more unreal than his own now, and even as she said them, she knew it was the wrong decision--everything, in fact, the opposite of what she'd always thought she'd do in a case like this. But really what choice did she have, the way Walter had inserted his foot into the doorway and held so tightly to Daniel's hand?

And then there was the box cutter jittering slightly in Walter's other hand, raindrops glistening along the razor's edge, the truth behind that flat tire suddenly becoming clear.

I hesitated slightly choosing this excerpt since it's nearly halfway through the story--killing any suspense those first few pages might've offered readers who haven't yet read the story. But at the same time, this moment captures in miniature what I was trying to navigate here: the potentially jarring contrasts between what continues to unfold as a very civil conversation (pay no attention to that box cutter, right?) and then the roiling fears, desires, and other emotions underneath that surface.

You can read "Parallel Play" here.

The Authors 

Gretchen Archer is a Tennessee housewife who began writing when her daughters, seeking higher education, ran off and left her. She lives on Lookout Mountain with her husband, son, and a Yorkie named Bently. "Double Jinx" was published by the Great Chickens of Henery Press in October of 2016.

https://www.facebook.com/crimecapers/
Barb Goffman edits mysteries by day and writes them by night. She's won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she's been a finalist for national crime-writing awards nineteen times, including the Anthony and the Derringer awards. Her newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," appears in the mystery anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was published three weeks ago. When not writing, Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service. She blogs every third Tuesday here at SleuthSayers. In her spare time, she reads, reads, reads and plays with her dog. Learn more about her at

National best-selling author Edith Maxwell is a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story "The Mayor and the Midwife." She writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime  fiction has appeared in a dozen juried anthologies, and she serves as President of Sisters in Crime New England. Maxwell writes, cooks, gardens north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs at WickedCozyAuthors.com, Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors. Find her at


B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens taught English for over thirty years and now writes full time. She's the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional mystery offering insights into Deaf culture and sign language interpreting, and of Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's published over fifty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Eleven of her stories are included in her collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. B.K. has been nominated for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards and has won half a Derringer. She and her husband live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, four perfect grandchildren, and a smug cat.


Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has also won two Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. Find him at
 
 

 







21 March 2017

Be They Sinister or Sleuthy, Seniors Have a Place in Short Stories


Looks can be deceiving. No one knows that better than people who try to slip something past you. Con artists. Murderers. And sometimes even wide-eyed children and little old ladies. When you appear nice and innocent, folks will let you get away with murder.
I've written before about using teenage girls as protagonists. They work well as evil-doers or crime-commiters because no one suspects them. They're young and peppy and can come across as sweet if they try. They're also fearless and their brains aren't fully developed, so they'll do stupid things few adults would. Today, I'm going to focus on the other end of the age spectrum: the senior set. (I know some people don't like that term, but I mean no animus, so please bear with me.)

Imagine you come home to find your house burglarized, with your files ransacked and your computer--with all your notes--stolen. In real life, you'd call the cops, never thinking you personally could find the culprit. It could be anyone. But things are different for fictional Amateur Sleuth Sally.
Sally knows she's been investigating the arson death of poor Mr. Hooper, who owned the corner store. So with the neighbors leaning on their porches or whispering in small groups on their lawns, watching the police spectacle (it's a small town so there's spectacle), Sally goes outside and studies her prime suspects in the arson murder and her own burglary: those very same neighbors.

Is the culprit Oscar, the grouchy guy in the green bathrobe across the street who puts out his trash too early in the morning? Sally heard he owed Mr. Hooper money. Or is it Maria, the skinny lady who works at the library? She lives two doors down, and Sally has heard she spends time with Mr. Hooper when Mrs. Hooper is away on business--or at least she used to until Mrs. Hooper put a stop to it. Or was it Mrs. Hooper herself, the betrayed spouse? Sally has lots of questions and suspects, but she never stops to think about kindly Katrina, the grandmother who lives next door. Surely a woman who bakes cookies and serves as a crossing guard couldn't have done in Mr. Hooper.

You all know. Of course she did. And Sally Sleuth's failure to recognize that appearances can be deceiving will almost be her undoing. (Almost. This is a cozy novel I'm outlining, so Sally must prevail in the end.)

But things don't always tie up so neatly in short stories. In short stories, the bad guy can win. Or the ending can really surprise you. Or both. And kindly Katrina could end up pulling one over on Sally Sleuth. I've made use of this aspect of short stories in several of my own, particularly my latest two.

Everyone loves
cabernet

In my newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," seventy-year-old Myra Wilkinson is in her final week of work. She's retiring on Friday after working for forty-five years as a law firm secretary, forty of them for the same guy, Douglas. But as her final day looms, Myra isn't as excited as she anticipated because Douglas has chosen Jessica, a husband-hunting hussy, to replace her. Jessica doesn't care about doing the job right, and this is bothering Myra to no end. Then something happens, and Myra realizes that Douglas has been taking her for granted. So she comes up with a scheme involving Douglas's favorite wine to teach Douglas a lesson and reveal Jessica for the slacker she really is.

The beauty of the plan is no one will see Myra coming. On the outside she's kind and helpful. She calls people "dear." As one character says, she's "the heart of this department." Myra's nice on the inside, too, but she also has sass and a temper, which come into play as she hatches her scheme and it plays out.

Another great thing about Myra is she's known Douglas for so long that she knows his weaknesses, and she makes use of them. (This reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character says of God, "Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, he knows everything.") The older a character is, the more knowledge she'll have--information she can use against others.

Towanda!
An older person like Myra also might be willing to throw caution to the wind, seeing she's made it so far already. (That reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in which Kathy Bates's middle-aged character is cheated out of a parking spot by two twenty-something women, one of whom says, "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster." Kathy Bates goes on to repeatedly ram her car into the the other woman's car, then says, "Face it, girls. I'm older and have more insurance." Granted Kathy Bates's character wasn't a senior citizen, but she had reached the point where she wasn't going to just take things anymore.)

Anyway, so what happens to Myra and Douglas and Jessica? You'll have to read the story to find out. You can read "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" in the new anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was
published last week by Koehler Books. It includes seventeen stories of crime and wine and is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book. Most of the stories are set in Virginia (where most of the authors live). Why is a book of wine mysteries set in Virginia? Well, our great commonwealth has a thriving, but perhaps not well known, wine industry. We hope to change that.

Getting back to seniors, Myra isn't my only recent senior character. In my story "The Best-Laid Plans" Eloise Nickel is a mystery writer, a grande dame of her profession, and she's being honored for her lifetime achievement at this year's Malice International convention. (Does this convention's name sound familiar? Good.) It's too bad for Eloise that the convention's guest of honor this year is Kimberly Siger, Eloise's nemesis. Then, to make matters worse, a few weeks before the convention, Kimberly insults Eloise in Mystery Queen Magazine. Eloise isn't going to take that, so she plans to make Kimberly suffer during the convention. Because she's known Kimberly for many years, Eloise knows Kimberly's weak spots. And because she's thought of as a nice, aging lady, she figures no one will suspect her of any nefarious doings. Do her plans work out? Read "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out. This story, published in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional,  is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. It's available on my website: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html

So, fellow mystery authors, when you're thinking about your next plot and want a bad guy or gal who can hide in plain sight, think about a senior citizen. The same goes when you're devising your sleuth. A bad guy may not spill his guts if thirty-something Sally Sleuth is nearby, but he certainly might if Grandma Greta is. He thinks she's so innocuous, he won't see her coming--until she pulls a gun on him.

Do you have a favorite character--good gal or bad--who's a senior citizen? Please share in the comments. We can never have enough good short stories and books to read.

07 February 2017

A Good Mystery Writer is like a Magician


Kids have long known that if you want a specific toy for your birthday or Christmas, you need to start dropping hints early. Picture Ralphie, the star of the movie A Christmas Story, telling everyone who'll listen that he wants a Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range-model air rifle. (He needed to start dropping hints early just to get the whole name out.)
You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Kids who grow up and become writers still love dropping hints. They're just more subtle about it. Think about the movie The Sixth Sense. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen this movie, dear Lord, stop reading and go watch it right now before returning here. You're welcome.) Haley Joel Osment gave the film's big secret away when he looked right at Bruce Willis and told the audience, "I see dead people." But the film was written so well that the viewer likely (hopefully) didn't get the hint until the big reveal at the end.

As a writer, it can be a lot of fun to drop in hints designed to fly right past the reader, knowing that when the story's secret is revealed at the end, the reader will say, "Ohhh, I should have known," because the clues were all there if only the poor reader had noticed them.

And that's really such an important part of writing mysteries--acting like a good magician, distracting readers from the clues that are right there on the page so the readers can be surprised at the end.

I was reminded of this point last week while watching a rerun of Modern Family. The TV show isn't about crime or mystery, but the writers must read them. In the episode titled "The Alliance" (season eight, episode eight), the story starts with members of the large extended family casually talking about where they all could go on a big family vacation. The vacation discussion is portrayed as background music. Something mentioned and then forgotten as the real meat of the episode begins. But when you get to the end, you realize there's been a long con going on, and the clues were buried right before the viewers eyes in multiple scenes. It was so much fun to realize I'd been tricked. And then the writers took it a step further and showed how they fooled you with each clue. Excellent writing!

Of course there are a lot of good examples of writers who hide clues right before your eyes. If you're a movie fan, you might want to check out Screenrant.com. They have a page where they discuss The Ten Best Movie Clues You Totally Missed.

And, last but not least, are books and stories with well-hidden clues. One story in which I successfully hid the clues (at least I think I did) is called "Ulterior Motives," which came out a few years ago in an anthology named Ride 2. All the stories involved cycling. Mine was the only mystery--and actually the story had two mysteries. The central plot revolved around a teenage girl who volunteers for a political campaign and is threatened. Who's behind the
threats is the main mystery (as well as whether the campaign is successful), and I hid some clues along the way addressing those questions. But there's a second mystery in the tale, one buried so well--again, I hope--that the reader doesn't even realize the mystery is at work until the end. Early in the story it's mentioned that a quirky burglar is at work in town, going into people's homes and taking small items, then leaving them in the homeowners' mailboxes. Who is the burglar, and why does he/she act so oddly? I had fun burying those clues. Although it was a bit disconcerting when I read one review that showed the reviewer hadn't recognized some of the clues, even at the end. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Can you hide a clue too well? Maybe.

In a more recent story, "The Best-Laid Plans," I drop some details along the way foreshadowing what's to come. The main character, Eloise, writes cozies. Her antagonist, Kim, writes edgier mysteries. The characters' personalities match the mysteries they write. So when Kim insults Eloise publicly just weeks before they are both to appear as honored guests at a mystery convention, it makes sense that Eloise responds with a plan of revenge--a cozy plan. How does it turn out? I don't want to ruin it for you. But bear in mind that the characters' personalities affect their habits and how they deal with stress, so if you read carefully enough, you might be able to see where the story is going. But the ending should still take you by surprise. The story was published in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. You can read it at my website. I'm honored that this story is currently a finalist for the Agatha Award, up against tough competition, including from two of my fellow SleuthSayers, B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor, as well as from writers Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read all the stories online. Head on over to the Malice Domestic website, where the story titles are links either to the stories themselves or a way to buy them.

So, what's your favorite movie, TV show, or book with hidden clues and why? Let's all add to each others' to-be-read/watched list.