Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock. Show all posts

05 May 2020

A River Runs Through It


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

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

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

STORY GENESIS

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

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

GENRE-CHALLENGED

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

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

Enjoy.

17 December 2019

Merry Movie Mayhem


by Paul D. Marks

Well, with Christmas and Hanukkah only a few days away, here’s some last minute Merry Mayhem stocking stuffers. As of the time of this writing, a few days before its posting, most were still available and some are available streaming. The movies aren’t necessarily Christmas-related, just good stocking stuffers for those who like to read, write and watch crime fiction. And I’ve tossed in a bunch of non-crime-related movies at the end. All in no particular order. So, roll film:


The Godfather and its two sequels: Godfather I is one of the greatest movies ever made. And Godfather II is even better. Three isn’t as bad as I first thought it was and if one can get around Sofia Coppola’s Valley Girl Mafia chic it’s pretty good actually. You can get them individually, in a set or as the Godfather Saga where they’ve been cut together chronologically. I’ll take my Godfather any way I can get it.

Chinatown and Two Jakes: At the risk of being repetitive, Chinatown is one of the greatest movies ever made. And one of the best and most perfect screenplays I’ve ever read. When task master Amy was trying to get me to pare down on things, she “made” me get rid of a ton of screenplays I had – lots of good ones, too. But one of the few that I kept was Chinatown, which still sits on a shelf in my office for inspiration. Some people don’t like the subject matter, they find it repulsive. But it’s still a terrific movie. And the sequel, Two Jakes, also isn’t as bad as I first thought it was. But it’s best to watch it right after you view Chinatown so everything that it refers to is fresh in your mind. That will enhance your enjoyment of it.

In a Lonely Place: Tied for my second favorite movie of all time (see towards the end for the other second fave). And yes, I like the movie better than the book it’s based on. It resonates with me on so many levels. Back in the day, the Smithereens did a song called In a Lonely Place, inspired by the movie. It even has some lines from the movie. I really like this song. I got a poster of the movie from Pat DiNizio, the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter of the Smithereens. And when I look at the poster I like to think that DiNizio was also looking at that very poster when he wrote that song.

Film Noir 10-Movie Spotlight Collection: Okay, even if you don’t have anyone to get this for, get it for yourself. It’s one of the best collections of noir I’ve seen. It includes: This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, Double Indemnity, Phantom Lady, The Blue Dahlia, Black Angel, The Killers (1946 version), The Big Clock, Criss Cross, Touch of Evil. There’s not a bad movie in the bunch. And it includes the ultimate film noir imo, Double Indemnity. Plus Blue Dahlia, which Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay for. But they’re all good to great. Some have commentaries and other features. I’ve given this as gifts to a few people and I’m always envious when I do. I have all the movies, but in other versions, but somehow I still want this set for me. One great set.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection: If you like Hitchcock and you don’t already have these or know someone who might enjoy them it’s a great Hitch starter set. I say ‘starter’ because there’s so many more. But this includes one of my two fave Hitchcock movies, Vertigo (the other being The Lady Vanishes). And most of the movies here are terrific, though there’s some I’m not all that fond of. Plus there’s lots of extra features. Movies in the set are: Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot.

Pulp Fiction: Everybody knows this one. It’s a terrific movie. And would make a great stocking stuffer, along with Reservoir Dogs.

Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile: Two movies based on Stephen King stories. Not horror tales, like he’s generally known for. And I tend to like his non-horror stories – like these and Stand by Me – much more than the horror ones. You can get these two in a set, both directed by Frank Darabont. A terrific two-fer.

Thin Man Boxed Set: Unfortunately, I think I was wrong about this one still being available. Well, it is still available but it’s over 200 bucks. So maybe another time when it’s reissued. We all know the Thin Man movies. The playful banter and plentiful drink. One of my film school teachers wrote one of them – I always thought that was so cool. There’s other good William Powell Myrna Loy movies as well, especially Libeled Lady and Love Crazy.

LA Confidential: I’m a James Ellroy fan, though not as much as I used to be. This is one hell of a good movie based on his book. And, though I loved the book, after watching the movie about 500 times, I reread it and think I actually like the movie better.

Here’s some non-crime movies that might work, too:

Reuben Reuben: A minor gem and a great satire. Here’s a couple quotes from the movie:

“There's nothing I cherish more than the truth. I don't practice it, but I cherish it.”

And later:

“That’s where they live. (Points to sign that says “Birch Hills”.) And in other subdivisions with names like Orchard View and Vineyard Haven. All of them named, God help us, for the woods and the vineyards and the apple trees they bulldozed out of existence to make way for the new culture.”

After Hours: Something a little different from Martin Scorsese.  The Grateful Dead sang, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” They might have been writing about Griffin Dunne’s very long, odd night in this movie.

Casablanca: Number 1 fave movie, bar none. Do I really need to say anything about this?

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: What can I say about this? They changed the world – at least they changed my world.

Uncle Buck: One of two John Candy/John Hughes movies on this list. Uncle Buck doesn’t always get great reviews, but I like it. I think it’s funny and warm.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: The other John Candy/John Hughes film on this list. Also funny with a warm heart.

My Cousin Vinny: I’ve seen this in whole or in part about 1,000,000 times. And I always laugh. It never gets old.

Can’t Buy Me Love: Patrick Dempsey as a high school student who finds out the real price of being popular. And the title is from a Beatle song that’s played in the movie. How can you go wrong?

It’s Alive: Ramones concert footage. Great stuff from a terrific, punchy band. Gabba Gabba Hey! Johnny Ramone came in #28 on Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 guitar players. See why on this 2 DVD set. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/100-greatest-guitarists-153675/johnny-ramone-154110/

They Might Be Giants: A man (George C. Scott) thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. His psychiatrist, Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward), might think so, too…sooner or later.

Soldier in the Rain: A special movie, starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. If it doesn’t touch your heart you don’t have one.

Fred and Ginger movies, individually or boxed: always good for the holiday spirit

Ghost World: My other second favorite movie, along with In a Lonely Place. I’m not a teenage girl, but I totally relate to the alienation these characters, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, feel. And for those who haven’t seen it it’s not a horror movie despite the title. (Also w/ Steve Buscemi.)

Sideways: a wonderful movie for writers, even more than for people who hate Merlot.

I don’t think he’s really talking about wine here:

Miles (Paul Giamatti): “Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”

Here’s a link to another SleuthSayers piece I did on Christmas movies with both a Christmas and crime element. Some movies you might think are missing from today’s list might be found here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/12/have-holly-jolly-crime-season.html

I could keep going, but all good things must come to an end and maybe crime doesn’t pay but it pays to watch these movies.

So have yourself a Merry Little Mayhem Murderous Christmas. Happy Holidays Everyone!

~.~.~

BSP: Oh, and maybe a couple stocking stuffer books:



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

30 June 2019

My Writing World as I See It


by R.T. Lawton

A few weeks ago, Michael Bracken wrote a blog piece, "With Malice Aforethought," which discussed writer motivation, motivation in general, short stories versus novels, not shooting the horse you rode in on, dopamine rush, and risky behavior. Love it. At the end of his article, Michael expressed an interest in the how's and why's of writer motivation and the hope that research will come up with some of the answers. Several of our fellow Sleuth Sayer bloggers then responded with their own personal experiences.

So, here's another view on those topics. Naturally, one subject's story is an anecdote, and it takes lots of data or anecdotes from several subject's to put together a research project. Towards that end, here's some more anecdotes, plus a few thoughts on the topic.

From Kindergarten to Senior year in high school, I went to eleven different schools. Yeah, we moved a lot. Other than immediate family, the main constant in my life was taking refuge in books. Oddly enough, a parallel existed there, because the world in the book being read changed with every new book I started, just like my world changed with every move to a new place. All that starting over may have resulted in my short attention span when it came to writing, thus my leaning towards a short story career. Hey, it could happen that way.

Massive reading eventually led to the inclination to write my own stories. Especially when I would read a not-so-good-story, and then tell myself that I could do a better job. Sad to say, the latter part of that declaration did not happen right away, else I'd have better stats now.

This issue of AHMM contains "The Horse,"
8th in my Armenian series set in Chechnya.
People make plans and yet life has a habit of getting in the way. Sure enough, Uncle Sam decided he couldn't quite pull it off alone, so he sent me a nice letter requesting my assistance with his SE Asian program. I gave him two years, nine months and twenty-nine days, to include my one year in-country working on his program. In return, he graciously paid the rest of my college fees and tuition.

Guess now we get to the dopamine and risky behavior part that Michael mentioned. As Ernest Hemingway once said, "In order to write about life first you must live it." Since dopamine and adrenaline are first cousins, I ventured out to live life after finishing college. Twenty-five years on the street working risky people made good fodder for stories. All I had to do was learn how to write these stories down. I'd already tried a creative writing course in college. Couldn't relate to it. Seems I wasn't cut out to be a literary author. Time to reboot.

At the end of most working days, vice cops and federal agents, in the 70's through the 90's, had the habit of stopping at some neighborhood bar to wind down, let off the tension. Inevitably, stories would be told around the table about that night's happenings, or even favorite stories from past raids, arrests, surveillance or undercover incidents. The best stories got the most laughs. That's when I found I was a  storyteller. Time to think commercial market. Just needed to learn how to put words on paper in the proper format. Seems that, for me, is an ongoing process with occasional speed bumps.

I finally found my niche in the mystery genre, writing short stories about the criminals, cons and scams I'd run into on the streets. In my writing world, achieving the big-time market, after small press magazines and ten-dollar payments, started when Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine's writer's guidelines on their web page said they were looking for stories set in an exotic location. Conveniently, I had one set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. Cathleen Jordan, the editor of AHMM at that time, bought my story and I got one foot in the door. After that, it was put everything I could think of into a story and don't hold back on material. So far, it's been a good run.

my spurs
To date, I've sold 44 short stories to AHMM, with an acceptance rate of 72.13%. On the other hand, my acceptance rate at their sister magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, can never get any lower than it is right now. HUH ! But, if I had a third hand, so I could once again say "on the other hand,"  I'd say that anthologies have become a sometimes lucrative market.

Since my numbers for published novels is zero, I, much like Michael, am not going to shoot the short story horse I rode in on. Me  and that particular horse are currently on very good terms. I've even taken off my spurs after all those years in the saddle and retired them to my writing desk. The horse knows they're off my boots, but he can see them still there in case they become necessary again.

I know I won't live long enough to catch up with Ed Hoch's record of 450-some short stories in EQMM, and his 60+ short stories in AHMM, but I will hopefully continue to plug along, until my vision fails.

In the meantime, fare thee well and keep on writing.

R.T. out.


14 June 2019

Suspense Fiction


by O'Neil De Noux

These are not rules, not guidelines, not anything etched in stone. These are observations about suspense novels from publishers, editors and writers I've known.

What is a Suspense story/novel? Here are some notes taken over the years:

A subgenre of the Mystery genre, it is more about menace than crime. Most of the time.

Crime usually serves as danger. The layout of the story/novel centers on the rising suspense of the storyline, which is dramatic, exciting with a rising level of tension.

The intent of the suspense story/novel is to achieve an emotional reaction from the reader – fear or anticipation. It is not merely suspenseful, the focus of the story/novel is suspense, defined in the intention of the writer and the expectation of the reader.

It is realistic in his presentation and usually logical in its execution. If it jumps the shark midway with characters acting illogically, the writer can lose the reader. How many times have we read books or seen movies and thought – why did this character do something so stupid? Yes, stupid. Turn off all the lights and run around in their underwear. Not calling police when they can. Leaving the gun behind. Not scooping up a machine gun to use their snub-nosed revolver in a gun battle. #1 - not shooting the bad guy when they have the chance to end it all.

Tension results in the manner in which an expected conclusion is achieved. Often it is malice aforethought. In the novel Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles begins with the statement that Dr. Bickleigh will murder his wife.

The focus centers on the human passion, the results of action on the people in the story/novel more than the deed of series of deeds bringing the passion to the surface. For example – in a Techno-Thriller, the focus is more on the hardware than the people's reaction to the events.

The supernatural has no place in the straight suspense story/novel. If the supernatural appears, the piece enters another genre – horror, fantasy or science fiction.

As I said, these are not rules or even guidelines. Just observations.

Alfred Hitchcock's movies are excellent examples of the suspense story: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, Rear Window and others.








That's all for now.
http://www.oneildenoux.com

12 February 2019

Agatha Award short-story finalists for this year


by Barb Goffman

Given that I am swamped with work, I've decided to take the easy way out this week and write something short for you. But never fear. I'm a short-story writer, so brevity is my friend.

Allow me to introduce the finalists for this year's Agatha Award in the short-story category, all of whom know how to make every word count. I'm pleased to be one of the nominees, along with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, and the three other finalists, all of whom I'm also proud to call my friends. So without further ado, the finalists and their stories. Each title is a link to that story, for your reading pleasure.

  • Leslie Budewitz. Her story "All God's Sparrows" was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  


  • Barb Goffman. (Yep, that's me.) My story "Bug Appetit" was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.



Attendees of the Malice Domestic mystery convention will be able to vote for their favorite story during the convention this May. In the meanwhile, happy reading! See you in three weeks.

20 December 2018

And Be A Villain


by Eve Fisher

When it comes to mysteries, my favorites are really those where I love the detective, from Miss Marple to Maigret to Inspector Brunetti to the collective of New Tricks.  But the villains matter, too.

And my favorite villain of all time is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White: Fat, witty, with the head of Napoleon and a taste for sugar-water and cigarettes, he can tame anything:
"Mind that dog, sir," said the groom; "he flies at everybody!" "He does that, my friend," replied the Count quietly, "because everybody is afraid of him. Let us see if he flies at me." And he laid his plump, yellow-white fingers... upon the formidable brute's head, and looked him straight in the eyes. "You big dogs are all cowards," he said, addressing the animal contemptuously, with his face and the dog's within an inch of each other. "You would kill a poor cat, you infernal coward. You would fly at a starving beggar, you infernal coward. Anything that you can surprise unawares—anything that is afraid of your big body, and your wicked white teeth, and your slobbering, bloodthirsty mouth, is the thing you like to fly at. You could throttle me at this moment, you mean, miserable bully, and you daren't so much as look me in the face, because I'm not afraid of you. Will you think better of it, and try your teeth in my fat neck? Bah! not you!" He turned away, laughing at the astonishment of the men in the yard, and the dog crept back meekly to his kennel.
His conversation is brilliant, deviant, erudite, misleading, and his decisions are never the expected ones. This is not the serial killer, the mastermind, the thug, the common criminal, or anything else you have ever heard of. Count Fosco is unique.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Not this time. I want to talk about surprising villains, surprising because of brilliance, because of sheer surprise, because of who they are.

!!!!WARNING - MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD!!!!

And I'll start off with the one that stunned me the most - one of the few who took me totally by surprise - is Angela Lansbury in the original The Manchurian Candidate. Brilliant portrayal, and I didn't know that she'd played villains before. When I saw it for the first time, I hadn't yet seen Gaslight on TCM, and she wasn't yet Jessica Fletcher, but she'd done Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and played the heroine of The Lady Vanishes, so I assumed she was always pretty nice. Boy, was I wrong. She was just always pretty great.



Sheer brilliance is one thing. Another is... Well, have you ever watched the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy? The first is a classic, but the chief virtue of the rest is the chemistry and playfulness between Powell and Loy. But After the Thin Man has the most unexpected villain in movie history, simply because

- SPOILER ALERT!!!! -

it's played by Jimmy Stewart. Yes. America's male sweetheart was a murderer. To be honest, he really didn't know how to play it. He was only 26, and I figure they were experimenting, and the script wasn't that good. And granted, back in 1936, people wouldn't have been surprised to see Jimmy Stewart as the killer, because he hadn't had decades to solidify his stardom as the good guy. But watch it now, and... wow!

And the director of After the Thin Man was no Alfred Hitchcock, who did indeed know how to use Jimmy Stewart's wholesome reputation, drawl, and All-American good looks to up the ante of playing men who aren't above a little voyeurism or stalking (Rear Window), or downright obsession, possession, kidnapping and assault (Vertigo). And still remain a hero. But then I've always felt that Alfred Hitchcock was trying to live through Stewart in both roles.

"Vertigo" James Stewart 1958 Paramount  "Vertigo," James Stewart and Kim Novak. 1958 Paramount  "Vertigo" James Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, Kim Novak 1958 Paramount
(All photos from IMDB)

I think it always catches you by surprise when an actor who's always played the hero suddenly turns into a villain.  I'll never forget seeing Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, chowing down on Claudia Cardinale with gusto, while discussing how much he'll regret killing her.  And you could tell by the gleam in his eyes that he was having fun. The story is that Sergio Leone convinced Fonda to play stone cold killer Frank by telling him: "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman's face and...it's Henry Fonda."

Henry Fonda in C'era una volta il West (1968)
Henry Fonda in "Once Upon a Time in the West" - photo on IMDB
It works.

I think a lot of actors who have always been stuck playing good guys really enjoy a chance to be a villain.  Charlton Heston certainly had the time of his life playing Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (1973).  "One of my best parts" he said in this interview on YouTube:



Charlton Heston and Faye Dunaway in The Four Musketeers (1974)
With Faye Dunaway, playing Milady - IMDB
BTW, doing some research, I found a blog post by a man named Graham Daseler in which he said, "Charlton Heston was not a protean performer, like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, playing someone new in every film: to see one Heston performance is, more or less, to see them all. He didn’t play romance especially well. Humour seemed to be completely beyond him (a deficit that, oddly enough, made him perfect for the role of Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s campy adaptation of The Three Musketeers)."  (read the whole HERE)  I tend to agree.  He always played everything straight, and in the two Musketeer movies, he had some of the best lines:
"I love you, my son. Even when you fail."
"I have no enemies.  France has enemies."  (Mr. Heston's own contribution to the script, from historical records.)
D'Artagnan: "By my order and for the good of the state, the bearer has done what has been done."
Richelieu: "Hm. One should be careful what one writes... and to whom one gives it. I must bear those rules in mind."

That last one - well, there's words of wisdom for us all, right?

holly-berries
And, as an early Christmas stocking stuffer, The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1987 Full!  With special guest star, Charlton Heston (around 35:00):















07 December 2018

Opening Lines: Best and Favorite


by O'Neil De Noux
OK, we've had a few posts about opening lines but I do not think we SleuthSayers put up a post about the favorite and the best opening lines of a short story and novel we have written. So here is my subjective opinion of mine.

The Best opening line of a novel I've written is:

The wail of bagpipes echoes through the cold fog and silences the men at the earthen rampart behind the Rodriguez Canal.
– from BATTLE KISS (2011)

American breastworks at The Battle of New Orleans battlefield, Chalmette, LA
Photo ©2011 O'Neil De Noux

My favorite opening line of a novel I've written is:

There is no trick-or-treating Halloween night, two months AK – After Katrina.
– from CITY OF SECRETS (2013)


Photo of sculpture Mackenzie by Vincent De Noux used on cover of CITY OF SECRETS

The Best opening line of a short story I've written is:

It was a kiss with promise behind it, as much promise as a good girl would give, enough to make my heart race as we stood under the yellow bulb of her front gallery.
– from "Too Wise" (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Vol 132, No. 5, November 2008 Issue

My favorite opening line of a short story I've written is:

The black German shepherd wasn't a cadaver dog but she found the skeleton in the hideaway closet under the stairs of the unpainted, wooden shotgun house.
– from "Just a Old Lady" (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Vol. 60, No. 9, September 2015 Issue)

Lagniappe. How about a Worst? Here is the Worst opening line of a story I wrote that was published:

It was a dark and stormy night with the wind barking through the mangroves like the voices of angry two-year olds fighting over crayons and I dreamt of a land far away, very far away, a helluva distance away, probably on the other side of the world where it wasn't dark nor was there a storm barking through the mangroves, a place where the mangroves were peaceful and green and I could sit reading Shelley or Keats or maybe Sidney Shelton without the wind whipping the pages of my book or the rain pelting my eyes, blurring my vision of Daphne in a see-through dress with the sunlight streaming through the diaphanous material and I could see all her goodies and make yummy sounds as she slinked up to me like a skank in the night (no, it wouldn't be night because we would be on the other side of the world and the sun would be shining – through her dress).
– from "Like a Stank in the Night" (Hardboiled Sex 2006 Collection)

So what are your favorite and best opening lines? What about your worst?

www.oneildenoux.com



26 November 2018

Neither Fish Nor Foul Play


by Steve Liskow

15 years ago, conventional wisdom stated that the way to pique an agent's interest was to publish short stories. I love short stories, but writing them makes calculus look easy. I never took calculus.

Nobody even mentioned novellas, novelettes or any of the other hybrid mutants. Nobody even agrees on word counts for any of them. Rex Stout used to publish three novellas and a short story together as a hardcover book, most of them starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but that's about the only consistent example I can name. Granted, the average mystery was much shorter than it is today, and Stout died in 1975. His novellas were probably between 15 and 20 thousand words, and you'll see where I came up with that estimate in a minute. Now, authors occasionally publish an eBook novella between longer works to keep readers aware of them.

 I wrote several unpublished short stories featuring my Detroit PI, rock & roll wannabe Woody Guthrie, although that wasn't even his name yet. One I liked a lot, called "Stranglehold," came in at nearly 7000 words, which was a problem. During 2005, I sent it out to the only five markets I could find that would accept a story of that length, and none of them did.

A writer friend told me he had trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight because they all showed up early in the story. I tried cutting some of them--and the story's overall length--and created an incoherent mess. I didn't see enough potential subplots to make the story into a novel, so it languished for four years.

Then someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack (The Rex Stout Appreciation Society, named after his detective, Nero Wolfe) and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The contest wanted stories between 15K and 20K words (see above) and following the general form of Stout's mysteries. Well, I'd read most of Stout's work because he was one of my mystery-reading mother's favorites. Archie's tone was a big influence on my own writing, maybe because we're both from the Midwest.

Could I add words to "Stranglehold" and turn it into a novella? If I expanded the opening, that large cast would appear more gradually and be easier to absorb. Imagine my surprise when I added 9000 words--and only two minor transition scenes--to the story in four days. I had a novella on my hands without even knowing it. I sent it off to the contest, and it won. It appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in summer 2010.

OK, I thought. When you have more detail than you can pack into a short story, think novella. I've never done that again.

Five years later, I struggled with another Woody Guthrie novel. By now I knew his name because he'd appeared in two novels, and so had several of his supporting cast. This time, I had the opposite problem from "Stranglehold." I had a solid main plot and an anemic subplot I couldn't expand without excessive and obvious padding.

My wife suggested that maybe it would work as another novella, and she was right. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Mom" won the award in 2015 and appeared in Alfred the following summer.

Now, I think I know how to write a novella. Step one is don't plan to do it. If you find yourself trapped with no other way out, focus on one main plot and one subplot. You might have a second subplot if it resolves easily. We're talking 60 to 80 pages, so we don't have a lot of introspection, static lyrical description, or technical wherewithall. If two sets of somewhat similar characters work through parallel or related plots, they're easy to bring together at the end. In both novellas I've written so far, each plot involved members of a band and their music.

Both stories have about ten characters, too. The band was a quintet in the first one, and four of the members were suspects in the killing of the fifth (Music fans would call this the "diminished fifth"). In the second story, the remaining members all have something at stake and two of them are suspects again. If you're a musician, you might think long and hard before joining this band.

I'm kicking around ideas for another novella. It doesn't involve Woody or the band or music, but I have about ten characters again. And one subplot.

If it works out, maybe I'll show it to you.

If it doesn't, maybe I really have a bloated short story on my hands...or another anorexic novel.

TIME FOR THE BSP: My sixth Zach Barnes novel, Back Door Man, a light-hearted romp into a cold case involving mass murder, is now available, just in time for your Christmas shopping.


If I'd known it would be ready for the holidays, maybe I would have called it "Violent Night."

28 October 2018

The Rashomon Effect


by R.T. Lawton

In 1922, a short story titled "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa was published in the January edition of the Japanese monthly, Shincho. This short story tells a tale about the rape of a samurai's wife and the subsequent murder of that samurai from the point of view of several different characters, and with contradictory information from one character to the next.

Twenty-eight years later, movie director Akira, Kurosawa (famous director of The Seven Samurai) used Akutagawa's short story as the basis to make his 1950 film, Rashomon. Similar to the short story, Rashomon is a tale told by four witnesses to a rape and murder: the bandit, the samurai's wife, the murdered samurai who tells his part through a medium, and a woodcutter who appears to have no bias in his telling. All of the witnesses seem to agree on some facts, but disagree on others. These disagreements on the same incident though, may be subjective, self-serving or due to the ego of that witness. Because of the contradictions in the stories of each witness, the actors in this film asked the director which version was the truth. Kurosawa replied that his film was meant to explore multiple realities rather than just one truth.

Then along comes Martin Ritt, who remakes the Japanese Rashomon into a 1964 American western titled The Outrage. Paul Newman is cast in the role of the bandit Juan Carrasco, William Shatner as a disillusioned preacher, Howard Da Silva as an unsuccessful prospector, Edward G. Robinson as a cynical conman. and Paul Fix as an old Indian shaman. Laurence Harvey plays an aristocratic Southerner married to Nina, who is played by Claire Bloom. At the bandit's trial, Juan (Paul Newman) claims he killed the husband (the Southerner) in a duel. The wife claims she stabbed her husband to death because he blamed her for encouraging the bandit, which led to the rape, while the dead husband (through the old Indian shaman) claimed he committed suicide as the manner of his death. The prospector has a fourth version for the trial.

In later years, television and movies used The Rashomon Effect to reveal "the truth" in the final version of some of their stories, which put a neat and tidy ending on those Hollywood's stories. However, in real life, a Rashomon effect is more like what cops deal with on the street whenever an incident happens, especially one that involves the emotions or prejudices of the witnesses. By the time interviews start with an incident involving law enforcement, the recollection of the events and timeline, descriptions of perpetrators and vehicles, types of guns or if there actually were any guns and/or the type and color of clothing worn by alleged suspects can vary quite a bit.

For our purposes as writers, The Rashomon Effect may be defined as a story told by several witnesses or alleged witnesses to the same incident. Each story as told by a separate witness and from their Point of View, will have some of the facts straight, but their story may also be colored or influenced by their personal biases, opinions, or even flavored to benefit themselves or others. Each witness story will contradict some of the alleged facts in the stories of other witnesses. The final version may be "the truth." Or not.

Curiosity led me to research The Roshomon Effect. And now that I have, I'm intrigued enough with the process to attempt a short story using that method. I already have the main characters and a skeleton plot mapped out. Now, I merely need to write my six-part story and see if all the contradictory parts fit.

But then, it's always something, isn't it?

#

And now for a little Blatant Self-Promotion:

The November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine has my story, "Vet's Day," 11th in my Holiday Burglars series. As with many of the titles in this series, I like putting double meanings into the title. In this episode, Beaumont finds himself compelled to do a favor for his old Army First Sergeant who once had Beaumont running an off-the-books NCO Club in a Muslim country in exchange for an early out from the military. Due to a lack of personal funds, Beaumont figures the only way he can complete the favor now asked by his old sergeant is for him to commit a strange burglary. And, in order to talk his partner Yarnell into going along with him on this job, Beaumont must agree to something that Yarnell wants in return.

NOTE: Fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and Rob Lopresti also have short stories in this issue.

Catch ya later.

26 August 2018

A Parable?


by R.T. Lawton

Fables, parables and allegories are all similar. Roughly, a fable is a short story where animals or objects tell a story by speaking in order to teach a moral or religious lesson; a parable is a story designed to teach a moral or religious lesson with people doing the speaking; and an allegory is a story where ideas are symbolized as people. Sometimes a short story may be considered as more than one of these at the same time and sometimes in general conversation, people will interchange the three words.

When you think of fables, the first ones to your mind are probably the ancient Greek stories such as the dog in the manger and the fox and the grapes. Those types of old stories. Many old civilizations have used fables, parables and allegories as a method of teaching about life. One parable believed to be derived from early Taoism is the farmer whose horse ran away and all his neighbors lamented his bad fortune. The farmer's response was, "We'll see." The next day, his runaway horse returned to the farm with another horse and the neighbors rejoiced at the farmer's good fortune of obtaining a free horse. Again, the farmer said, "We'll see." The next day, the farmer's son fell off the new horse and broke his leg. The neighbors lamented the farmer's ill luck of his son having broken a leg. Again, the farmer said, "We'll see." On the following morning, the army came through the village and pressed all the healthy young men into service, but they left the farmer's son alone because he had a broken leg. The moral being, as the farmer had learned, was that life is unpredictable and you never know how a situation will turn out.

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

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

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

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

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

19 June 2018

Yesterday and Today


by Paul D. Marks

Yesterday was Paul McCartney’s birthday and I was going to do a post related to the Beatles, writing and me. But when I found out that the next three days will be posts from the three editors at Dell Magazines,  Janet Hutchings, Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow (in alphabetical order) I thought I’d do a little lead into that. I’ve met all three on various occasions and broken bread with them and they’re all terrific. So, I hope no one minds that I revisit our trip to NYC in April, 2017 where we got to hang with them.

Amy and I got to meet Janet and Linda at Bouchercons in Raleigh and Long Beach. And when we went to NYC last year we got to meet up with them again and also meet Jackie Sherbow in person. So, in honor of these editors’ posts coming up, I hope you don’t mind if I rerun my post from a little over a year ago. Hey, the TV networks do it. So here’s a revisit to that wonderful trip.

From L to R around the table: Janet Hutchings, me, Eve Allyn, Doug Allyn, Jackie Sherbow, Linda Landrigan

***

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. Or is it the other way around? Amy (the wife) and I recently spent a week in New York City and I’m still not sure.  (Well, I am, but it plays better the other way.) And now the legally required disclaimer: I wrote about this trip for another blog a few weeks ago as my last slot for SleuthSayers was the family blog post that Amy did. So I didn’t have a chance to talk about our trip here. But it was writing-related and so great and so much fun I wanted to share a slightly revised version with SleuthSayers too.

Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building
The trip came up very unexpectedly when I got an e-mail from Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, telling me that my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill had won the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll and inviting us to come to the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards ceremony, as well as to be their guests at the Edgar Awards. I think I was in disbelief for several days, so we made no plans to head to New York…until the wonderful reality actually sunk in and we headed off to The Big Apple from The Big Sour, I mean, Big Orange.

We booked out on Jet Blue because we heard about their great on-time record. We got lucky—they were late both coming and going. I guess someone has to be the exception to the rule.

The week was a whirlwind of adventures and some sightseeing, much of it filled up with literary events. We arrived Monday night and since the hotel is next door to Grand Central Terminal we decided to check it out and have dinner at the famous Oyster Bar. Talk about a cool place. Then we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel late into the night.

On Tuesday we went to the Ellery Queen offices for tea with Janet and Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Jackie Sherbow, senior assistant editor for both EQMM and AHMM. Also there were Doug Allyn and his wife, Eve. Doug’s stories came in #2 and 3 in this year’s poll. But he’s been #1 11 times. I think it will be a long time before anyone can top that!

From L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Doug Allyn, Linda Landrigan,
Janet Hutchings, me

Everyone was very gracious. And it was good to talk with Janet again and Linda, who I’d met briefly before. And to meet Jackie for the first time in person, but who I’ve had a lot of correspondence with.
Me and Jackie Sherbow
After the afternoon tea, Jackie very graciously offered to be our guide on the subway, something I really wanted to do. So we subwayed to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop for a gathering of Edgar nominees, authors, publishers and more (I think we fell into the “more” category, though now that I think about it I guess I’m an author too). It was crowded, it was fun. It was great to see the famous bookstore. And to meet Otto Penzler himself. And to see some people I know, including Edgar nominee Jim Ziskin and many others. And Doug Allyn was kind enough to introduce me to several people.


In the subway: L to R me, Eve Allyn,
Doug Allyn and Amy

After the party at the Mysterious Bookshop, Jackie was once again our subway guide, taking us to a real New York pizza place that she likes. So she, Doug and Eve, and Amy and I, braved the rain to get to the subway and then the pizza place. And in a scene that could have been out of a Woody Allen movie, we stepped just inside a local market to get out of the rain for a few minutes. I was waiting for the “nasty” New Yorkers to kick us out, but nobody was nasty and nobody kicked us out. Eve grabbed some plastic bags from the produce section to cover our heads and we ventured back out into the rain. We still got soaked by the time we made it to the pizza place. But the pizza was good and it was all worth it. After dinner, Jackie headed home. Doug and Eve, Amy and I took a cab back to the hotel. And this was the one loquacious cabby we had the whole time we were in New York and he was a riot. When we were just about at the hotel he nudged through a crosswalk and some guy in the walk started yelling at him, challenging him to a fight. Now we felt like we were in New York.

Jackie guiding us through the subway.
Wednesday we had a free day, so we played tourists (which we were). Lots of other tourists all around us. We did a tour of Grand Central Terminal, which was right next to the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we were staying and where the Edgars would be held the following evening. (On the other side of the hotel was the Chrysler Building, which we had a view of from our window. Now that’s pretty cool to be sandwiched between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central. During our tour we had another “New York” experience when some jerk called the tour guide a “dirty scumbag” and neither she nor any of us on the tour could figure out why or what she’d done. But despite that, most everyone was really friendly and nice and we had no problems with anyone.


Grand Central Terminal
After our tour of Grand Central we followed Clint Eastwood’s “Speed Zoo” example from the movie True Crime, where he jams his kid through the zoo at the speed of sound, and did “Speed New York.” We bought tickets for the hop on-hop off buses—buses where you can get on at one location and off at the next, hang out, then get back on and go to the next location. This way we saw a lot of the city in one day. Everything from the Empire State Building to the Flat Iron and various neighborhoods. We also hopped onto the Staten Island Ferry. From there we could see the Statue of Liberty. We ended the day in Rockefeller Center and then Times Square and dinner in a pretty good Italian restaurant off Times Square. Our meal was served family style—and being only 2 people we ended up with enough left over to feed everyone in Times Square.

The next day was the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards, held at a specialized library not too far from the hotel. And it was a truly terrific experience. But the best part (besides picking up the award of course 😉) was being able to meet people in person that I know online but hadn’t met for one reason or another. Fellow SleuthSayer David Dean. Tom Savage. Dave Zeltserman, who published some of my stories early on in his HardLuck Stories magazine, and whose Small Crimes was just made into a movie on Netflix that released recently, so check it out. Besides hanging with Janet, Linda and Jackie, we also got to hang with Doug and Eve Allyn again, both of whom were great to hang with.
Me and Doug Allyn at the Ellery Queen cocktail party.

And, of course, it was more than a thrill to win the award!

Me receiving the Award.
And then it was off to the Edgars that evening. Very exciting. And all was going well, I even liked the food (and who likes the food at these things?), until the Master of Ceremonies, Jeffrey Deaver, stumbled and then fainted on the stage while doing some introductions. That was scary. Luckily he was okay, though whisked off to the hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. I believe tests showed that it wasn’t—hope so.

That’s the litany, now for the real deal: While we loved New York and all of the events, the best part of anything like this, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, etc., is the people. The community of mystery writers is a very warm, very supportive group. And, as I’ve mentioned, it was great to see old friends and also meet new people. We saw Jim Ziskin and Catriona McPherson, and had a nice chat with both of them. Met Otto Penzler. And it was good to meet Sam Reaves, Dave Zeltserman and too many others to name here. And great to spend time with Janet, Linda and Jackie.

Amy and Jackie at the Edgars.
New York has a bad rep in some ways and people who know me thought I’d hate it (as I haven’t been there in years…decades). I loved it. I loved the crowds. I loved the energy. I loved the writing community. I loved this whole unexpected trip. And I’m more than appreciative to Janet Hutchings for publishing Ghosts of Bunker Hill and taking a chance on my first story for Ellery Queen, Howling at the Moon (which, by the way, made it to #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll). And to Linda Landrigan for publishing my story Twelve Angry Days in the current (May/June 2017) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. And to Jackie for everything she does to keep the wheels turning. And last but certainly not least to the people who voted for Ghosts of Bunker Hill and made it #1.

***



Look for Past is Prologue and Fade Out on Bunker Hill (a Howard Hamm story) in upcoming issues of AHMM and EQMM, respectively.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

And some good news: My story “Windward,” from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer & me) is nominated for a Macavity Award for Best Short Story. Our own Art Taylor’s story, “A Necessary Ingredient,” and Matt Coyle’s story, “The #2 Pencil,” also from Coast to Coast are also nominated. Congratulations Art and Matt! And I’m truly thrilled at how much recognition our little anthology is receiving. It’s very rewarding. And thanks to all who contributed and everyone who voted for these stories!




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

02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains


by Steve Liskow

Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.