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

25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction

By Art Taylor

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be leading a presentation and workshop at the 4th Annual Spring Writing Intensive at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The session is about crafting suspense, and it borrows its title from the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog—"Something Is Going To Happen"—but when I was planning this with the program's organizers, they threw in a surprise: They had already scheduled a session on genre fiction, and they didn't want mine to be focused on mysteries.

Crafting suspense but not in the mystery genre?

Well, I'll admit some surprise at the request—but only since people who ask me to present at these kinds of gatherings usually want me talking about genre fiction. Truth is, I think the broader scope here actually makes for a more interesting discussion—about the range of different approaches available for capturing a reader's curiosity, introducing the stakes of a plot, getting that reader invested, getting him or her to turn that next page.

Here's the full description of my session:

Hooking your readers with a killer opening—that’s a must. But how do you get them to turn not just the first page but the next too? and then the next? …and the next? Crafting suspense may seem like the special province of crime fiction writers, but literary writers and genre writers both can profit from heightening tension, escalating conflict, tossing in the unexpected left turn, and generally keeping readers focused on the idea that “something is going to happen,” (to borrow the title of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s weekly blog). This session draws on work by writers including Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Scott Turow to illustrate various techniques for incorporating suspense into your own work.

...though as I'm prepping for the session itself, and here with a couple of recent events, I'm considering substituting a couple of authors for those mentioned above.

I'm writing this post just as news comes out about the death of Philip Roth, one of my own favorite novelists, and earlier this week I picked up the collection Last Stories by William Trevor, who died in 2016—another favorite writer and one of the great masters of the short story, not just now but ever. Neither of these writers is known for flashy, grabby openings; in fact, the New York Times' book review of Trevor's Last Stories commented directly on his low-key approach: "Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little."

And yet, I find myself drawn in quickly to Trevor's stories, to stakes which are at once high but muted, their intensity downplayed but maybe all the more engaging for it.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Trevor's "Making Conversation" from this final collection:

'Yes?' Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of The Return of the Thin Man. The summons is an irritation on a Sunday afternoon, when it couldn't possibly be the meter-man or the postman, and it's most unlikely to be Courtney Haynes, the porter.

A woman's voice crackles back at her but Olivia can't hear what she says. More distinctly, the dialogue of the film reaches her from the sitting room. 'Cocktail time,' William Powell is saying, and there's the barking of a dog. The man Olivia lives with laughs.

'I'm sorry,' Olivia says in the hall. 'I can't quite hear you.'

'I'm not used to these answering gadgets.' The woman's voice is clearer now. There is a pause, and then: 'Is my husband there?'

'Your husband?' Frowning, more irritated than she has been, Olivia suggests the wrong bell has been rung.

'Oh, no,' the voice insists. 'Oh, no.'
The opening scene continues on for three more short paragraphs, but this is enough, I think. The opening scenes set the stage for all that follows: Two women connected by the husband of one of them, their conversation about those connections (though the title "Making Conversation" refers to something else entirely). The pace is leisurely, it would be charitable to say—a sketch of a Sunday afternoon, a small interruption. So is there... suspense?

Certainly there are questions raised here, both within the scene and pointing further ahead. What was said in that crackle that Olivia doesn't hear? Is the woman at the wrong address? Does Olivia know her husband? Is he perhaps even the man sitting there watching Return of the Thin Man?

Spoiler alert, that's not him, but as for Olivia knowing the woman's husband at all....

Conventional approaches to suspense might require the drama to be amped up more forcefully. Not a ring of the doorbell but a blaring of it—the bell pushed and held. Or someone pounding on the door itself. Not a voice lost in a crackle but a voice screaming, shouting, demanding. The irritation would become anxiety or fear. That word insists would need to tremble with a little more menace.

And yet I find myself drawn forward—and the story amply rewards, mysteries in bloom, though perhaps not the kinds of mysteries we think of with genre fiction.

As for Philip Roth, I just reread the opening of my favorite of his books, The Human Stain. I'll quote the first two paragraphs—and you can find the full first section of the opening chapter at the Random House website here:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
No rush of suspense here—none that I can see—and not even drama in the sense of conventional scene-building. It's all exposition and description. But the foundation for tension is laid: in the words affair and confided, for example; in the contrasts between the idea of an affair and the description of "church-ruled, hardworking goodwives" and "stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it"; in the contrast between miseries "concealed" and a face which "hide[s] nothing"; and then in the disparity between the main characters' ages—71 and 34—and their educational backgrounds, a classics professor and a high school dropout.

Needless to say, undramatic as all this is, there's plenty of drama ahead.

But does this count as suspense as well?

How about if you add in the chapter title looming over this bit of confidence? "Everyone Knows." 

Such are the questions I'm going to try to explore in my session at St. John's—perhaps not with these passages, which I've chosen mainly because Trevor and Roth have been on my mind today, this week, but with similar ones, looking to see how writers introduce small bits of tension and conflict from the start, how they raise the stakes bit by bit, often in excruciating ways, and, of course, what we other writers might learn from these moves.

Anthony Award News


A bit of news since my last post here: I'm honored that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award for Best Short Story, alongside stories by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman and by Susana Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. As I've mentioned before, my story was part of the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, also a finalist for an Anthony in the anthology category, and featuring stories by several more of our SleuthSayers family. Been a great year for this anthology, and I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of it. Oh! And I hope you'll enjoy the story itself, which you can read here for free.

See you all at Bouchercon in just a few months!

15 May 2018

Giving Thanks

by Barb Goffman

It may be six months until Thanksgiving, but when the urge to thank people moves you, I say, go with your urges.

Writing fiction might feel like working in a vacuum because so much of the time the author is sitting alone in front of a computer, typing away. Even if the writing occurs in a public place, the writer is essentially toiling alone (except for the voices in her head). But we all need help from time to time, and it's a wondrous thing to work in an industry--the mystery community--where people are willing to help others, even eager to do it. They were helped along the way, and they like to give back by helping others.

Take Barbara Ross. She's a mystery writer from New England. Last month she gave a presentation to my local Sisters in Crime chapter in Virginia about promotion--what works and what doesn't. We didn't pay her to do this. She was going to be in the area and has a bit of expertise in this subject and didn't mind spending a chunk of her day sharing her knowledge with others, so she did. Mystery writers do things like this for others all the time. Heck, it's what so many of the blog posts here at SleuthSayers aim to do: help other writers. To all the Barbara Rosses out there, thanks.

There are other people we writers often turn to for assistance: subject-matter experts. I was reminded of this recently when I was answering a question posed to me about my newest short story, "Till Murder Do Us Part." The question was: Do police officers really use peppermint-scented masks to avoid terrible odors at death scenes. (A sheriff's chief deputy wears just such a mask in my story.) And my answer was yes, some do. I got the information from a subject-matter expert who gives his time, free of charge, to help authors get details right. It's also how I knew to call this particular character a chief deputy. So to Lee Lofland and all subject-matter experts who help authors get their  lingo and other details right, thank you.

You don't have to be a professional in any particular field, however, to have useful information for an author. Personal experience can be wonderfully helpful. When I was writing "Till Murder Do Us Part," I needed to know what it looked, smelled, and sounded like when a cow exploded. There's only so much information I could find online. I needed someone with personal experience to answer my questions. Bless my Facebook friends; they came through. None of these people are farmers, but they all spent time on farms growing up, had firsthand knowledge with exploding cows, and didn't mind providing pertinent details. So thank you to my friends Bob Harris, Gwen Mayo, and Teresa Wilder for their help with these details. And thank you to everyone I know who has, over the years, shared personal information that enabled me to get details right. Everyone is an expert in their own lives, after all. You just need to know who to ask about what.

For instance, if you need information about writing, ask some writers. Just today, I had a friend who was feeling down because she hasn't yet had luck selling her first novel. (It's great--I've read it--but sometimes these things take time. Not every agent is right for every author and book.) I figured it might help her to hear from other authors who had a lot of rejection before they had success, so I asked my Facebook friends to share their stories. And did they. About thirty authors shared their stories of querying and querying and querying until, finally, they had success.
Not the right paper for professional
queries, but very pretty





Three of these authors sent out more than 400 queries each, and for two of them, when they finally got published, their first book was nominated for major awards. These are perfect examples of the importance of persistence. Hearing these personal stories helped my friend, and my heart was warmed that so many people shared what some might think is embarrassing information in order to help another writer have confidence to continue querying. Rejection is just a step on the journey to success, but it's never easy. So to all my fellow authors who shared their stories on my Facebook page yesterday, and to authors everywhere who regularly share their insights to help others get published, thank you.

The list of people to thank feels endless, which is lovely, because it shows that wherever you turn, there are helpful people. Thank you to the agents, editors, and publishers who have taken a chance on me and other writers. Every one of us was new at some point and needed someone to give us our big break. Thank you to all of you who've done that.

Thank you to the bookstores, librarians, reviewers, and bloggers who buy our books and share them with the world. You help make our dreams come true. And finally, we authors would be nowhere without readers. You buy our books, enabling us to buy our food and feed our dreams. So thank you.

Before I end, a little BSP with a little more thanks thrown in: First, the launch party for Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (in which I have my cow story, "Till Murder Do Us Part") is this Sunday, May 20th, at the Central Library in Arlington, VA, from 2 - 4 p.m. If you're in the DC area, I hope you'll come to the event and share in our celebration. Books will be sold and snacks will be served.

Second, this past week I was honored to have my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" nominated for an Anthony Award, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor and authors Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. You can read my story on my website by clicking here. Art's story is available here. Debra's story is available here. Hopefully Susanna's, Jen's, and Hilary's stories will be available to read for free online soon. In the meanwhile, you can buy the books these stories were published in. Congratulations also to SleuthSayers Thomas Pluck, nominated in the best paperback original category, and Paul Marks, nominated in the best anthology category.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to send in ballots for the Anthony Award nominations, and especially thanks to everyone who listed my story on their ballot. With so many good stories published each year, receiving an honor like this is, well, an honor. A true honor. So ... thanks.

If you have someone you'd like to mention or thank who helped you on your life's journey, I welcome you to do it in the comments. And thanks for reading.

29 September 2017

Anthony Award Finalists for Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

A few weeks back here at SleuthSayers, Paul D. Marks hosted his fellow Macavity Award finalists for Best Short Story for a chat about where their nominated stories came from—ideas, inspirations, etc. It was a fine post, and I was glad to be a part of it myself.

Following Paul’s lead in advance of Bouchercon less than two weeks ahead (!), I invited this year’s Anthony Award finalists in the same category (I’m honored to be among this group too) to choose a representative excerpt from their respective stories and offer a quick craft talk on the passage in relation to the story as a whole. Unfortunately, getting all the finalists on-board and on deadline proved a challenge; Megan Abbott, for example—whose story “Oxford Girl” simply blew me away when I read it last year—was gracious as always, but had travel looming and was on a tight timeline generally. (For those who might not know, she’s one of the forces behind the critically acclaimed HBO series The Deuce.)

Still, with other authors willing to join in, I thought it would be good to push ahead—with me offering some quick reflections myself on passages from Megan’s story and Lawrence Block’s as well, before sections from Johnny Shaw, Holly West, and me on our own respective stories.  And just a quick reminder for readers here going to Bouchercon: Four of us—Megan, Johnny, Holly and me, along with moderator Alan Orloff—will be on a panel at Bouchercon on Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. We’ll be chatting more about our stories and about short fiction in general, and hope to see you all there!




In the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs of the first two stories, along with links to read the full stories for free!

“OXFORD GIRL” BY MEGAN ABBOTT
From Mississippi Noir

Two a.m., you slid one of your Kappa Sig T-shirts over my head, fluorescent green XXL with a bleach stain on the right shoulder blade, soft and smelling like old sheets.

I feigned sleep, your big brother Keith snoring lustily across the room, and you, arms clutched about me until the sun started to squeak behind the Rebels pennant across the window. Watching the hump of your Adam’s apple, I tried to will you to wake up.


But I couldn’t wait forever, due for first shift at the Inn. Who else would stir those big tanks of grits for the game-weekend early arrivals, parents and grandparents, all manner of snowy-haired alumni in searing red swarming into the café for their continental-plus, six thirty sharp.


So I left, your head sunk deep in your pillow, and ducked out still wearing your shirt.


“AUTUMN AT THE AUTOMAT” BY LAWRENCE BLOCK
From In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper

The hat made a difference.

If you chose your clothes carefully, if you dressed a little more stylishly than the venue demanded, you could feel good about yourself. When you walked into the Forty-second Street cafeteria, the hat and coat announced that you were a lady. Perhaps you preferred their coffee to what they served at Longchamps. Or maybe it was the bean soup, as good as you could get at Delmonico’s. 


Certainly it wasn’t abject need that led you to the cashier’s window at Horn & Hardart. No one watching you dip into an alligator handbag for a dollar bill could think so for a minute.


Prominent in each of these openings is that “you.” The second-person opening section of “Autumn at the Automat” seems to offer a bit of guidance or a set of rules to follow: You should look both ways before you cross the street, for example, or you should always try to make a good impression. It might be an outside narrator presenting insights to the reader or talking directly to the character, or perhaps it’s a sort of internal monologue the character at the core of the story is having with herself—the woman pictured in Hopper’s painting by the same name as the story’s title, sitting solitary with her cup of coffee in that hat and coat. Soon, the story shifts into a third-person narrative, putting into action all this advice.

In Megan’s story, that “you” serves a different purpose: a young girl at Ole Miss talking to a very specific you, direct address to her new love. And as the story progresses, the narrative shifts back and forth between the points of view of each side of this relationship. Even in these opening paragraphs, the effect is a combination of intimacy and isolation. How close our young narrator is to this young man, snuggled against him, watching his Adam’s apple, talking directly to him—and yet how far away, unable to wake him. It’s a distance that grows throughout this lyrical, heartbreaking, and ultimately haunting story.


“GARY’S GOT A BONER” BY JOHNNY SHAW
From Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by the Replacements

I had never attempted a long walk with a raging erection. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was awkward and painful, my dick bobbing up and down like a broken antenna. And the son of a bitch wasn’t going anywhere. Whatever they put in that pill, it had given me an invincible boner.

I started to stroke it as I walked. Figured if I could rub one out, it would lose its swell. I had never masturbated outdoors. I found it difficult to feel anything but shame. I worked it until my arm was tired, but got no yield. 


I thought of baseball. Football. All the balls. I did my income tax forms in my head. I even tried thinking about the day my dog Roscoe died. Up until that moment, it had been the saddest day of my life. I had hit a new low, holding my rock-hard dick while thinking about my dead dog.


I was stuck with the damn thing until it decided to surrender.


Johnny's comments:
Art asked me to write about how this passage speaks to or illuminates the story, as whole. 

I’m sitting here, rereading it, trying to come up with something clever to write about. I have notes on the connection between humor and empathy, about how fun isn’t inherently frivolous, about dramatic tone change that can amplify the believability of broad comedy or stark realism. I wrote some stuff about the impact of oral storytelling, particularly the art of the shaggy dog story, on my writing.

But I just can’t do it. I can’t in all seriousness write a thesis about elevating the dick joke. Mostly because the dick joke is fine right where it is. A tool like any other. (You see what I did?)
   
“QUEEN OF THE DOGS” BY HOLLY WEST
From 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback

They found seats at one of the tables on the perimeter of the dance floor. Marisol waved at Dennis, her favorite DJ, spinning records from an egg shaped-booth overlooking the dancers. He winked and pointed a finger gun at her. A moment later, 'Dancing Queen" came over the speakers. He always played it when Marisol came in.

"C’mon, let’s dance,” Marisol said, pulling her friends to the floor. She closed her eyes, immediately lost in the music. She loved everything about dancing; the way the bass beat reverberated under her feet, how men watched her out of the corners of their eyes as they danced with other women or from the sidelines, working up the courage to ask her to dance. Here, she was no longer just a maid who cleaned other people’s toilets. She was a foxy lady, the object of everyone’s desire. A dancing queen.



Holly's comments:
"Queen of the Dogs" is a particularly meaningful story to me because its based on someone who was very special to me. By the time I met her she was in her sixties, but after emigrating from Guatemala in her twenties, she worked as a housekeeper in Los Angeles, taking a variety of jobs over the years to support herself and her two children. There'd been lots of them—cheap motels, maid services, individual households, whatever she had to do to get by. For a few years, she was a live-in housekeeper for a very famous Hollywood producer, until she was fired because another employee accused her of stealing a UK passport. And she arrived at one long-term job to find the man she worked for dead in his bed.

But most of her experiences were mundane, as you'd expect a lifetime of cleaning up other people's messes to be. She'd known extreme poverty throughout her life and always seemed to be on the edge of it. I don't know if she ever felt like a "Dancing Queen," but I hope she did, if only for a moment.


“PARALLEL PLAY” BY ART TAYLOR
From Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning

Walter’s glasses were still covered by rain, the drops so thick she couldn’t see his eyes, and somehow that troubled her nearly as much as having him show up on the doorstep. Jordan stood beside him, and there was something unreal about that too, as if the two of them had materialized there, same as they’d been standing back at Teeter Toddlers. Except he wasn’t the same, was he? No, he wasn’t holding an umbrella now and . . .

“The tire,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d make it all the way home, figured I’d have to play knight in shining armor again. But here you are.”


Too stunned to answer, Maggie tried to snatch Daniel back and shut the door, but her son pulled away from her like it was a game, poked his head around one knee, then the other, and then into the doorway again.


“Hey, Daniel,” Walter said, stooping down, leaning forward, releasing his own son’s hand to take Daniel’s instead. “It’s Jordan, your friend.”


“Jordan,” Daniel repeated, and Maggie could hear a mix of pleasure and surprise in his voice, like when he got a new Matchbox car.


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 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.


My comments:
The section I chose—apologies for the length, two lines needed including—comes at about the 40% mark of the story but really marks the first dramatic uptick of the action here.

I’ve already written at B.K. Stevens’ blog “The First Two Pages” about the relatively slower start of the story, but I wanted to look at this scene here for two reasons. First, I think it encapsulates the mood and approach of much of the story—the intersection between an everyday conversation on the surface and the life-or-death stakes coursing under that conversation. Second, I wanted to focus on the decision to postpone the mention of that box cutter. My writing group was very divided about this scene when I brought in my draft: Wouldn’t mentioning the box cutter at the start—“an umbrella now and…”—add drama more quickly? get the reader into the conflict more quickly? Perhaps. But I continued to think (hope!) that readers would be drawn ahead by questions about Maggie’s reaction, wondering about the uneasiness she’s feeling, and perhaps sharing with her some small disorientation. What’s happening here? And could this really be happening at all?  

Again, I hope that readers here attending Bouchercon will come out to the Anthony finalists panel featuring Megan, Johnny, Holly and me and moderated by Alan Orloff—Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. See you all in Toronto!

08 September 2017

A Room (or Two) of One's Own

By Art Taylor

In a SleuthSayers post back in July, I talked about how we were moving this summer—a process that still seems never-ending. Yes, we got all the boxes into the new place, and we've made some headway on unpacking, organizing and arranging the contents of those boxes. Yes, we finished cleaning out (slowly) and cleaning up (painfully) the old place and then bringing it successfully to closing (a big sigh of relief). And in addition to the move, we navigated another couple of transitions—most importantly my wife Tara's start at a new job and our son Dashiell's entrance into kindergarten (which I also wrote about at the Washington Independent Review of Books). Much to celebrate in all this, but also still a long way to go—and the dishwasher that died on Monday hasn't helped, I'll admit: one more thing to add to the to-do list.

Still, we're happy with the new place, especially Dash, who calls it a "magic house." There's a corner cabinet in the kitchen with a lazy Susan inside! The timer on the stove plays a little song when the countdown hits zero! And at sunset, the glass in the front door projects tiny patterns, shapes, and rainbows on the wall!

I'll admit: I find that last bit a little magical myself.

Our search for a house seemed quick—we picked this one on our second formal day of looking with an agent—but our plans to move stretch back to even before Dash was born. We'll move to a house with a yard before he starts kindergarten—that was our goal. And we had more than five years to meet that goal—should be easy, right? Just before Dash turned five-and-a-half, we finally kicked into high gear.

When our realtor (shout-out to Dutko-Ragen in Northern Virginia!) asked us what we were looking for in a house, he emphasized that we should talk about things we needed (couldn't do without) and then things we'd love to have (reaching for the stars).

Dash, a car man since he was a baby, judges houses by whether they have a garage, so that was top of his list.

Tara has always loved the idea of a screened-in porch.

And I felt that ideally Tara and I—both being writers—should each have space for an office, hearkening back to that oft-quoted phrase of Virginia Woolf's about a room of one's own. (I recognize, of course, that Woolf's essay is an argument about women's spaces and places in the literary world, but I do believe that writers and artists of either gender benefit from having both mental and physical space in which to indulge their creativity and hone their craft.)

The reasons we snatched up this house as quickly as we could?

Well, Dash got his wish:


Tara got hers:


And while much of the house is still a mess of boxes or else the stuff that came out of those boxes, two rooms were among the first priorities for us to get settled. Here's Tara's office (I avoided the right half, still a work in progress):


And here's mine:


I've enjoyed posts from other SleuthSayers about writers and their working environments, several of them published just this year. Earlier this summer, Jan Grape did a nice round-up of various writer friends' workspaces. Paul Marks gave us a glance inside his office (and into both real and fictional versions of his days). And Dixon Hill treated us to before and after photos of the construction of his beautiful new office during our recent Family Fortnight.

Many of us with office space (me included) also write in other places, I recognize this. In my case, I also have an office on campus where I spent more time than at home, and then there's the library and occasionally a coffee shop, and back here at the house, I'm as likely to work at the kitchen table or the couch as in the office itself; I'm sitting on the couch right now, in fact, but mainly because it's better internet reception tonight.

So given all that, what's behind the desire to have an office of one's own? Part of it is, again, the space to work—to spread out a printed manuscript on the desk and look at it or to stare out the window (and I keep the desk facing that way, clearly) or to close the door and just think. Part of it depends on the things in the space: the books that have inspired me and that I keep at eye level on the nearby shelves, for example, and my own works in progress always within arms' reach too. In the picture of my office above, you might note a brown three-ring binder on the right corner; it holds printed drafts of various stories in one stage or another of needing attention. And the file cabinet on the left, the one with the old typewriter sitting on it? That's got notes on other stories and the draft of a (failed) novel—or, honestly, two. And the typewriter itself? It's an old one, of course, and I like to think that some other writer pounded out a story or two of his or her own on it. It's inspiring somehow, and so too is the artwork on either side of the desk and—not seen here—the framed poster on the wall behind my chair, from an exhibition at Trinity College in Dublin about the great detectives, a reminder of the tradition that informs so much of what I write, so much of how I think about what I write.

Tara, meanwhile, has her own approach: books too, obviously, but she keeps her desk sideways in the room, and she's looking for a chair for the other corner (unseen) where she can curl up and read. She has an Elvis lamp as well—a gaudy thing as far as I'm concerned (and I'm an Elvis fan, I should stress). But that's the beauty of the layout here: It's her space, she can do with it whatever she wants. It must be working OK for her already: Last week she finished a draft of her novel in the new office, and she's already gotten affirmative feedback from her first reader—hooray!

And as for Dash... well, beyond the garage, he's already taken over much of this house in one way or another. But he wanted a desk of his own as well, a place to draw actually, and at the same time he also wants to be close to us when he creates, so he's got a table and chairs in the living room, and we're planning to set up a craft corner if we can ever get all his art supplies unpacked, and then there's an old, old desk from my own childhood that he's taken a liking to... and I'll admit, I was glad to share some of my own office space with him. I hope you'll indulge this one last picture:



Writers who are reading this here: Where do you work? What in your space helps to spark creativity? Not sure how easy it is to post a picture in the comments—if it's even possible—but do offer some description at least if you can! 


Countdown to Bouchercon! (...and a little BSP)


My story "Parallel Play" from Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning won this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story and is up for both the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award at this year's Bouchercon. My fellow Macavity finalist Paul D. Marks, author of the terrific "Ghosts of Bunker Hill," offered a great post here recently where we joined other nominees Lawrence Block, Craig Faustus Buck, and Greg Herren to talk about the origins of these stories, along with Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, talking about the origin of Joyce Carol Oates' nominated story; do check out Paul's post and check out the links there in order to read the other stories too—such a distinguished batch of short fiction!

I'm hoping to arrange something myself with all the Anthony finalists for my next appearance at SleuthSayers in three weeks, along with announcements about my Bouchercon schedule—all of it rushing toward us so quickly!

Stay tuned for all that—and looking forward to seeing everyone in Toronto next month! 


30 September 2016

Anthologies Everywhere

By Art Taylor

Today is the last day of the week-long Fall for the Book festival, based at George Mason University with events in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland. I've worked with Fall for the Book for many years in various positions, and my contributions this year were primarily focused on a few of the mystery and suspense programs throughout the week. Thursday night, for example, I moderated a panel of writers from the local Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, including Maya Corrigan, Dan Fesperman, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and David Swinson—part of an evening that also included a talk by Lyndsay Faye, author of Jane Steele.

Earlier in the week, on the festival's official opening day, I moderated another panel with members of three regional chapters of Sisters in Crime: Donna Andrews, Diane Davidson (half of the team co-writing as Maddi Davidson), Maria Hudgins, and Heather Weidner. Our topic there was anthologies, since these three chapters are now behind two series of anthologies: the Chesapeake Crimes books, including most recently Storm Warning, from the Chesapeake Chapter, and two volumes of Virginia is for Mysteries from the Central Virginia Chapter and from Mystery by the Sea, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter.

That chat was terrific, I thought, and emphasized both the benefits of anthologies from various perspectives and the responsibilities inherent in producing those anthologies.

On the first point, maybe the benefits are obvious. From the reader perspective, anthologies offer the chance to sample a variety of authors in a single book—find which you like and pursue their works further. From a writer perspective, anthologies offer the reverse—the chance for exposure to more readers—but also the opportunity to work as part of a larger community of writers, often a wide-ranging community, from veterans to first-timers; and on that latter point, beginning authors get the chance to experience in microcosm the entire process of publication, from editorial feedback and revision, to the book launch, to the marketing beyond.

The behind-the-scenes on that process is where the responsibilities come in: from ensuring an objective and professional selection process (perhaps relying, as the Chesapeake Crimes series does, on different judges each book to select stories) to maintaining a solid editorial review of each entry (both at the global level and in terms of copy-editing) and then to overseeing the publication itself—and making sure the publisher stays properly on top of things.

Much of this is often on a volunteer basis, of course—with the Chesapeake Crimes series, neither the authors nor the editors receive monetary compensation, and proceeds benefit the chapter itself. But the other benefits maybe far outweigh the questions of royalties: in terms of a nice publication credit, good exposure, and a renewed sense of literary citizenship.

Thinking about the panel, I realized that over the last few weeks, I've been in the midst of a good bit of anthology news—and grateful for it.

Back at Bouchercon in mid-September, I was thrilled to accept the Anthony Award for Best Anthology on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, including my fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens as well as 19 other contributors: J.L. Abramo, J.D. Allen, Lori Armstrong, Rob Brunet, P.A. De Voe, Sean Doolittle, Tom Franklin, Toni Goodyear, Kristin Kisska, Robert Mangeot, Margaret Maron, Kathleen Mix, Britni Patterson, Karen Pullen, Ron Rash, Karen E. Salyer, Sarah Shaber, Zoë Sharp, and Graham Wynd. (A good cause here too, with proceeds benefiting the Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina, host of last year's Bouchercon.)

Then just this week, Malice Domestic announced the stories accepted for the upcoming anthology Murder Most Historical, and I was proud to have been a member of the selection committee there, along with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson. Contributors there include: John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O'Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

And early next week brings the publication of this year's Best American Mystery Stories anthology—a dream come true for me, since editors Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler have included in this latest edition my story "Rearview Mirror," the opening section of my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. Fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti also has a story there—"Street of the Dead House"—and we're both in find company, alongside the likes of Megan Abbott, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard, among many others. Can't wait to see the book myself!

And all this doesn't even begin to mention the anthologies that I picked up and perused at Bouchercon itself, including the new Bouchercon anthology Blood on the Bayou, the ultra-lush collection In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the just-released Sunshine Noir, in which "seventeen writers from around the globe tell of dark doings in sunny places."

Plenty to celebrate here, and plenty of good reading ahead too.



19 August 2016

Anthony & Macavity Finalists Talk Favorite First Novels

By Art Taylor

This week marked the final balloting for this year’s Macavity Awards; the final balloting is just ahead for the Anthony Awards; and in less than a month, the winners of all these will be announced in New Orleans at Bouchercon.

I’m pleased to have some of my own work in contention here: On the Road with Del & Louise is a finalist for both the Anthony and the Macavity for Best First Novel, and Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, which I edited, is a finalist for the Anthony for Best Anthology or Collection. And I’m thrilled for the other SleuthSayers who are also honored as finalists this year: Barb Goffman for “A Year Without Santa Claus” and B.K. Stevens for “A Joy Forever,” both contenders for the Macavity for Best Short Story, and B.K. Stevens again for her novel Fighting Chance, an Anthony finalist for Best Young Adult Novel.

What’s maybe most exciting about all of this, however, isn’t the chance to toot our own horns but to connect with and celebrate the other writers in whose distinguished company we’ve found ourselves. I appreciated the opportunity to interview the other finalists for the Anthony for Best Anthology/Collection right here at SleuthSayers back in May, and earlier this year, when On the Road was up for this year’s Agatha Award, I asked my fellow finalists what first novels they themselves would name as favorites and why; you can find that latter round-up of titles at the Washington Independent Review of Books here, and I’d encourage you to look up the Agatha authors’ own books as well, a fine bunch!

That column offered a pair of fun opportunities—both to get glimpses into those authors’ tastes and influences and to add some titles to my own TBR list—so I wanted to repeat the same question with this year’s Anthony and Macavity finalists for Best First too: "What is your own favorite first novel (mystery preferred, but could be any genre), and how has that author’s work influenced or inspired your own writing?"

And our panelists are:



Anthony Award Finalists, Best First Novel
Macavity Award Finalists, Best First Novel

Here are the responses I got—a varied bunch and terrifically interesting, as I hope you’ll agree!

Patricia Abbott, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Concrete Angel
Patti Abbott
One of my favorite police procedural series was created in 1965 by Swedish couple, Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo. Police detective Martin Beck was a typical cop in Sweden and readers got a fine portrait of Scandinavian socialism for good and bad. In Roseanna, his first outing, Beck investigates the murder of an American tourist found in the Gota canal. The duo would go on to write nine more books. What made the books special for me was the way the authors addressed societal problems of their day. Their influence on later writers, like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, is immediately apparent. To be able to write compelling crime stories with great characters, and also critique contemporary society is a terrific achievement. And the elements were all there from the start. Roseanna is my choice for my favorite first novel. In Concrete Angel, I tried to examine the way women with mental health issues were treated in the 1960s. And Shot in Detroit looks at the issues Detroit experienced in 2008 and after. Certainly the work of Sjowal and Wahloo was a huge inspiration.

Glen Erik Hamilton, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Past Crimes 
Glen Erik Hamilton
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950). Arguably one of the most influential mystery novels ever written, Highsmith's tale of two men who trade murders—one reluctantly, one eagerly—is still a gripping page-turner. Guy (note the Everyman name) is a vacillating architect unhappy with his wife and life. His new acquaintance Bruno is—well, Bruno is something else entirely. A charming sociopath, Bruno is the sharply-dressed rehearsal for Highsmith's greatest creation, the anti-hero Tom Ripley.

In between the delightful surprises of her plot, Highsmith managed to explore guilt, paranoia, homoeroticism, and above all the fascination many of us have with the darker side of human nature. The story follows Guy, seeing Bruno through his gaze. We realize that even with a close third-person view Guy is an unreliable host, largely because he doesn't know his own mind.

I write about criminals as well—some reluctant, some eager—and admit that the moral ambiguities in their world have an allure for me, at least from a distance. And while my protagonist Van Shaw is anything but indecisive, he too is figuring out his place in the world. Crook or hero? If Van is unreliable, it's mostly to his own higher instincts.

Rob Hart, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for New Yorked 
Rob Hart
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. I picked it up mostly on a whim, because it had been in the New York Magazine Approval Matrix. And it just knocked me on my ass. I saw a Broadway show with my wife that evening and took the book out during intermission just so I could read a few more pages. It's the kind of book that demands your attention. And as a writer, it forces you to up your game on so many levels—it's hysterical and smart and experiments with form (footnotes!) it's got an emotional core and the ending, well... I don't even want to come close to spoiling that. But I will say I had to put the book down for a moment. And I shuddered. That's a hell of a thing, to elicit such a visceral physical reaction in a reader. That's something I one day hope to achieve.

Chris Holm, Anthony Finalist for Best Novel and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Killing Kind
Chris Holm
I really wrestled with this question because I’m fascinated by brilliant debut novels, and was unsure which of my favorites I should highlight. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? William Gibson’s Neuromancer? Katherine Neville’s The Eight? Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell? Ultimately, though, I settled upon Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Written in part while Tartt was a student at Bennington College, The Secret History is a marvel of structure and language, a poignant coming-of-age story, and a thrillingly effective whydunit. Those who turn their noses up at mysteries will insist The Secret History transcends genre; I humbly submit that it demonstrates the full range of what genre’s capable of. If I one day write a story with a tenth its grace, I’ll die a happy man.

David Joy, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Where All the Light Tends to Go
David Joy
There’ve been countless times I’ve gone back and read the debuts of writers I love and just been blown away by the amount of talent they possessed so early. I think of a writer like Ron Rash, who’s undoubtedly one of the finest at work today, and I know a lot of people who can make compelling arguments that his first novel, One Foot In Eden, is as strong a novel as he’s ever written. He was that good from the start. I think what takes me most by books like that is how clear and powerful the voice comes through. You read writers like Ron or Daniel Woodrell or Donald Ray Pollock or George Singleton, and you know who you’re reading. Think of writers like McCarthy and Larry Brown and William Gay and Barry Hannah, you knew from the first sentence. Their voices were just that strong. So I’m going to give you someone I think needs more attention and that’s Alex Taylor. He has that kind of voice. His debut, The Marble Orchard, was as rich a debut as I’ve ever read. It’s sure-footed and wholly original. As far as the effect that kind of writing has on me, it’s humbling. It lets me know I’ve got a long ways to go.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Unquiet Dead
Ausma Zehanat Khan
I first became enchanted by mysteries when I discovered the work of the great Ngaio Marsh, whose debut novel A Man Lay Dead introduced her darkly handsome, archetypal detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn's charisma drew me in further through the course of 32 books, and to this day, he remains my favorite detective of fiction. He was clever, sophisticated and kind—with an old-fashioned chivalry and masculine directness that made his suspects swoon. Esa Khattak owes him a debt.

In Alleyn's train came the charming young reporter, Nigel Bathgate, who acted as his sidekick through several other adventures, including the enthralling Enter a Murderer, the first of Marsh's books to feature a theatre setting. The theatre would become a defining element of Marsh's best work, as in her pair of her novels Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin. Both these novels introduced the fairy-tale theme of an unlikely talent's discovery and stardom. I was a theatre buff from a young age, so I was captivated by the world Marsh created, a world that discussed the writing and staging of plays in the midst of a gruesome murder. I learned more about Shakespeare through Death at the Dolphin, than I ever did during high school. And I credit these mysteries, as well as Marsh's Light Thickens, with teaching me to love Shakespeare's language and themes. But there were other lessons, too. Through Ngaio Marsh's wonderful artistry, I learned the sting of a well-turned phrase and the importance of a range of colorful suspects: Marsh's character descriptions are some of the best I've ever read.

Ngaio Marsh's writing taught me that mysteries didn't need to be paint-by-number constructions of murders, suspects and clues. They could encompass a wide range of interesting commentary, delve into history, politics or race relations, and deftly incorporate psychological depth. All with the most alluring arrangement of language and setting one could imagine. Ngaio Marsh's England and New Zealand were two places I dreamed of as home, all through my teenage years. From A Man Lay Dead all the way through to Light Thickens, Marsh's strengths as a writer continued to flourish and develop—she left her fans wanting more.

Brian Panowich, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for Bull Mountain
Brian Panowich
Like most writing assignments I receive, I have the hardest time doing specifically what is asked of me. The question posed was what is my favorite first novel and what kind of influence has it had over my own writing, and if I stayed on topic, that would be pretty easy to answer. John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing made me want to try my hand at writing a novel. Forth Of July Creek by Henderson Smith was so good it made me think I’d never try my hand at writing a novel. Soil by Jamie Kornegay was the best first novel I’ve ever read, but if the question was what first novel was the most significant to my own career, it would be The Second Son by Charles Sailor.

You see, when I was seventeen, I was a class a fuck-up, and that summer, a buddy and me thought we’d try to steal a gas station air-machine to get at the wealth of quarters inside. So undercover of streetlight, we pulled a beat-to-hell Pontiac Grand Prix into the parking lot of a Gas-N-Go and wrapped a chain around the steel post cementing he yellow air compressor to the ground and punched the gas. We lost the bumper and hit the curb, and the only thing we accomplished was getting both of our asses locked up in County. I was there for three weeks. Felony theft by taking, and a vandalism charge just for shits and giggles.

During those three weeks in lock-up, I had a little forced time on my hands to evaluate my current life trajectory. My cell’s tiny slit of a window faced the fairgrounds and every night I would stare out at the Ferris wheel of the fall fair, and wonder what I was going to do next. During my second week, after the Ferris wheel came down and there was nothing to stare at out the window, I grabbed a book of the book-cart that came around once a day around noon. I grabbed The Second Son, with zero intention of reading it, but after a day of going stir-crazy, I peeled open the cover and read a fantastic story of a man who fell from a skyscraper and survived to go on and become one of the most complex characters I’ve ever read to this day. I read the book twice during my tenure at 401 Walton Way.

When I finally got home, and after promising my father the money spent on bail and fines wasn’t in vain, I searched for that book in my library, and every book store I could find, until I found a paperback edition at a Goodwill on a fluke. I’m a novelist now, and I believe that book was where it all began. Sometimes when I’m in the throes of an author’s crushing case of self-doubt, I pull that book off the shelf and remember the power it held over me, and how a book can change a life. I hope someone finds one of mine someday and puts it to that kind of use. It’s the reason I do it. I think it’s the reason we all do.

Art Taylor, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for On the Road with Del & Louise
Art Taylor (hey, that's me!)
As I said back in the WIROB column, I had three novels that popped to mind. Like Chris Holm, I’m enthralled by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and two other debut novels have also stood out to me for their equally confident prose and intricate, engaging plots: Tana French’s In the Woods and Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air (the last one is lesser known, of course, and not a mystery, but I’m such a fan that if I ever see a copy in a used bookstore, I pick it up just to pass it along to some deserving reader).

I taught In the Woods this past semester at George Mason University, but it’s not just the freshness of my rereading that has me putting it at the top here. I was stunned by the book when I first read it (I reviewed it for the Washington Post here)—just blown away by the beautiful writing, the complex and frequently heartbreaking characters, and the many layers of a plot that offered new depths and startling surprises at regular turns. Rereading it simply reinforced that admiration and reminded me of the level of writing I’d love to aspire toward myself—even if there’s likely little connection between her work and my own in On the Road with D&L, perhaps more of an influence evident in some of my short fiction (and really a stronger connection structurally between my book and Cynthia Shearer’s, since hers is also a novel in stories). Either way, still a long way to go on developing my own craft, but that’s how reading can enrich writing, right? Raising the bar? Not just influencing but encouraging our own prose? At least that’s what I tell myself.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Bouchercon—and happy reading in the meantime!

#

As a final note here, I’m encouraging folks to sign up for my new newsletter, which I hope to debut later this month—along with giveaways of three volumes from the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series: The Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and the newest addition, Storm Warning. Sign up here and you’ll automatically be entered in the drawing!

13 May 2016

Anthony Award Finalists: Best Anthology or Collection

By Art Taylor

Last week, Bouchercon announced this year’s finalists for the Anthony Awards, and I was pleased to get two mentions on that slate: one for my own writing, with On The Road With Del & Louise (Henery Press) earning a nomination for Best First Novel (just on the heels of winning the Agatha in that category the week prior), and another on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out Books), which earned attention in the Best Anthology or Collection category. I’m honored, needless to say, with the attention! And congratulations as well to fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, whose Agatha-nominated novel Fighting Chance earned another honor as a finalist for this year's Anthony for Best Young Adult Novel—great news all around!

Soon after the Anthony news came out, I reached out about hosting here a quick chat with the other finalists for Best Anthology or Collection:

I have a couple of these anthologies already on the shelf, and I’ll be picking up the others soon, and just wanted to offer a chance for all of us to share some information about our respective collections and the writers who contributed.

Two questions each below, and everyone’s stepping to the podium (so to speak) in alphabetical order. Join me in welcoming them to SleuthSayers today!

First, while the titles of our respective collections already might give some sense of what readers will find on the pages within, how would you describe your own editorial principles/guidelines in selecting stories for and shaping your particular anthology—or in Chris’s case, for sorting through and considering your own stories?

Christopher Irvin: Witnessing the collection come together, story by story, was one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing the book. I'd kept an assortment of lists in notebooks over the past few years of potential line-ups for a collection, but it wasn't until late 2014 (when I was seriously thinking of pitching a collection) that I began to recognize themes of family, melancholia, regret, etc., that were present in nearly all of my work. It was a revelation that has since made me step back and reflect more on my work and the decisions (conscious, or more likely unconscious) that I make in my writing. Long story, short, the selection fell in along the above mentioned themes, trending a tad more 'literary' toward the end, especially with the four new stories in the collection. It's been fun to see how my work and interests have evolved over the past few years. It's one of the reasons I  really enjoy reading other author's collections as well.


Thomas Pluck: When you're putting together an anthology to fight child abuse, it inspires all sorts of anger in the contributors. It's a subject that we don't want to think about, and when we do, it quite rightfully ticks us off. The strong abusing the weak. So the natural instinct is for writers to tackle the subject head-on, and write about it. The first Protectors anthology has many more stories about children in danger, and while it was a great success, it made for a tough read. For the second book, I specifically asked for other kinds of stories. The book is called Heroes for two reasons: it's a loose theme, and the Protect H.E.R.O. Corps is who the book benefits. That stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative; the HERO Corps is a joint effort between USSOCOM and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to train and hire wounded veterans as computer forensic technicians, to assist law enforcement in locating and rescuing the child victims of predators. It's a very tough job, one that combat veterans are suited for, because they have experience with the toll such a job takes. With such a heavy subject, I wanted lighter stories. And while we do have a few tales where children are rescued, the stories run the gamut from traditional crime and mystery, whimsical fantasy, historical mystery, revenge tales, horror, and tales of everyday heroism. The order was the tough part. It's a huge book of 55 stories. What I did was label each story with a colored sticky note, yellow for sunny or happy, red for rough or bloody, and blue for in between, and I arranged them like a palette. I played around until I could start strong with an uplifting tale or two, then dip to a few hard hitting ones, give readers a break, then hit them again, make them elated, then ease to a strong ending. Like a story.


Todd Robinson: I've always had the idea to do a Christmas-themed anthology. There are a couple out there, but none that feature the kind of lunatic writers that oil my gears, the writers who we published in Thuglit magazine.

I didn't do open submissions on it. I reached out to writers that I'd worked with at least two or three times each—writers who I knew would bring their own distinct styles to whatever they sent my way, and they truly outdid themselves. Considering the narrow theme of Christmas, I'm still amazed at how different each story is from the next. My guys and gals KILLED it.


Art Taylor: Murder Under the Oaks was produced in conjunction with last year’s Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—which is nicknamed the City of Oaks and hence the collection’s title. In addition to featuring invited stories by some of the featured authors from the 2015 Bouchercon—including Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, Sean Doolittle, and Zoë Sharp—we hosted a contest that garnered more than 170 submissions, which first readers trimmed to 27 that were sent my way. My goal in making the final selections was two-fold: first, I wanted to include the best stories I could, obviously (which wasn’t hard, since so many of the entries in that final batch were terrific in many ways), but second—in keeping with the missions of Bouchercon itself—I wanted to represent as wide a spectrum as possible of the types of stories that fall under that larger genre of “mystery.” Many readers are disappointed is a mystery anthology doesn’t include detective fiction, so I was careful to represent that segment of the genre with both amateur and professional detectives (a police procedural in the mix, in fact). But there are lots of other types of stories beyond that: from the cozy end of the spectrum to some really dark noir, from historical fiction to contemporary tales, a bit of raucous humor here, a more poignant story there, something close to flash fiction alongside a novella, and right on down the line. Balancing that mix was important to me, and I hope attention to that helped to provide something for all readers.


Kenneth Wishnia: First of all, we adopted a generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish noir” policy, which turned out to be prophetic (and how Jewish is that?), because the collection includes stories by a diverse group of authors, including Asian-Canadian author Melissa Yi, Los Angeles’s own Gary Phillips, luminaries as Marge Piercy and Harlan Ellison, and self-professed survivors of Bible Belt redneck culture, Jedidiah Ayres and Travis Richardson—both of whom have been honored for their contributions: Jed’s story “Twisted Shikse” was selected for a forthcoming “best crime story of the year” anthology and Travis’s story “Quack and Dwight” has been nominated for the Derringer and the Anthony Awards. Mazl tov!

I also stressed that submissions did not have to be textbook “Noir with a capital N,” and so we ended up with stories depicting the Holocaust, cynical Jewish humor, the passing of generations, the Golden Ghetto phenomenon, child sexual abuse in the insular Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, anti-Semitism in the mid- and late-20th century United States, and the broader contradictions of ethnic identity and assimilation into American society.

Sounds pretty noir to me—even without the obligatory doomed detective and femme fatale slinking around dark alleys.


Second: There’s a whole range of different ways to tell a story, of course—but are there certain elements that consistently stand out to you as the hallmarks of a great story?

Christopher Irvin: Make me care, right? That's the bottom line that every editor wants. I need to empathize with characters—good, bad, ugly—no matter how long or short the work, I need to want to come along for the ride. My time spent editing for Shotgun Honey had a major impact on my writing to this end. Much of my writing, especially in Safe Inside the Violence, involves indirect violence or characters on the periphery of violence. Perhaps the run up to a seemingly normal encounter in their everyday lives.

There is a 700 word limit at Shotgun Honey. Authors need to bring it from the first sentence if they want to succeed. Often this results in an immediate violent encounter to up the stakes and keep the story moving. While this can be (and has been) done very well, reading these stories, learning from these stories, pushed me to go in a different direction. 


Thomas Pluck: My own writing, I write what interests me, what terrifies me, what angers me. I go for extremes, life-changing experiences, the things I would never want to discuss in public. It forces me to put my heart into it, and that resonates. While editing anthologies, I have to tone down my relentless inner critic, and just try to enjoy them. If I do, they go in the "good" pile and I think what could make them better, if anything. I have some legendary authors in here like David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Andrew Vachss. I didn't edit those stories, obviously. If there were typos in the manuscript, we corrected them together. There are a few authors who have their first publication here, who needed a little editorial help for clarity. That's my mantra: clarity, economy, then art.

What makes a great story? For me, I lose myself in them. The characters, the world, the story itself, they can't be ignored. Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" is one. It begins with a scene so real, then descends into a nightmarish dream world, like the character is spelunking in his own subconscious. "Placebo" by Vachss is another, so spare, like a folktale. Not a word wasted. Some writers have that gift, a voice that draws you into their world. You either have it or you don't, the best we can do is trust the voice we have and let it do the work.


Todd Robinson: For me, it always starts with a great character voice and their arc within. If I don't care about the characters, why in sweet fuck-all would I care about their story?


Art Taylor: In the fiction workshops I teach at George Mason, I often quote John Updike on what he looks for in a short story: “I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” That may sound kind of broad, but it strikes me as solid criteria—and solid advice for writers too in crafting their own stories. A couple of words I come back to time and again are compression and balance. In terms of compression, I look for stories that start as close to central action as possible (the conflict hinted at right there in the first paragraph or first line) and then rely on sharp and suggestive details rather than lengthy explanations—glimpses of larger lives and bigger stories beyond the edges of the page. Balance can refer to many things: between character and plot, for example (each informed by the other), or between beginnings and endings—especially in terms of endings that seem both surprising and inevitable in some way, as if every line, every word, has been building inexorably toward where the story ends up. When a writer can manage compression and balance—and then entertain all along the way… well, that story is a keeper, for sure.


Kenneth Wishnia: I was looking for the same elements that I look for in a great novel: vivid, compelling writing (Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Feeding the Crocodile,” which is up for an ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story), a suspenseful set-up that engages the reader right away (Charles Ardai’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die”) or a non-traditional story that makes me laugh at life’s absurdities (Rabbi Adam Fisher’s “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah”). Some authors hit the trifecta (David Liss’s “Jewish Easter”), but I would have accepted any combination of two out of three, or even just one if the author really nailed it.


A quick final word from Art: Do check out all these anthologies yourself—and look forward to seeing everyone in New Orleans later this year!