Showing posts with label Art Taylor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Art Taylor. Show all posts

16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror


Michael Bracken and Josh Pachter
celebrate September birthdays
while at Bouchercon.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize many of the obstacles that interfere with productivity. I’ve experienced the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, two divorces, four marriages, multiple job changes and relocations, heart surgery, and any number of other consequential life events. Yet, I can’t recall ever facing the obstacle that blocked my writing path throughout the middle half of this year.

During 2016 and 2017 my writing took a great leap forward, and my work was recognized in unexpected ways—leading to a lifetime achievement award in 2016; having a story included in The Best American Mystery Stories in 2018; placing stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and several new publications; and having other mystery writing opportunities fall into my lap. Unfortunately, sometime this spring all that good news overwhelmed me.

For many years, my schtick was to tout my productivity. I was the back-of-the-magazine, middle-of-the-anthology guy, the writer editors relied on to fill pages because they knew I was likely to turn in something on time and on theme that required little or no editorial sweat to make publishable.

For years I pounded out stories because writing was fun, and my head was (and is) filled with more stories than I will ever put on paper.

And then I stopped being that guy.

PLAY BECOMES WORK

I don’t know exactly when things changed, but I began to view my writing through a different lens. Instead of asking myself, “Is this fun?” I began asking myself, “Is this important? Is this significant? Is this noteworthy?”

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

I didn’t stop writing, but I set stories aside because they weren’t important, significant, or noteworthy. Then stories I did think were important, significant, and noteworthy—stories I felt confident would sell the first time out because I knew my markets—bounced back from editors with form rejections.

My mojo was no mo’.

WORK BECOMES PLAY

I did not have writer’s block. I didn’t stop writing but writing became a job I didn’t want to go to and didn’t want to do when I got there because it had stopped being fun.

This is how I felt in early September when Temple and I left home for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Unlike New Orleans, where Temple and I spent almost as much time wandering around the French Quarter as we spent at the convention, and Toronto, where I participated in numerous events, St. Petersburg was more about hanging out.

Like many attendees, too many interactions with fellow writers were little more than “how ya doin’?” as we crossed paths on our way from one place to another. I did manage some interesting conversations about writing with Barb Goffman and Art Taylor, had some long conversations with Josh Pachter about all manner of things, and spent time with Trey R. Barker, both alone and in the company of our wives.

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and
Trey R. Barker bond over a mutual love
of taco truck cuisine.
I also spent a great deal of time hanging out on the veranda with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books. Over the course of the convention, a joke Trey and I shared expanded into a project that we pitched to D&O Publisher Eric Campbell on that veranda. As we did, Frank Zafiro and other writers made suggestions that expanded the scope of our idea into something Eric liked so much he asked for a formal proposal.

By the time Temple and I reached the airport to leave St. Petersburg on the last day of Bouchercon, Frank Zafiro had already written several thousand words for the project, and within a week of returning home Trey and I put the formal proposal in Eric’s hands and began work on our own contributions.

As I write this, we have not yet received the go-ahead from Eric, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about 9,000 words into a 15,000+ word novella that isn’t important, significant, or noteworthy.

And writing it is damned fun.

“Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile” appears in Shhhh…Murder! (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae), and it’s the fifth story of mine to be included in Robert Lopresti’s list of best stories he’s “read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

28 August 2018

Rounding Things Out


A few nights ago as I was brushing my teeth, I glanced at the calendar hanging on my bathroom door. It was about eleven p.m. As I focused on the date, a memory flashed through my mind, and I realized to my horror that I had one hour left of being young.
You see, when the clock struck midnight, I was to turn forty-nine-and-a-half years old, which meant I would be entering ... my rounding years. You've never heard of rounding years? Well, allow me to enlighten you.

It was December 1978. I was nine years old and had been working on a family newspaper all that autumn. It was filled with juicy stories including:

  • Was there some sort of connection between my father and maternal grandfather besides marriage? After all, they both had a growth on their nose in the exact same spot. I know--it's spooky right? Or was it nefarious?
  • One of my brothers had been banned from Idaho after being caught speeding there. In a response to the editor, the subject of the story claimed he had been misunderstood, but this reporter stands by her story. His exact quote: "I can't go back there."
  • My mother was always rushing around. She would always know if she had somewhere to go and could get there without stress if she left early enough. But she always left late so everything was a big rush. This was more a feature piece, since it certainly wasn't news to anyone in the family. Everyone knew.

I typed the newspaper on a typewriter just like this one.
 And then there was the story that sparked this trip down Memory Lane. The article about my dad entering his rounding years. You see, when I was young I was a black-or-white kind of girl. You either lived in the city or the country.  You either were rich or poor. And you either were young or old. I clung to this worldview despite that we lived in the suburbs, were (upper) middle-class, and my parents were middle-aged. As Dad was approaching age fifty, I knew that old age was coming for him. But it felt odd to me that one second you could be young and the next second you could be old. Since I didn't grasp the concept of middle-age, I came up with my own idea: rounding years.

Here's how it works: Up to age forty-nine and a day less than six months, you are young. (Woo-hoo!) Then bam! You hit forty-nine-and-a-half and you've entered this period where your body starts wearing out. (I was nine and didn't really think this through, but let's say that during this time your hair turns gray, your bones start to creak, and you start saying "oof" when you sit down.) You get two full years to slowly turn old. Then when you reach the ripe age of fifty-one-and-a-half, bam again! You are old. It's all down hill from there.

Why did I choose a two-year period from forty-nine-and-a-half to fifty-one-and-a-half? Beats me. I was nine years old and clearly had way too much time on my hands. Plus an active imagination.

So you'll have to bear with me from here on out if I start getting nostalgic for an earlier time or begin doing things that are quirky. (Okay, fine. Quirkier.) I'm no longer young, you see. I'm rounding things out.

But I stand by that Idaho story. It was spot on.

*******

And now, for a little BSP:

Next week I'll be heading to the Bouchercon mystery convention in St. Petersburg, Florida, along with several other SleuthSayers. If you too will be there, I'd love to see you. Here's my schedule:
  • I'll be participating in a mass panel/signing for the new Bouchercon anthology, Florida
    Pot roast, anyone?
    Happens
    , on Thursday, Sept. 6th at 1 p.m. The book is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, the 4th. It includes stories by fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Paul D. Marks, as well as my newest story, "The Case of the Missing Post Roast." The reviews coming in have been excellent. Publisher's Weekly said in part, "These 21 tales are testimony to the wealth of notable crime fiction rooted in the Sunshine State." The amazing Hank Phillippi Ryan called the book, "As crazy-unpredictable as a Florida vacation! These short-story gems are quirky, surprising, original and irresistible. It's a collaboration of mystery rock stars that's absolutely terrific." You can pre-order a copy now by clicking here. Or if you'll be at Bouchercon, you can buy a copy there and come to the signing. 
  • At six p.m. on Thursday, I'll be at opening ceremonies, where (among other things) the winners for this year's Macavity Award will be announced. My story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" is a finalist in the short-story category, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and Art Taylor, as well as stories by Craig Faustus Buck, Matt Coyle, and Terence Faherty.
  • On Friday the 7th at 1 p.m. I'll be on a panel with my fellow nominees for this year's Anthony Award in the short-story category. I'm honored to share finalist honors this year with Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, Debra H. Goldstein, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. If you haven't read the six nominated stories, it's not too late. They're all online. Click here and you'll find links to reach them all. Read before you vote!
  • On Saturday the 8th at 7 p.m. I'll be at the presentation for the Anthony Award.
Fingers crossed on multiple fronts! I hope to see you there.

25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction


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


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.

24 April 2018

When an Amateur Writes a Police Procedural


I'm not a sheriff, and I've never played one on TV. So when it came to writing mystery short stories, for a long time I avoided writing police procedurals. There were too many ways I could screw things up. Too many important details I'd need to research, and more important, things I might not even realize I was getting wrong. And that's still the case today.
But a few years ago, I heard a fictional sheriff talking to me in my head. So, with misgivings, I started writing her story. To try to ensure I didn't make any mistakes, I imposed some rules on myself. The most important: the story had to be solved quickly through interviews and observation, not using blood work or DNA or other modern investigative methods with which I could easily make mistakes. In this way, my sheriff would operate kind of like an amateur sleuth, relying on her wits, but with the benefit of knowledge the sheriff would have and the power of her badge to induce folks to speak with her and to get warrants when needed.

This approach worked well and resulted in my first story about Sheriff Ellen Wescott. "Suffer the Little Children" was published in 2013 in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even. I've now brought Sheriff Wescott back for a second case in "Till Murder Do Us Part," which was recently published by Wildside Press in the new anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies.

In this new story, a man who runs a business putting on weddings in a converted barn on his farm is murdered. The body is discovered on a Sunday morning. The day is important. I didn't want to have to deal with the sheriff getting phone records and other CSI-type evidence to help solve the case. While a judge's warrant could be secured on the weekend, I figured it would be harder to get a phone company to act quickly on a Sunday. I also wanted all the characters I needed to be believably and easily available. On a weekday, some of them would be at work, but on a Sunday, it would be much easier for them to gather.

So my story is set on a Sunday, and my sheriff and her deputy--through interviews and investigation of items found at the crime scene--try to piece together what happened. That's the basics. I don't want to reveal any more for fear I'll give away too much, but I will address one point: Does this tale sound a little dry to you? It does to me, just explaining it. I don't like dry stories. I like to introduce pathos or fun (maybe both) into my stories to make the reader want to turn the pages. So it helps that law enforcement officers often enjoy black humor, as I do.

That's where the cows come in. You see, every story in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies involves crime and critters. We have several stories involving dogs. They were the most popular animal in the submitted stories and in those accepted. But we also have animal diversity. We have stories with crows, cows, crickets, and cats; rabbits, ferrets, an octopus, and rats. And fish. Mustn’t forget the fish. My story is the one with the cows.

As I said above, "Till Murder Do Us Part" involves murder in farm country. It also takes place during the worst heat wave since the state began keeping records. What happens when it's really hot and there are cows around? Yep, they explode. Or they can. But don't worry. I don't just use the cows for black humor. They play a role in the plot. I won't say more because I don't want to give things away, but I will add with delight that New York Times bestselling author Chris Grabenstein--who kindly wrote the introduction to the book--called my story "extremely clever," and I think it's because of how I used the cows.

To read my new story, and the twelve other great stories in the book, pick up a copy of Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies. It's available in trade paperback or e-format directly from the publisher by clicking here or through Amazon or independent bookstores.

If you'll be at the Malice Domestic mystery convention later this week, the book will be available in the book room. In fact, most of the authors with stories in the book will be at the Wildside Press table in the convention's book room at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday to sign books. And if you'll be in the Washington, DC, area on Sunday, May 20th, please come to our launch party from 2 - 4 p.m. at the Central Library in Arlington, Virginia. But you don't have to wait until then to get some goodies. If you see me at Malice, ask me about my cow tails. I might just have some candy on hand for you.

And speaking of Malice Domestic, let me get in one last plug for the five short stories nominated for this year's Agatha Award. I'm honored to have my story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet up for the award. You can read it here. The other finalists include my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, who is always stiff competition, and three other authors I'm proud to call my friends: Gretchen Archer, Debra H. Goldstein, and Gigi Pandian. You can read all their nominated stories here through the Malice Domestic website. Just scroll down to their story titles. Each one is a link. You may not be able to get a lot of reading done before the voting deadline this Saturday, but I hope you can read all the short stories.

I'm looking forward to seeing many of you writers and readers at the convention, which starts in just two days. Malice or bust! But in the meanwhile, getting back to police procedurals, I'd love to hear about your favorite authors writing police procedurals today, especially ones who don't have law-enforcement background but still get the details right. Please share in the comments.

13 April 2018

Agatha Award Finalists: Best Short Story


The annual Malice Domestic convention is right around the corner—April 27-29 in Bethesda, Maryland—and two of us SleuthSayers have stories up for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story: Barb Goffman with “Whose Wine is it Anyway?” and me (Art Taylor!) with  “A Necessary Ingredient” (mine with ties to other SleuthSayers as well, since the anthology which includes it, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, was co-edited by Paul D. Marks and features stories by several members of our group too). Three other fine writers/fine stories round out the slate: Gretchen Archer’s “Double Deck the Halls,” Debra H. Goldstein’s “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” and Gigi Pandian’s “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” The Agatha Awards will be presented at the annual Agatha Awards Banquet on Saturday evening, April 28.


In advance of the big weekend, I invited the finalists to answer a question about their nominated stories, and I’m glad to share these reflections here. Please note that you can read each story for free through links in the paragraph above and in the headers to each response below. 

Here’s the question: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing your particular short story and how did you overcome it?

And the responses, in alphabetical order by last name:

Gretchen Archer on “Double Deck the Halls”

The biggest challenge I faced writing “Double Deck the Halls” was also the most fun. One of my characters, in dire need of salvation, couldn’t speak. She could only communicate by humming Christmas carols. My mission, as her author, was to find appropriate song lyrics for her to hum so she could help her rescuer, a senior citizen with nothing but the retirement accessories she had on her person, save her. First, the lyrics had to fit the story, as in answer specific questions and convey detailed instructions. Not only that, the lyrics had to be in the public domain for me to use them. Writing a character who could only communicate in holiday tunes was so much fun. (And challenging!) 

Barb Goffman on “Whose Wine is it Anyway” from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet 

My biggest challenge in writing the story was overcoming the issue that I rarely drink wine (or any alcohol) and didn't know enough about cabernet to use it properly in a story. (I know. Sacrilege!) The anthology requirements were that the story had to involve a mystery/crime involving cabernet and it should be lighthearted. So I started doing research. I scoured the internet, reading wine websites, wine blogs, even newspaper stories involving wine. The most interesting item I came across was a Japanese hotel that fills its hot tubs with red wine, but I couldn't come up with a good idea stemming from that tidbit.

 Finally I read about how some people can be fatally allergic to the sulfites in red wine, including cabernet sauvignon, and an idea began forming. What came to me was a story about a seventy-year-old woman, days from retirement from a job she's loved for decades. But in these final hours, she realizes she hasn't been appreciated as she should have been. So she decides it's time to teach some lessons about the importance of caring more about people than appearances, and what I learned about wine allergies enabled me to make the story work. So the moral of my personal writing story here is that you don't have to be an expert on a topic to write about it. You can always learn the information you need to make your story work. Just keep at it.

Debra H. Goldstein on “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine 

“The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” combines the impact of an exchange between a nine-year-old boy and an adult during a Civil Rights era evening where there is a murder in a house where the sheets are changed more than once a night. My biggest challenge was to make the voices of the child and the adult believable and recognizable to the reader. It was easy to establish the heat and tension of the setting of a 1960’s non-air-conditioned kitchen through references to the linoleum floor, catching a breeze through the screen door, and grabbing a glass from the drainboard, but making the characters’ voices realistic rather than stereotypical required nuanced layering of details. Rather than pounding the reader with what the characters said, wore, thought, and did, my challenge was to present a sufficient build up of these things, sentence by sentence, to trigger each reader’s personal reactions and memories. By engaging the reader through evoked recollections or associations, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” hopefully succeeds in establishing and resolving a crime while contrasting the innocence and bravado of childhood as it is lost with an adult’s acceptance of life as it is. 

Gigi Pandian on “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn”
 
I write fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, stories in which a big part of the fun is that clues are hidden in plain sight for the reader. “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” is a locked-room mystery, the style of mystery popularized in the Golden Age of detective fiction that takes puzzle plots to the extreme by solving a seemingly impossible puzzle.

Whenever I begin writing a new locked-room story, my biggest challenge is to set up a clever twist so the big reveal is satisfying to the reader—something that seems impossible, but if you pay attention closely, you can see what really happened.

I’ve always loved puzzle plot stories with a satisfying twist; they epitomize why I love mystery. Locked-room mysteries are the ultimate puzzle, and can be the foundation to build so much more into a story. Impossible crime stories frequently include hints of the supernatural, creating a Gothic atmosphere that’s like reading a ghost story—but there’s always a rational explanation.

To meet the challenge of coming up with fresh ideas for impossible crime stories, my process is that I work first on a paper notebook that I fill with ideas. Sometimes a short story comes together quickly, and sometimes it can take years between when I think of an initial idea and when the ideas come together to make the twist successful. There’s one story draft I wrote five years ago, and I’m not yet satisfied with the ending so I haven’t send it out yet! But happily, I’ve written enough impossible crime stories that turned out successfully that I have a collection of Jaya Jones locked-room mysteries being published later this year.

The twist in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” was also challenging because there’s a double-twist at the end. That made it one of my most challenging—but also satisfying—stories I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Art Taylor on “A Necessary Ingredient” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea

Though I was pleased to have been invited to contribute a story to a private eye anthology and though I love and often teach works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, etc. in my classes at George Mason University, I’m not actually a regular writer of private eye stories and don't think I've ever written anything traditionally hard-boiled. I think I’ve only had two PI stories published before—one a parody, the other steeped in the fantastic—and while I wanted to write this one a little more straight, the small-town North Carolina setting (my assigned region to help the anthology’s stretch “from sea to shining sea”) also posed some challenges  in terms of any potential hard-boiled leanings: No mean streets in my town for my main character to go down, for example.

My solution? With "A Necessary Ingredient," I tried to put yet another twist on the conventional PI tale—Ambrose Thornton has “Private Detective” on his office door but he’s really just an unassuming guy seeking a quiet spot to read old crime novels—and then I drew as much on the traditions of regional crime fiction, in the spirit of Margaret Maron, for example, as I did on the legacy of Hammett, Chandler, or Macdonald in terms of crafting character, setting, and plot. When a new chef in town tasks Thornton with finding a special bean prized in French cooking (a bit of gentrification, this little restaurant), our detective sets out not down any means streets but instead on a tour of local farmer’s markets, roadside vegetable stands, and greenhouses. And while Ambrose references a couple of classic gumshoes here and there, a key twist in the story offers my own nod toward Maron's influences—hopefully keeping the balance of several traditions in play and satisfying readers across a wider spectrum.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Malice in just a couple of weeks! 

10 April 2018

Epiphany of a Blue-Collar Writer


Art Taylor and me trying to out-charm one another.
At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Art Taylor and I were paired for Speed Dating, an event in which pairs of authors move from table to table around a room and spend a shared two minutes at each table introducing ourselves and our work to mystery fans. The instructions were to speak for one minute each, the beginning, mid-point, and end time of our two minutes announced by the ringing of a bell. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, authors were expected to respond to the neutral stimulus of the bell by launching immediately into a conditioned response: blatant self-promotion. The premise seemed a bit automatonic to me.

I “knew” Art prior to this pairing because we occasionally crossed paths on the Internet and spoke for a few minutes at the Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the New Orleans Bouchercon in 2016. So, I asked, via email, if he might be interested in spicing things up. Art may look like a mild-mannered English professor, but deep down he’s quite the radical, and we kicked around several ideas.

We didn’t have an opportunity to test drive our ideas before Speed Dating began Thursday morning, so Robert and Terri Lopresti had the misfortune of being first to witness our unrehearsed song-and-dance. Art and I soon fell into a groove, though, and by the time we presented at our last table we had perfected a Broadway-worthy performance.

Rather than each of us filling a minute talking about our work and ourselves, I introduced Art and he talked about “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), a 2017 Anthony Award nominee. Then he introduced me and I discussed “Dixie Quickies” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #1). We wrapped things up by suggesting that readers interested in learning more about our work purchase Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books) because they could easily compare and contrast how we took the same assignment and created radically different stories. (Art’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha; my “Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38” may only be eligible for an honorary Harlan Ellison longest title award.)

And here’s where this incredibly long anecdote is leading: While preparing our introductions, we needed, given the time constraints, to focus on one key aspect of the other’s writing career that would be memorable and easy to relate to listeners who might know nothing about us. In my introduction of Art, I focused on the number of awards and award nominations he’s received. In his introduction of me, Art focused on the number of short stories I’ve written.

In our emails leading up to this decision, I compared us to Walmart and Tiffany. (To stretch this analogy to the absurd: I have a store on every corner, filled with mass-produced goods suitable for every consumer; Art has only a few locations, each offering polished jewels to those with refined taste.) Art was polite enough not to agree with my self-assessment.

I long ago accepted my place in the writing hierarchy: I am a blue-collar writer, the type of grunt who gets up each morning, puts on his writer pants, and produces words.

Day in. Day out.

I do my best, my work gets published, and I’ve established myself as a solid middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine writer who rarely misses deadlines. When I was younger, I bemoaned my place in the literary universe. I was dismayed by the world’s failure to recognize my genius (a common ailment among the young who feel the world owes them something just for participating) and was frustrated when I attended conventions and sat on panels with writers who had produced a mere handful of stories yet had somehow captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

That changed about ten years ago.

There’s nothing like heart surgery to refocus your attention on what’s important, but my epiphany, such as it was, didn’t arrive in a flash; it developed slowly. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in September 2008, three days after turning 51, I realized I was a grouchy old writer, complaining about the new-fangled publishing world and the writers who inhabit it. I also realized I had accomplished what many writers of my generation had not: I had survived—not just literally, thanks to surgery, but literarily as well. Many of the writers who captured the zeitgeist of their time were of their time and have since burned out, stopped writing, and turned to other things. By plodding along as a blue-collar writer, producing words day in and day out, I created, and continue to create, a substantial body of work.

On a personal level, I learned be happy, to enjoy what I have rather than stress about what I haven’t. On a professional level, that meant a return to writing for the joy of writing, a refocus on the creative act rather than on the end goal of publication, fame, and fortune. Surprisingly, or perhaps not to those who’ve experienced something similar, I not only enjoy the act of writing more than ever before, but I am reaping unexpected benefits.

Because I now realize the publishing world owes me nothing—that there are no prizes just for participating—I enjoy seeing my name on the cover of a magazine, I appreciate the kind words of a reader, and I share the joy of other writers’ achievements.

And if we’re ever paired up for Speed Dating, let’s try to make it fun!

Interested in playing compare and contrast? Art Taylor and I have stories in the current issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. Later this month, I will read my D&O story, “Texas Sundown,” at Noir at the Bar Dallas. Join us, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas, Texas. In other news: “My Stripper Past” appears in Pulp Adventures #28 and “One Last Job,” wherein I discuss the genesis of my recent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “The Mourning Man,” is a guest post at Trace Evidence.

23 March 2018

Seriously, You Don't Think It's a Masterpiece Too?


I'm not sure how many times I've read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but I'm now teaching it for what's probably the fourth or fifth time—this round for my "True Crime" course at George Mason University. I almost didn't add it to this semester's syllabus, assuming that many students may have already read and studied it in other classes, but a quick poll of folks who registered early for the course showed that this wasn't the case; in fact, turns out only four of the 20 students have read it before. Even if more had, I might have included it anyway; In Cold Blood seems such a central, foundational text for this genre. How could you not?

Earlier this week, in our first class session discussing the book, I asked for initial reactions from students encountering it for the first time. One woman raised her hand. "It has a lot of details," she said—which immediately opened up in my mind so many directions for conversation: How did Capote amass all this information? What techniques from novel writing did he bring to this nonfiction work to weave that wonderful tapestry of details? How do all these details form a compelling portrait of the Clutters, of their community, of the killers?

Then the student added, "And a lot of commas too."

It was suddenly clear that her observation about details wasn't meant in a positive way.

When I pressed her about it, she added, "It dragged a little"—her tone saying that, really, for her, it dragged a lot.

There are many directions I could go with from this anecdote—including a discussion of those details and that pacing and why In Cold Blood remains such a masterpiece to my mind reread after reread. But instead I'm going to focus on that "in my mind" and the divide that sometimes opens up between my own enthusiasm for a story or book or film and my students' just as extreme lack of enthusiasm.

Early on in my teaching career, a fellow professor mentioned to me that she would never again teach Austen in her classes. Because she didn't care for Austen herself? That was my assumption and my question. But it was the opposite, in fact: This professor loved Austen so much that she couldn't bear to hear her students react negatively to the novels one more time. It was too heartbreaking. Better just to teach something else.

Despite that advice, I've assigned texts to my syllabi that are among my own favorites—and, as predicted by that other professor, I've struggled more than once with students' derision of them or dismissal of them. Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest comes to mind, and Stanley Ellin's "The Moment of Decision," and John McPhee's "Search for Marvin Gardens," and Nicholas Roeg's film version of Don't Look Now, and... There are many others—masterpieces all, I firmly believe this—but no matter how much I try to extol the virtues of each of them, endeavor to count out those virtues one by one, many students—too many—prove unmoved.

I don't take offense (well, not too much), but the disjunction here does pose some questions. When you're teaching students to analyze a text, does it matter whether you get them to appreciate it too? Certainly not everyone is going to like the same works of art as everyone else, but shouldn't you try to encourage a broadening of perspectives? ...which may circle back again from analysis to understanding to that question of appreciation. And then, what if there's simply a generational gap in some cases? A week ago today, I turned 50, and these kids... well, their tastes are different, the culture they grew up in is different, their aesthetics are a world away from mine, and....

Each to his own then? Surely that may be part of it, but even there....

As part of various small celebrations of my milestone birthday, my wife Tara and I were supposed to go see Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in the theater Wednesday night—part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the film. It's one of my favorites—one of a handful of films that I remember watching absolutely mesmerized start to finish. (Others would include Raging Bull, Manhattan, Breaking the Waves, and Birdman—a list that might seem more eclectic at first glance than it really is.) Tara and I never made it to Vertigo. A combination of spring snow and sick child put an end to those plans. But I was reminded of one of the last times I've seen it on the big screen (four total, I'll admit) with a woman I was dating at the time. Partway through those beautiful sequences where Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, that girlfriend leaned over and whispered, "This is so boring."

I guess I should've known then the relationship wouldn't last.

And speaking of Tara, I remember when we first started dating and she asked me if I'd read the Harry Potter books. When I told her I hadn't, she said, "Oh, you need to read them." So I told her that I would—as you do in situations when someone recommends books like that. But then she got very serious: "No. I mean it. You need to read them." Unspoken: Now.

I did, of course, and loved them, which seems fortunate for all of us. I still wonder where our relationship would be if I hadn't read them, hadn't liked them, had failed what was clearly a test of some kind.

The stakes aren't always so high, of course. I loved Birdman—loved, loved, loved it—but when I mentioned that to my writing group, a couple of them looked at me like I was insane. And I couldn't judge them too harshly for that, could I?

....

Several more questions here—this time for the folks reading this post: When have friendships been formed or cemented because of a mutual love for some book or movie? On the flipside, have relationships ever been strained because of serious disagreements on something like this? And how do you handle it when your enthusiasm for a story or a book or a film is met by a shrug of the shoulders or a wave of the hand from someone whose judgement or opinion you really value?

And if you really hate any of the favorites I mentioned above, I promise I'll try really not to think less of you. 😉


02 March 2018

Stories to Novels: Reading the Complete Continental Op


Over the last couple of months, I've been reading aloud to my wife Tara the stories in The Big Book of the Continental Op, the first print collection ever of all of Dashiell Hammett's stories featuring the unnamed detective. We've read fifteen of them so far, and as I write this, we're about three-quarters through the novelette "The Whosis Kid"—and on the edge of our seat each time someone new comes through the apartment door with pistol(s) in hand! (The room's getting crowded now, with the Op and five other people all vying for space to maneuver.)

Our readings stem in part from a New Year's resolution to read the whole collection this year—rereading stories in some cases—and the title doesn't lie, it's a big book, and it's a mammoth achievement too, thanks to the hard work of editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter. But I've been interested in Hammett and particularly the Op stories long before, even having taught some of them in my classes at George Mason University, and I was thrilled with the earlier gathering of these stories in an e-book series.  (See my 2016  SleuthSayers interview with Rivett on that project.)

I've read some of these stories before, as I mentioned, but some—even some well-known titles—I'm enjoying for the first time. And what's struck me at several times is how Hammett used the short stories as a testing ground for ideas, characters, and scenes.

I've said before—and will argue again (and again)—that short stories can't fully be apprenticeships for writing novels. While writing short stories can help writers learn some of the fundamentals of crafting characters and shaping scenes and sharpening dialogue, etc. But the short story and the novel are two vastly different forms, with different requirements and different challenges. The leap isn't entirely a natural one, and I've talked to as many fine novelists who say they've never been able to write a short story as I have with fine short story writers who've struggled to complete a novel.

That said, however, I've also written before about Hammett's own transition from short story to novel—with his first two novels loosely put together as novels in stories with the seams smartly covered up. Both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse appeared as serialized stories in Black Mask, each installment with its own narrative arc, even as the fuller narrative arc emerged only in the connecting of the story cycles. I've written about this before too; see my essay here for the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog. And one of the things I'm most excited about in the new Big Book of the Continental Op is seeing those story cycles in their original forms: "The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted—Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder," which became Red Harvest; and "Black Lives," "The Hollow Temple," "Black Honeymoon," and "Black Riddle," which became The Dain Curse. In these cases, it's not just that Hammett used the short story as a training ground for the novel but that he used the architecture of the short story as the building block for the larger structures.

Beyond those specific stories and those specific novels, the early stories in the new collection have been opening up new perspectives on Hammett's artistic process—exciting discoveries for me, even if others have likely written on them elsewhere. Take, for example, that scene from "The Whosis Kid" I mentioned above. The Op and a woman named Inés Almad and a guy named Billie are together in her apartment; then in comes the Frenchman Edouard Maurois and a fellow with a big chin (appropriately called Big Chin); and at our last stopping point the title character steps in, a black revolver in each hand. What everyone's doing there—well, neither the reader nor the Op know at this point in the story, but the Frenchman seems to be looking for something that Inés is supposed to have—and that she claims she doesn't but the title character does. And all through the scene, I couldn't avoid thinking about Sam Spade, Bridgid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Casper Guttman, and Wilmer Cook all crowding together in that pivotal scene in The Maltese Falcon. (Again, we haven't finished "The Whosis Kid" yet, but I'm thinking things don't look good for Inés here.)

Similarly, reading "The Golden Horseshoe," about the Op's hunt for missing Norman Ashcraft, who left his wife and disappeared, how could I not think of the famous Flitcraft Parable—and not just because of the echo between the names. That story from The Maltese Falcon—a digression that's been discussed and argued over endlessly—gets an earlier treatment here as a case itself, and it's fascinating.

Elsewhere, in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," Porky Grout (what a name!) seems a prototype for  characters in later stories and novels. (On a side note, I just read this New York Times review of the 1974 collection The Continental Op, which focuses on Porky Grout—and I disagree with the take here. In recent conversation, Peter Rozovsky mentioned Porky and talked about the story's moments of real emotion, a glimpse inside the Op's feeling—so true.)

And then beyond plot and scene and character, I've also found myself marveling as seeing Hammett's style evolving—and his boldness about his writing. Even in a very early story, "The Tenth Clew," he includes a chapter that seems more impressionistic, certainly less plot-driven, with the Op floating in San Francisco Bay, horns blowing around him, swimming, trying to survive. It's a marvelous passage, and one that another writer might simply have skipped (or another editor might simply have cut).

In short, reading The Big Book of the Continental Op has delivered not just some fine, fun stories, but also significant glimpses both into the evolution of an artist and into the process of artistic creation. Still many stories to go—and the rest of the year to read them!—and looking forward to them all.

BIT OF BSP


Since my last post here, Malice Domestic has updated its website with links to all of the finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. You can find them all here.

So pleased again to have my story "A Necessary Ingredient" among the mix here—and shout-outs again to two fellow SleuthSayers: Barb Goffman, my fellow Agatha nominee, and Paul D. Marks, co-editor of Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, where "A Necessary Ingredient" first appeared.




30 January 2018

Curses, Boiled Again!


I work full-time as a freelance editor, which means that I get to spend my days helping other people's dreams come true. I don't have a magic wand like Glinda the Good Witch. (Wouldn't that be fun!) But I do have a hardworking red pen, which I use to help make novels and short stories shine. But publishing is a hard business, and for authors aiming for traditional publication, there's no guarantee a book will get picked up, no matter how good it is.

That's why it's wonderful when one of my clients gets a contract with a traditional publisher. And it's especially wonderful when that publisher is one of the big ones in New York, and the deal is for three books. And it's even more wonderful--wonderful to infinity and beyond!--when that client is also one of your closest friends, and the contract is for her first published novel, and that first book finally comes out.

Well, today all that wonderfulness is wrapped into one with the publication of Curses, Boiled Again! by Shari Randall. The book, the first in the Lobster Shack Mysteries, went on sale at a Barnes & Noble in Virginia last weekend where Shari appeared at a signing, but today is the day folks everywhere can buy a copy of this book, published by St. Martin's Press.

So what's it about? This is a cozy mystery whose main character, Allie Larkin, is a ballerina who's back home in Mystic Bay, Connecticut, recuperating from a broken ankle. Her beloved aunt Gully has recently opened a lobster shack--her dream come true. But it soon turns into a nightmare when Gully is involved in a foodie competition, one of the judges dies after eating a competitor's entry, and suspicion turns on Gully. Did she tamper with the food? Allie isn't going to let her aunt be railroaded, and she won't let a broken ankle keep her down either, so she sets off to solve the mystery and find the killer.

Signing at Barnes & Noble
The book is filled with delightful characters, delicious food, twisty twists, and Connecticut charm. What's not to like?

So take it from me, who edited the first draft of this book, the final version is sure to knock it out of the park. How do I know? I've also edited two of Shari's short stories (one in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder, and the other in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies, which is coming out in April). And I edited a fabulous, unpublished stand-alone novel Shari wrote, which could be the start of a separate traditional mystery series--hint hint to any acquisition editors out there. So I know firsthand not only how well Shari writes, but also that Shari is an author who takes editorial notes and runs with them, making her work better and better. I have no doubt she took what was a good first draft of Curses, Boiled Again! and turned it into a great book, especially after working with her editor at St. Martin's.

But don't take just my word for it. Here's what some other authors who've read the book think:

"Not only is Curses, Boiled Again! a suspenseful and entertaining mystery, but Shari Randall left me longing to visit the Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack―even though I'm allergic to crustaceans!" ―Donna Andrews, author of the multiple award-winning Meg Lanslow Mysteries

Cheers to Shari Randall!
"Delightful! A fun whodunit full of New England coastal charm and characters who feel like friends. Warm humor, a delectable plot, and clever sleuthing will keep you turning the pages." ―Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author of the Domestic Diva Mysteries

"A mystery as richly layered as a genuine Connecticut lobster roll!" ―Liz Mugavero, Agatha Award-nominated author of the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries

"Curses, it's over already! Shari Randall introduces a lively cast of characters who had me dancing through this book. Allie Larkin charmed me with her sense of humor when faced with a heartbreaking injury. The climactic scene is like nothing I've ever read or seen and I loved it!" ―Sherry Harris, author of the Agatha Award-nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries

And if you head over to Goodreads, you'll find around twenty-five reviews of the book, and they're all good. That's no surprise to me, of course.

The only disappointment is that the next book in the series, Against the Claw, won't come out until July. But at least it can be pre-ordered now. And I'll get to see the first draft of the third book in the series this spring. I can't wait to get my editorial claws all over it. Yes, sorry for the pun, but we're talking cozy mysteries here. It was a given!

****

Let me take a moment for a little BSP: Yesterday my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet was named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. I have stiff competition from four writers whose work I admire: Gretchen Archer, Debra Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. Woo-hoo for us all! I'm sure all the nominated stories will be available online for you to read soon (if they're not already), but in the meanwhile, you can read mine by clicking here.

08 December 2017

From the Analytical to the Imaginative


This post appears on the last day of the last week of the semester's classes at George Mason University—but while this may seem to mark an ending of sorts, it's also a beginning, because as I'm writing this, I'm thick in the middle of grading those final papers, projects, and revisions that have suddenly appeared.

And then there are exams beginning next week, so the moment we finish up one batch of grading, another batch will arrive.

One of my classes is an upper-level creative nonfiction class, a smaller workshop filled with some fine and even extraordinary writers. So many of their submissions are really a joy to read, and I find myself eager in many cases to see what some of those writers are going to produce next. Grading there is work, no doubt about it, but it's also fun in many ways.

My gen-ed lit class, however, maxed out at 75 students—much larger, many more assignments to manage. And students in this class often face more struggles with writing.

The class itself has been enjoyable—the subject is "Sherlock," so hard not to feel indulgent about the readings and discussion—and I've been fortunate to have a great T.A. for the class to help with grading. But as the final days loomed, both of us got that deer in the headlights look about the onslaught of project and exams ahead. At the beginning of Monday's class, I told her flat-out I was dreading it—and one of the students overheard our conversation and piped up with, "We are too! So why are you assigning all this?"

Clear answers to that one, of course: We need to have ways of measuring learning and performance. But the whole exchange underscored the fact that all of us were feeling overburdened a little and on a sharp turnaround for meeting deadline after deadline.

One thing I've tried to do to boost enthusiasm at end-of-semester in my lit classes: Give students the opportunity to write some fiction themselves. While many students still choose to write a more traditional analytical essay—thesis, textual evidence, etc.—others welcome the chance to, in this case, write their own Sherlock Holmes pastiche or parody. We've read a number of Sherlock stories by writers other than Conan Doyle in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, and I've been grateful to have a couple of writers Skype into the class to talk about their own stories reworking the characters and these elements, including Dan Stashower and Dana Cameron. And several of the students have been pursuing terrific ideas: Sherlock and Watson investigating a scandal related to Brexit, Sherlock Holmes on a visit to Mason's campus and investigating shenanigans in the classroom, and then something about Sherlock as a Mason student himself and losing some laundry—building on one of the cases that Watson mentions only briefly in the canon: the bogus laundry affair. (This student did his research, clearly, but ultimately opted instead to write an analytical essay about different kinds of justice in the stories.)

The student who wrote about Brexit had originally proposed having Sherlock investigate the voter fraud claims in the U.S. but then felt like setting the adventure in Britain would be better. Either way, he's been very enthusiastic about the project and mentioned at end of class (if I'm remembering the relationships correctly!) that his girlfriend's father is a big Sherlock Holmes fan and is eager to read what he produces.

I've done this in other classes in the past with fascinating results. One student in a survey course on the mystery short story several years ago relocated a Sherlock-like figure to a U.S. Army base investigating trouble at the perimeter. Though he'd never written fiction before, he'd been in the service himself and he drew on his own past as well as the readings from class to produce what I thought was a first-rate story: engaging, suspenseful, satisfying.

Students appreciate the opportunities here for a number of reasons—maybe first and foremost that it's something different. Some of them think, I'm sure, that it'll be easier than that whole thesis, evidence, analysis thing. And on our side of the table, I'll admit that my TA and I are appreciating it too—something different to read for us as well.

But the trick is that whether they choose the creative or the analytical project, students are still revealing their engagement and understanding (or lack of engagement/understanding) of the course materials. Understanding the characters, navigating the way the stories work, folding in some of the common thematic elements, even mimicking here and there Conan Doyle's singular style.... Well, there's much to be said for application over analysis. And because students opting for the creative project are still required to write a reflective essay, connecting their work to their reading, with in-text citations and a bibliography to boot, ultimately they're entering into some analysis as well.

I'm still early in the grading at this point, plenty ahead. But I'm looking forward to seeing what they've come up with—and to spending a little more time with Sherlock himself, courtesy of the students and their imaginations.