Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

23 February 2024

Bad Whiskey

A lot of stories take their cues from music. I listen to music when I write, and I often say I can't write listening to Carrie Underwood or Roger Waters because they're telling stories in their songs. Actually, I can't listen to Roger Waters on anything after 1980 because... Okay, that's another rant I'll save for elsewhere. But Carrie Underwood writes entire novels in her music. "Blown Away" and "Two Cadillacs" come to mind.

And then there's southern rock. Ever listen to some of Skynyrd's songs and see a story unfold in your mind? "Two Steps" is a good one and might have spawned a different story had I heard it around the time we started planning the Murder, Neat anthology. Instead, a friend of mine sent me this video of her husband's band. For a group who played mostly bars (though they did open for the likes of Black Country Communion a few times), they did a rather professional video. When it opened, I thought, "Cool. Johnny Lynn's playing slide!" But they had a few stories to go with the verses, many of them fitting that southern rock vibe half of Johnny's bands embrace. (Johnny is the aforementioned friend's husband.)

I had a video, awaiting the CD, and I had an email from either Leigh or Robert and a follow up from Michael Bracken: Write a story set in a bar. Put a murder in it. I had a soundtrack, an inspiration, and marching orders. This is why I love anthologies as a writer. When the prompt hits just right, the stories spin off on their own.

The song is called "Bad Whiskey." How's that for a southern rock title? And if the video shows the ill-effects of bad whiskey in general, the story flows backward and reveals just how bad one man's whiskey was. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the aforementioned song that inspired the story, "Bad Whiskey" by the Russell Jinkens XL Band.

20 February 2024

Murder, Messy

My fellow SleuthSayers had been discussing a group anthology long before I graduated from occasional guest poster to a regular spot in the rotation. They had a theme (crime and drinking establishments) and a title (Murder, Neat), and Paul Marks had agreed to serve as editor. Unfortunately, while the anthology was still in an embryonic stage with only a few stories written, Paul became ill, and the anthology went into a holding pattern.

Given that many of my fellow members have edited at least one anthology, I’m uncertain how the editorship landed in my lap, but once it did, I asked Barb Goffman to join me. I think I’m a good editor, and I know Barb is a great editor. We worked together to solicit stories from the other SleuthSayers, to edit them for publication, and to organize them in a way that takes readers (those who actually read anthologies from front to back) on a literary journey through crimes that happen in and around drinking establishments.

This is the first time I’ve edited an anthology where no publisher was attached prior to soliciting stories, so the work—from contributors writing their stories to Barb and I editing and organizing them—was an act of faith on all our parts.

Once we had a finished manuscript, I created a proposal and pitched the anthology to various publishers. While other publishers dawdled with their responses—or didn’t respond at all—Level Best Books accepted the anthology the day after I pitched it.

Between the time they accepted Murder, Neat and its release, Level Best Books established a new imprint—Level Short— specifically for anthologies and collections, and Murder, Neat is the inaugural title for the new imprint.

I wish Paul had been able to see the project through to completion—unfortunately, he passed away shortly after Barb and I stepped in—and I think the twenty-four exceptional stories in Murder, Neat honor the work he did to get the project started.


“Bar None,” my contribution to Murder, Neat, finds the protagonist caught between a disastrous disagreement between a bar’s manager and his alcoholic brother.

The Kindle edition of Murder, Neat was released February 13; the trade paperback edition will be available soon everywhere books are sold online.

14 February 2024

Betwixt Cup and Lip

Years ago, I lived in the Berkshires out in western Massachusetts, which was pretty much a stone’s throw from the New York state line. And we had occasion to go over there, once in a while. It wasn’t totally an unknown country. There was a Japanese restaurant in Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren’s birthplace. There was Steepletop, the Edna St. Vincent Millay writers colony, in Austerlitz And one time, when I went to drop someone off at the train station in Hudson – you could catch the New York Central, and go down to the city – somebody else told me, Oh, that’s where Legs Diamond was shot. I thought to myself, Hmmm.

Things you store away, for later. As it turns out, Legs wasn’t shot in Hudson; he was gunned down in a drunken stupor at a rowhouse in Albany, on Dove Street. Supposedly, it was a uniform patrol sergeant named Fitzpatrick, who was afterwards named chief of police, in return for the favor. Still, it stuck in my mind. New York gangsters, on the lam from the city, would cool their heels upstate, until the heat died down. They wouldn’t go far, just a short train ride out of town. If you kept your head down and your nose clean, nobody was any the wiser. Obviously, the mistake Legs made was to try and muscle in on the local syndicate’s action, and they rubbed him out.

This little nugget, stored away, was the basis for “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” my Mickey Counihan story in Murder, Neat.

The theme of the collection is that the stories take place in a bar. It sounds like the opening line of a joke, which reminds me of something Mark Billingham once said. He got his start in stand-up and sketch comedy, and he later remarked that open mic and thriller writing have a lot in common. You only have a brief window to establish yourself with the audience, for one. And secondly, it’s about having an effective set-up, that winds you up for a punchline. The punchline of a joke most usually depends on the reversal of expectations, and so does developing a cliff-hanger scene. You set a snare, to invite the reader in, and then spring the trap on them.

One difference is that you could easily start the scene with a hook, without knowing how to finish. The pope, a rabbi, and the Dalai Lama walk into a strip club. What’s the kicker? Beats me, I don’t have a clue.

The way it works in practice, though, is that you have a little nugget, and it bumps around in the corners, and picks up other little bits and pieces, and pretty soon it’s turned into a bigger package altogether. You’ve got some ungainly mental figure, a shape, like a dressmaker’s dummy, and you can hang a suit of clothes on it.

Some of us outline, some of us are pantsers. Meaning there are writers who block out the whole story arc in advance, and then fill in the cracks, and there are writers who fly by the seat of their pants. This isn’t to say we don’t take advantage of lucky accident, or that there aren’t always unexpected moments. Those, in fact, are what you live for. But either way, you start with a name, or a turn of phrase, an image, or simply how the weather was.

The curious part, which borders on the magical – even if in practical terms it amounts to stamina – is that when we’re done, both the story itself and the process of getting it over the finish line seem inevitable, by which I mean inevitable to the reader as well as to the writer. We ask that the story be fully formed, woven by the Fates, cast by the dice: of all possible worlds, this one alone is true.

Each story makes a promise, and we'd like it to be kept.

13 February 2024

Raise a Glass for Our First Anthology: Murder, Neat!

An author, an author, and an author walk into a bar, along with twenty-one more of their colleagues. The bartender serves 'em all. In the process, he learns they all blog together.

"What do you write about," the barkeep asks.

"Murder," they reply in unison.

The bartender gives 'em a big smile and says, "Neat."

In case you haven't heard, today's the publication date for Murder, Neat, an anthology with twenty-four short stories all written by members of this blog. Every story lets the reader belly up to a bar and settle in for a good tale. Most of them take the reader to actual bars--regular, dive, college, even a gastropub--but we have restaurants and a winery in the mix too. We have stories set in the US as well as in other countries and on other continents. We have stories occurring in the current day and stories set long before you could kick back with a beer and root for your favorite team on a tavern's big screen. But what all the stories have in common is crime--and alcohol, of course.

I had the pleasure of editing this anthology--the first SleuthSayers anthology--with Michael Bracken. We had the honor of taking on this task when the man originally tapped to edit the book, our dear friend Paul D. Marks, handed over the reins after falling ill. Paul died in 2021. On this day, we raise a glass in remembrance of him, as well as two other fellow SleuthSlayers whom we lost too soon: Fran Rizer, who died in 2019, and Bonnie (B.K.) Stevens, who died in 2017.

You may be wondering who this "we" is. Who are the authors with stories in the book? Let me direct your attention to this nifty graphic created by friend Gabriel Valjan, which lists not only the authors but their story titles in the order they appear in the book. I've read all of these stories multiple times, and I'm pleased to say they're all perfect for settling down by a fire, with a drink in your hand and the book in your lap.

Before I go, I'll share a little about my story, "Never Have I Ever." It's March 1989. Tamara and five college friends are at their go-to Thursday night bar, deep in their cups, playing their favorite drinking game, Never Have I Ever. Even as the secrets fly, Tamara has some she'll never share. Because she's obsessed. Because she's haunted. Because she has a plan.   

Murder, Neat is coming out today, February 13th, in trade paperback and ebook from the fine folks at Level Best Books. Here's a link to buy the Kindle book (the only option available as I type this, but the book should be out in trade paperback too when you read this). To everyone who picks up a copy, we raise a glass in your honor too. Cheers!

23 January 2024

I Have First-Line Envy

I've written before about a Facebook group I belong to in which we celebrate good first lines (sometimes first paragraphs) in books and stories, often crime stories. A first line can be a thing of beauty, with lyrical language that draws you in. It can have suspense, leading you to need to know what comes next. It can portray a setting that's so beautiful you yearn to live there. It can showcase a character's voice, one that's edgy or interesting or downright funny--someone you can't wait to spend 300 pages with.

I've read a lot of good first lines over the years and some that didn't draw me in. Interestingly, some of the ones I thought weren't great received raves from others, which just goes to show how subjective writing can be.

But before today, I can recall only once reading a first line that made me wish I had written it myself. (More on that other book below.) I haven't read this book (it's coming out next week), but damn, this sentence makes me want to:

It is a sad day, indeed, when even an orgy does not interest me.

That's the first sentence in Of Hoaxes and Homicide by Anastasia Hastings, coming out on January 30th. Why do I love this opening line? To quote Shakespeare, let me count the ways.

First and foremost, this sentence makes me laugh. The voice tells me this is a character I'll enjoy reading about. The sentence is also attention-grabbing. Do I want to learn more about what is going on in this book? Oh yes, I do, especially because the author's word choices let the reader know this isn't a hardboiled book; it's softer, slower-paced, making the mention of an "orgy" all the more interesting and surprising--in the best way. The writing also is lyrical. Imagine the sentence without the word "even." It wouldn't have the same flow, the same punch. The author's words have a wonderful rhythm.

That's a whole lot to accomplish in a first sentence. Anastasia Hastings, I tip my hat to you.

What's the other great first line I wish I'd written? The first sentence in Julia Spencer-Fleming's wonderful first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter:

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.

I read that sentence, and I was all in. Thankfully, the book lived up to the promise of its first line. Will Of Hoaxes and Homicide do the same? I sure hope so.

Do you have a favorite first line you'd like to share, dear reader? Please do.

Before I go, the Malice Domestic board of directors would like to remind you that this year's convention will run from April 26-28th, and registration is open. If you're not familiar with Malice, it's a fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery, though you will find attending authors write lighter and darker books too. The convention is held each year in North Bethesda, Maryland. You can learn more at the Malice website: Due to technical difficulties, the registration link on the website isn't working, but you can register by clicking here. (And no, I'm not on the Malice board. Just spreading the word for them.)

02 January 2024

My tribute to John Hughes movies

When I think of the movies of my adolescence, the first name that pops up is John Hughes. I'd bet many Gen Xers can say the same. While Hughes's breakout movie arguably was 1983's funny Vacation, it wasn't a teen movie. Not that teens didn't like it (we did), but Vacation was aimed at a wider audience. Then in 1984, Hughes released his first movie aimed at kids my age. And we saw them in droves--in the theater multiple times and then on video over and over and over. 

Which Hughes movies? It started with Sixteen Candles in 1984. Then in 1985 The Breakfast Club came out. Hughes followed that in 1986 with Weird Science and Pretty in Pink. And in 1987, Ferris Bueller's Day Off was released. There were other Hughes teen movies after that, but the ones I've mentioned here were the movies of my high school years. The ones I remember most fondly. 

Hughes didn't corner the market on teen movies, of course. I couldn't write this column without mentioning 1983's Risky Business and 1985's Back to the Future and Better Off Dead ("Two dollars! I want my two dollars!"). And there were great movies that came out while I was in college that fall into this genre, including Say Anything and Heathers.

What do all these movies have in common? They're about high schoolers who had a lot of freedom with little to no supervision. While for some '80s kids, these movies might have been pure fantasy, for others (like me), they weren't that much of an exaggeration. I look back on them fondly.

It was with all of these movies in mind that I wrote my short story "Teenage Dirtbag," coming out January 9th from Misti Media in the anthology (I Just) Died in Your Arms: Crime Fiction Inspired by One-Hit Wonders, edited by J. Alan Hartman. I was invited to write a story for this anthology (thank you, Jay), and when I looked at a list of one-hit wonders, trying to find a song that inspired me, "Teenage Dirtbag" jumped out. The song was released in 2000 by Wheatus, and I've loved it ever since hearing it on Dawson's Creek and then hearing it again and again on the CD (remember those?) Songs from Dawson's Creek volume two. (Yes, I watched TV shows aimed at teens while in my twenties and early thirties. Sue me.) To me, the song's plot screamed 1980s teen movie. So I wrote a 1980s teen crime short story based on it.

I would've had a harder time making the story believable if I'd set it now. Today's teens often have more supervision than teens in the 1980s did, and other elements of the story wouldn't be workable if it were set now. (Sorry for the vagueness, but I don't want to spoil things.) Those of you who haven't heard the song might be wondering about the story's plot, so here's an overview: In 1985, Travis rules his high school, tormenting other kids and pushing his girlfriend arounduntil nerd Brian falls for her and devises a plan to free all the beleaguered kids from Travis's bullying ways. 

The song has a line about a gun that made it a great basis for a crime story, though even people who know the song may not realize it. That line was mixed out in versions played on radio stations, but the original version of the song can be found if you look hard enough. If you listen to the song, you'll hear some other details I worked into my story. Brian listens to Iron Maiden. Noelle wears Keds (but not tube socksthat wouldn't have happened in 1985). And Iron Maiden did play at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum in May 1985, which is why I set the story then rather than in '86 or '87.

Overall, my story "Teenage Dirtbag," based on the Wheatus song of the same name, is a crime coming-of-age story. It's an underdog story. And it's my tribute to 1980s teen movies. I hope you enjoy it, reader. And John Hughes, wherever you are (he died in 2009), I hope it makes you smile too.

As I said, the book will be released on Tuesday, January 9th, in ebook and trade paperback formats. You can pre-order it directly from the publisher by clicking here. It also will be available from the usual online sources and, hopefully, independent bookshops.

The other authors with stories in the book (and the songs they based their stories on) are, in order of appearance: Vinnie Hansen ("96 Tears"), Jeanne DuBois ("Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"), Josh Pachter ("The Rapper"), J.M. Taylor ("Seasons in the Sun"), Christine Verstraete ("Wildfire"), Sandra Murphy ("867-5309/Jenny"), Joseph S. Walker ("Come On Eileen"), Wendy Harrison ("It's Raining Men"), Bev Vincent ("Somebody's Watching Me"), Leone Ciporin ("Life in a Northern Town"), and Adam Gorgoni ("Bitch").

Do you have a favorite John Hughes movie (or 1980s teen movie)? What's your favorite one-hit wonder song, defined (for purposes of this book) as a group's sole big hit in the United States? ("Teenage Dirtbag" meets that definition, though Wheatus has had more big hits in Europe and Australia.)

12 December 2023

Parenting Choices Can Drive Crime Fiction Involving Minors

I've addressed before the benefits of writing crime stories involving children and teenagers. Simply because of their age, they could lack good judgment, be more willing to engage in risky behavior than an adult would, and not have sufficient experience to foresee the consequences of their actions, among other issues. As such, they could be useful for a crime-fiction author.

But parents can play a large role in what minors do, and this also opens a lot of opportunities for authors. You've probably heard the terms helicopter parents (for parents who take an overly active interest in their children's lives) and free-range parents (for parents who take a more laid-back approach to parenting). Depending on what you want your child/teenage characters (and your parent characters) to do in your story, you might give the adult a parenting style that is more controlling or more easy-going or somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. 

Helicopter parents
For instance, imagine parents who keep their son home on weekends to keep him away from a bad crowd. The boy could rebel, which opens up many opportunities for crime stories. Or the boy could follow the parents' rules and become a victim of bullying by kids who make fun of him for being so obedient, which also opens up crime-story opportunities. Or the boy could pretend to follow his parents' rules but sneak out and wind up in a whole different kind of trouble than the parents were trying to prevent. Again, crime-fiction opportunities galore. (Of course, the boy also could stay home and study a lot and earn a full college scholarship and live happily ever after, but that's not really useful for crime fiction.)

Free-range parents
On the other end of the spectrum, picture parents who are easygoing with their children. They give their kids slack, thinking overly protected children could rebel (see the prior example) or could fail to learn how to deal with problematic situations because they never got the chance. These parents could want their kids to learn self-reliance. They could want their kids to have the carefree childhood they remember themselves. Or they could be bad parents who simply don't care what their kids do. Or they could care but be overwhelmed by life and unable to oversee their children as much as they should or as much as they'd like. There are many reasons a parent could have a laid-back parenting style--good reasons and bad ones--and there are just as many potential consequences for the child/teenager characters. Once again: crime-fiction opportunities galore. (And once again, kids of free-range parents could exercise good judgment, never get in trouble, earn full college scholarships, and live happily ever after. I'm not saying one parenting style is better than another. But stories in which nothing goes wrong don't sound like crime fiction.)

My use of free-range parenting
I've made use of easygoing parents in several of my stories. In "Wishful Thinking," I have tweens explore a haunted house. They needed parents who didn't micromanage them for that plot to work. Similarly, when I was writing my newest short story, "Real Courage," I needed certain things to happen for the plot to work (including an unsupervised party), things that wouldn't be believable if the teens weren't given freedom to screw up, so I created a neighborhood of free-range parents. I also made use of free-range parents in my story coming out next, "Teenage Dirtbag." That story I set in the 1980s, when (it at least feels to me) teens could often get away with a lot more than they can today.
So if you're considering writing a crime story involving children/teenagers, keep in mind that what the kids do can largely be influenced by the kind of parenting style at work in the minor's home. Parents can make just as many mistakes as children can. We crime writers should take advantage of it.
I'll write more about "Teenage Dirtbag" when it comes out. For now, if you'd like to read "Real Courage," you can buy issue 14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine or, for a limited time, you can read "Real Courage" on my website. Just click here.
As this is my final post of 2023, I wish you all happy holidays.

21 November 2023

Embarking on a Series

I'm happy to have my friend Alan Orloff taking over my slot today. He's a great writer and a heck of a guy. Today he's talking about the benefits of writing a series. Welcome, Alan. And happy early Thanksgiving, everyone. I'll see you again in three weeks.

Barb Goffman

 Embarking on a Series by Alan Orloff

Thanks to Barb and the rest of the SleuthSayers for being such gracious blog hosts! I can’t wait for the guest blogger banquet! I hope that SANCTUARY MOTEL, my new suspense novel, is the first in a long, long series featuring Mess Hopkins (the do-gooder proprietor of a seen-better-days motel). But having a long-running series wasn’t always at the top of my writer wish list. The first five (or maybe six) manuscripts I ever wrote were all designed to be standalone novels. A self-contained story. A beginning, a middle, and an end, for the plots and for the characters. Where characters can be killed off, because you don’t *need* them to populate a future story. Now, my main characters can rest easy—their lives are protected. Even if something terrible happens to them, I’m pretty sure they’ll recover in time for the next adventure. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy writing standalones. As a writer, you’re free to explore different milieus, using different voices, creating different characters. You have plenty of freedom to follow your whims, not constrained by choices you made seven books ago that may no longer suit your needs. But boy, isn’t there something comforting about revisiting old friends in familiar settings once a year? And because I’m very lazy, isn’t there something, uh, efficient, about not having to create an entire cast of characters and build a new world with every book? U betcha! So, after a string of standalones, I decided to embark on a series. Here are some (mostly pragmatic) things I considered as I mapped out my series: Premise I sought a premise that wasn’t too narrow—I wanted a basic set-up that could be used as a foundation on which to build stories. The idea for SANCTUARY MOTEL grew out of two thoughts. One, I saw a news report about a municipality converting abandoned motels and hotels into housing for the homeless (great idea!). I combined this with my love for quirky and run-down motels. (Trust me, I stayed in some doozies, back in the day! But that’s a different blog post.) Weirdly, there just happened to be a couple of independent motels fitting this description that already existed in the City of Fairfax. I modeled the physical characteristics of the fictional Fairfax Manor Inn by mashing up those two (in my head) and adding a few embellishments. Thus my idea was born and ready for further refinements. In the end, I think I succeeded. A motel that opens up its doors to those needing sanctuary (from a bad situation) gives me the foundational premise (and flexibility) I was looking for. Setting SANCTUARY MOTEL is set in the City of Fairfax, VA, an area I am quite familiar with. In many respects, it’s a typical big-city suburb (so many readers will identify with it), but my hometown knowledge can also take them on interesting side trips to places not widely known.  (A quick aside: my only other “series” (two books, KILLER ROUTINE and DEADLY CAMPAIGN) was also set in Northern Virginia, and I even managed to include one of my favorite characters from those books (a bookie named Jimmy the Raisin) in my new series.) Cast of Characters I wanted to create a cast of characters that was varied enough to support many different storylines (most of which I haven’t even thought up yet!). In SANCTUARY MOTEL, I include the requisite sidekick, the requisite love interest, the requisite relatives (good and bad), the requisite work colleague, the requisite cop/old friend. But I also managed to introduce a host of other interesting folks: a wise street informant, the aforementioned Jimmy the Raisin, a vet who owns a nearby bagel place, a gruff security guy named Griff, a fortune-teller, and others. Some of these characters have relatively minor roles in this book, but they certainly might “come in handy” in future books. Character Growth In a novel, characters are supposed to grow or undergo some sort of transformative transformation (or something like that—I never took a formal creative writing class). But there’s more room for growth and character arcs over a number of books. While it might require a little more planning, I think it will ultimately prove more satisfying to see my characters grow meaningfully from book to book. I’m working on the second novel in the series now, and already I’ve thanked my past-self several times for having the foresight to set things up in a way that lends itself to my current story. Now, if I could just tell my past-self to make a few different life decisions (like invest in Apple decades ago), I’d be driving a nicer car! Okay, back to work. My series isn’t going to write itself. Isn’t that right, future-self? Alan Orloff has published ten novels and more than forty-five short stories. His work has won an Anthony, an Agatha, a Derringer, and two ITW Thriller Awards. His latest novel is SANCTUARY MOTEL, from Level Best Books. He loves cake and arugula, but not together. Never together. He lives and writes in South Florida, where the examples of hijinks are endless.

About SANCTUARY MOTEL Mess Hopkins, proprietor of the seen-better-days Fairfax Manor Inn, never met a person in need who couldn’t use a helping hand—his helping hand. So he’s thrown open the doors of the motel to the homeless, victims of abuse, or anyone else who could benefit from a comfy bed with clean sheets and a roof overhead. This rankles his parents and uncle, who technically still own the place and are more concerned with profits than philanthropy. When a mother and her teenage boy seek refuge from an abusive husband, Mess takes them in until they can get back on their feet. Shortly after arriving, the mom goes missing and some very bad people come sniffing around, searching for some money they claim belongs to them. Mess tries to pump the boy for helpful information, but he’s in full uncooperative teen mode—grunts, shrugs, and monosyllabic answers. From what he does learn, Mess can tell he’s not getting the straight scoop. It’s not long before the boy vanishes too. Abducted? Run away? Something worse? And who took the missing money? Mess, along with his friend Vell Jackson and local news reporter Lia Katsaros, take to the streets to locate the missing mother and son—and the elusive, abusive husband—before the kneecapping loansharks find them first.

31 October 2023

What is Real Courage?

Earlier this week, Melodie Campbell ran a column here at SleuthSayers about couragehow it takes guts to be a writer. She mentioned Harper Lee's groundbreaking book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which addressed what true courage is in a conversation between Atticus, the father in the story, and his son, Jem. Atticus says, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."

Interestingly, I was planning to write about the same subject today. I have a new story that should be available soon titled "Real Courage," inspired in part by the same goal that Harper Lee mentioned, showing what real courage can be. My story doesn't involve a good man standing up to a town full of racists. Harper Lee did that better than I ever could. In my story, you'll see some courageous acts that are big and others that might seem small, but they all take guts. Here are some of them:

  • Standing up for yourself when the other person can ruin you
  • Following through with a promise to help a friend no matter what, even if the "no matter what" is riskysomething no one would expect of you
  • Covering up a crime to protect your child
  • Risking your future to make things right

"Real Courage" is told linearly from four points of view, starting with a teenage girl in the 1980s, moving on to her child more than thirty years later, then onto her husband, and ending with the perspective of another teenage girl, one the mother tried to help. It's a story about the ramifications of a seemingly insignificant incident and how it winds up affecting so many lives over so many years. It's a story about unexpected consequences. And it's a story about courage.

I don't want to go into too many details. I'd rather you read the story and be surprised. But I will say that one thing I wanted to illustrate with the story is that sometimes what seems right yet difficult, what can be courageous to do, is also the wrong choice. Not always but sometimes. 

"Real Courage" is included in issue 14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The issue is listed as available for purchase on Amazon, but due to some behind-the-scene issues, the only current seller is a bookshop in England. I'm told Amazon itself should show up as the seller soon (I believe, I hope, that means in the next week or two), enabling people in the US to get local delivery.

Finally, a bit of BSP before I finish: I'm happy to share that last week my story "Beauty and the Beyotch" won this year's Macavity Award for Best Mystery Short Story. The story also won the Agatha Award in the spring and the Anthony Award in September. It originally appeared in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. I'm beyond thrilled by the reception the story has received. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you will.

10 October 2023

Stop throwing shade on "write what you know"

If there's writerly advice that's ever received a bad rap, it is "write what you know."

Yep, as predictedI see 'emthe pitchforks are coming out. Mention "write what you know" and many people will roll their eyes at such a stupid suggestion, wishing you and your bad advice would crawl back under a rock. But I'm here today to make a spirited defense of this misunderstood advice. 

Let's think about why this advice is often given. There could be other reasons, but I imagine these two are foremost in the minds of WWYK (let's use the acronym or we could be here all day) advocates:

Reason 1: Newer writers may feel intimidated, wanting to write but not sure what to write about, so teachers try to make them feel comfortable and encourage them to write about something they know about, something they've experienced. Ask me to write a short story involving a rocket engineer who's going about his workday, and I certainly wouldn't begin typing eagerly, because I don't know anything about how rocket engineers spend their day. But ask me to write a story about a newspaper reporter working in the 1990s and I could put my fingers to my keyboard immediately. That's what I did for a living back then.

Reason 2: Readers like to be able to sink into a story when they're reading, to lose themselves, not even realizing they're turning the pages. One thing that will interfere with thisthat will throw readers out of a story, if not make them want to throw the book out of a windowis if the story has incorrect details. How many times have you, dear reader, stopped reading to mutter, "That's not right. That's not how it works!"? Things like that take the enjoyment out of reading. When you write about things you don't know about, you're likely to get details wrong. But if you WWYK, this is less likely.

I can hear some of you grumbling that fiction involves making things up, so WWYK shouldn't apply. I disagree. Your story should come from your imagination, but your details should be true to life unless you've made clear that you are writing about an alternate reality. Want to write a historical novel set in 1800 that refers back to our first president, John Adams? Even if you have the most rocking story, readers likely will skewer you for not knowing the first US president was George Washingtonunless you've made clear that your story involves alternate history. Like it or not, details matter.

Butand here comes the important partthis doesn't mean that you should only write about things you've experienced. It doesn't mean you can't write stories set before you were born or involving things you haven't done. It means if you want to write about such things, you should do enough research so you get your details right (see Reason 2). (I don't doubt that some people have said writers should only write about things they've experienced firsthand, but I think such advice is misguided and hopefully a rarity.)

So, want to write about a character who's a rocket engineer but you're not? Then do your research so you'll get the details about her workday correct. Want to write about a big-city environmental attorney but you're not sure what such a person does or even what the inside of a large law firm looks like? Once again: do your research. 

Once you've done your research, you'll know the ins and outs of whatever it is you want to write about. You'll be more comfortable starting to type, and your readers will be in better hands when you finish.

That's the real beauty of WWYK. Once you've done your research, you'll be able to get your details right because you'll KNOW them. Then you can write about anything.