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

28 May 2024

Understanding a Story's True Meaning

It's strange how you (okay, I) can start writing a story intending it to be about one thing, and in the end, realize it's really about something else. Has that happened to you?

With my newest story, "A Matter of Trust," I wanted to portray the dissolution of a marriage (with a crime thrown in, of course). The story opens with a happily married couple enjoying dinner. An argument develops because the wife is worried about her husband's health. His blood sugar is too high, thanks to his love of jelly. He agrees to start cycling, a way to get his weight--and his blood sugar--under control. The argument ends, and the two are happy once more. For a time anyway. Neither of them foresee that the husband would become addicted to the jelly donuts sold by a shop in town--a shop he begins to secretly ride his bicycle to each day. And they certainly don't anticipate the events that would come from that addiction.

As my writing progressed, I realized that the husband--the main character--was an emotional eater, and jelly (rather than his wife) was the love of his life. I started working that concept into the story, going back to the beginning and layering the idea into the husband's thoughts. I'd expected that doing so would be enough for the man's actions to not only be believable but also understandable, even if the reader wouldn't agree with them. He would be a real person, rather than a character who did things because the plot dictated it. That should have been enough for a solid story.

But when I reached the end, I realized, what I'd written still wasn't enough. (Don't you hate when that happens?) Why had this guy come to associate jelly with love? That was the key question. Once I figured out the answer and layered it into the story, only then did the husband become full-blown and the story have real heft. Only then did I realize that a story about the dissolution of a marriage turned out to actually be a story about ... Well, I'm not going to say. I don't want to give everything away. (But I promise, there's a crime in there!)

This type of analysis can be useful for most stories. Readers become invested when characters feel real. So the more an author understands why a character does what he or she does, the more the character will (hopefully) come across as a complex human being rather than a cardboard cutout. 

I hope I've enticed you to read "A Matter of Trust," maybe with a jelly donut by your side. The story is in the anthology THREE STRIKES--YOU'RE DEAD!, which was published a month ago by Wildside Press. Every story in the book involves crime and sports (baseball--major league, minor league, and high school--biathlon, boxing, bull riding, figure skating (that story is by fellow SleuthSayer Joseph S. Walker), marching band/football, running, swimming, tennis, ultimate Frisbee, zorbing, and cycling, of course). It can be purchased in trade paperback and ebook formats from the usual online sources. The trade paperback also can be purchased directly from the publisher.

Before I go, I'm delighted to share two bits of news:

  • My short story "Real Courage" is a finalist for this year's Anthony Award. You can find links to read all five of the nominated stories for free by clicking here.
  • I have been named the recipient of this year's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award--the lifetime achievement award given by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. This award is given for "having produced an impressive body of short crime fiction" and for "having made a major impact on the genre." To say I'm honored to have been selected is the height of understatement. The award will be given out during opening ceremonies at Bouchercon in August. I hope to see you there.

07 May 2024

Three Strikes--You're Dead!

I have a bad cold, so my good friend and fellow editor Donna Andrews has agreed to step in and write today's post. Thank you, and take it away, Donna!

--Barb Goffman

Three Strikes--You’re Dead!
by Donna Andrews

Thank you, SleuthSayers, for giving me a chance to apologize to SJ Rozan, basketball fan extraordinaire. Marcia Talley, Barb Goffman, and I didn’t exactly promise her a hoops story when we recruited her to do the introduction to our sports-themed anthology. But you’d think at least one of our contributors would have been captured by the thrill of a fast-paced court battle, the lure of the layup, the drama of dribbling and dunking. But no.

And now it can be revealed for the first time--I tried, SJ, I really did. I tried so hard to convince at least one of the contributors to revise their story to feature basketball instead of whatever sport they’d chosen instead.

I started with Robin Templeton, who’s always eager to listen to good editorial input. But she reminded me that “Eight Seconds to Live” was about bull-riding, and a dangerous bull being used as a weapon. She very rationally pointed out that basketballs rarely go on murderous rampages, and did we want to lose all her carefully researched rodeo local color? She had a point.

I made the same pitch to Kathryn Prater Bomey, whose “Running Interference” features high school football. Why not high school basketball instead? She reminded me that a marching band also plays a
part in the plot, and when was the last time you saw one of those invading the court between quarters?

Sherry Harris pointed out that while it was perfectly plausible for her hard-working PI to get roped into a coeducational game of ultimate Frisbee while working undercover, basketball teams rarely need to draft spectators from the stands when one of their teammates goes AWOL, so adding hoops to “The Ultimate Bounty Hunter” was a no-go.

I could have made a good pitch to the authors of the three baseball stories in the collection--“hey, we’ve got other baseball stories . . . don’t you want to stand out as the only basketball tale?” But Alan Orloff’s “Murder at Home” features such a unique method of dealing death on the diamond. F. J. Talley’s “Cui Bono” captures so nicely the pressure of a minor leaguer wanting to move up to the majors. And Rosalie Spielman’s “Of Mice and Murdered Men” reminded me of those bygone days when I spent many long summer afternoons watching my nephews’ Little League games. I left them alone. We did call the book Three Strikes--You’re Dead! We needed a good dose of baseball.

I didn’t even ask Sharon Taft to consider changing “Race to the Bottom,” her story about zorbing, which is a sport invented (some say) in the 1980s by England’s Dangerous Sports Club. Alas, when you zorb, you’re traveling inside a giant transparent plastic ball, not bouncing one around a court.

And I knew better than to suggest to Barb Goffman that she have the out-of-shape protagonist of “A Matter of Trust” take up basketball instead of biking. For one thing, basketball isn’t something you can ease into gently to regain fitness. And for another, she’d probably have told me that she knows a little about biking and absolutely nothing about basketball.

Nor did I suggest Maddi Davidson bring “Off the Beaten Trail” indoors, when the whole point of the story was to pit a solitary biathlon competitor in training against danger in a challenging wintry setting.
The same with Smita Harish Jain’s “Run for Your Life,” which sets an ingenious murder plot against the backdrop of the Boston Marathon.

By this time I’d gained a new appreciation for what our contributors had accomplished. Joseph S. Walker’s “And Now, an Inspiring Story of Tragedy Overcome” takes our collective memory of the attack on ice skater Nancy Kerrigan and asks a compelling “what it?” William Ade’s “Punch-Drunk” brings to life the seedy 60s milieu of a world-weary detective and a has-been boxer. Lynne Ewing’s “The Last Lap Goodbye” takes such perfect advantage of the plight of a solitary swimmer practicing late at night at a deserted pool. And Adam Meyer’s “Double Fault,” with its slow, insidious build as two tennis opponents exchange verbal volleys along with balls . . . all our contributors did a wonderful job of weaving murder into their chosen sports.

I gave up. When I was discussing the draft manuscript of Murder with Peacocks with Ruth Cavin, my first editor, she asked me why I’d done something or other that she didn’t like. And after I’d explained that I’d done it to comply with what I thought was one of the unwritten rules of writing a mystery, she said something that lived on in my memory: “Let it be the story it is.”

So I stopped trying to guilt-trip any of our wonderful contributors into adding basketball to their stories. Let them be the stories they are. They’re fine as is. In fact, they’re pretty darned great.

Sorry about that, SJ!

(And thanks again to Lucy Burdette, Dan Hale, and Naomi Hirahara for serving as judges for Three Strikes--You’re Dead!)

You can buy the paperback of this recently released book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publisher. Ebook version should be available soon.

16 April 2024

Killing in Different Ways

Recently, Agatha Award-winning short-story author Toni L.P. Kelner asked if she could run a guest post here on SleuthSayers, highlighting this year's Agatha Award finalists. Toni will be moderating our short story panel next week at Malice Domestic. I happily agreed.
— Barb Goffman

Killing in Different Ways
by Toni L.P. Kelner

Television performer Stephen Colbert says, “I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way.”

Since not all of us had crushes on people who hated their teachers, we’ve had to look elsewhere for our inspiration. In my case, I’ve written a story inspired by Scooby-Doo (“Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park”), another set in the restaurant where my grandfather ate breakfast every single workday for decades (“Kids Today”), and one after reading a book about life as a carney (“Sleeping With the Plush”). And I’m always inspired by the stories nominated for the Agatha Awards.

In preparation for moderating the panel “Make It Snappy: the Agatha Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic, I asked this year’s nominees about their inspirations. Every answer was different and pretty darned inspiring.

Shelley Costa

Author of “The Knife Sharpener”

My inspiration to write short stories came in waves. When I was five, I took my pencil and paper, set down some words, and was amazed that I could make thing up. Things that had nothing to do with lullabies before bed, or struggling to learn to tie my shoes, or dealing with offending vegetables on my dinner plate. It was a kind of magic, or maybe a kind of power. In my high school creative writing class, the teacher was inspiring because she gave me a lot of latitude to write tortured love poetry and tortured love stories that even had a bit of suspense. I loaded all the poetic forms and devices she taught us into a speedy little vehicle for my imagination. And this teacher spent time exposing us to great stories, which was followed up with assignments to write “in the manner of” Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner.

nominated book cover
"The Knife Sharpener" appeared
in the July/August 2023 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

I believe it was during my junior year at Rutgers when something changed in me about writing stories. I felt it became more than a pastime. I had a glimmer of a life’s work. I declared an English major and got serious. One prof in particular, David Burrows (a ringer for D.H. Lawrence) was an inspiration to me just then. I took his Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner course, bedrock American fiction masters, and asked the prof if, instead of essays, I could write short stories inspired by their work. I got the go-ahead. We’ve all had profs that come at just the right time for us. In the Tao Te Ching, one of the teachings says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Because Prof. Burrows could tell he had someone on his hands who needed to show understanding of the subject in a different way from what was on the syllabus, I wrote a story inspired by the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, set in Paris of the 1920s...and that story, “Cup of Kindness, Cup of Cheer” was my first story sale. I was 22 when I sold it to the start-up Oui Magazine, a subsidiary of Playboy, and felt a professional writing career was unfurling right before my eyes. Could it be that kind of easy? No, it couldn’t. When the magazine underwent a big editorial change, my Scott and Zelda tale fell to the wayside, and the story has never been published. But that, too, became part of the professional writing career.

Although we can find inspiration in stargazing or surfgazing or a Beatles lyric, it really all comes down to the people along the way. It doesn’t take many. Just a few. The ones who hand you the pencil and paper at five, accept your earnest excesses at fifteen, nod at your bushwhacking your way into real storytelling at twenty-one – the ones who, all along, look at you and know. I’d like to think that inspiration goes both ways.

Barb Goffman

Author of “Real Courage”

When Toni asked us to write about someone or something that inspired us to write short stories, I’m sure she was expecting positive, heartfelt responses. Essays that would uplift the readers of this blog. Perhaps she’ll get that from the other finalists. But I’ve always liked to take the road less traveled, to quote a famous poet who truly knew about writing short. 

nominated book cover
"Real Courage" appeared in issue
14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine

So, my inspiration? It was, simply, revenge. I took off an expensive ring while washing my hands in a public restroom at Sleuthfest in 2004 and stupidly forgot it on the sink. In the ten minutes it took me to realize my blunder, it was found by someone who never turned it in to the hotel or convention organizers, despite my pleas in every session. I took that bad incident and turned it into something good, my first professionally published short story, “Murder at Sleuthfest,” in which I killed off the person who found my ring. I received my first Agatha nomination for that story, and it inspired many more involving revenge. These days, I don’t write a lot of revenge stories, but every now and then I do because payback can be fun. (For the recipients, it might be a bitch, but who cares about them? Wink.) 

Now that you’re hopefully smiling—I do love writing humor, even though “Real Courage” isn’t one of my funny stories—I’ll quickly mention a couple of people who believed in me long before I started writing crime fiction: First, Frank Scoblete, who was my high school newspaper advisor. He told me that there was always room at the top, and that’s where I belonged. Perhaps he said that to a lot of students, but he still buoyed my confidence. Second, one of the editors at the Cincinnati Enquirer, whose name I can't remember, but whose words I do. I was an intern, and when he asked about my plans for after grad school, I mentioned that I’d loved living in DC, but I couldn’t expect to find a reporting job there. It was the big league. He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “Why can’t you be in the big league?” These two men believed in my writing talent, and their faith in me gave me confidence when I decided to try writing fiction. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I thank you.

Richie Narvaez

Author of “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective”

One day my brother brought home a book he had been reading for a class on crime fiction: The Great American Detective (New American Library, 1978), edited by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer. The class was done, and since he was more concerned with car payments than collecting books, he said I could have it. The book changed my life. Oh, I had read some mystery and murder fiction—mostly comics. And I had seen my fair share of Cannon, Columbo, Baretta, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Streets of San Francisco, Barney Miller, etc., etc. Hell, even every episode of The Snoop Sisters. But this book was a revelation. I dove into crime fiction and never surfaced.

nominated book cover
"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective"
appeared in Killin' Time in San Diego

The subtitle on the cover reads “15 Stories Starring America’s Most Celebrated Private Eyes.” I had to look that up because my well-worn copy no longer has a cover. And, while they’re not all strictly PIs, the short story collection does feature some of the most famous detectives who ever existed on the page, from before the Golden Age and up to the ’70s: Nick Carter, Race Williams, Sam Spade, the Shadow, Hildegarde Withers, Philip Marlowe, Ellery Queen, Lew Archer, even Mack Bolan (think Jack Reacher, but shorter). But one particular sleuth stands out, in light of my story getting nominated for an Agatha.

“Bullet for One,” by Rex Stout, was no doubt my very first exposure to Nero Wolfe. In it, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the murder of an industrial designer. It’s long, it’s talky, but Wolfe fiercely leaps off the page. Which is about as much moving as he ever does, but it’s immensely impressive. It was Wolfe who inspired my story, “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective” (published in Killin’ Time in San Diego, Down & Out Books, edited by Holly West). “Shamu” features what you might call a Nero Wolfe from the multiverse—a killer whale who, through the use of cybernetics, is not an armchair detective but a poolside detective, and whose tough-talking assistant, Angie Gomez, does all the (literal and figurative) legwork. If not for encountering Wolfe, et al., in The Great American Detective, I might never have become as obsessed with the hard-boiled and clue-laden flummery of crime fiction as I am today.

Kristopher Zgorski

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

As a former English major, I have read hundreds of short stories. So many of them impart lessons about the craft of writing—as well as about life, in general. There are probably about fifty of them that attached themselves to my soul and to which I continue to return to over and over again.

nominated book cover
"Ticket to Ride" appeared in
Happiness is a Warm Gun

“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker (of The Color Purple fame) is one such story. This story first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1973. I am touched by its subtlety. In just a very honest exchange between family members, readers learn so much about Black culture and the nature of family dynamics. In the story, Mrs. Johnson is waiting on her lawn for a visit from her older daughter, while her younger daughter, Maggie—who is disfigured by burn scars and has never left home—waits by her side. College educated Dee is coming over to collect some “artifacts” from her Mom to display in her new home. Once she arrives, Dee informs her family that she has changed her name to a more “traditionally” African name (Wangero) and introduces her new Muslim husband. Eventually, a conflict arises over some heirloom quilts that Dee (Wangero) wants to take to hang on the wall. But Mrs. Johnson says she promised those to Maggie. Wangero’s argument is that this is crazy, since Maggie would just put them on the bed and use them—which the mother points out is the true “purpose” of a quilt. 

What is fascinating about this story is that while it is told from Mrs. Johnson’s point of view, readers who spend the time imagining themselves in each character’s place will see that they all have valid arguments and reasons for their beliefs. It is with that realization that the story elevates from a domestic squabble into a cultural study. In just a few short pages, Alice Walker weaves in the legacy of slavery, loyalty to family, generational trauma, and above all Love (with a capital L). It’s a beautiful short story that is not easily forgotten.

Dru Ann Love

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

I never had a desire to write, but when given the opportunity, I had to take it. My inspiration for writing the short story was my collaborator, Kristopher Zgorski. I knew he had the writing bug and if I could help him get a short story out to the world, I was going to help him achieve this goal.

nominated book cover
"A Good Judge of Character"
appeared in Mystery Most Traditional

Tina deBellegarde

Author of “A Good Judge of Character”

Unfortunately, Tina was unable to participate in this blog. If you read her work, you can tell she’s got plenty of inspiration, but what she’s short on right now is time. As I write this, she’s preparing a wedding reception for her son and new daughter-in-law. But don’t worry. After the festivities, she’ll be attending Malice Domestic.

If you’re coming to Malice Domestic 2024 and want to hear more from these inspired—and inspiring—authors, come by Ballroom B/C at 2 PM on Friday, April 26.

And Malice Domestic attendees, don’t forget to read these authors’ stories before the Agatha Award voting deadline (1 PM, Saturday, April 27). To read each one, click on the story titles below.

"The Knife Sharpener" by Shelley Costa

"A Good Judge of Character" by Tina deBellegarde

"Real Courage" by Barb Goffman

"Ticket to Ride" by Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski

"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective" by Richie Narvaez

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.)