Showing posts with label David Dean. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Dean. Show all posts

11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)


By Art Taylor

In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!



20 November 2018

Putting the Happy in Happy Thanksgiving


by Barb Goffman

It's two days until Thanksgiving, and I bet some of you are stressed. Maybe it's because you're cooking and ... it's the first time you're hosting, and you want it to be perfect. Or your mother-in-law is coming, and your turkey never lives up to hers. Or the weatherman is predicting snow on Thanksgiving and you're afraid that your relatives won't show up ... or maybe that they will.

Or maybe your stress stems from being a guest. Are you an introvert, dreading a day of small talk with the extended family? A picky eater, going to the home of a gourmet who makes food way to fancy for your tastes? Or are you a dieter, going to the home of someone who likes to push food and you're likely to spend the day going, "no thanks, no rolls for me," "no thanks, no candied yams for me," "no thanks, no cookies for me," ... "dear lord, lady, what part of no thanks don't you get?"

No matter who you are, or what your situation, Thanksgiving can cause stress. The best way to deal with stress is laughter. And that's where I come in. So set down that baster and get ready to smile, because I've got some fictional characters who've had a worse Thanksgiving than you.

Paul and Jamie Buchman from Mad About You
 

They tried so hard to make the perfect dinner ... only to have their dog, Murray, eat the turkey.


Rachel Green from Friends


All she wanted was to cook a nice dessert for her friends ... only to learn too late that she wasn't supposed to put beef in the trifle. It did not taste good.


The Gang from Cheers 


Those poor Thanksgiving orphans. They waited hours for a turkey that just wouldn't cook ... only to then suffer the indignity of being involved in a food fight. (For anyone who's ever read my story "Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy," this Cheers episode was the inspiration.)


Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond


She was determined to have a happy Thanksgiving despite her overly critical mother-in-law ... only to drop her uncooked turkey on the floor three times before flinging it into the oven. Yum.



Arthur Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati




He wanted to create the greatest promotion ever, inviting the public to a shopping mall and providing free turkeys ... live ones ... only to learn too late that turkeys don't fly so when you toss them out of a helicopter from 2,000 feet in the air they hit the ground like sacks of wet cement.


Garner Duffy from "Bug Appétit"


All this con man wanted for Thanksgiving was to eat some good food at his mark's home before stealing her jewelry ... only to learn too late that her mother is an ... inventive cook. ("Bug Appétit" is my story in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I'm so pleased to have heard from several readers who enjoyed it, including one who called it "hilarious.")

So, dear readers, I hope you're smiling and feeling less stressed. If you'd like to read my story, you could pick up a copy of the current EQMM, available in some Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million bookstores, as well as in an electronic version. You can find more information about getting the magazine here. The issue also has a story from SleuthSayer alum David Dean that I'm sure you'll enjoy.) As to the TV episodes mentioned above, I bet you can find them all online.

Until next time, please share your favorite funny turkey day story (fictional or real) in the comments. Happy Thanksgiving!

15 June 2018

Story & Structure: "English 398: Fiction Workshop" in EQMM


By Art Taylor

Writers often get questions about the weight of character and plot in their works, the balance between them—which they start with when sitting down to write or which ultimately drives the story as it unfolds.

For me, another element seems both inseparable from a story's success and the key, for me, in figuring out how to write it in the first place: structure.

My fiction workshops at George Mason University focus on narrative structure first and foremost. While we obviously discuss character and plot and dialogue and setting and... well, everything that goes into making a story, the semester itself is divided into two assignments: first, write a linear story (chronologically driven start to finish, rising action leading scene by scene to a climax, Aristotelian really), and then write a modular story... which may require some explanation. In class, I assign Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design, which likens modular design to the mosaic—bits and pieces of narrative adding up to a more complex whole—and then analyzes modular stories by breaking them down into various vectors, looking at how those vectors interweave and interact.

At its most basic level, there are several ways to understand vectors as they contribute to modular design. Imagine a story that shuttles section by section between two different time frames—exploring how past events impact the present. Or a story with several different narrators, interweaving various contrasting/conflict points of view to reach a clearer truth (I did this myself in my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants," navigating the points of view of all three characters in a love triangle.) Or perhaps two seemingly unrelated tales which dovetail on some thematic point. Bell's Narrative Design is also an anthology, and one of my favorite stories is Gilmore Tamny's "Little Red," with one of the vectors narrator the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the other providing commentary from the narrator herself, analyzing the fairy tale, fretting over the themes and implications, even arguing with Little Red herself at various points.

I'll admit that I thrilled by experimental structures. Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" is one of my favorite stories, whose short sections swoop through various perspectives, fears, fantasies, and possibilities all centered on the title character. And then there's Joyce Carol Oates' "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again: Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; A Happy Ending..." which plays with chronology and perspective so magically. It's a story I teach and reread regularly, I just find it so endlessly fascinating.

Both of these stories were among the inspirations for my new story in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and its full title shows a clear nod toward Oates' story: "English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More."

As the title promises, the story is an amalgam of bits and pieces—with those "note from class" providing the overall framework, punctuating the story with the kinds of advice and guidance that are common to creative writing courses: show, don't tell; use sensory detail; escalate the conflict in as many ways as possible; that sort of thing. A draft from one of the workshop's students is submitted, along with her own notes about other characters, other potential plots twists. Students comment on the draft. And then comes a discussion with the professor—that conference being a required part of the whole process. The "& More" is basically an article from the student newspaper (and I anticipate that last element is part of what prompted Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books to comment on the kinds of "contemporary social issues" I'm weaving into the story; thanks again, Kris, for the kind words).

The structure here may not be to everyone's tastes, I recognize that, but I hope that the plot itself will prove interesting and those characters at the core of it—basically, as one of the workshop participants comments, "James M. Cain relocated to a college campus," charting a dalliance between a college professor and one of his top students and then the fallout from that relationship.

(Though I actually teach "English 398: Fiction Workshop" at George Mason University, the story is, um, not autobiographical. Just feel the need to point that out (again and again (and again)).)

Finally on this story, I want to say how pleased I am that EQMM not only gave me a shout-out on the cover but also top billing there—even above recent MWA Grand Master Peter Lovesey, which kind of astounds me. I've already been sampling other stories in the issue—including "The Mercy of Thaddeus Burke," a terrific tale by former SleuthSayer David Dean—and look forward to reading more, with another SleuthSayer in the mix as well, Janice Law with "The Professor," another academic mystery! Looks like a great issue, and I'm honored to be part of it.

15 May 2017

The Ties That Bind


  Family Fortnight +   Today, the 15th of May, marks the International Day of Families. For the past two weeks, our mystery writers have written of kith and kin, of loved ones and dear ones, and we have more articles to go plus some follow-ups. We’re happy to invite David and daughter to celebrate this world holiday. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Dean and Bridgid Dean

Today is International Family Day, an occasion that I was unaware of until Leigh Lundin made me so. He also asked if I would consider writing an article on the subject. Being an internationally recognized expert on the subject of families, this was agreeable to me.

Most of us have families, whether through blood, adoption, or, in some cases, through convenient, and hopefully beneficial, social arrangements. I wouldn't be going out on a limb if I also added that most of us have, or have had, conflicting feelings about these same families. It's safe to say that much of the stress, anguish, and worry we experience in our lives comes as a result of these unruly, and often ungovernable, social units. Growing up we can hardly contain our exuberance when thinking of that blessed day when we, too, will be adults like our awful parents… and free! Then, for reasons both unclear and diabolical, we finally do leave home, find a mate, produce children, and become truly awful parents ourselves. Maybe not every moment of every day (we do have to sleep after all), but in the invisible yet meticulously maintained ledger of infractions kept by all children, we are judged sadly lacking in all the important categories. Clearly, the only thing learned from our own awful parents was to reproduce their sad failings. And then there's adolescence…

When children enter into this infernal stage the very gates of family hell swing wide emitting foul odors and spewing forth imps and devils, artfully, and awfully, disguised as your own issue. Entering into this dark region slays and tramples all remaining hopes but one– that someday, and God willing, someday soon, those children of the damned will also be visited with adulthood and leave the family manse… if it still stands!

And yet, for reasons that are mostly unreasonable, we find ourselves dreading that day, as well, and saddened when it finally does happen; comically nostalgic for the days we were a young family. Even those children turned adults, having now tasted the dubious freedoms they once longed for, purr like contented kittens during visits home. It has even been remarked by my children that their mother and I have grown more intelligent and reasonable with the years, a possibility none of them had foreseen.

So how did we weather the tumultuous years that we now look back so fondly to? There were two methods employed to save us from the lengthy prisons terms we all contemplated from time to time. The first was a dog. Not just any dog, but a Welsh Corgi. We are a Celtic-derived family and therefore must have a Celtic canine. Silke, as she came to be called, fit right in, being both untrainable and demanding. She was just as uncompromising as the rest of us, only probably smarter. Yet, the kids adored her, and their mother and I were roped in as well.

Corgi
In a very Celtic way Silke became our sin-eater. No matter how badly we behaved toward one another, she was always available to be stroked and petted, somehow soothing and calming us in the process of tending to her unending need for affection. By being so needy and demanding, she drew us out of our own selfishness. And because she was inadvertently comical and endearing, she was a subject we could always talk about. Silke was a movable conflict-free zone.

But it is the second method--reading, that is more germane to this blog site. The family I grew up in did not often indulge in the written word. My parents were not well educated and, having grown up working, had never had the leisure time for recreational reading. It was my good fortune, and through their hard work, that I was provided with that very luxury– a gift beyond rubies. Not that they encouraged me to read, but seeing that I had a knack for it, they did not oppose it. In fact, when they observed that I was becoming a voracious reader of stories, novels, newspapers, and comic books, they were mildly amused, if somewhat cautious, being unsure of the results of such indiscriminate mental activity.

At greater family gatherings it was sometimes pointed out with a certain pride that I read a lot of books. My relatives' reaction to such an announcement ran the gamut from mild astonishment as to why anyone would do such a thing, to concern for my mental health and spiritual well-being. Still, I pressed on, and many years later looked about me one day to find that all of my own progeny had picked up books from somewhere and were reading them. It must have been the silence and unaccustomed peacefulness of my suddenly unfamiliar surroundings that tipped me off. I had failed to notice the start of this phenomenon and was, like my relatives before me, mildly astonished at the development. Could it be that my children and I shared some common thread beside DNA, I asked myself. Was it possible?

Like an animal trainer that's been bitten and mauled, I proceeded with caution, gently inquiring as to the subjects of their readings, while sliding books of my own choosing through the bars of their theoretical cages. Mostly, after a sniff or two, these were rejected– though not with snarls or bared fangs, just shifted back to me without comment. I was encouraged and found that with patience and literary forbearance we soon began to use the spoken word to discuss authors and stories, even progressing to the ideas and inspirations that might have motivated them. And all of this without heated argument or emotional eruptions! I questioned my own sanity. Could this really be happening? My wife assured me that it was all real.

Julian and J. Joyce in Dublin
Oh, how I wish I could say that the Dean household's serenity was nevermore disturbed by a voice raised in anger, or shrill with indignation. Alas for all you hopeful young parents out there, it cannot be done. We devolved on more occasions than I would willingly recall… but now there were bright oases that we arrived at from time to time in our family journey, like restful, green isles scattered across a turbulent, grey sea. Just when it seemed that my mutinous crew would finally toss me overboard, we would wash up onto a wide, warm beach and peace be restored with the opening of a book.

Many years later, I still discuss stories, books, and writers with my adult children. And it's rare I come away from visits to their homes without a book selected from their shelves.

Our son, Julian, is turning his love of reading into a profession, having just been accepted into Notre Dame University's PH.d program for literature. He will be specializing in Irish works. It seems Ireland has produced some decent authors over the years. Who knew?

My eldest girl, Tanya, still waxes nostalgic over our reading of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when she was but a child.

Her sister, Bridgid, not only retained her appetite for literature, but has become a writer, as well, having produced her first novella, The Girl In The Forest. (You'll hear from her in just a moment.)

So here you have it, on this International Family Day, all of my wisdom and experience contained in these two exhortations: Get a pet and scatter books about like landmines! It worked for us and could for you.



Bridgid’s View of Things

While it is hard to argue with the notion that my parents have grown more reasonable over the years since we've left home (probably because they didn't have us kids around, irritating them to distraction!) I would like to point out that I always thought they were intelligent. This point was particularly impressed upon me when, at the age of eight, I heard that my dad was going to have a story published for the first time.

My sister was already in college and my brother was only five, but I was at home and just old enough to be in the midst of really discovering reading for myself. I recall eight as the age when the books no longer had pictures, becoming, instead, thin novels with exciting covers, full of amazing plot twists. They were peopled with characters that made you wonder who you might one day be, what you might do in those unfathomable years ahead. I was probably in the midst of devouring yet another John Bellairs book when I heard the news of the my dad's first story being published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magzine. And, as though someone had opened a window in the house, a fresh breeze scented with possibility wafted through, rifling the pages of my book.

This was also the year in school when we first had to keep a journal as an assignment, writing for some designated period of each day. It soon became apparent that I loved to write; my classmates would gladly close their notebooks once they had completed the minimum requirement but I kept going, filling page after page, stopping only when the teacher said we had to move on to something else. Later in the year, while talking about occupations, my teacher said she could see me becoming a writer. Right then and there I decided that that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Quite thoughtfully, my dad had just begun proving that this was an achievable goal for readers like us.

As my dad mentioned, books were always present in our house. Book shelves were stocked like bomber pantries, the library was visited twice a week, and favorite books were passed between us like sacred gifts. My sister's gift of the Hobbit, decades later, still sits on my shelf, read many times. From my dad I got Graham Greene, from my mother, Jane Austen. To my brother I bequeathed Anne Rice, though he might not care to admit it to his fellow doctoral students.

Happy International Family Day
Even when distance or time kept us from discussing a book that we had shared, the act of sharing it always felt significant. My older sister is the fantasy reader amongst us, with the Hobbit she offered me a doorway into a world to which I had not yet entered, but one that I knew was very significant to her.

Books felt, sometimes, like keys in this way. Keys to the inner worlds of our family members, keys to what they loved, and a means of sharing in it. Books have provided a common ground, a shared interest, and, at times, something else to argue about. What could be more significant?

Well… okay. Maybe a Corgi.

20 January 2017

Ending Before the Ending


by Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Robert Lopresti posted his list of the best short stories of 2016—a fine slate of stories, and it was great to see a couple of my own favorites in there as well, along with some stories I didn't know and now need to track down.

One of those stories—"The Last Blue Glass" by fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens in Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine—has been on my mind recently, as has another story by one of our group—"Stepmonster" by Barb Goffman in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning—not solely because of how much I enjoyed and admired them (I did, and I do!) but because of a structural approach that each story shares. (Each story is linked so you can enjoy and admire for yourself!)

In several ways, the stories might seem to have little in common. "The Last Blue Glass" is a much longer story, covering nine years; it's presented in the third person, from the perspective of a woman who goes from newlywed wife to troubled widow; and it is fairly traditionally told, summary and scene gliding one into the other to navigate those long years and the moments key to the story. In contrast, "The Stepmonster" is narrated in first-person and takes place over a fairly short amount of time, two short scenes, and with a twist, one scene commenting on the other in ways that I won't divulge so that readers can enjoy the twist themselves.

But while the overall structures and time-frames and points of view are different, each story centers on a moment of revenge—though even as I write that, I recognize that center might well be a misleading word, since the "central" action of each story isn't at the center of its tale; in fact (small spoiler alert?), those moments of revenge never actually occur within the confines of the stories themselves. It's this latter similarity that struck me as I reflected on the stories—how each story draws to its end by looking ahead, past the final word of the story and into the (figurative) blankness beyond, where the next bit of the drama, arguably the most dramatic bit, will actually happen.

The structure of Barb's story is unique because that forecasting of the drama circles back on itself, as you'll see when you read it. What happens in the beginning of the story foreshadows what will likely occur next. And in Bonnie's case, the final scenes sketch out the narrator's intentions and how the plans should play out. But likely and should are key words here, and the authors' decisions in each case not to dramatize these scenes allow the reader's imagination a greater degree of involvement—allowing the story to linger on in that imagination, the events to spool ahead in the reader's mind beyond the so-called "end" of the story proper.

A few years back, I wrote a short essay to help debut the then-new blog "Something Is Going to Happen" from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and I took the blog's title as a starting point for my thoughts on open or unfinished endings, where the something that is going to happen next is hinted at but not fully dramatized. In my post, subtitled "Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next" (and linked here), I talk about a couple of Stanley Ellin stories I admire and particularly "The Moment of Decision," certainly one of my all-time favorite stories, which (another small spoiler!) ends dramatically just before the moment in the title, leaving the reader both to wonder what decision is reached and to ponder what decision he or she would make in similar circumstances (a question which has provoked great discussion in my classes when I've taught this story, I should stress).

I won't revisit every point of that post, but reading and studying Bonnie's and Barb's stories reveal to me again of the importance of structuring your storytelling (as much as your plot, not the same thing) and of the power in handing over some of that process to the readers themselves, drawing them in, involving them if not even making them complicit (and I'll stress again that each of these stories is about revenge).

And yet, looking back over that post for EQMM and some of the stories I sampled there, and looking at Barb's and Bonnie's stories, I also realize that there are a couple of different ways that "ending before the ending" might play out—with different ways of involving the reader and different effects on their experience.

One approach, like Ellin's, is to leave something fundamental unanswered and some aspect of the ending more fully unresolved. While I would argue—vigorously—that Ellin's story isn't "unfinished" (a much longer and more detailed post), there are clearly two dramatically different choices that could be made by the narrator, and each choice could then branch out into several different outcomes, depending on other factors in the story. In short, that blank page beyond the final sentence is filled with unanswered questions and possibilities; an enterprising writer could, by my count, pursue at least four distinctly different combinations of events, each with their own stakes, to describe what happens next. (Note to any enterprising writers: Please don't try to write the ending. The story is really fine like it is.)

In a similar vein, Ed Gorman's "Out There in the Darkness" (which I also mentioned in the original EQMM post) ends with a looming sense of dread but little certainty about what's ahead—a character "waiting" but will the thing he's waiting for actually transpire? There's little certainty how the rest of his story will play out, but the sense of doom and dread are palpable—more so because we the reader share it, perched on the edge of the unknown.

The second approach is to wrap up the story more fully, pointing to what's ahead without dramatizing it actually happening. In this case, the reader's imagination still fills in some of the blanks but in a more focused way. At the end of David Dean's fabulous "Ibrahim's Eyes" (available as part of EQMM's podcast series), there's little doubt about what will happen mere seconds after the final words of the story, so the reader doesn't need to wonder or ponder over unanswered questions; instead, what the reader does is conjure up those next moments for him/herself—engaged more fully in that process, I would argue, than if David had simply written the next lines. Pulling back, letting the reader fill in to complete the story, is here too a powerful move—without the uncertainty of the first approach I mentioned above (inviting the reader's intellectual engagement, particularly in the Ellin story) but with perhaps a greater emotional involvement.

Barb's and Bonnie's stories lie closer to this latter approach, I think—sketching out, as I said, the events that will follow, the characters' plans/expectations for what's next. Obviously those plans might not play out exactly as these characters expect but the level of uncertainty there is lesser than in a more open ending and the effect is different, ultimately bringing the reader emotionally closer to the characters, even complicit in their plan.

Speaking of sketching, I feel like I'm still only sketching out some of my thoughts on this topic—even here taking a second try at refining my thoughts on this idea. But in the spirit of leaving endings open, I hope there's room for readers here to do their own thinking on the topic—and again, I hope I've spurred you to read these fine stories themselves. 

31 October 2016

At Last


By Fran Rizer

Today is October 31, 2016--Halloween.  Also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Eve, Halloween begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembrance of the dead.

To most of us, Halloween is a holiday characterized by the dispensing of candy to costumed young people who threaten, "Trick or treat."  Other traditions include costume contests and parades.  When I taught elementary school, teachers and parents worked together to hold Halloween carnivals for students.  Before my retirement, these changed to Fall Festivals, and scary costumes (such as vampires, werewolves, skeletons, zombies, and this year--clowns) were forbidden because some people felt that Halloween was a celebration of witchcraft.

The traditions of Halloween include decorations such as black cats and pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns as well as activities like apple bobbing, pranks,  bonfires, and divination games.  In some parts of the world, Christian observances include church services and lighting candles on graves.

What accounts for the popularity of the non-religious aspects of Halloween? I believe it's because humans like to be scared--so long as what frightens us isn't real.  We might think that fall and Halloween would amplify the appeal of spookiness, but horror is a genre that transcends season.

How does the title "At Last" relate to Halloween and the horror genre?  Recently I've been doing a lot of writers' workshops in South Carolina libraries.  One of my most popular is entitled "A Late Start." The topic is writing as a second career after my retirement including disadvantages of waiting so long to begin writing fiction as well as the obvious advantages of greater maturity and vaster experiences. The workshops include tips on speeding up the process of successful writing and publishing.  The story of my first horror book proves that I don't always follow my own advice when it comes to fast writing and quick publication.

"At Last" would work as well if this blog referred to my first novel in 2007 as it does now to my tenth book released this month, but Leigh Lundin didn't invite me to return to SleuthSayers to summarize the workshop.  I'm here to tell you about my newest book and why "At Last" is a perfect title for this column.

The HORROR of JULIE BATES began several years ago as A Midnight Dreary and morphed into Something to Fear.  Both David Dean and Dixon Hill critiqued the manuscript during one of those phases, and I incorporated several of their suggestions. After numerous rewrites, my agent accepted it, but held back a year before pitching it.  Berkley was interested and made two suggestions.  Pardon my unladylike expression, but I busted my butt to work out the changes and dashed it off back to my agent in two weeks.  I didn't hear anything.

Sure, I wanted to push for a response, but we all know that it's not a good idea to put pressure on agents or editors.  After months and months, I asked the agent to touch base with the interested editor at Berkley.  I almost had another heart attack when I received an apology from my agent because he had forgotten to send her the manuscript revised to her requests.

Meanwhile, there had been major changes in the publishing world. To make a long story short (literally in this case), it was too late.

I began querying new agents and received some requests for the complete manuscript, but when Darren Foster at Odyssey South Publishing said, "Let us have it," I jumped at the chance.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, at last, my first horror novel is now available.  Here's the back copy:

                                 Who knew Columbia, South Carolina, could be so scary?

Julie Bates discovers a corpse in front of the Assembly Street post office.  Arson destroys her home the same day, but Julie's story is not a mystery.  It's horror--southern style.  Police officer Nate Adams thinks the killer who raped and murdered Julie's mother the year before is stalking Julie, but Julie's tormentor is not human.  The well-known ghosts of South Carolina barely skim the surface of the evil that awaits Julie Bates.  Move over, Amityville.  Columbia, South Carolina, is right there with you on the scale of terror.

How does a writer transition from cozyesque to horror? The preface explains:

When a red-haired woman approached me at a book-signing, I expected her to ask me to autograph one of my own cozy mysteries.  Instead, she asked me to write a book for her.  I went into my usual spiel that she could do a better job of putting her story on paper than I, but we agreed to meet in the coffee shop after the signing.  Writers are frequently approached to write or co-write someone else's story. Most of the time, we decline politely, but there was something about this mysterious stranger that made me hesitate to dismiss her so quickly,

The HORROR of JULIE BATES is that woman's story.  I spent many, many hours recording Julie Bates' tale and many more days and nights scaring myself as I wrote her story from her point of view, changing only names. The occasional third-person chapters were added after I was fortunate enough to obtain Richard Arthur's journal.

I have already received several emails questioning, "Did you make up this story or did a red-haired woman really tell it to you?"  I can honestly say the story came from a red-haired woman.

Long-time SleuthSayer readers know that I've jumped genre from cozies in the past when I wrote the thriller KUDZU RIVER.  I have no idea where I'll land next, but in the meantime,

Until we meet again, take care of . . .  you!
                                                                     

12 September 2016

Father and Daughter Act


by David and Bridgid Dean

Part One: Father Knows Best

If I had to choose a few adjectives with which to describe my life, it might be these: fortunate…blessed…lucky…providential. It’s not that I haven’t had a few set-backs and trials along the way—I wouldn’t be human if that weren’t true, but I have a lot to be grateful for—I have Bridgid… my daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for her siblings, too: older sister, Tanya, and younger brother, Julian. But, Bridgid and I, over the years, have forged a writing connection. I’ve shared a reading connection with all of them, but Bridgid evolved into a writer and that, as the Wizard says, “Is a horse of a different color.”

In order to properly train her for her chosen profession I’ve required that she read and edit nearly everything I’ve written over the past decade. This was not done, as some may suspect, because I am one of the cheapest SOB’s on the planet, but in order to provide depth to her appreciation of fine literature (mine) and round out her college education. The fact that her editorial eye virtually removed the element of chance in my story acceptance ratio is neither here nor there. I would have done her this fatherly kindness in any event. Plus, I did pay for that education. Now she’s gone and penned a novella.

Yes, for those of you who suspected this was going to be a shameless plug for mylatest non-selling novel, you were wrong. It’s a shameless plug for Bridgid’s book, The Girl In The Forest.

No, it’s not crime fiction like her old man pens, but it does contain intrigue, shady characters, and betrayal. Something we can all relate to. My daughter’s story is set in a world in which the border between reality and myth blurs and no one you meet is exactly whom they may appear to be. It’s fast-moving, readable, and features a very sympathetic heroine. As to how it came about, well, that’s a story I’ll leave for Bridgid to tell, as it’s as unique as the book she’s written. Oh, by the way, I finally returned the favor by helping to edit this, her first published work.

I also want to thank mighty Leigh Lundin for suggesting this post in the first place. Thanks, Leigh!



Part Two: When Life Serves You Lemons…

by Bridgid Dean

Bridgid Dean
Bridgid Dean
The idea behind The Girl in the Forest was born of a rather unfortunate event. In August of 2011, shortly after we were married, my husband and I had a tree fall on our house. Not a limb, and not a small tree, but a massive oak.

We were at a dinner party at my in-laws when it happened; when we drove around the corner and saw our little hundred year old house, half smushed, my Volvo buckled under a thousand pounds of oak, I could only laugh. A crazed, reality-is-standing-on-its-head kind of laugh.

My husband went inside and found the house full of gas. We waited in the back yard for the fire department to arrive, our cat Zelda looking from us, to the tree, to the house, as though asking, "Do you see this?"

After the fire department turned off the gas connection my husband drove us back to his parents' house. We spent the next ten weeks living in their guest room before we acknowledged that this process was going to take a really long time, and we'd better rent something. In the end it was almost a year before our house was fixed and we were able to return home.

Volvo
smushed
Those first two months were incredibly stressful, but things began to look up when we found our rental, the little cottage in the woods. We'd never lived outside of town before- we loved it!

Our landlord had a grand old home on what felt like hundreds of acres, with three rental cottages on the property. Ours was a five hundred square foot cottage surrounded by trees. It had a green metal roof, wisteria climbing the porch railings, and was so small as to be almost one room. We slept in a loft that looked out over the great room and the huge wood stove. As night fell you could sit on the porch and watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains, linger while the stars came out, then hurry inside when the coyotes started to howl.

The combination of natural beauty, isolation- and even something about the self-contained quality of a house that small- had me, before long, thinking about fairy tales. In so many of them, there is something magical about the cottage in the woods. I suddenly felt I was experiencing a bit of this first hand. Inspired by the surroundings, (and with the peace and quiet to really think!) I began to write the first draft of “The Girl in the Forest.”

This novella is a modern retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, set it in a town not unlike Charlottesville, VA, where I currently live. The protagonist, Jolie, is new to the town, having moved there after her mother's death. She feels alienated and lonely, friendless at a crappy job, with only a cat for company. The recurring nightmares keep her from sleeping well, and she eventually gets fired from her job. At a bookstore she meets Jamie, a strange man with a past who secures her a job at his friend, Greta's, bakery. As Jolie starts to learn the ropes at this new job, the questions stack up quickly: What are Jamie and Greta planning? Who is Greta running from? And what is the creature that Jolie sees in her dream each night? And, perhaps most puzzling, why is Jolie the only one who can see the cottage in the woods?

It was not until I'd finished writing the fourth draft and handed it to my dad that I realized I'd written something of a Fantasy/Mystery crossover. You might think, after editing so many of my dad's stories, that a fact like this would not sneak up on me. Yet somehow it did, in the same way, I hope, that the inevitable conclusion to my story will sneak up on the unsuspecting readers. Like a coyote, or a wolf, or some other hungry creature, waiting in the shadows of the forest.



Thank you to Leigh Lundin and the SleuthSayers audience for the opportunity to tell my story-it's been a privilege!

14 June 2016

Warning! There's a Storm Coming!


by Barb Goffman

We've all heard the famous advice--never start your story with the weather. Horrors! The weather! Run for your lives!

Actually, if a story began with a storm brewing so horrifically that people were actually running for their lives, that would be a good start. It would have action. Drama. It would draw the reader in.

But then there's the other way to start with weather, and it's the reason for the weather taboo: the dreaded story that begins with tons and tons of description, including about the weather, but no action. Imagine: Jane Doe awoke. She stretched her shoulders, looked out the window, and relished the bright rays of sunshine streaming down from the cloudless blue sky. It would be a lovely day, Jane knew. The high should be about seventy-five degrees, breezy. No chance of showers. Maybe she would barbecue tonight. It shouldn't be humid out there. It should just be delightful.

By this point, your eyes are probably glazing over. Or you want to strangle Jane for being so boring. When you use the weather this way, setting your scene yet having nothing happening, you are basically asking your reader to find something else to read. Anything else. Cereal box, anyone?

Yet imagine another opening to Jane's day: Thunder clapped, rattling the windows and scaring Jane Doe awake. Holy hell. Thunder in January? She trudged to the window. It was snowing like crazy out there. They hadn't predicted snow, but there had to be more than two feet on the ground. Jane's stomach sunk. She was alone and really low on food. Meals for Wheels would never be able to make it in this weather. Not for days, probably. Maybe a week. Or
more. She should have known something like this might happen again after the blizzard of 2010. She should have prepared. What would she do when the food ran out? What? Just then, her bird started chirping. Arthur. Sweet, friendly, beautiful Arthur. She loved him, just as she had loved Squeaky back in 2010. He had tasted unexpectedly good.

Now you may be grossed out, but you certainly shouldn't be bored. And that's the point: if you use the weather in order to propel the story forward, then it's a good use. With this idea in mind, two years ago, Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I put out a call for stories for Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. We told the members of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime to come up with crime short stories that put the weather front and center. And, boy, did they come through.

Stories were chosen by a team of seasoned authors (former SleuthSayer David Dean, current SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, and Sujata Massey). The choices were made blindly, meaning the story pickers didn't know who had written each submission. Donna, Marcia, and I then began our editing process (we take a long time with the stories--they all go through multiple drafts).

Finally, the book came out in the last week of April. It has fifteen stories featuring crime mixed in with rain storms, blizzards, hurricanes, sleet, and even a shamal. You want a murder during a white-out at a ski resort. We have that. How about a locked-room murder mystery at a zoo's snake house, where people are stuck inside while a storm rages outside? We've got that too. We have stories of revenge and stories of guilt. Stories featuring characters on the fringes of society and stories featuring well-off expats. And in all the stories, the weather sets the mood and propels the action in ways you won't expect. That's the way to use the weather, as a vehicle to move the plot forward and set the mood.

I use the weather both ways in my story in the book, "Stepmonster," in which a heartbroken, enraged daughter seeks revenge long after her father's death while a storm rages on. The pouring rain sets a dark atmosphere, as the object of revenge cowers in fear, and the thunder offers a nice cover for certain ... sounds.

I'd love to hear about your favorite books or stories that put the weather to good use. Please share in the comments. And Storm Warning authors, please drop in to let the readers know about your stories.

And, finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to fellow SleuthSayers who were nominated for the Macavity Award on Saturday: Art Taylor for best first mystery for On the Road with Del and Louise, and B.K. Stevens for best short story for "A Joy Forever" from the March 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (I'm also up for best short story--yay!--for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.) You can read B.K.'s story here. And you can read my story by clicking here. I'm trying to get links for all the stories together for Janet Rudolph, the woman behind the Macavity Award. I'll let you all know if and when that happens.




14 December 2015

See You In The Funny Papers


by Jim Doherty and David Dean

There’s an old saying that goes, “See you in the funny papers,” which, I have to admit, I never quite got. I mean, how are you going to see me in the funny papers? I’m a real, live, three-dimensional sort of guy. I must also be a literal kind of guy because now I find that the impossible has happened—I’m in the funny papers! That’s right. I find that I’ve been reduced (some might say enhanced) to two dimensions and basking in the reflected glory of none other than that venerable crime fighter, Dick Tracy! Lest you doubt, I’ve attached proof of my brief appearance.


There, see me? I’m the thin dude in the Hall Of Fame box. It appears that amongst Dick’s many skills and talents at detection, he has also honed an appreciation of fine crime writing—mine… amongst others it seems. Can you believe he also honored some dude named Wambaugh in a previous issue? What kind of name is that for a writer? Get a clue, Wambaugh.

When I got the news it was via a forwarded email from Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It being a weekday, I was hard at work hammering out my next story when, during a brief lull in my creativity I checked all my social and communication media. Half an hour later, I’m reading a very kind note from a police sergeant named Jim Doherty telling me of my inclusion in Dick Tracy’s Hall of Fame. He had also attached the comic strip. Jim, as I learned, is the police technical advisor to the comic strip’s creative team.

To say that I was blown away would be putting it mildly. Having spent a big part of my adulthood as both a cop and a writer, this inclusion rang all the bells and blew all the whistles for me. I loved it. And it’s great fun to boot.

But that’s enough about me. Though you probably couldn’t tell, I intended my little victory dance to serve as an introduction to my new friend and colleague, Sgt. Jim Doherty, the person most responsible for my induction into the Hall of Fame. On my honor (which is now unquestionable), Jim and I have never met, and he only knew of me through my writing. It was he that submitted my name and bio to the editors, and it was on his recommendation that I was accepted. May his name be sung in the mead halls of Valhalla forevermore.

Jim, as mentioned earlier, is both a police sergeant and technical advisor, but he is also a writer of crime fiction himself. So, I thought it might be interesting if he shared with us a bit about his own background, as well as his relationship with the square-jawed Detective Tracy and his crime-busting comic strip. I think you’ll find it interesting.



Thank you for the introduction, David.

It might seem odd to be discussing a comic strip character on a blog devoted to the mystery genre, until one considers that Dick Tracy’s as important a figure to crime fiction as he is to the comics medium.

Leave aside the obvious fact that, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes himself, Tracy’s the most famous detective in any fictional medium. Leave aside that, like Holmes, he’s a multi-media star, successful in movies, novels, TV and radio, stage productions, and just about any other story-telling medium you can imagine.

Forget about all that and look at him:

The rugged features. The snap brim fedora. The trench coat. Comics are a visual medium, after all, and that being the case, it’s clear that our whole idea of what a hard-boiled sleuth is supposed to look like comes to us direct from Tracy. Every time we think of how cool Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd, Jack Webb, or Dick Powell look in that particular ensemble, we’re admiring a look that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, invented, or at least connected to crime fiction, as indelibly as Sidney Paget connected the deerstalker cap and the Inverness cape in the pages of The Strand Magazine.

And imagine about how many people must have been introduced to crime fiction through Tracy. Most mystery fans, at least in the US, will probably mention the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew when asked how they first got started, but, how many of them, even before they knew how to read, thrilled to the four-color adventures of the most famous of all fictional cops. I know one of my fondest memories is of my dad reading Dick Tracy to me years before I even knew how to read. Aside from turning my into a mystery fan, and eventually a mystery writer, Tracy also clearly had an influence on my choice of day job (though, being Irish, and having a lot of law enforcement types in my family Tracy was, perhaps, not the only influence).

I was fortunate enough to get involved in with Tracy professionally, or at least semi-professionally, when two guys I knew through the Internet, both of them well-known comics professionals, decided to start a web page called Plainclothes as a tribute to the famed law enforcement icon. (When Chester Gould first conceived the strip, he called it Plainclothes Tracy).

Mike Curtis, who had briefly been in law enforcement himself (he once served as a deputy in the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office), started in the business writing scripts for Harvey Comics about character like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, and Wendy the Good Little Witch. Later he would form his own company, Shandafa Comics. Though an admirer of Dick Tracy, Mike’s first love is really Superman, and he owns one of the biggest collections of memorabilia devoted to the Man of Steel in the country.

He’d formed a friendship with legendary comics artist Joe Staton, who, since he got his first professional job in 1971, has been so active in the business it’s easier to list the characters he hasn’t drawn, than those he has. From Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern for DC to the Hulk, Captain America, Phoenix, and the Silver Surfer for Marvel, to say nothing of work for just about every other comic book company in the US, including Charlton, Western, Comico, First, etc., etc. etc.

The one character Joe always longed to draw, but never got a chance to, was Dick Tracy. Or make that rarely got a chance to. He’d done a comic book story for Disney in the early ‘90’s to tie in with the Warren Beatty film, but it never got published due to the rights being clouded. And he’d done some covers for books collecting reprints of the old strips. But he’d never gotten a chance to do the strip, or even a regular comic book series.

Mike had heard that Dick Locher, the Pulitzer-winning artist/writer who had been drawing the strip since 1983, and writing it since 2005, might be retiring.

He suggested that he and Joe do the website, not only as a tribute to the character, but as a sort of high-tech audition, in case Tribune Content Agency, the syndicate that distributed the strip, really was looking for someone to replace Locher. The main attraction on the Plainclothes website was an original Tracy comics story, done in daily newspaper strip format. This was accompanied by articles, original artwork, and prose stories about the character.

Knowing that I was a cop, a Tracy admirer, and a mystery writer, Mike invited me to contribute two prose stories featuring Tracy. I was at the point where I was actually getting paid to write stuff. I’d had two books published, a collection of true-crime articles, Just the Facts, which included a piece called “Blood for Oil,” about the Osage Indian Murders of the 1920’s which won a Spur from the Western Writers of America, and a study of the creator of iconic private eye Phil Marlowe, Raymond Chandler – Master of American Noir. Writing for free seemed, on the surface, like a step back.

On the other hand, my only novel, An Obscure Grave, though a finalist for a British Crime Writers Debut Dagger Award, was still unpublished, and how many chances would I ever get to write about my favorite detective?

It turned out that the Tribune folks were aware of us. And, though our use of the character could be construed as a copyright violation, they were inclined to look at it as an audition, just as we hoped. It turned out that Mr. Locher really was retiring. On the basis of the work displayed in Plainclothes, Mike was hired to write the actual strip, Joe to illustrate it. Mike invited me to be the police technical advisor, since I’m still an active cop, and I live in Chicago (the unstated, but obvious, setting for the strip).

The first person to have that job was a fellow named Al Valanis, a respected detective in the Chicago Police who has the distinction of being one of the first forensic sketch artists in the history of law enforcement. He created a new feature in Tracy that’s become almost as familiar to fans as Tracy’s two-way wrist communication device. “Crimestoppers’ Textbook,” a panel at the beginning of every Sunday strip that gave safety tips for cops, crime prevention tips for citizens, and the occasional pithy editorial comment. As the new technical advisor, I was also to write the copy for “Crimestoppers.”

A few months into the gig, I had an idea for a new feature that would occasionally replace “Crimestoppers.” A feature that would profile a noteworthy real-life police officer, to be called “Dick Tracy’s Hall of Fame,” appearing roughly once a month. Over the years, we’ve honored such famed law officers as Eliot Ness, Frank Serpico, Robert Fabian of the Yard, Mary Sullivan (the first-ever female homicide detective), Eugene Vidocq (the founder of the Sûreté), and Bill Tilghman (the greatest of all frontier lawmen).

During this last year, being a policeman who writes crime stories, I had the notion of building the “Hall of Fame” entries for 2015 around a particular theme, cops who also write cop fiction. A few of the more obvious choices have been Joseph Wambugh, William Caunitz, Maurice Procter, and A.C. Baantjer.

But police work isn’t carried out exclusively on big city streets. And crime fiction doesn’t exist only in novels. And so, when I conceived the notion of devoting a year’s worth of Hall of Fame inductees to cops who were also fictioneers, small-town police chief and short story ace David Dean was one of the first persons I thought of.

I’ve admired David’s stories for years, and was pleased to learn that, upon retiring from the Avalon Police in New Jersey, he intended to start writing novels. His first book-length fiction, The Thirteenth Child, was a first-rate genre-crossover, effectively blending the elements of a realistic police procedural thriller with a supernatural horror novel. I couldn’t put it down.


I was also struck by the fact that, when I saw a picture of David, tall, lean, ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, he seemed to remind me of someone.

Maybe if his hair was dark instead of sandy, or if he changed out of the uniform and into a business suit, trenchcoat, and snap-brim fedora, I’d be able to put my finger on just who it is he puts me in mind of.

14 July 2015

Farewell My Lovelies


By David Dean

For those of you who have been with SleuthSayers for a while you've seen this before: I tender my resignation, it's accepted rather too quickly, everybody has a round of high-fives.  Then, before you've had time to clear away the empties and dump the ash trays, I'm back; cardboard suitcase in hand.  Well, not this time--this time it's farewell, my lovelies. 

Sometimes you just know when it's time for a graceful exit, and this is that time for me.  My years with SleuthSayers have been a great learning experience and I've enjoyed every minute of them.  The staff at HQ, Leigh, Velma, and Rob have been terrific and whenever I needed technical assistance it was forthcoming without additional charge.  In fact, during my time amongst the cast and crew of SleuthSayers I've come to consider them (you all) as friends.  Virtual friends in most cases, though it has been my pleasure to meet a number of our contributors in the flesh, but still friends, or at least fellow travelers.  After all, some of history's great relationships have been those of pen pals, and so it feels to me here.

When I look back over my contributions I find they fall into but a few categories--a reflection of my limitations, I'm afraid: Police procedure, New Jersey, Native American history, Catholicism, a smattering of historical murder investigations, and a bit now and then on writing.  In any event, you've had the benefit of my wit and wisdom on these subjects and I pray that no one was irreparably harmed by the exposure.  If you feel you may have been, Velma entertains all such complaints and will be happy to hear yours.  I understand that she takes such calls strictly between the hours of 11:39 and 11:41 AM on alternate Tuesdays of 31 day months.

For my part, I will be spending all this new free time waiting outside my local watering hole.  There's a sign in the window that reads, "Free Whiskey Tomorrow!"  Everyday I return, but the barkeep just points at the sign and shakes his head.  You can see why I have to prioritize--sooner, or later, tomorrow will come!  And I intend to be there with an empty wallet and a full glass.

            

           

02 June 2015

Best Of Times/Worst Of Times (Writing)


by David Dean 

Linda Landrigan, Editor of AHMM, Me, and Janet Hutchings, Editor of EQMM at FUN Dell Party
The best of times

I'm very happy to announce that the current (July) issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine carries a story of mine. It's titled "The Walking Path" and demonstrates how exercise is not always conducive to good health or a long life. As is common in many of my tales, the protagonist misreads events unfolding around him which leads to a surprising, though not very pleasing (for him, at least) end to his outdoor pursuits.

The theme of missed opportunities and misunderstood relationships also features in the following month's issue in a story called, "Mr. Kill-Me". The poor fellow conjured up in this tale cannot for the life of him understand why he's being stalked. His antagonist, a shabby cyclist who keeps showing up at unexpected moments, offers him no threat of violence, but is insistent that our hero kill him.

The month following (yes, it's been a very good year– see first half of blog title) I change pace with a police procedural in which a detective must come to terms with his own actions of nearly fifty years before. This novella is titled "Happy Valley". Counting "Her Terrible Beauty" that was in the March issue, that makes four stories in EQMM in a single year– a first for me. Still, I pose no threat to the late, great Ed Hoch's prolific output, or that of our own Edgar-Nominated John Floyd. Speaking of whom, I had the pleasure of meeting John, and his lovely wife, at the Dell soiree in New York this year. The only fault I could find with the man was his overbearing height, other than that he was just as charming and intelligent as we've all found him to be through his SleuthSayers articles. Still, I'm disappointed with his insufferable tallness.

A Less Fun Party
The worst of times

Since the fall of 2012 I've had three novels published, none of which have thrived. If I called a summit meeting of everyone who had read any of them I could probably forego renting a hall and just have them convene in my living room. Even there, I'm not sure that anyone would have to stand during the meeting. I find this a little distressing. My intention in writing the novels was that someone would read them. You can see my frustration here.

Part of the problem is that none of them have received very much publicity. Small indie presses have no funds for advertising it seems. The big corporation boys do, but only if you're already famous, which presents a conundrum for such as the likes of me. The other part of the problem (and this is the part I like even less than the first) is that I may not be very good at writing novels. I especially don't like this possibility because it doesn't allow me to blame anyone else. When I was occasionally asked what I did as a chief of police, I would always fire back, "I find out who's to blame and pin it on them. Now get out of my office!" My wife claims that I still do this as a private citizen. I tell her that it's paramount to blame those responsible for any faults I may possess, then tell her to get out of my office. She does not comply. I find this distressing as well.

So there you have it, the best and the worst. In case I've raised anyone's hopes that I will never write another novel, you must not know me. I'm already taking another stab at the beast and am on page 125 after only a year's labor. It's titled, The German Informant, and is coming along, though I doubt it will fare any better than the others. On the days I find the going tough, I blame the neighbors for all the distractions. If it weren't for them it would be done already!

In closing, and in order to refill the glass to half-full, I want to take a moment to thank a number of fellow writers who have been particularly kind and supportive in recent months: Brendan DuBois, Doug Allyn, Joseph D'Agnese, Don Helin, Lou Manfredo, Art Taylor, Fran Rizer (whom I miss from this site) and my fellow SleuthSayers, Dale Andrews and Eve Fisher. Each of these extremely talented and busy writers have taken the time, and in some cases, expended considerable effort, to aid or support me in my literary pursuits. I am in your debt, my friends, and honored to be so. Below is a copy of the aforementioned EQMM issue. You will find my name next to that of Joyce Carol Oats, a pretty good writer who I think shows real promise. I hope this fortunate pairing boosts her career.

12 May 2015

Mariel– The Story, Part II


by David Dean

As promised in my last piece, here's the conclusion of "Mariel" (Originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's December 2012 issue):

Mariel


That night, as Mariel lay awake in her bed, she contemplated her efforts to date at exposing Ripper’s murderer and was bitterly disappointed with the results. Though occasionally blessed with flashes of innovative vigor, her intellectual resources had been sorely taxed by the whole affair. She stared blankly out of her curtain-less window and thought of almost nothing.

The backyard was bathed in the cold illumination of a full moon that created black and white etchings of once-familiar objects. Ripper’s empty chain-link pen was captured near-center frame of her nocturnal reverie, its gate standing forlornly open, forever awaiting his impossible return. A spill of shadow ran like blood from the dog house and onto the brilliant concrete pad it rested upon.

Mariel felt her eye lids grow heavy, while above her the ponderous footsteps of her mother measured the distance from her bathroom to her bed. This was followed by a groaning of bedsprings and a loud yawn; then silence descended over the household. Outside, something glided soundlessly from out of a tree, only to vanish within the greater shadows of the forest. Mariel’s eyes began to close.

As she was drifting off, she saw something moving stealthily along the darkened tree line that formed the natural boundary of her yard. As she was often a nocturnal traveler herself, this did not, at first, alarm her. Mariel had spent many a night prowling Crumpler Lane and its environs, and had on more than one occasion allowed herself into the homes of their neighbors using emergency keys that they had thought were cleverly hidden within flower pots and beneath paving stones. In fact, her midnight forays and cool boldness had become something of a neighborhood legend.

This had been several years before however, shortly after the loud divorce of her parents and the twaining of her family into a Mother-Daughter/Father-Sons arrangement. Mariel had hoped that she would discover that her brothers were simply sleeping over at some neighbors’ house but never seemed able to catch them at it. When the state’s child services were brought in, her mother took drastic action and placed a latch on Mariel’s bedroom door.

She watched dreamily as the figure detached itself from the shadows and emerged, glowing, into the moonlight. The man looked familiar, but the bright, ghostly light only served to erase his features. He glided across the littered lawn of her back yard in a direct line with her bedroom window and a small, shrill alarm began to sound in Mariel’s head. She struggled to come fully awake and sit up.

The man disappeared from view as he reached the wall of her house and for the first time sound entered into the hushed scene. Mariel heard the scrape of something metal and remembered the rusty ladder that lay beneath her window. She had not needed that ladder since her mother ceased locking her in at night and it had lain, discarded and forgotten, until now, in the rank grasses of her backyard. It was this sound that set her in motion.

Sitting up, fully awake now, she slid noiselessly from her bed and began stuffing her pillows beneath her blankets. Once done, she dropped to her hands and knees and began to crawl to the closed bedroom door. It had been some time since her mom had locked her in and she hoped that she had not done so this night.

Behind her a head rose cautiously within the frame of the window. Mariel froze as soon as she saw its elongated shadow begin to crawl up the opposite wall, then, ever so slowly, lowered herself into the welter of dirty clothes and discarded dolls and toys that formed the tangled landscape of her room. She sank from sight within the camouflage of her own environment.

Peering out from beneath a damp towel that she draped over her head, Mariel saw the silhouette swivel slightly; then focus on the lumpy bed revealed in the moonlight. For several moments the scene remained frozen in this attitude. Then the window began to squeak like the tiniest of mice.

Mariel knew that she could call out to her mother and perhaps, if she had not had too much to drink, awaken her to the peril she faced. But this was not part of Mariel’s rapidly forming plan.

Instead, she snaked an arm upwards for the doorknob. With any luck she could ease herself out into the hallway as the intruder made his way into her room, then…use the latch that she, herself, had been confined with so many times before. As for the window, she had simply to race around to the back of the house, tip the ladder over and he was caught like a rat! Then, and only then, she would yell bloody murder! Wouldn’t everyone be surprised at what she had accomplished? Mariel began to grin beneath her covering.

She found the doorknob and began to turn it. From behind her came the hiss of clothing sliding over the window sill followed by a soft thump. Things were happening a little faster than she had planned and so she tried to hurry a bit more. She could hear her own breathing as she slithered into the opening she was making.

Then Sailor began to hiss and yowl, only just now deciding that this stranger in his room was not welcomed. Mariel looked back over her shoulder, she had completely forgotten Sailor.

The cat had been a gift to her mother from a former boyfriend who had worked on a clamming boat, hence the name, ‘Sailor’. Naturally, he took up with the one member of the household that cared nothing for him—however, Mariel was not above putting him to good use.

Without a word, she sprang to her feet and snatched the fat, orange cat from the nest he had created within her bed coverings. With a screech of protest he was suddenly airborne in the direction of Mariel’s would-be assailant, his claws fully extended in a futile attempt at air-braking.

When the two met, it was the nocturnal visitor’s turn to vocalize, as he screamed like a woman in labor, whether from pain or terror, Mariel could not know. From above there was a great concussion as her mother’s considerable bulk was set suddenly in motion.

Mariel, consigning Sailor to whatever fate awaited him, flew for the door once more, slamming it behind her and latching it all in one movement. A tight smile appeared on her chubby face as she raced for the back door, even as her name was loudly heralded with her mother’s rumbling approach.

Tripping over the uneven doorsill, she spilled clumsily into the silvered yard just in time to see the intruder fling himself from the ladder and begin his headlong flight. She had not been fast enough! Her disappointment rose like bile in her mouth. But even as her mother blocked the moon from view and began to scrabble at Mariel with sweaty, fleshy hands, she noted with some vindication that her enemy had fled in the direction of the cul-de-sac.



The Sheriff’s K-9 unit tracked the burglar unerringly from Mariel’s window to Mister Salter’s back yard, the scent leading them directly into Bruiser’s territory. There, the sleepy, overfed dog, alarmed by the night’s doings, and mysteriously free of confinement, managed to engage the interlopers in a snarling, slobbering, snapping exchange of canine unpleasantness. In the end, he was re-incarcerated, but not before thoroughly spoiling the search. Mariel knew all of this from eavesdropping as the officers briefed her mother in the living room.

When the policemen asked Mariel if she had gotten a good look at the man that had made his way into her room, she studied the dirty knees of her pajamas for several moments as if thinking very carefully, then mumbled, “I think it was Mister Salter.” Though she had never really gotten a good look at her assailant, Salter appealed to both her logic and sense of justice based on both the dogs’ tracking and the fact that she liked him the least of anyone in the neighborhood. The officers glanced meaningfully at one another after her pronouncement, then departed to invite Mariel’s neighbor to accompany them to the station for further questioning.

After they had left, Mariel had a very difficult time falling to sleep—it had been a very exciting evening. When, at last, she did drift off, it was with the pleasant sense of a job-well-done, mission accomplished.



As the following day was Sunday and Mariel’s night had been a long one, her mother allowed her to sleep in well past noon. When she did awake it was with a ravenous appetite and an equally fierce curiosity about the results of her efforts on the neighborhood-at-large. It seemed to her that an act of such magnitude would result in seismic changes on Crumpler Lane. So after two heaping bowls of frosted cereal and a glass of chocolate milk, she mounted up and set off to reconnoiter her domain.

The day was bright and fine, but as it was mid-autumn, the sun remained low in the sky and a distinct chill could be felt through her inadequate windbreaker. Racing down the lane, she swerved to drive through all leaf piles that awaited pick-up, scattering the labor of her adult neighbors with her willful passage. When she arrived at the Salter household she did it twice, and then rolled to a halt one house away to watch for any outrage.

None was forthcoming. The house remained closed and silent. There were no cars in the driveway either, and Mariel imagined Mister Salter’s wife and teenage daughters down at the police station weeping and pleading for his freedom. She felt confident that the cops would pay them no heed and might even arrest them as well because they were related to him. She smiled at this thought, though she had hoped to be the unmoving object of their pleas herself.

Mariel heard a stealthy footfall behind her and, without sparing a look, began to pedal quickly away.

“Mariel,” A voice called to her softly…urgently.

After placing a safe distance betwixt herself and the voice, she spun around to see who had called out to her. It was Mister Forster.

He stood uncertainly by his mailbox, which was entwined in ivy. He smiled weakly at her and said, “I was trying not to startle you…sorry.”

Through the near-skeletal trees behind him the cold disk of the sun peeked through. Mariel waited.

He nodded his neat head at the Salter home. “What a ruckus last night, huh…police and everything…goodness, I didn’t know what was going on around here.”

Forster stopped awkwardly. Mariel watched his face and noticed that he had whiskers today.

“Scared the hens nearly to death, I can tell you that! They don’t like a lot of commotion. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.” He glanced slyly at the Salter residence, then asked, “What did happen last night? I figured if anyone knows what went on it would be you. You’re our neighborhood policeman…er, woman, that is.”

Mariel felt her chest expand with pride. “Come on,” he waved her forward, “we can feed the hens while you tell me all about it.”

Forster turned and began to walk back up his drive without a backward glance and Mariel followed. When they reached the back yard he took up a pan of feed and handed it to her and she began to scatter it for the hens. Within moments they were busily scratching away at the soil around her feet.

“So what did happen, Mariel?” Forster asked after a period of contented quiet.

Mariel felt herself beginning to smile and tried to suppress it. “Mister Salter came in my room,” she managed by way of explanation, while gauging her chances of seizing one of the glossy black hens.

“He did?” Forster gasped. “Why on earth would he do that?”

Mariel’s small lips twisted uncomfortably. “Don’t know,” she said at last.

“Hmmm,” Forster hummed, then added, “Maybe he was trying to steal something…what do you think?”

Mariel shrugged and said nothing. The pale sun, sinking ever lower, cast lengthening shadows across the wooded back yard.

Forster leaned toward Mariel and asked in a confidential tone, “You haven’t told anybody about that necklace, have you?”

Mariel’s small, pale eyes flashed up and back down again, then she shook her head causing her curls to bounce in agreement.

“Good,” Forster assured her. “That’s very good…not even your mom, though?”

Again she shook her head.

“How about some hot cocoa, what do you say? It’s getting chilly out here and the hens will be alright for a while.” Again he turned and walked away from Mariel without looking back. At the top of the steps he held the door open for her and patted her on the shoulder reassuringly as she passed within. Mariel felt his fingers run over the necklace beneath her pullover as the slightest pressure—a fly walking across her neck.

He crossed to the stove where a kettle was already pumping steam into the fussy, over-heated room. “Lot’s of sugar?” he inquired brightly.

Mariel nodded enthusiastically even as small beads of sweat formed along her hairline—the heat was a palpable force. There was also a peculiar, not altogether pleasant, smell in the house.

“Sit…sit,” he waved at the round table that was placed within the arch of the bow window. Between the gingham curtains Mariel could see the back yard with its chicken coop and the darkening woods beyond. Ripper flashed through her memory and then was gone.

“It’s for the birds,” Forster called to her as he spooned cocoa mix into a mug and poured the hot water. “They can’t take the cold, you know…the songbirds. Most of them are from South America.” He swept an arm toward the ceiling of the room and Mariel saw them for the first time: dozens of cages mounted at various levels within the kitchen and continuing on into the rest of the house. Forster whipped off the parka he had been wearing and slung it onto a nearby chair. He wore a tee-shirt beneath as mute testament to the hot-house atmosphere of his home.

“They’re always quiet when a stranger comes in…but they come around when they get used to you.”

As if on cue, first one, then another, began to sing and the house soon filled with their tropical chorus. Mariel thought she had never heard anything so beautiful and rose as if on strings. She gripped the cage nearest her and peered in at the tiny, vibrant creature. The colors of its plumage, brilliant blues and reds, shimmered with the rise and fall of its delicate breast. Forster was still busy making the hot chocolate, taking far more time at it than her mother ever had, and Mariel lifted the little latch to its cage to reach in and…

“Don’t!” Forster screamed, spilling some of the cocoa from the mug he had in his hand. “Don’t touch them, Mariel!” The birds, all of them, went instantly silent.

Mariel started and drew her hand back but not out. It was not her nature to surrender the initiative without good cause. The tiny bird regarded her sticky, chubby fingers without alarm.

“They’re very delicate,” he added, while looking for an uncluttered surface to set the mug down on, then added under his breath, “Not that you would know anything about that, you little Neanderthal.”

Mariel didn’t know anything about that, nor did she know the meaning of the strange word he had used, but she did know when she was disapproved of, this was something of which she was keenly aware. But of far more importance, she recognized Sailor’s handiwork from the night before.

Forster caught her gaze and looked down at the long, festering scratches that ran down his arms, then back up at Mariel. “I despise cats,” he hissed very much like one. His pupils shrank to tiny dots as his neck tendons distended. “I just wanted the necklace, Mariel…that’s all. I have my reasons, as I’m sure you know.”

Mariel said nothing and the room filled with a thick, clotting silence.

Forster nodded, as his face rearranged itself into something less savage. “If you give it to me now, we can still be friends,” he promised quietly, “you can still have your cocoa. It’s just that the necklace is important, it might be recognized if you wear it around. It’s not really worth anything otherwise…it’s cheap, paste jewelry…something a whore would wear—something a whore did wear.” He set the mug carefully down and took a sudden step across the slight distance that separated man and child.

“You killed Ripper,” Mariel pronounced clearly, seizing the songbird with surprising rapidity.

Forster froze in mid-step. “Don’t,” he gasped, even as he watched the bird’s tiny, futile struggles within Mariel’s pudgy grip. “Please…don’t.”

Mariel withdrew her fist with the bird firmly in her control. Backing up to the door, her sweaty free hand groped for the handle while Forster watched her every movement, his eyes sliding back and forth as the heat-swollen door resisted her efforts.

As she turned slightly to gain more leverage, he eased a step closer, taking advantage of Mariel’s distraction, his long fingers reaching out for her nest of curls.

Mariel’s fist shot up, the tiny head of her captive swiveling this and way and that in its panic, it’s black, shiny eyes blinking and blinking.

“Okay,” Forster halted once more, his hands coming up palms outward, “okay, please…please, don’t hurt him, Mariel…please.”

At last, she succeeded in throwing open the door to the outside world letting a cold wind rush through the stifling kitchen.

“Maybe,” she answered enigmatically backing out onto the porch, her eyes never leaving his as she pulled the door slowly closed behind her. The latch snapped into place like a hammer blow in the now-silent room. From the porch Forster heard a muffled giggle and the sound of clumsy footsteps.

He took a long step, then had to grasp the edge of the table to keep from falling, his legs grown too weak to support him. He slumped down onto the nearest chair. After several moments there came the ratcheting of a bike bell. “Oh God,” he moaned into his hands, “Oh God, what am I going to do?”

Finally, as his breathing quieted, he looked up and around him as if just awakening. Lifting the mug he had prepared for Mariel, he drank its contents down in one scalding gulp, then walked from room to room turning on every light. All around him the air began to fill with the song of a new and sudden day.

Returning to the kitchen he resumed his seat at the cluttered table, and after a while, sagged tiredly forward, laying his head to rest on the place mat. As his eyelids began to flutter his breathing grew very rapid and he began to pant like a dog, perhaps like Mariel’s dog, he thought. Then, suddenly, it slowed once more to become reedy and shallow. Trying to lift a hand to reach out for the empty bird cage, he smiled and muttered, “The speech of angels…the language of God.”
From other rooms his choir sang on.



Though Mariel had been successful in keeping the necklace a secret, the song bird proved another matter altogether. Between its near continuous song celebrating the unfettered freedom of Mariel’s bedroom, and Sailor’s constant yowling and scratching at her closed door, the secret was soon out. The following morning Mariel’s mother discovered the colorful little creature flitting happily about Mariel’s room, leaving its droppings wherever they happened to land. Neither she nor Sailor was amused.

Remaining mute in the face of interrogation as she always did served no purpose in the end, for her mother had heard from other mothers on the street about Mr. Forster’s fussy relationship with birds. An unsettling suspicion began to dawn on her.

Snagging the contested bird within the worn fish net from an old forgotten aquarium, she confined it within a perforated bait can left behind by her ex and set off down the street. Mariel followed on her purple bike at a distance, silent, resentful, and slightly fearful, but curious for all that.

When Forster failed to answer her repeated knocks, Mariel’s mom marched her formidable bulk to the rear of the house where she found his hens scattered about the yard and far into the woods. Upon seeing her they stormed forth with hungry shrieks. Ignoring them she mounted the rear steps, grunting with each, to peer in through the glass of the back door. Forster sat slumped at his table and would not respond to her repeated poundings. An empty mug with a teddy bear painted on it rested next to an outstretched hand. As keen as her daughter, the long scratches that festooned his bare arms did not go unnoticed.

Turning with a gasp, she swept back down the steps, through the now-fleeing hens, and back up the street to her home, carrying Mariel in her wake by force of will and dire threats. The police responded within minutes of her call.



Mister Salter was released from custody with a muted apology from the police, even as Forster was bundled away for autopsy. It appeared Mariel had misidentified her assailant in the darkness, a common enough mistake even for an adult. For his part, Salter threatened lawsuits all round.

As to Forster’s motive for breaking into Mariel’s bedroom, the general consensus was the obvious one. But as he was dead, the matter was laid to rest with his body.

Mariel, as a reward for her brave defense of herself, was allowed to keep the bird, and though it was not a dog, she was very satisfied with the exchange. As for the necklace, she continued to keep it a secret from her mother and wore it only when out of the house. Ripper, forgotten in all the excitement, remained in his shared and secret grave, an arrangement that also suited Mariel, as she had no wish for her possession of the necklace to be challenged in any way.

The End