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

14 June 2021

Character Twists


It’s fairly common at readings and panels for writers to be asked whether character or plot provides the starting point for their work. Where do you begin? Which motivates your process most? 
 
But here’s a twist on those questions that I personally find more interesting—particularly for short story writers: Is your focus primarily on plot or character at the end of your stories? 
 
 In my essay “The Short Mystery” from the recently released How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook From Mystery Writers of America, I made the following statement: 
 
Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line. The ink was an exotic poison! The money was counterfeit! Those women were twins! But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective. A new perspective on a character the reader has gotten to know, a secret desire that complicates motives, an unexpected action that nonetheless seems perfectly in character—these might provide the reader a deeper satisfaction. 
 
Crafting the essay for that new handbook challenged me to think more critically about the principles and strategies guiding my own writing—and to reflect as well on some of the stories I’ve best loved and admired as a reader—all of which led to that paragraph being, from my perspective at least, one of the most important in the essay. So I was grateful when my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti emailed to ask specifically about the idea of a character twist—and to invite me to return to the blog to write about it at a little greater length. (Rob is also a contributor to How to Write a Mystery, I should add—along with another SleuthSayer, Stephen Ross. Even more reasons to check out the book!) 
 
Unfortunately, in the same way that writing the handbook essay helped to clarify things for me, trying to draft this post—several drafts, in fact—has driven home something I hadn’t fully thought about: It is terrifically hard to write about endings and what makes them work. There are two reasons for this. 
 
First, the best endings are integrally related to many aspects of the larger tale—not just plot but character and theme and motif and tone and even small turns of phrase, building on and resonant with that larger design. As Poe wrote, talking about the ideal tale, “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design”—as he called it, the “certain unique or single effect” intended by the story. In order to feel that ultimate effect, a reader needs to have experienced all those other words first. (Three italicized words there, I know—emphasis intended!)
 
The second reason: spoilers! …primarily in terms of “surprises I shouldn’t spoil for the reader” but also in another way. Trying to summarize and explain Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind,” the first story I planned to talk about here, I realized how much I was simplifying and flattening and spoiling at a more basic level the experience of one of my own favorite stories.
 
I wanted to discuss “Red Wind” in part because of Chandler’s own essay “The Simple Art of Murder,”
in which he argues against the “arid formula” of some detective fiction (British and traditional primarily) and complains about that tradition’s characters as “puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” doing “unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.” Chandler’s plots, of course, took on their own formulas, and some of his characters ended up inhabiting their own one-dimensional unreality, engendering their own kinds of cliches, but I do love so much of what he wrote.
 
The trouble is, “Red Wind” has a fairly complicated plot. As detective John Dalmas himself remarks, “a murder and a mystery woman and a mad killer and a heroic rescue and a police detective framed into making a false report”—and his summary arrives not even halfway through the story. 
 
Whenever I teach the story, I have to reread it carefully, having myself forgotten most of the twists and turns and how they work and why they matter and, honestly, whether I should care. But one key thread of the plot stays with me: a strand of pearls, a gift to a woman named Lola from a lover who’d died in the war, a strand of pearls she has lied about to her husband, to dodge his jealousy. As Lola tells Dalmas: “If it hadn't been for [Stan’s death], I’d be Mrs. Phillips now. Stan gave me the pearls. They cost fifteen thousand dollars, he said once. White pearls, forty-one of them, the largest about a third of an inch across. I don't know how many grains. I never had them appraised or showed them to a jeweler, so I don't know those things. But I loved them on Stan's account. I loved Stan. The way you do just the one time. Can you understand?” 
 
The pearls have been stolen and—skipping big portions of that byzantine plot—Lola needs Dalmas to get them back.
 
…which he does, but unlike Lola, Dalmas recognizes that they’re fakes. 
 
The character twist happens in the wake of that realization—and this is the point at which, in my drafts of this post, I saw how laborious it was to summarize the story, how much my summary undermined what I see as the story’s beauty, how much trying to explain the experience of an ending generally is like trying to explain the punchline of a joke… a move which inevitably ruins the joke.
 
So I’m going to cut the five paragraphs I wrote to summarize and explain the ending, and instead, I’m going to urge you to read the story, which is widely available, and then to leave this assessment instead: Throughout the story, Dalmas has been the prototypical Chandler hero— tough guy, loner, wisecracking, cynical, disillusioned, hardboiled to the core—but in the final scene, he reveals concern and empathy and he gestures toward a moment of grace, preserving Lola’s illusions even as he finds own disillusionment unfortunately confirmed.
 
The twists and turns of “Red Wind”—I struggle to remember those, to keep them straight each reread. But that final scene, the final image of Dalmas by the ocean—that’s a keeper. That’s art.
 
Apologies here, but for the other stories I’m going to mention, I’m taking the same approach—not risking deflating the power of a story by summarizing it and instead talking in more general terms about what stands out. I’ll encourage you to read each and provide links where I can. 
 
Stanley Ellin
Stanley Ellin is another favorite author and another who seems a master of the character twist. His “Moment of Decision” famously stops short of explaining what happens next at a pivotal and potentially life-endangering moment in a bet between the two main characters, but as I explain when I teach it, the story is nonetheless complete—because the focus isn’t on plot but on character. “The Moment of Decision” closes on the moment when the philosophy held so dearly by one of those characters—his massive surety of self, his belief that “for any man with a brain and the courage to use it there is no such thing as a perfect dilemma”—when that belief is irrevocably upended. 
 
Another of Ellin’s great character twists comes in “The Question,” which focuses on a father and son relationship and explores the morality of the death penalty. The father—the narrator—is an “electrocutioner,” a term her prefers to executioner, and his monologues reflects on his work, how he came to this duty, questions of criminality and justice and responsibility, and then his relationship with his son: “The truth was that the only thing that mattered to me was being his friend.” In the final scene of the story, that son asks his father a question about his work: “But you enjoy it, don’t you?”—which seems to be the question of the title, but it’s not. The important and revealing question is the final line of the story, another surprise, another upending, a revelation about the narrator that’s been hinted at throughout the story and then, in the final line, dramatically brought into view. 
 
A couple of years ago, I taught “The Duelist” by David Dean, another fellow SleuthSayer, and it may well be my favorite of Dean’s stories; it originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Here again, trying to summarize the story would inevitability reduce it, shearing away the story’s suspense and its emotion and more. In short, however, it’s the story of a “fearsome marksman,” Captain Horatio Noddy, and of his unlikely challenger, Darius LeClair, a “small, portly stranger” who seems to fumble his way through every encounter and into his own duel with Captain Noddy. The story’s surprises are many—unexpected twists and tensions nearly every step of the way—but it’s only in the final lines that an element of Darius’s character steps to the forefront as a motivation, something that’s been mentioned briefly in earlier scenes but which takes on greater depth, quietly devastating depth, in the final, heartbreaking reveal. (You can hear David Dean read the story at the EQMM podcast—and you should.)
 
My own story “Parallel Play” also deals, in its own way, with a showdown between two people—a mother home alone with her son and the father of a boy who attends the same pre-school playspace. That man has become fixated on the woman and ultimately holds her hostage one rainy afternoon while trying to explain himself to her—explain the connection he feels between them. At the end of the story—spoiler alert—she kills him, but in telling the story I skipped over that scene, skipping ahead to the aftermath, and only returning to the killing in the final lines of the story. I remember a member of my writing group asking why I’d decided to do that—why not just keep the story linear? But my goal there wasn’t to emphasize what happened but rather to explore why it happened, to explore something about that young mother that I had touched on throughout the story, even as I’d tried to keep an aspect of that “something” hidden until the final lines… where I’d hoped to emphasize that hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of character inside the violence of the scene I’d saved for last.
 
In all these cases, I recognize that I’ve been analyzing endings without explaining the endings… but I also hope that I’ve encouraged you to actually read these stories with an eye toward the point I’m trying to make. There are others that jump to mind as possibilities for exploration: Ruth Rendell’s “The Fallen Curtain” and “The New Girlfriend,” for example, and Karin Slaughter’s “The Unremarkable Heart,” just off the top of my head. And I’m sure that others here might add their own to the list—and, in fact, I hope you do. 
 
As you might imagine, I’m always looking for more good stories to read. 
 
Art Taylor is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His work has won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University. Find out more at www.arttaylorwriter.com.

03 December 2019

No Flux Capacitors Here


When I sent out my call for stories for Crime Travel, the crime/time-travel anthology I edited--coming out this Sunday from Wildside Press--I eagerly wondered what ingenious methods of time travel the submitting authors would come up with.

They did not disappoint.

Sadly, no one used a flux capacitor and a DeLorean, the magnificent means of time travel from the wonderful eighties movie Back to the Future. (And I didn't even need a time machine to see that movie in the theater when it came out. I was in high school, just like Marty McFly.) But the authors whose stories I accepted did come up with interesting means of temporal transportation, some a bit conventional, others ... well, let's take a look.
Doc Brown built a time machine out of a DeLorean.
Photo credit: JMortonPhoto.com & OtoGodfrey.com

In addition to pods and wristbands and watch-like devices, the Crime Travel authors used: sneezing (Anna Castle has one hell of an imagination); a particle-beam weapon (because, why not?); a closet (my closets just have clothes in them--so disappointing); a clear-walled cube with barber chairs with seatbelts (gotta have safety measures when you're traveling through time); a gold circlet (it's a hair accessory and a time machine all in one; talk about making it work--Tim Gunn would be so proud); and two elevators. Two of 'em. (Linwood Barclay may have a new book with elevators that send people to their deaths, but we have elevators that send people through time!)

One method of time travel used in the book is so unusual but cool that I don't even know how to describe it outside of its story's context. Eleanor Cawood Jones ... care to take a whack at that description? And in Art Taylor's story ... was it the pendant, Art, or the candles or a mere touch of the hand that set things in motion? Maybe we should leave it for the reader to decide. And in David Dean's story, well, sometimes you just have to want something bad enough.

This wasn't the photo but it's similar. So lovely.
As for me, I used a bicycle, an all-white one that only appears on the anniversary of mistakes--things that wrongly happened in its family's past that the bicycle thinks someone needs to go back in time to fix. (Don't look at me like that. If a bicycle can travel through time, it also can think.) A few months before I wrote my story, "Alex's Choice," I saw a picture of an all-white bicycle with beautiful flowers in its basket. That image stuck with me, and I decided to use the bike in my time-travel story.

I would have thought that's all I had to tell you about my decision to turn a bicycle into a time machine until this past week when I saw a new commercial for Xfinity using the cuddly alien E.T. from the classic movie of the same name. In the ad E.T. returns to Earth to visit Elliott. The long version of the commercial (available here) shows grown-up Elliott's kids riding their bicycles into the sky with E.T., just as the kids did in the movie way back in 1982. I don't think I've seen E.T. since the summer it was out in the theater, yet that scene with the kids riding their bikes into the night sky must have stuck with me because in "Alex's Choice" the bicycle flies too, and at night to boot.

That's the beauty of fiction--be it short stories or novels, movies or TV shows--when done right, fiction can take you to another time, be it in your imagination or your memory or even to something you didn't realize you remembered. I hope the stories in Crime Travel do that for you.

The anthology's official publication date is this Sunday, December 8th, which is Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The book will be on sale in ebook, paperback, and hard cover. I'd be honored if you'd time travel with us to past decades and even past centuries. I'm confident you'll enjoy the ride.

And if you're in the Northern Virginia area, please come to our launch party this Sunday at Barnes and Noble, 12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr., in Fairfax. The event will run from 1 - 3 p.m. Authors James Blakey, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley will join me to celebrate. We'll  talk about our stories and our inspirations and some of us might even dress up in the time period of our stories as we pretend to be time travelers. Eleanor dressed as a 1960s flight attendant? James as a 1950s PI? Adam as a 1980s security guard? And Cathy ... well, that's going to be a surprise you'll have to come to see. Other than actual time travel, I can't imagine what would be more fun than that.

11 January 2019

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


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


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 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


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!


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.