Showing posts with label Donna Andrews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Donna Andrews. Show all posts

27 December 2016

The Best Protagonists Resolve to Take Action


by Barb Goffman

As we head into the new year, thoughts often turn to making resolutions. To drink more water maybe. (I often pick that one.) To exercise more. (I don't often pick that one.) Maybe to read more books. (That's a good one!)

Resolutions ultimately are about taking control over your life, improving things by effecting change, not waiting for someone else to do it for you. That make-it-happen attitude is great for real life. And it's also great for mystery protagonists. It's much more
interesting to read about a damsel who saves herself rather than waiting for the knight on his horse. In the same vein, it's more gripping to read about an accused murderer who sets out to find the real killer rather than watching him waiting and worrying, hoping the cops and prosecutors--or even a jury--realize they've blamed the wrong guy.

Both my short stories published this year have characters who make things happen, for better or worse. In "Stepmonster," a woman blames her stepmother for her father's death, so she sets out to avenge him. In "The Best Laid Plans," the lifetime achievement honoree (LAH) of a mystery convention is dissed publicly by the convention's guest of honor (GOH) just weeks before the event begins. The LAH responds by saying nothing publicly, trying to appear the better person. But she also plans some non-lethal dirty tricks so that the GOH suffers during the convention. Or so she hopes.

The protagonists in both stories might not be reacting in an emotionally healthy manner to their situations, but that's okay. In fact, it's better than okay. It's great. By resolving to get revenge, they set in motion a stream of events that are, I hope, page-turning. (You can find out for yourself. Both stories are available on my website for your reading pleasure. Head over to www.barbgoffman.com and click on each story title from the links on the home page.)

Many other crime stories were published this year with protagonists who take charge. Here are a few from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (in which "Stepmonster" appeared):

  • In "Cabin Fever" by Timothy Bentler-Jungr, a young woman trapped by a blizzard with her abusive boyfriend takes desperate action.
  • In "Stormy, With a Chance of Murder" by Alan Orloff, a weatherman takes advantage of a bad rainstorm to try to win his ex-girlfriend back.
  • In "The Last Caving Trip" by Donna Andrews, a reluctant caver seeks to rid himself of a frenemy.
  •  In "The Gardener" by Kim Kash, when a lawn-maintenance man mars her garden oasis repeatedly, an avid gardener strikes back.
  •  In "Parallel Play" by our own Art Taylor, a mother in a deadly situation learns how far she'll go for her child.
The key in all the stories is the protagonist isn't passive. She takes action. And it's those actions from which the story unfolds. Have you read any great short stories this year with protagonists who make things happen? I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments.

In the meanwhile, get busy on those new year's resolutions. I hope one of them involves reading.

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.




01 April 2016

Brick by Brick (Some Disassembly Required)


By Art Taylor

Over the last year, my four-year-old son Dashiell and I have been bonding over Lego sets: race cars and motorcycles, a fire station, a police station, a ferry boat, a camper—even the Mystery Machine, complete with Fred, Shaggy, and Scooby, which was a little snow day project that quickly became one of the prides of our growing collection.



While we build these together, my job is technically to supervise, since he's already become a pro at following the directions, finding the right pieces, clicking them together, checking his work, moving ahead. Some of the smaller pieces have indeed proven a challenge for him—a precision he's trying to master—but I'm there to step in as needed. And I'll admit I'm enjoying all of it myself, revisiting one of my own favorite childhood loves and savoring brief getaways from work on the computer, from reading and grading for classes, from the constant struggling against one deadline or another. My wife Tara and some other friends have really gotten into the adult coloring book trend—many benefits to that, I know—but this seems a better fit for me. For my birthday middle of March, Tara and Dash got me a set of my own: the Lego Detective Agency—more than 2200 pieces!—and all of us have slowly been constructing that one together. "Only one level left!" Dash told the teachers at his school, who've been eager to see the finished product, three stories in all, including a pool hall, barber shop, and the detective office itself. Here are a couple of glimpses at highlights so far:





The sets are terrific, not only because of the great attention to detail but also because of the learning opportunities for Dash: those directions I mentioned, but also reinforcement on counting and shapes and sizes and then the longer-term lessons on patience and investment and payoff. But it's also great to see Dash build something out of his own imagination—diving into one of my own old tubs of Lego pieces, stacking up towers or gathering rough walls for a house or just stringing together some bricks, adding a few mismatched sets of wheels, and calling it a racecar.

That car of his own construction may never have the precision of those professionally designed packages, but I think he's just as proud of it—and I know I'm even more proud in many ways of seeing him conjure up something on his own. I wish I had a picture of one of those creations to share here, but I don't. Once we've finished assembling one of the kits we've been collection, it's COMPLETE—not a new project but a new toy and not likely something that he'll ever disassemble. But those made-from-nothing projects are ephemeral, endlessly worked and reworked, taken apart, made new, destroyed, refigured, again and again.

Lego pieces could surely lend themselves to a quick metaphor for writing: "Brick by brick" in the same way many of us repeat Anne Lamott's now-ubiquitous mantra "bird by bird." But I found myself thinking of Lego sets and pieces and writing in a different way while on a panel with Donna Andrews, Jack Bunker, and Meredith Cole during the Virginia Festival of the Book a couple of weekends back. During the q&a section of the panel, another writer friend, Anne DeMarsay, asked a question about what to do when your writing group says that some part of your work-in-progress simply isn't working and, try as you might, you don't know how to fix it (I'm paraphrasing, but that was essentially the question as I took it). My own first response wasn't very helpful, I realize in retrospect—something about keeping at it, about bull-headed determination, about banging your head against the wall until some dent is made (in the wall part of that metaphor, not in the head, I clarified). Donna offered better advice—which was to step away, quite literally, from the troubles; even a short time away from the computer can help to open up the imagination (a walk, a drive, a shower) and longer stretches might offer greater perspectives: I myself have put aside half-finished stories for years before coming back to them with fresh clarity, fresh perspective, forward progress.

And then I thought about my son, building, tearing down, rebuilding—none of it in frustration, but simply letting his imagination play.

Lego, I've recently discovered, comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means "play well." And the sense of "play" is something that's easy to forget about writing, which too often feels more like "work" to me and clearly to others. It is work, of course; whether we're writing as our full-time profession or on the edges of day jobs and other responsibilities, most of us who'd call ourselves writers are thinking of it as a career, often one with deadlines real or self-imposed, sometimes one with pay (and never enough). Writing is a business. But from a craft standpoint, in terms of the imaginative work that goes into it, writing should be play—indulgent, liberating, fun....even in those moments when it's tearing things down instead of building things up.

I recognize—no doubt—that there's a difference between a toddler dismantling a Lego tower (timber!) and a writer short on time ripping apart a scene or a story or a chapter that he or she has been toiling on. But the more I think about this as a metaphor, the more I find myself liking it or at least the perspectives it encourages: tearing something down isn't an act of destruction or loss; it's merely the next step toward bringing your vision into reality—and maybe the best approach is just to remind yourself to have fun with it all.

To shift metaphors here at the end: Not only is there light at the end of that tunnel, but maybe even a lighthouse—and an ice cream shop too.






19 January 2016

Merging Magic and Mystery


by Barb Goffman

When I was growing up, I soooo wanted to be Samantha on Bewitched. All she had to do was wiggle her nose, and she could do/be/get/go whatever and wherever she wanted. How absolutely cool.

But Samantha would be make a terrible amateur sleuth because with a wiggle of her nose, she could go back in time to when someone was murdered and watch it happen, thus learning who the murderer is and either catching him immediately or preventing the murder from the start. Talk about a short story, and an unsatisfying one at that (except for the dead guy--he'd probably appreciate the help).
Wiggle that nose, baby!

Readers want their amateur sleuths to actually sleuth--find clues, observe things, figure the puzzle out. If your character has unlimited magical powers like Samantha, there won't be much to the story. But I know from experience that it can be fun to write about magical characters. So how do you  merge magic and mystery and still have a satisfying tale? Your sleuth's powers must be limited so that solving the crime is based on deductive skills, not on magic.

In my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" my main character is a fairy named Annabelle. She's in charge of everything magical that happens in New Jersey. When Santa tells her he's skipping Jersey this year because the state is too dangerous--a murderer is on the loose, killing people who look like magical beings--Annabelle realizes she has to find the murderer to save Christmas. But I couldn't make things too easy for her. What would be the fun in that? So Annabelle's powers are limited. She can "wink," which means she can wiggle her invisible wings (kind of like how Samantha wiggled her nose) and magically appear somewhere else but only in the current time. (This was a helpful skill because it enabled me to move the story along faster without having to worry about Annabelle driving (or flying) from place to place.) Annabelle can also snap her fingers and have items appear. In this case, she snapped up all the police files on the murders, allowing her to quickly get up to speed.

But when it came time to figuring out whodunit? She investigated like any good sleuth. She went to a wake and spoke with friends and family of one of the victims. She talked with the head of her security team about her hunches. (It's always good to have another character to bounce ideas off.) She went to the bookstore where one of the victims worked to chat up his co-workers. Her magical powers made the story more fun, but ultimately she figured out who the murderer was using her powers of deduction, and that made the story satisfying. Combine fun with satisfying and you have a good mystery (at least I hope so). You can decide for yourself. The story is available on my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/A_Year_Without_Santa_.html.


My friend Donna Andrews used this approach when she wrote a short story called "Normal" a few years ago. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ultimately published this tale about a private eye who came from a magical world, but she had no magical powers herself. She fled her world for earth, where she hoped to fit in. But she found herself surrounded by magical beings here too: trolls, vampires, and more. The unfortunate tutor (a wizard) who discovered--and was blamed for--her lack of magical ability came with her to earth, and when he is murdered, Donna's character is determined to figure out whodunit. But does she tap her friends' powers to get the answers? No, that would be too easy. Donna instead allowed her character to figure out whodunit using her powers of deduction and her understanding of human nature. That's what made the story work. And you don't have to take my word for it. You can listen to Donna read the story herself: http://podbay.fm/show/351202656/e/1349099269?autostart=1.


Do you have any favorite stories that mix magic with mystery? Please share. There's always more room on the To-Be-Read pile.

06 October 2015

Murder at a Nudist Colony? Ah, the Joys of Research.


by Barb Goffman

Questions I've asked over the last few years that never would have crossed my mind before I became a mystery writer and editor:
  • If you're found with a murder victim and the police take your clothes for examination, will they also take your underwear?
  • If a murder occurs at a nudist colony, and the suspect is a colony member, how does the pat down work during arrest?
  • Is it easy to break into a home by crawling through a doggy door?
  • How does a groundhog react when cornered?
  • What's the approval process for exhuming a body? How hard is it to dig up a casket? What does an exhumed body look like? And smell like?
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche?
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much?
Yes, I now know the answers to all these questions. I'll give the answers below. But first, a few observations:

It pays to have friends. How do I know the answer to the underwear question? I asked my friend
Robin Burcell
author Robin Burcell, a former police detective, who's always there in a pinch to take my odd questions. Robin's not the only expert who helps mystery authors. Dr. Doug Lyle, Luci "the Poison Lady" Zahray, and Lee Lofland, another former member of the law-enforcement community, have all shared knowledge with me (and many other authors) over the years. A big thank you to you all.

It pays to have friends who pay attention. How did I even come up with the nudist colony question? I learned from my friend Donna Andrews (thank you, Donna) that a Catholic church in our neighborhood used to be the home of a nudist colony, and in the 1940s, a murder occurred
there. That sparked a very interesting discussion about where a nudist might try to hide a weapon (not having pockets and whatnot), and it
Donna Andrews
resulted in my story "Murder a la Mode," which appeared in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping. It's set at a nude Thanksgiving, and was a lot of fun to write.

It also pays to have friends with a good sense of humor. My unpublished novel involves a phone-sex operator, and writing it required coming up with a lot of synonyms for certain body parts. How a writer toils for her art. And what she learns, sometimes, is that the wrong word can take a reader from eagerly turning pages to laughing out loud. And not at an intended time, either. So thank you to my friend Laura Weatherly, who several years ago burst out laughing when she read about a man on the phone talking about his johnson. "You have to find another word," she told me. Done.

It pays to have access to the Internet. No, this isn't for research for the phone-sex book. It was for the groundhog research. When I began writing my short story "The Shadow Knows," (which is a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards at this week's Bouchercon mystery convention), I knew I wanted to write a caper about a grumpy man who believes his town's groundhog is responsible for
Old groundhog who visited my yard.
every long winter, so he decides to get rid of him. But it wouldn't be a caper if things went smoothly. So I began researching things that could go wrong, and I learned many fun tidbits. Did you know that when groundhogs feel cornered, they might bite? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this the hard way. Thank you, Mister Mayor. Groundhogs will also squeal extremely loudly when upset, dig up drywall, and scratch with their long, sharp claws. All this detail went to good use in the story. Yes, research sure can be fun.

Now, back to the questions:
  • Will the police take your underwear? If the victim's blood has soaked through to them, they might indeed.
  • Can you break into a home by crawling through a doggy door? Yep, if you're petite. But beware: there's going to be a dog inside. And he might not be too happy with you.
  • What are the details about exhuming a body? Every state's process is different, but it's not that easy to get approval, and digging up a casket, then breaking the vault open, is hard work. And then there's the state the body might be in. I'll give you one word: mold. Yuck.
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche? Nope. In this context, it's all one word. (And you thought copy editing was boring.)
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much? This one, I'm leaving up to you to find out. Ask your friends. Make a party of it.
  • How does the pat down work during arrest of a nudist? This one ... well, you'll have to read "Murder a la Mode" to find out. It's too good to give away.
  • And, finally, how does a groundhog react when cornered? This question is answered above, but if you want to see the resulting story, which puts all the fun facts to good use, head over to my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html
But don't stop there. All the other nominated stories are available online, too, through these links: http://www.bouchercon.info/nominees.html (for the Anthony finalists) and http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/06/read-all-macavity-short-story.html (for the Macavity finalists). You should check them all out, especially if you're going to vote. They're all good reading--no question about it.

So, authors, what's the most interesting question you've researched while writing? And readers, what's the most interesting tidbit you've learned from fiction? Please share your fun facts. I really want to know.