Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts

06 July 2024

Historicals with Horses


Since my column here at SleuthSayers about period fiction last week, I've had some interesting conversations with fellow writers about the Western genre. Some of them like it, some hate it, etc. Some don't even consider those stories historical (but they are). As I think I've said before at this blog, Westerns are just historical fiction with horses. To me, one good thing about writing Western stories--whether they're novels, shorts, or screenplays--is that they can usually be considered mysteries as well, and therefore marketable as mystery fiction, because a crime is almost always involved. (Uness maybe it was the movie version of Old Yeller, where the only crime was the older brother's attempt at a Southern accent. But that's another story.)

As I said to one of my writer friends in an email on this subject the other day, part of the Western genre's appeal to me is the definite line those stories draw between right and wrong. It's a black/white structure: there were good people and evil people, with very few gray areas in between--unlike the way our world is today. This is especially true in the older Westerns, the ones I watched in the movie theater and on TV as a kid. 

In that long-ago world--Bonanza, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, etc.--it was easy to identify the villain or one of his friends, because the good guys always shaved every morning and wore clean clothes, while the bad guys appeared to have been been dragged into town behind the stagecoach. Another thing: the streets of Virginia City or North Fork or Dodge City were always neat as a pin, with nary a sign of mud or ruts or horse droppings. In fact, the downtown thoroughfare in all those different shows often looked suspiciously like the same street. (How could that be? Even as a kid, I knew Nevada and New Mexico and Kansas were a long way apart.)

Other puzzling things happened, as well. As Clint Eastwood once said in an interview, why did the good guy always wait for the bad guy to draw first? He said that made no sense. And when a reporter asked Stagecoach director John Ford why the Indians chasing the coach didn't just shoot one of the horses, Ford replied, "Because that would've been the end of the movie." That, I guess, does make sense. Later, of course, Westerns got smarter in that regard, and way more authentic, although the standoffs in the street and the hero waiting politely for the other guy to draw have persisted to this day. 

Having said all that, these recent discussions of the horse opera and its fans have prompted me to revisit some of the movies I've watched and re-watched over the past years. Here are a few observations, by me and me alone, so feel free to disagree.

My 10 favorite Western movies, in no particular order:

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The Big Country (1958)

Unforgiven (1992)

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Shane (1953)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

High Noon (1952)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Open Range (2003)

The Searchers (1956)

NOTE 1: There actually is sort of an order to these. I consider Once Upon a Time in the West and The Big Country the absolute best of the bunch.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Tombstone (1993)

The Man from Snowy River (1982)

Hondo (1956)

Will Penny (1967)

The Hanging Tree (1959)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Rio Bravo (1959)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

True Grit (remake, 2010)

Quigley Down Under (1990)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Hombre (1967)

NOTE 2: I didn't include the wild and crazy Cat Ballou (1965), Blazing Saddles (1974), From Noon till Three (1976), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), or Rustler's Rhapsody (1985), but if you haven't seen those, I recommend them. 

Good Westerns you might not have heard of:

The Homesman (2014)

The Last Sunset (1961)

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Hostiles (2017)

Duck, You Sucker (1971)

The Proposition (2005)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Lone Star (1996)

7 Men from Now (1956)

Old Henry (2021)

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

The Salvation (2014)

Appaloosa (2008)

News of the World (2020)

Ride the High Country (1962)

NOTE 3: I also didn't include any TV series or mini-series in my lists, but of those, I think the best, by far, are Deadwood (2004-2006) and Lonesome Dove (1989). Runners-up might be The English (2022) and--if you count it as a modern-day Western--Justified (2010-2015). Once again, my opinion only. Disagreements are welcome.


What's your view, on Westerns old and new? Like 'em? Hate 'em? Tolerate 'em? Do you agree with any of the above choices? What are some I overlooked? If you do like Westerns, have you tried writing any, either novels or short stories? Have you had any published? In what markets? Were they standalone stories, or installments in a series? Was writing them work, or fun? Please let me know in the comments section.

Final thoughts:

1. I'm looking forward to seeing Kevin Costner's recently-released Horizon. Haven't gotten around to it yet.

2. If you haven't written a Western story but you want to . . .

"Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let's go."--John Wayne, The Cowboys (1972)

29 June 2024

I'll Have a History/Mystery, Please–with a Twist

Lately I've been writing a good many historical stories--most of them crime stories--and I'm only sorry I didn't start doing it sooner.

A word of clarification, here. When I say historical, I'm not talking so much about the Stone Age or ancient Rome or medieval England. I'm referring more to the past two hundred years or so, and mostly here in this country. 

How did I get interested in this? I blame it on a number of period-specific mystery anthologies edited by folks like Michael Bracken, Andrew McAleer, and others. Contributing to those anthologies has forced me to write a dozen or more stories so far about crimefighters (usually PIs) in the 1930s, '40s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, and at first I couldn't believe how much fun they were to write. By now I'm used to it– and I'm still having a good time. Part of it's the writing, and part of it's learning what's needed about long-ago people, places, and events.

Not that all my historical-mystery shorts have been set in the mid-20th Century. Since I grew up watching endless Westerns on TV and the big screen, I've written and published plenty of those as well, around seventy or eighty stories so far. (You might be surprised at how many of our current mystery magazines are receptive to tales of the Old West– I've had Westerns published at AHMM, Strand, Black Cat Weekly, Mystery Magazine/Mystery Weekly, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, Crimeucopia, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, even the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. After all, if you stop and think about it, almost every Western features a built-in crime or two.)

My latest historical mystery appears in the July/August 2024 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It's called "Moonshine and Roses," it's set in the hills of eastern Kentucky in the 1930s, and it features treasury agent Joe McIinnis, who works for Eliot Ness's Alcohol Tax Unit in Cincinnati. The real star of the story, though, is the long-lost love of McInnis's life, the tough daughter of a moonshiner whose enemies are the official reason for a Fed to be poking around in the area. Maybe because it's a love story and a mystery and a shoot-'em-up adventure story as well, I've had some kind feedback on it from readers already, which always gladdens my doubt-filled heart. If you read it, I hope you'll like it.

The "twist" I mentioned in the title of this post is also a part of my Hitchcock story, mainly because I can't seem to resist inserting plot twists whenever I can. By the way, I think they work best when the entire story doesn't depend on the twist, and when the surprise provides a final "gotcha" onto the end of an already satisfying conclusion. (Think Die Hard, instead of The Sixth Sense.) Doing that kind of add-on ending (sometimes called a "double twist") isn't always possible, or even advisable--but with a little prior planning and foreshadowing, it often is, and when it works, I think it can help the story.

Questions: Do you write, and/or like to read, historical mysteries (novels or short stories)? In your opinion, how far back must you go, to be able to call a story historical? Is it cheating a bit, to use the too-recent past? How about Westerns? How about the amount of research that's required with any kind of period fiction? Do you do a lot of study beforehand, or are you already familiar enough with certain eras to write accurately about them? How about historical series stories? With regard to twist endings, do you often incorporate those into your fiction? Has that been successful for you? Do you like to encounter those kinds of reversals in the stories of others? 

Whatever kinds of stories you create--present-day or historical, straightforward or convoluted, standalone or series--I wish you the best, with all of them.

Write on!

15 June 2024

Go Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

For those who are wondering what kind of instruction that might be, my title today is a quote by the goofy character Hedley Lamarr, in the goofy movie Blazing Saddles.

What made me think of it was a post I saw on Facebook the other day from my friend and former Criminal Brief colleague Melodie Johnson Howe:

"Blazing Saddles has just been edited for television. It will air tonight from 8:00-8:07 PM."

The point, of course, was that cutting out the offensive parts for network TV did away with most of the movie. And if you doubt there were a lot of those parts, watch it again sometime, intact. Remember, Blazing Saddles came out exactly fifty years ago--I saw it with several buddies during my first class with IBM (a six-week course on the West Coast in '74)--and we thought it was HILARIOUS. I still think so. But that was a far less politically-correct era, back then, and movie directors, like authors, were able to more freely do that voodoo they do so well.

We all know that moviemakers and writers have to be more careful these days about what they show or say in the course of the story. Sometimes it's about offensive content, but it's also about plain old mistakes in logic or continuity or geography, etc., which I think were more often forgiven in the past than they are today. Most movie addicts know about the gas canister in Gladiator, the bulletholes in the wall in Pulp Fiction, the hands-over-the-ears before the gunshot in North by Northwest, the snow-capped peaks in Arkansas in True Grit, and many others, and mystery novel fans still complain about Raymond Chandler's chauffeur-murder plot hole in The Big Sleep

I myself make plenty of mistakes in my stories, in the plot and elsewhere. I've usually been fortunate enough to find and correct those during the writing process, but sometimes the editor discovers them, for which I'm always grateful but always embarrassed. Especially if the editor is also a friend, like Barb Goffman or Josh Pachter or Michael Bracken. I should know better, and they know I should know better. On a very few stories, I've made mistakes and editors did not catch them, and I found out about those screwups only after a reader told me about them or I spotted them myself in the magazines after publication. That's really embarrassing. 

I hate to admit this, but in one of my stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post, I mentioned that a certain horse was a mare, and then, two thousand words later, said one of the characters "led the horse over to a fencepost and tied him to it." Tied him to it, not her. I can picture Mr. Rogers now, smiling in his sweater and sneakers and saying, "Children, can you say, 'proofread'?"'

For those of you who write shorts, have you ever committed that kind of error? (I'm referring mostly here to plot mistakes, factual mistakes, continuity mistakes, switching tenses, switching POVs, etc.--serious flubs, not grammar/style errors or typos.) If so, did the editors catch them? When editors find problems of any kind and recommend changes, do you always welcome their suggestions? Have you ever refused them? Can you list any examples?

In closing, I recall a piece of unrelated advice given to me long ago by an old friend from Alaska. My wife went with me on one of my IBM trips to Anchorage in the 1980s, and while we were there, a co-worker of mine took us with him for a week on his boat to some of the wild and seldom-visited islands in Prince William Sound. As we were trudging through those woods one day after sighting a bear in the distance, he told us there was a rule hunters follow if they're ever in a situation where they're forced to shoot a grizzly to defend themselves. He said, "You shoot him as many times as you can, then shoot him again, and when you're sure he's dead you shoot him again. Then, when you're positively, absolutely sure, beyond all possible doubt, that he's dead, you shoot him one more time.

That sounds brutal, but it ensures that you won't be dead, which should be your top priority. And that kind of thinking can also apply, in a far less serious way, to one part of writing. When you finish reading your final manuscript and you're convinced it's free of mistakes, read it again, and then when you're absolutely certain it's free of mistakes, before you submit it anywhere, read it one more time.

Now, if only I could make myself do that.

01 June 2024

Titles, Titles Everywhere, and Not a One Will Work

I like story titles. They not only catch the eye, they sometimes provide a look ahead, and if they're good enough, they can make the story better. The main thing is, titles makes a difference to editors and publishers, and in turn, to readers. 

I especially like cool titles, the ones that are witty or grand or "different" in some way. When I see one of those I find myself wishing I had come up with it. You know what I mean: The Guns of Navarone, "The Gift of the Magi," To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. That list could go on and on, and almost did, in a column I posted here at SleuthSayers early last year, called "A Sense of Entitlement." Those kinds of titles inspire me to try to create good ones for my own writing. 

With my short stories, I've found it's best to come up with a title early on, either before the writing starts or soon afterward. It can then serve as sort of a guide or compass to me during the course of the story. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes I charge off into battle with no hint of a title in mind. (Apparently I'm in good company there: Larry McMurtry once said in an interview that he had already written four hundred pages of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel before he came up a title for it. He eventually solved the problem while on a trip to Fort Worth. He was leaving a restaurant when a bus passed by with the name LONESOME DOVE CHURCH printed on the side--and suddenly he had his title.) In my case, several of my recent stories were completely finished before I had suitable titles, and I spent a looooong time trying to find some that fit the bill. 

Does that ever happen to you? What do you do when it does? How do you come up with satisfying titles at all, whether before, during, or after the writing, and avoid those that just don't do the job? (All of us have at some point "settled" for a lesser title, and that's never a good feeling.) What are some of your coolest titles? What are some titles by others, that you especially like? Let me know your thoughts on all this, in the comments.

Here are some things I usually think about, when I'm wrestling with a title choice. With each of these, I've included twenty examples from my own published stories, mainly because they were easy for me to find. 

1. Titles that are character names or nicknames:

Annabelle, Frankie, Lucifer, Sneaky Pete, Diamond Jim, Sweet Caroline, Purple Martin, The Jumper, Checkpoint Charlie, Mr. Unlucky, The Cookie Monster, The Sandman, The Messenger, The Locksmith, The Barlow Boys, King of the City, Billy the Kid, Shrinking Violet, Tomboy, Mustang Sally. 

(If your story's finished and you're stumped, you can even go back and substitute a catchy name/nickname for your protagonist or another main character and make that the story title. That's what I did to create some of the above. Sometimes even the villain's name will work. Think Hannibal, or Goldfinger.)

2. Titles that are place names:

Dentonville, Ship Island, Blackjack Road, Turtle Bay, Sand Hill, Rooster Creek, Palm Canyon, Hardison Park, Lookout Mountain, Mythic Heights, Dreamland, Redemption, The Starlite Drive-In, Silverlake, Shadygrove, Plymouth West, Crockett's Pond, The Rocking R, Bad Eagle Road, The Pine Lake Inn. 

(Same thing here. If finished, you can go back and set your untitled story in a neat-sounding location. Title problem solved!)

3. Titles that are times or time periods:

Flag Day, From Ten to Two, An Hour at Finley's, Summer in the City, 200 Days, Twenty Minutes in Riverdale, Run Time, War Day, Midnight, The First of October, Intermission, Nap Time, Valentine's Day, Flu Season, Break Time, Ladies' Day, Dry Spell, While You Were Out, A Day at the Office, A Night at the Park. 

4. Titles that are "possessives":

Molly's Plan, Thursday's Child, Bennigan's Key, Nobody's Business, Lindy's Luck, Lucy's Gold, Hartmann's Case, The Deacon's Game, Merrill's Run, Dooley's Code, Rosie's Choice, Dawson's Curse, Hildy's Fortune, Button's and Bo's, The Governor's Cup, The King's Island, Walker's Hollow, Lucian's Cadillac, Fool's Gold, The Devil's Right Hand.

(Like the others I mentioned, this can also be a last-minute bailout, and save you when you just can't decide on a good title otherwise.)

5. Titles that are a play on words:

Gone Goes the Weasel, A Bad Hare Day, Murphy's Lawyer, A Cold Day in Helena, The Rare Book Case, The Three Little Biggs, Henry's Ford, R.I.P. Van Winkler, Andy Get Your Gun, Della's Cellar, Escape Claus, Don't Mansion It, Ex Benedict, Mattie's Caddy, Snow Way Out, A Loan-ly Murder, Low Technology, Take the Money and Ron, North by Northeast, Amos' Last Words.

(My favorite kind of title.)

6. Titles with a double (or hidden) meaning:

Weekend Getaway, Tourist Trap, A Warm Welcome, Old Soldiers, High Anxiety, Quarterback Sneak, Burglar Proof, Gas Pains, Pocket Change, Spell Check, The Big Picture, Deliver Me, True Colors, Poetic Justice, Cat Burglar, The Coldest Case, A Sterling Event, Conventional Behavior, Business Class, A Trivial Pursuit.

7. Titles that are familiar phrases:

Little White Lies, In Other Words, Batteries Not Included, Nothing but the Truth, Not One Word, Eyes in the Sky, Better Late than Never, One Less Thing, Some Assembly Required, Eight in the Corner, A Stitch in Time, Name Your Poison, This Seat's Taken, No Strings Attached, The Outside World, In the Wee Hours, Unlucky at Love, A Shock to the System, The Noon Stage, The Gospel Truth. 

(My least-favorite kind of title--even though "The Noon Stage" was one of my favorite stories to write. BTW, I left out the ones with familiar two-word phrases, of which there are many.)

8. Titles that use "and" to connect two things or names:

Rhonda and Clyde, Bourbon and Water, Pros and Cons, Moonshine and Roses, The Browns and the Grays, The Ghost and Billy Martin, Art and Poetry, Punch and Judy, Lost and Found, Gert and Ernie, Camels and Starships, Friends and Neighbors, Trial and Error, Outfitters and Critters, Hearts and Flowers, In-Laws and Outlaws, Sunlight and Shadows, Lewis and Clark, Ducky and the Shooter, The Miller and the Dragon. 

9. One-word "summary" titles:

Survival, Ignition, Clockwork, Driver, Stopover, Oops!, Premonition, Creativity, Oversight, Turnabout, Partners, Trapped, Mailbox, Diversions, Sorcerer, Lightning, Proof, Fantasyland, Teamwork, Cargo.

10. Titles with "ing":

Burying Oliver, Getting Out Alive, Saving Mrs. Hapwell, Wronging Mr. Wright, Remembering Tally, Just Passing Through, Traveling Light, Mugging Mrs. Jones, Splitting Christmas, Playing with Fire, Going for the Gold, Cracking the Code, Saving Grace, Spending Money, Fishing for Clues, Catnapping, Waiting for the Bus, Stealing Roscoe, Driving Miss Lacey, Pushing Joe Carter. 

(Once again, this kind of title can be a good lifeline when you can't come up with anything else. Invent an appropriate action and add "ing.")

11. Titles (usually long) that have a "rhythm":

Debbie and Bernie and Belle, The Early Death of Pinto Bishop, On the Road with May Jo, The Friends of Lucy Devine, Liz and Drew and Betty Lou, The President's Residence, Romeo and Isabelle, An Evening at the Robertsons', What Luke Pennymore Saw, A Surprise for Digger Wade, A Nice Little Place in the Country, Everybody Comes to Lucille's, The Moon and Marcie Wade, We Can Work It Out, Turn Right at the Light, Last Day at the Jackrabbit, Whatever Happened to Lizzie Martin?, Billy Dinkin's Lincoln, From the Hill to the Park, Bad Day at Big Rock.

(One of my favorite "lilting rhythm" movie titles is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.)

12. Three-word "Robert Ludlum" titles (like The Bourne Identity, The Holcroft Covenant, etc.):

The Zeller Files, The Jericho Train, The Donovan Gang, The Winslow Tunnel, The Pullman Case, The Plimpton Scholar, The Artesian Light, The Midnight Child, The Foreverglow Case, The Nelson Enigma, The Ironwood File, The Sallisaw Blowout, The POD Squad, The Delta Princess, The Florida Blues, The Willisburg Stage, the Navarro Principle, The Dolan Killings, The Long Branch, The Cado Devil.

There are of course many, many other types and sources of titles, but the above twelve "prompts" are some that I've found to be handy. Looking back over my stories, I also found a lot of titles that use "of the," "in the," "to the," "from the," "at the," "with the," "for the," and so forth--but hey, enough is enough.

If somehow you're still reading this, I'll mention one of my most recent accepted stories--its title came from a local TV news broadcast I saw not long ago, about a shooting in a nearby city. When the reporter asked a wide-eyed bystander what happened, the guy--a friend of both the suspect and the victim--solemnly said, "Bubba done shot Jasper." Those weren't the actual names he used on the air (I've changed them here to protect the innocent, although one of them wasn't), but I admired that profound observation enough to steal it and use it myself. Several weeks ago, thanks to that news report, I sold a mystery story called "Skeeter Done Shot Billy Bob" to a crime anthology to be published this fall. 

Titles really are everywhere.


18 May 2024

From MM to WW


So far this month, the publication gods have been kind to me--at least with magazines. Not long ago at this blog, I mentioned that most of my stories these days were being written for anthologies. As soon as I would start writing a story to try at AHMM, EQMM, Strand, etc., I'd either see a tempting anthology submission call or I'd get an invitation from an editor to contribute to an antho, and off I would go in that direction instead. I doubt I'm the only one who does that. There's something appealing to many of us about writing stories for themed anthologies--they're not only fun, they're challenging. Also, if an editor is kind enough to invite me, I hate to say no. I think I've had to do it only once, and that was hard.

For the past few weeks, though, my stories have all been in magazines. And before you say Yeah, they came out around the same time, but you wrote and submitted them long ago . . . well, no, I didn't. All of these stories were written, submitted, and accepted recently. The truth is, it reminds me a bit of the old days, when magazines were pretty much the only markets out there for short fiction, or at least short mysteries. Anthology sightings were rare. (Either that, or I never knew about them.)

The three stories I'm talking about were published this month in Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, and Woman's World, all of which have been good to me for the past several years. (Counting my blessings, here.) In case you don't happen to see these issues but are interested in the kinds of mysteries those publications are currently running, here's a quick summary of each of mine.

Ravines, machines, and magazines

The first of those three stories, "Bad Eagle Road," appeared in Mystery Magazine's May 1 issue. It's a 2700-word cross-genre mystery set in the Pacific Northwest, about a team of anthropologists and biologists in search of Bigfoot. Recent sightings and evidence have pointed them to an area of caves and hollows that, unfortunately for them, has also been targeted by a group of wealthy and ruthless land developers much more interested in financial profit than scientific discoveries and the delays and inconvenience they might cause. But a discovery does happen when the team hikes to the site, in the form of a deadly encounter, and as a result, one of the monster-hunters who survives it winds up being hunted himself, by both man and beast. This story was fun to write because it's a mix of adventure, crime, and fantasy. Many thanks to editor Kerry Carter, by the way, who published it.

Next was another unusual kind of mystery, at least for me. It's called "Pushing Joe Carter," in the Spring 2024 issue of Strand Magazine. This one's set on the West Coast, and it's around 2300 words. It involves a prisoner convicted of murder and sentenced to death, which sadly isn't all that unusual. What is different is that this man, one Joseph Carter, has been selected to be the first person executed via a new and innovative method. The device to be used is a huge three-sided box installed at the edge of a cliff above the ocean, into which the condemned prisoner will be placed. Once he's inside, the rear wall of the compartment (nicknamed The Pusher) will be hydraulically moved forward, eventually forcing him out the open side and onto the rocks far below. The waves will take care of the cleanup, and the outcome is quicker and more certain than with any of the usual non-mechanical methods. A final appeal to the governor for a stay of execution has fallen short, and as the hour of Carter's death approaches and new evidence emerges of his possible innocence, his female lawyer continues to try to find a way to rescue him. I had a great time coming up with the plot on this one because it is so off-beat. Thanks as always to Strand editor Andrew Gulli for publishing the story. It's my fifth in a row, there.

The last of the three is "Guessing Games," another of my mini-mysteries for Woman's World, featuring southern small-town sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones and his former schoolteacher Angela Potts. In this installment of the series, the sheriff and his bossy sidekick are trying to keep from bickering long enough to figure out a vague clue spoken by the dazed victim of a mugging before she was wheeled into the hospital for treatment. That sole lead to the attacker's identity--that he resembled the host of an old TV game show--is odd enough to seem impossible to solve, but--surprise, surprise!--Angela manages to do it. The question is, can the reader solve it as well? As some of you know, I've been lucky enough to sell a lot of these lighthearted mysteries to Woman's World over the years, and even though I suspect that my idea generator will one day run out of gas, that doesn't seem to have happened yet. I owe thanks to WW editors Maggie Dillard and Sienna Sullivan for publishing this one--the stories are always loads of fun to write. "Guessing Games" is in the May 20 issue, but has already appeared on newsstands. For those who're wondering, the on-sale date at WW is always eleven days before the issue date.


How about you? Have you found yourself publishing more in one kind of market lately, than another? Are you cutting back on your submissions to magazines because of the recent boom in (and demand for) anthologies? Which do you prefer? In the magazine market, which ones of those are your favorite targets for submissions? Are you sticking mostly to mysteries, or venturing occasionally into other genres? Anybody writing stories that involve no crime at all? How about cross-genre fiction, that mixes them up in the same story? Let me know in the comments.

So, that's that. If you happen to read any of these three stories, I hope you'll like 'em.

My next post will be more about writing than publishing: I'll preach about some steps in creating effective titles.

See you then.

04 May 2024

"Damn, I've Struck Oil!" Tom Gushed Crudely


I've been writing more short stories than usual lately, and maybe that's the reason most of my recent SleuthSayers posts have leaned toward the "rules" of writing, and fiction writing in particular. Heaven knows there's plenty of advice out there, especially on the subject of grammar and style. Elmore Leonard even wrote a (very small) book about ten of those rules. 

What I'm leading up to is, one of those writing rules is the age-old advice to avoid the overuse of adverbs (especially "ly" adverbs) describing speech. Examples: He moaned sadly, She laughed happily) And anytime that topic pops up, someone always mentions Tom Swift, the YA action/adventure hero whose stories often included brilliant dialog like "I'll save you," Tom shouted bravely, or "Yes, that's too bad," Tom agreed sadly.

That, in turn, always seems to lead to a discussion of the term Swifty. And no, I'm not talking about a swindler, or an alcoholic drink, or a fan of Taylor Swift. I'm talking about a word that supposedly came from "We must hurry," Tom said swiftly and progressed to include any similar example, the sillier and dumber the better. (You can even leave out the "ly.") By definition, a Tom Swifty is a sentence linked by some kind of pun to the manner in which it is attributed. You know what I mean.

Swifties are a little like limericks: once you start remembering them or inventing them and spouting them to the group, it's hard to stop. The more Swifties you put in a list, the more come to mind, the more you laugh, the more you're inclined to laugh, and, well, you get the picture. 

If you're a regular reader of this blog (bless you!), you might or might not recall that I wrote a column about Swifties several years ago, and I figured it might be time for an update. So . . .

The following is, I hope, an improved (though not approved) list of forty Swifties. The best ones are those I remembered or found online, and the worst are those I made up myself in weak moments--but I confess I love 'em all.

See what you think:

"That's a big shark," Tom said superficially. 

"I collided with my bed," Tom said rambunctiously.

"I slipped on the hill to Hogwarts," said J.K., rolling.

"I didn't do anything!" Adam said fruitlessly.

"This girl is gone," said Gillian, fleein'.

"Bring me my soup!" said Reese, witherspoon.

"Look at those pasties twirl," Tom said fastidiously.

"I will not finish in fifth place," Tom held forth.

"That was a tasty hen," said the Roman, gladiator.

"I told you I'm not fonda this script," Henry said, madigan.

"I dropped the toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.

"Who's Victor Hugo?" asked Les miserably.

"My car's in the shop," said Christopher, walken.

"A Black woman beat me at tennis," Tom said serenely.

"I'm an intelligent man, very intelligent," Donald trumpeted.

"I saw a mockingbird peck Gregory," Tom said harperly.

"I'm sailing with Noah," said Alan, arkin'.

"You're a smartass," Tom wisecracked.

"I'm going to see Natalie," said Joanne, woodward.

"Never pet a lion," Tom said offhandedly.

"Y'all, I'm leavin'," said Dolly, partin'.

"I've already left," said Faye, dunaway.

"I got kicked out of China," Tom said, disoriented.

"I invented the Internet," Tom said allegorically.

"I can't write while sick," said George, orwell.

"I never get to play the friend," said Willem, dafoe.

"That grizzly is climbing the tree after me," Tom said overbearingly.

"Let's sit here and watch for sharks," Peter said benchley.

"I'm tired of smiling," moaned Lisa.

"I want to sketch Goldwater again," said Drew Barrymore.

"What's that in the punchbowl?" Tom said, deterred.

"I punched him in the stomach three times," Tom said triumphantly.

"I left the Xena the crime," said Lucy lawlessly.

"I'm gonna hit a bad drive," Tom forewarned.

"Shaken, not stirred," said Sean and Roger, bonding.

 "I stepped on Harriet Beecher's toe," said Uncle Tom, gabbin'.

"Ow!" Dracula said, painstakingly.

"She set my car on fire and left me," Burt said, smoky and abandoned.

"I ate two cans of beans," said Vladimir, putin.

"About hot dogs, my dear, I don't give a damn," Tom said frankly.

Okay, enough of that. What are some of your favorite Swifties? Can you create a few from scratch? (Use the names of writers, maybe. Surely you can do better than I did.)

For anyone who'd like me to go back to talking about writing, or movies, in these posts, consider this:

"Last night I dreamt I wrote to Mrs. de Winter again," Rebecca said manderley.

To those who attended Malice or the Edgars, thanks for posting photos. Wish I'd been there.

See you in two weeks.

20 April 2024

Dryer Is a Noun


We all know that. It's the big appliance that sits beside your washing machine. If you want to compare the moisture content of things like two climates, towels, cakes, underwear, etc., it's drier, not dryer. Drier's an adjective. 

Dreyer is also a noun (proper noun). Five years ago, a former Random House copy chief named Benjamin Dreyer published a book called Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which lists a lot of language-related rules on things like dryer vs. drier, and it has come in handy for me more than once. In fact I wrote a column here at SleuthSayers about the book soon after I discovered it, and I think I've mentioned since then that I consider Dreyer's English second only to Stephen King's On Writing in terms of usefulness and readability. After all, it's utterly correct.

Ever since then, I've been considering doing another post about this book. So, if you have time, take a look at the examples in my previous post, appropriately titled "Dreyer's English," and then see what you think of the following additional rules and pointers that I discovered when I re-read the book not long ago. Some of this stuff I already knew (and so would you), but some of it I didn't. It's all good advice, by an expert who's studied our language from top to bottom.

Here are some of those (paraphrased) observations:

- Feel free to use contractions, even in formal writing. On this, Dreyer says, "Contractions are the reason God invented the apostrophe, so make good use of both." 

- Feel free to use sentence fragments. He mentions, as an example, the first three sentences of Charles Dickens's Bleak House: "London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather." Sometimes sentence fragments work perfectly, when writing fiction.

- It's okay to accompany "whether" with "or not." According to Dreyer, in the sentence "Whether or not you like movie musicals, you'll love Singin' in the Rain," try removing the "or not" and see what happens.

- Feel free to use "like" instead of "such as" when introducing a list. Either one works just fine.

- Don't punctuate acronyms and initialisms (abbreviations pronounced letter by letter) with periods. Examples: NASA, FBI, CIA, IBM, etc.

- Don't feel you have to use a comma before the recipient's name when beginning an email or a text: "Hi John" works every bit as well as "Hi, John."

- Use a comma in a sentence like "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter Clara" only if he has more than one daughter. If she's the only one, say "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter, Clara." 

- In my earlier SleuthSayers post, I mentioned never using an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation (CDs, IDs, ATMs)--but that also goes for dates (1860s, 1920s, '50s, '80s, etc.). I'm not sure if it's stated in the book or not, but I couldn't resist bringing it up.

- Use "farmers' market" instead of "farmer's market." Assuming, of course, that there's more than one farmer. I can't help thinking about the titles of two popular writing magazines I used to see on bookstore shelves: Writer's Digest and Writers' Journal. One of the mysteries of the universe.

- Sentences beginning with either "I wonder" or "Guess who" (I wonder who's kissing her now, Guess who's coming to dinner, etc.) should be ended with a period, not a question mark. They're not questions.

- Don't begin a sentence with a numeral or numerals. (1967 dawned clear and bright.) Instead, spell it out or reword it. Nineteen sixty-seven dawned clear and bright, or (better) The year 1967 dawned clear and bright. 

- Numerals are usually avoided in dialogue. Spell 'em out. I'll meet you at three-thirty.

- Set foreign language words and expressions in italics.

- Avoid "misplaced modifiers." Examples: "Strolling through the park, the weather was beautiful," or "Arriving at the garage, my car was nowhere to be found." This mistake is surprisingly easy to make. 

- As for substitutes for "said," don't write "Hello," he smiled, or "I don't care," she shrugged. You can't smile or shrug words.

--Know how to properly position dashes when indicating interrupted dialogue. Incorrect: "I can't possibly--" she set the jam pot down furiously "--eat such overtoasted toast." Correct: "I can't possibly"--she set the jam pot down furiously--"eat such overtoasted toast."

- Don't use semicolons in dialogue. Period.

- As for "Everyone should make up their own mind," etc., Dreyer says. "The singular 'they' is not the wave of the future; it's the wave of the present." In other words, he doesn't like it. But a lot has happened in the world in the five years since he published the book, and that now seems to be a sticky subject. I realize that "Everyone should make up his own mind," or even "Everyone should make up his or her own mind" is probably taboo these days, but the things we learned long ago die hard. I guess I would choose to rephrase the sentence.

One last "rule":

- Avoid the overuse of words like blinking, pausing, smiling, snorting, sighing, and swallowing in passages of dialogue. I confess that my speaking characters do these things all the time. But I'm working on it . . .

Again, these are only a few of the many writing rules I found in my recent re-reading of this fantastic book. If you don't already have it, consider picking it up. (And no, I receive no kickbacks.)

In closing, what are your opinions about the above snippets of "style" advice? Do you agree with most of them? Disagree? Please let me know, in the comments. Meanwhile . . . 

"I'll see you in two weeks," he smiled, snorting.

06 April 2024

Ups and Downs


All of us writers, if we write a lot, experience hills and valleys in terms of acceptances, publications, recognition, etc. Sometimes there are long dry spells, and at other times (metaphors be with you!), when it rains it pours.

This past week was a flood. I had six short stories, each very different from the others, published within four days, and on top of that, I found that one of my other stories was nominated for an award. All this was fun and surprising and humbling, but since there's usually some kind of balance in the universe, that probably also means no more pats on the head for me for a while.

For now, though, I'm using my momentary good fortune (flash flood?) to rescue me from the agony of figuring out what to post here at SleuthSayers today.

My recent literary cloudburst began with the announcement that I have a story in the April issue of Mystery Magazine. (Many thanks, as always, to editor Kerry Carter.) This story was different in that it was shorter than usual, around 1000 words, and was one of those Solve-It-Yourself mysteries with the puzzle up front and the "solution" appearing later. About a fourth of the stories I've had published at MM have been those interactive-format mysteries, and they're fun to write, in their own way. Joining me in this month's issue are my old buddies R.T. Lawton and Jim Doherty.

Next, I found out my mystery/western story "The Donovan Gang" was chosen by editor Barb Goffman (thanks, Barb!) to be included in the current (#135) issue of Black Cat Weekly. This story was around 4100 words, had been previously published at AHMM, and was a Derringer finalist last year. It was different for a number of reasons: (1) it was a reprint, (2) it was a western whodunit, (3) it was sort of a coming-of-age story, and (4) most everything took place in a tiny, isolated setting (the interior of a stagecoach). Like the other five stories, though, it was just "unique" enough that it was great fun to write.

My third story published in this four-day span, "A Walk in the Woods," was released as a part of the April 1 anthology Dark of the Day, a book I've known about for a long time and have been looking forward to. The anthology was edited by the wonderful Kaye George and features tales about the much-anticipated and -publicized solar eclipse that's scheduled for April 8. My story takes place near one of the northernmost U.S. locations in the eclipse's "path of totality" that stretches from southwest Texas to Maine. The story runs about 3900 words and includes three men who set out on a mountain hike in search of the ideal spot from which to view the event, and who run into a couple of deadly foreign terrorists who've just crossed the border from Canada on a mission that has nothing to do with the sun or its moon-shaded rays. Boy did I have a good time writing this one.

The other three stories came out on Wednesday, with the release of the new Storiaverse app. Two of my featured short stories, "Sorcerer" and "A Night at the Park," are original stories, the first about a scientist using his latest project in an unscientific way and the second about a couple of prison escapees in the middle of nowhere who run into a lady full of lethal surprises. My third story, "The Messenger," is a reprint of a fantasy tale about a man who meets a modern-day "genie" who offers him a choice between two strange wishes. If you've heard anything about Storia, you know it's a new approach to short fiction, using animation along with narration and sound, that began development last year. Also along with me on this ride are my longtime friends Josh Pachter, Stacy Woodson, Bill McCormick, and Michael Bracken. 

A further thrill for me was that--also on April 1--those of us in the Short Mystery Fiction Society found out which stories were finalists this year for the annual Derringer Awards, and I was extremely fortunate that my story "Last Day at the Jackrabbit" made the list. It first appeared in Strand Magazine and had already been good to me in that it was recently selected for inclusion in the upcoming Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2024. It's about a couple of locals on the run from the mob, and it's set in a roadside diner named the Jackrabbit. Half the fun of writing this one was its many mid-stream plot twists. If you read it, I hope you'll like it.

As I mentioned, this deluge of good news about several separate stories was welcome but is the kind of thing that doesn't happen to me often. Does it to you? What good things have befallen you lately, publicationwise? What good things are coming up (accepted but not yet published, finished but not yet announced, etc.) that might serve to recharge your literary batteries? Do you--like me--need that kind of occasional validation that you seem to be doing something right?

It's been said many times at this blog that self-doubt is something most writers suffer, from time to time. Personally, I've always secretly wondered if each publication might be the last one, or if the old idea-well will one day sputter and groan and run dry. So far it seems to be bubbling along, but one never knows. And then again, maybe all the publication droughts will someday go away completely, along with the publication doubts. Maybe the occasional low spots are just disguised opportunities to learn and improve. Maybe all clouds are lined with silver. 

Meanwhile, keep writing, and may many, many successes come your way!

30 March 2024

The Best Movies You've Never Heard Of


A friend once told me he thought I'd seen more movies than anyone else he'd ever known. I also seem to recall him rolling his eyes a bit when he said that. I didn't mind. I'm well aware that I spend a lot of time in fantasyland, and I also realize that even though I've enjoyed a great many of those movies, I've also seen many that were a stupendous waste of time.

My post today is about some that weren't.

An Unscientific Study

First, I should point out that my all-time favorite movies (Jaws, The Godfather, Jurassic Park, To Kill a Mockingbird, Casablanca, Raiders of the Lost Ark, L.A. Confidential, 12 Angry Men, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Silence of the Lambs, Aliens, Lonesome Dove, The Big Lebowski, etc., are some of them) aren't included in the following list. Why? Because you've probably seen them. All of those are well-known. 

I also didn't include three that I would've listed among the unknowns a few years ago--Galaxy Quest, In Bruges, and Blood Simple--because they've recently become more popular, maybe because viewers like me have tried to tell everyone about them. (If you haven't seen those, I suggest you treat yourself.)

Anyhow, here are my recommendations of movies of all genres that you might not know about but that I think are cool enough to watch many times each (the ones I consider the very best are at the top of the list):

50 Hidden Gems (and some Guilty Pleasures)

Sands of the Kalahari (1965) -- Stanley Baker, Stuart Whitman, Susannah York

The Dish (2000) -- Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) -- Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Medicine Man (1992) -- Sean Connery, Lorraine Bracco

A History of Violence (2005) -- Ed Harris, William Hurt

The Spanish Prisoner (1997) -- Steve Martin, Campbell Scott

Signs (2002) -- Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix

From Noon till Three (1976) -- Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland

Always (1989) -- Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman

Wait Until Dark (1967) -- Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna

Monsters (2010) -- Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Suburbicon (2017) -- Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac

An Unfinished Life (2005) -- Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez

The Last Sunset (1961) -- Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone

Wind River (2017) -- Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene

The Hanging Tree (1959) -- Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, George C. Scott

The Gypsy Moths (1969) -- Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) -- Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer

Magic (1978) -- Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith

Ransom (1996) -- Mel Gibson, Gary Sinese, Rene Russo

Under Siege (1992) -- Steven Seagal, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey

Third Man on the Mountain (1959) -- James MacArthur, Michael Rennie, Janet Munro

Lady in the Water (2006) -- Bryce Dallas Howard, Paul Giamatti

The Rocketeer (1991) -- Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton

Sorcerer (1977) -- Roy Scheider, Chick Martinez

Secondhand Lions (2003) -- Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osment

Shadow in the Cloud (2020) -- Chloe Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith

Vanishing Point (1971) -- Barry Newman, Cleavon Little

Used Cars (1980) -- Kurt Russel, Jack Warden

A Life Less Ordinary (1997) -- Holly Hunter, Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz

Waterhole #3 (1967) -- James Coburn, Carroll O'Connor, Claude Akins

Brassed Off (1996) -- Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) -- Jason Robards, Stella Stevens

Fall (2022) -- Virginia Gardner, Grace Caroline Currey, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Out of Sight (1998) -- George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez

Night Moves (1975) -- Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith

Silver Bullet (1985) -- Gary Busey, Corey Haim, Everett McGill

While You Were Sleeping (1995) -- Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman

Idiocracy (2006) -- Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph

Stranger than Fiction (2006) -- Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman

Lockout (2012) -- Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) -- Tom Berenger, Mimi Rogers, Lorraine Bracco

Amelie (2001) -- Audrey Tautou, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Joe vs. the Volcano (1990) -- Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges

No Way Out (1987) -- Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young

Kings of the Sun (1963) -- Yul Brynner, George Chakiris, Shirley Anne Field

Necessary Roughness (1991) -- Scott Bakula, Kathy Ireland, Evander Holyfield

Cat People (1982) -- Nastassja Kinski, John Heard, Malcolm McDowell

No Escape (2015) -- Owen Wilson, Pierce Brosnan, Lake Bell

The Blue Max (1966) -- George Peppard, Ursula Andress, James Mason

Questions for the Class

Have any of you seen these? Did you like 'em? Any additions to the list? Full disclosure, here: Also among my favorites of the well-knowns are Die HardBlazing Saddles, and Rustler's Rhapsody, so you should consider that before taking any of what I say too seriously. But thanks for indulging me.

Have fun at the movies!

16 March 2024

Plotters and Pantsers


Last Saturday my wife and I drove down to Natchez, a place I've visited many times, especially during my years with IBM, and this trip was more fun than work. I'd signed an agreement with the Mississippi Writers Guild not long ago to conduct several workshops this year on writing and selling short fiction, and this one was the first. The next session's in Jackson, in April. We had a good time.

One of the things I usually find interesting, in writer gatherings like this, are the students'/attendees' responses to the question, "Are you an outliner?" In my experience, the group is always almost equally divided on that issue, and that was the case Saturday as well. About half say they know beforehand where the story's going and how they're going to get there; the other half say they start writing with no idea of where or how the story'll end. The first half happily identifies as "outliners" or "plotters" and the other half as "seat-of-the-pantsers," which is the way they fly their story planes. (The only pantser I know who doesn't like that term is my longtime friend and writing buddy Elizabeth Zelvin. Sorry, Liz. We'll call you a non-outliner.)

As I've said before, I would never attempt to change anyone's approach, on this. I'm not even sure it's changeable. I think it boils down to which way our brains are wired, just as some of us are always late and others always early, some like the toilet paper to unroll from the top and others from the bottom, some like to squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle and others from the end, etc. Vive la difference, right?

I confess that I'm a plotter/planner/outliner. Rarely on paper, but certainly in my mind. I'm one of those structure-driven people who have to be be able to picture most of the scenes in the story beforehand, all the way to the ending. That might change a bit as I go along--it often does--but I have to know that tentative story layout before the writing starts. Does that make my stories less fun to write? Does it make the process more boring? Does it stifle my creativity (who in the hell came up with that phrase)? The answer's no. It doesn't. Instead, an outline gives me the comforting mental safety-net that I need, in order to shoulder my backpack and set out on my storytrip. If I didn't have that road map in my head, I might eventually make it to my destination, but I might not, and if I did get there, I think I'd waste a lot of time and effort on the way. That, to me, would not be fun.

NOTE: I'm not saying I don't respect the (roughly) half of my writing students and half of my writer friends who don't follow a mental or physical outline. In fact, I envy them. These carefree adventurers strap on their goggles and climb into their literary ATVs without knowing much of anything about the road ahead, and motor merrily into the unknown with big grins and flapping scarves, usually (and somehow) with good results (!!). In fact, some of the writers I most admire do it that way (!!!!). How? Don't ask me. I would still be wandering around out there someplace, running into dead ends and cursing and backtracking and rewriting. But--again--their way seems to work, and I would never try to change them. I don't even want to change them. I like their stories. 

One more thing. We're not always talking about only two groups, here. There are probably half a dozen different variations and subgroups between the two extremes. Yes, some writers do indeed have their entire story planned in great detail before starting, and they stick to it. Others have an ending firmly in mind but everything else is undecided. Others know their characters but don't yet know the storyline. Others know only the title and maybe a few opening words. Others have a fairly clear picture of how things will progress, but they don't dwell on it because they realize most of it'll change after the construction begins. And still others start with a completely blank slate, not knowing anything at all about their story except that there's probably one out there someplace, waiting to be discovered. On a scale of 10 to 1, with 10 being "I've got the whole story in my head" and 1 being "I have no idea what'll happen until I start writing," I'm probably an 8 or a 9.

By the way, I'm always early, I like the TP mounted to unroll from the top, and I squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle. 

How about you? Outliner or free-wheeler? Or somewhere in between?

02 March 2024

Howtellums: They're All Mysteries to Me


Since we at SleuthSayers are still posting about our stories in the new Murder, Neat anthology, and since my slot has rolled around again and I've already done one post about my story here . . . I thought I'd just do a different take on it today, and talk mostly about plotting.

As you probably know, many writers and readers believe all mystery stories are whodunits. That's not correct. According to most editors and publishers, a mystery story is merely one that has a crime central to its plot, or at least includes a crime. Some even say it's a mystery story if it implies that a crime is committed. If you want a real-world example, take a look sometime at the mystery fiction section in your local bookstore: the one thing those novels have in common is that they're crime stories. They're not all whodunits.

Neither is my short story, "Bourbon and Water," in the SleuthSayers anthology. It's a crime story set mostly in a bar, which was the theme we chose for the book. (It goes a bit beyond that, but I can't say more without getting into spoilers.) 

My point is, there are other kinds of dunits. Lots of mystery stories are howdunits or whydunits. The late great Elmore Leonard, a recipient of Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award, once said in an interview that he'd never written a real mystery, or at least never a whodunit. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that in none of his novels was the villain's identity ever kept secret from the reader until the end. Even so, I think his shorts and books were--and are--great examples of the mystery genre.

Another example: Neither of the two TV series Columbo (old) and Poker Face (recent) featured whodunits. Or howdunits, or whydunits. All those episodes were howcatchems. In every show, the viewing audience knew at the beginning of the story who the murderer was. The fun was in the rest of the hour or so, in watching the hero (or heroine, in the case of Poker Face) figure out the identity of the killer. It was a concept that worked just fine. Columbo ran for ten seasons, and (current news flash!) three episodes of Poker Face are among the five screenplays that are nominated for the 2024 Edgar in the Best Television Episode Teleplay category. It's a fantastic, well-written series.

As for me and my writing, I suspect that at least two-thirds of the mystery stories I've written and published are not whodunits. They're crime stories, period, to the degree that if you took the crime out of the plot, you'd have no story. Not that I have anything against whodunits and traditional mysteries--I like reading them and writing them, and yes, trying to figure out who the villain really is. But I also like the other kinds of mysteries, and I think the others are often more fun.

I've heard a lot of writers say they don't submit mystery stories to Woman's World because WW publishes only whodunits. Not true. I've also heard they publish only murder mysteries with at least three possible suspects in each story. Again, not true. A couple of weeks ago I sold my 130th story to WW (my 128th mystery, there), and less than half of those were whodunits. 

What about you? Considering both short stories and novels, do you mostly stick to the tried-and-true whodunits in your mystery writing? How about your reading? Do you find that you like UNtraditional mysteries just as much? Better? What's your definition of a mystery story?

I'm looking forward to seeing just how the stories in Murder, Neat fit into this discussion. (I've not yet seen a copy of the finished product.)

I guess that, for now, is a mystery.

17 February 2024

Two Dozen Writers Go into a Bar . . .


Last Tuesday was publication day for Murder Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology, by the Level Short imprint of Level Best Books. As others this week have said, this project is close to our hearts here at SS. Discussions about it began long ago, and thanks to our two fantastic editors, our "team" anthology is finally here. 

All of us talked, mostly via emails, about everything from what the theme of the anthology should be (besides crime, which is a given) to what the title should be, and in our case the title--Murder, Neat--came from the theme: All twenty-four of these stories are set in some kind of bar, tavern, pub, dive, honkytonk, or waterhole. (Not that any of us are at all familiar with those kinds of places.)

I think one of the reasons we decided to use a drinking establishment as our linchpin was probably the same reason the creators of Cheers set their TV series in a bar. It's one of those meeting-places that attracts all kind of characters at some time or another--good, bad, simple, complex--and all of them have stories to tell.

At the beginning of my story in the anthology, which has the misleading title "Bourbon and Water" (I love double meanings), the bar is in a place yet unknown and the two characters sitting at a dark corner table--a man and a woman--are themselves a mystery. We don't know who they are or why they're there. What we do know is that the woman has had a terrifying dream about a couple who seems much like the two of them, and her dream is my story-within-a-story, the one she tells to the man.

Because of that structure, this is, in a way, one of those "framed" narratives we've discussed often at this blog, the kind of tale that starts in the present, goes someplace else (usually the past), and ends once again in the present. The difference here is that the woman's dream--her glimpse of a of a life-changing event--serves not as the primary story but as sort of a setup. The crime is revealed later.

Not that it matters, but the dream sequence is the part that first popped into my head, when I started brainstorming the story. It happens that way sometimes: the crime part of a crime story needs to be central to the plot--we are, after all, sayers of sleuth, not sooth--but the Evil That Men Do is not necessarily the first thing I think of. Also a part of all this, in the planning stages, was the "bar" theme. How could I mix the required location with a crime and a twisty plot and come up with something that makes sense? Well, that's the fun of all this, isn't it? Create characters who are (hopefully) interesting, put them some kind of unusual location, throw in some criminal activity and other life-threatening incidents--there's a BIG one in this story--and see what happens.

I hope those of you who read it will find it not only mysterious but satisfying. It was certainly satisfying to write. 

I can't wait to read the whole book.

By the way . . .

To all you loyal friends and readers who stop in to visit us here at SleuthSayers: Thank you for that. Sincerely. We have a good time here, and hope you do too.

I think you'll like the anthology.