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

04 April 2020

Creating "Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5, BCMM





Last month I posted a column here about the writing of one of my recent short stories, "Crow's Nest" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020 issue), and during that post I explained that I usually come up with the plot first, then invent the characters, give them a setting to live in, etc. I'm not saying that's the best way to write short stories--I'm just saying that's the way I write short stories.

Not long ago, though, I wrote a story about a pair of modern-day bank robbers called "Rhonda and Clyde," and for this one I made up most the characters first. I had a blurry picture of the plot in my head, but at the beginning it was just a heist-and-pursuit idea with not much detail. Long story short (pun intended), I then wrote the story and sent it to Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and they bought it and published it in their Issue #5, November 2019.

I think the first glimmer of an idea for this story struck me after a re-watching of Bonnie and Clyde. I've always been fascinated with them anyway, and I had recently talked with a journalist friend of mine who'd just returned from visiting the site in northwest Louisiana where the two were ambushed and killed in August 1934. This happened about the same time I was finishing up a story I'd been working on, and since I seem to write these stories like a chain-smoker, as soon as I typed THE END on that previous story I immediately lit up this one.


A character-building experience

I remember first creating my protagonist, who was a woman originally from the south but was now the sheriff at a small town in Wyoming. I wanted her to be strong and level-headed and happy in her job but also a duck-out-of-water, and I wanted her to have a deputy who was also an outsider but who wasn't happy, with either the job or his boss or his location. One of my reasons was that their mild but mutual dislike for each other added a level of conflict to the story before the plot ever really got going. And the more conflict you have in a story, the better. (More on that, later.)

I also came up with a sweet, lonely, and gullible bank teller with the everyday name of Helen Wilson, who gets duped by a married couple named Rhonda and Clyde Felson. Clyde's nickname for Rhonda was Ronnie, which worked well for a pair of lovebirds who robbed banks, and I remember stealing their last name from Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman's character in The Hustler. It seemed appropriate. I then added a police dispatcher, a few elderly and Native-American townsfolk, several more bank employees, a motel manager, an old couple on vacation, two state police detectives, and so on. More characters than my stories usually have--and some of the main players, as you might imagine, wound up changing their ways a bit in the course of the tale. I'm not a "literary" writer, but sometimes I try to think like one.

In the weird category, the name of one of my characters came from a highway sign I'd seen as my wife and I drove home from a Bouchercon conference a few years ago. It was one of those big green signs above the interstate--I-85 in this case, heading southwest between Greensboro and Charlotte--announcing the exit for the tiny towns of Spencer and East Spencer, North Carolina. The sign said (and probably still says):


SPENCER
E SPENCER

1 MILE


For some reason I remembered that--my brain works in mysterious ways--and when I needed a quirky name for my bank manager in this story, he became Spencer E. Spencer.


Plot, setting, etc.

Locationwise, the characters started out in North Dakota in my mind, and timewise I wanted it to be winter, which turned out well because the cold weather became a factor in the plot. I soon changed the setting to Wyoming, possibly because I've spent so many hours watching the Longmire TV series. The image I had of Sheriff Marcie Ingalls's office looked amazingly like Sheriff Walt Longmire's, minus a few mounted deer heads. Maybe her decorator watched that show too.

Now that I had the setting nailed down and most of the characters in costume and waiting patiently behind the curtain, I started thinking more about what they were going to do. And once I really got going on the plot itself, that turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I've always found that to be fun, the mechanics of storytelling, the trying to make sure everything flows smoothly and fits together and is satisfying in the end.

I also enjoy plot twists. Some of my favorite short stories, novels, and movies have huge twists and turns, not just at the conclusion but throughout the story. A couple of examples are John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and William Goldman's novel Marathon Man. One scene in particular in Pelham (involving a passenger on the subway) and several chapters in Marathon Man (involving the hero's brother) are designed to completely fool the reader and then delight him shortly afterward when the real situation becomes clear. And these happen in the middle of the story. I love that kind of deception. For one thing, it keeps the reader alert and off-balance, wondering when and whether it might happen again.

What most inspired me to try some of that in "Rhonda and Clyde" was a scene in the final act of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I first saw on an IBM trip almost thirty years ago--I even remember the city and the theater. It's the scene where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is going door-to-door seeking information about the case. One of the front doors she knocks on turns out to be that of the serial killer they're all looking for, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, but she doesn't know that because nobody knows what he looks like, and when he invites her inside we (the audience) are thinking don't go in don't go in, but she does. Meanwhile, her mentor and his team at the FBI are closing in on the house, and in back-and-forth cuts we see the armed and vested assault team crash through the door and we think they're about to save Clarice. But they find no one home, and only then do we realize that oh my God they're at a different house. Now that's suspense. And it's just one of the reasons Lambs swept the Oscars that year.

I tried to use some of that kind of misdirection in this story, along with some instances of redemption, which I mentioned earlier. It's always satisfying to me as a reader, and a writer, when characters wind up changing, as a result of what happens in the story, their attitudes and the way they look at life.


Info for Otto

One of the nicer things to happen to me this year was being notified that "Rhonda and Clyde" has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, to be published this fall. As he always does, series editor Otto Penzler asked for a short piece about the story to accompany my bio in the anthology, and part of what I wrote goes along with the how-to-construct-a-story subject I've been discussing here today.

The following will appear in the "Contributors' Notes" section of B.A.M.S. 2020:


If I recall, my first inspiration for "Rhonda and Clyde" came on a bitterly cold day. (We don't have many of those here in the south, thank God.) It probably put me in a Fargo frame of mind, because when I created Wyoming sheriff Marcie Ingalls that morning, the image of the movie character Marge Gunderson sort of jumped into my head, and it stayed there throughout the planning of the story. That choice of a protagonist wasn't surprising; I've always liked stories about strong and smart women in law enforcement, and the way their colleagues (and the criminals) often make the mistake of underestimating them.

I also remember wanting to (1) give her a deputy she didn't particularly like and (2) make the villains a husband-wife team, maybe because I especially enjoy writing dialogue and I knew both those partnerships would give me a lot of opportunity for that. This line of thinking was a bit different for me, because I usually start with the plot and only then come up with the characters. In this case I created my players first and then dreamed up something for them to do, with some twists and reversals along the way. Anyhow, once I had all that in mind, I sat down and wrote the story in a couple of days' time--and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Maybe an occasional cold snap isn't a bad thing . . .




The truth is, if the elements of fiction--plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, setting--are all in place and effective in a story, it doesn't much matter how they got there. All of us approach the planning and writing of a story in different ways, and whatever works, works. This is just how it happened this time.

How do you do it? Plot first? Characters first? Setting first? Theme first? A mix of several of these? Do you always do it the same way, or vary from time to time? What's been most successful for you?


In closing, I want to again express my thanks to John Betancourt and Carla Coupe at Black Cat M.M. for accepting and publishing this particular story and to Otto Penzler and C. J. Box for choosing it for inclusion in the 2020 edition of B.A.M.S. It's always gratifying to see something that you've written show up in magazines and anthologies that you respect and admire.


Best to all of you, writers and readers alike. Stay safe!

21 March 2020

Super-Short Stories


Note the hyphen in the title: this post is not about short stories that are super. It's about stories that are super-short. And it's a result of the many responses I've received about a creation of mine that was published last week at a market called 50-Word Stories.

Besides being fun to write, these mini-stories--I've heard them called "sudden" fiction--are good practice. If you set out to write something short, especially something with a predetermined wordcount, you know you can't waste any words. It's a concept we writers need to keep in mind for longer stories as well, but with very short stories it's vital.

What do some of these tiny stories look like? Here are some examples.


50 words

My recent effort at 50-Word Stories is titled "Mum's the Word"--which they misspelled as "Mom's the Word," not that it matters; that title might be better than my own. It's a dialogue-only piece that was originally published years ago at a place called Flashshot.

Here's a link to my story, and since it's so short I've reprinted it here:


"A 50-word story? Impossible."
"You're wrong."
"Try it."
"Okay: Honey, I'm pregnant."
"What?"
"Just kidding."
"Not funny."
"How about: I'm pregnant, and it's not yours."
"What!?"
"Kidding again. How many words, so far?"
"34."
"Let's stop. I'm hungry."
"For what?"
"Pickles."
"Pickles?"
"How many words now?"
"47."
"And ice cream."


(Thanks again, by the way, to those kind folks who posted comments at the bottom of that story.)


45 words

Here's another short-short-short, this one not quite fifty words, written by my friend Kate Fellowes. She informed me that it recently won the San Diego Public Library's annual Matchbook Short Story Contest (!). Notice how much information she managed to pack into so few words:


Who stole my youth? The detective I hired uncovered the truth. "They were in it together," he said, passing me photos. Father Time showed no remorse, his face kind and gentle. Mother Nature was unrepentant. "Honestly, darling," she said when questioned, "what did you expect?"


I really, really like that story. Thank you, Kate, for giving me permission to reprint it here.


26 words

Still counting down, I want to mention a story I included in a SleuthSayers post several years ago. I wrote it for a contest--the instructions said to compose a 26-word story such that each word begins with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. (Contestants were allowed some wiggle-room in that we could use words like Xcept and Xtended and Xterminated for the letter X.) All this struck me as a challenge, which it was, and it turned out to be even more fun than I'd thought. I wrote eight or nine Xperimental stories before picking the one I wanted to send in--here are a few of those I considered submitting:


A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

American Broadcasting Company department executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

Since you're probably rolling your eyes by now and searching for a Tylenol or a barf-bag, let me assure you that I agree: none of those seemed to hit the spot. (I have some more near-misses, but I'll spare you.) I finally wrote and submitted this one instead, which I titled "Mission Ambushable."


Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP.


That story, which I realize is still a groaner, wound up winning second place in the contest, which resulted in a $30 Amazon gift card that got used about ten seconds after it hit my inbox. (I don't recall what the first-place story was, but I remember consoling myself that it wasn't as good as mine. What were those judges thinking . . . ?)


12 words

And here's another of my masterpieces, called "The Pain in Spain":

She ran with the bulls at Pamplona;
One stuck her, another steptona.

(Okay, that's a poem, not a story. But you'll have to admit, it's profound literature.)


8 words

I read someplace--I think it was in a how-to-write book by English novelist E. M. Forster, though I can't remember its title--that a story can be defined as a series of related events. An example of this, he said, is the following eight-word sentence:

The king died and then the queen died.

Nor much of a story, you say? Maybe not. But since it involves two events that are related to each other, it meets the requirements. And in case you're interested, I recall that Forster went on to illustrate the difference between a story and a plot. He said that while those eight words make it a story, adding two more words can make it a PLOT:

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

Interesting, I thought.


6 words

One of the shortest stories I've seen, again and again over the years--you probably have, too--is the following six-worder:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Some say its author was Ernest Hemingway, but that's never been proven. I still love it. In fact, if I think about it too long it brings a tear to my eye--and I admire any story, poem, novel, or movie that can do that.


Not to be outdone, here is my own six-word story, called "Radio Silence."

"Entering Bermuda Triangle. No problems whatsoev--"

That one was submitted also, to a six-word flash-fiction contest. It not only didn't win, it never even got a response. (Not that I let rejection bother me; I choose to believe it fell behind the piano and the judges never saw it.)


A final word

I'm afraid I don't know of any story examples of fewer than six words. If you do--or if you know of other shorties under fifty words, especially those you've written yourself, please let me know in the comments. And for those of you who have done this kind of thing, did you find micro-writing interesting? Challenging? Fun? Hard? More trouble than it's worth?



By the way, that SleuthSayers post I mentioned, about the alphabet-soup contest? I remember closing it with the following thought. It seems to apply here too:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.



See you in two weeks.

07 March 2020

Pure Goldman





The name William Goldman might or might not be familiar to you. It's probably familiar to me only because I watch, and have always watched, a lot of movies. All of us are familiar with Goldman's movies.

I intended to write this column more than a year ago, shortly after I heard about his death, but I just never got around to it. There is general agreement that screenwriter William Goldman was a man of incredible literary talent, and I've long been a fan of not only his screenplays but his novels and memoirs. (I think Adventures in the Screen Trade should be "must" reading for all writers of fiction.)

Very quickly: William Goldman was born in Chicago in August 1931 and died in New York in November 2018, and over the course of his long career he won two screenwriting Oscars (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men), won two Edgars (for Harper and Magic), and received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writer's Guild of America.

I won't go into a lot of detail about his life; if you want that, there's plenty of information available. What I'd like to do here is give you a list of some of his accomplishments. He was the author of the following screenplays, novels, and books.

Note: I have not included any of his plays, TV scripts, unproduced movie scripts, or short stories. And--not that it matters--the asterisks indicate my favorites in each category.

Movies:

Masquerade (1965)
Harper (1966)
*Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Hot Rock (1972)
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
*Marathon Man (1976)
*All the President's Men (1976)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Magic (1978)
Heat (1986)
*The Princess Bride (1987)
Twins (1988)
*Misery (1990)
A Few Good Men (1992)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Year of the Comet (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Last Action Hero (1993)
Malice (1993)
Maverick (1994)
Delores Claiborne (1995)
The Chamber (1996)
*The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Absolute Power (1997)
The General's Daughter (1999)
*Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Wild Card (2015)

Novels:

The Temple of God (1957)
Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow (1958)
Soldier in the Rain (1960)
Boys and Girls Together (1964)
No Way to Treat a Lady (1964)
The Think of It Is . . . (1967)
Father's Day (1971)
*The Princess Bride (1973)
*Marathon Man (1974)
*Magic (1976)
Tinsel (1979)
*Control (1982)
The Silent Gondoliers (1983)
*The Color of Light (1984)
Heat (1985)
Brothers (1986)

Nonfiction:

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969)
The Story of A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)
Wait Till Next Year (1988)
*Hype and Glory (1990)
Four Screenplays (1995)
Five Screenplays (1997)
*Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000)
The Big Picture (2001)


William Goldman was, along with screenwriters like Kubrick, Sorkin, Wilder, and a few others, one of the very best in the business, and the three movies he adapted from his own novels--Magic, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride--are, in my opinion, among his finest. There are things about all three (ventriloquists' dummies, dentists' chairs, giants who like rhymes, etc.) that'll probably stay in my head forever. And his nonfiction was especially interesting to me because of the way he wrote. He presented facts as if he were sitting in the chair next to you, chatting instead of lecturing. Those of you who've read him know what I mean.


Goldman once said, of himself: "I don't like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I've ever written, not that I'm proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."

Author Sean Egan once said, of Goldman: "He was one of the late twentieth century's most popular storytellers."

I know which I'd rather believe.

All of us, writers and moviegoers alike, can learn from his work.








29 February 2020

A Different Kind of Movie





One thing that hasn't gotten much coverage here at SleuthSayers lately is novels/stories/movies about the subject of writing. I found one of my long-ago columns at Criminal Brief that discusses that ("Stories About Stories"), and what I remember most about putting together that post was that I liked most of the novels and stories about writing, but I didn't like many of the movies. Some that I did enjoy were Adaptation, Misery, Miss Potter, The Man from Elysian Fields, Stranger than Fiction, and--more recently--Trumbo. I think there's plenty to be learned from all of these, including those that didn't appeal to me, but I finally decided that it's probably just hard to make a movie about writing that's entertaining.

The other night, though, I watched a DVD I got via Netflix that I thoroughly enjoyed, called The Professor and the Madman (2019). Not a title that grabs you, right?--and not one that gives you any indication of the subject matter, either. But . . . it's an adaptation of the Simon Winchester book about the creation of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, in the mid-1800s. It was enlightening, yes, but in a good way, and kept me entertained throughout. And yes, I realize it wasn't actually about writing--but it was certainly about publishing, and about words themselves. I even re-watched it with my wife later that night, and she enjoyed it also. (She likes maybe five percent of the movies I like--she not only ignores but rolls her eyes at all the rest.)

Quick overview: The professor in the title, James Murray (Mel Gibson), is the Scottish teacher who is assigned to compile the information for the dictionary; the madman, Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), is the unlikely ally who, from his cell in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, assists Murray by sending him more than ten thousand entries. I thought the writer and director did a great job of showing what an almost-impossible undertaking this was.

Besides the main story--Murray's task of finding and defining every single word in the English language up to that point in time--there is an accompanying plot about redemption and friendship and forgiveness. At one point, that side-story brought a tear to my eye, something that usually happens only when I watch movies like Old Yeller, or Dumbo (the scene where Dumbo's mom is in the jail car and cradling him in her trunk through the bars, whoa, that gets me every time . . .). And it doesn't hurt that most of this movie was true.

Admittedly, The Professor and the Madman had a lot of things (besides its title) going against it. First, it received almost no promotion and had limited distribution. I just happened to notice it while browsing Netflix possibilities, and took a chance on it. Second, it is definitely slow-moving; not much action or excitement at all. Third, it has only two "name" stars: Gibson and Penn. The only other faces I recognized were those of British actor Eddie Marsan and Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer. Possibly because of all these things, I doubt if you've even heard of the movie, and if you have, I doubt you took the trouble to find and watch it. I almost didn't. But you should.


Having said all that, I will now take off my scholarly hat--it doesn't fit anyway--and go back to watching my cop movies and westerns, with an occasional space opera thrown in, and my wife'll go back to her sighs and eye-rolls. But in this case, I'm glad I took a break from my usual fare.

I suggest you give The Professor and the Madman a try. If you do, or if you've already seen it, tell me what you think.

And if you know of some interesting movies--OR novels/stories--about writing, please let me know in the comments. Writing is a fascinating subject, not just to us but to non-writers as well; there have to be other good ones out there.

Now, where'd I put that Die Hard DVD . . .




15 February 2020

Building "Crow's Nest," Jan/Feb 2020 EQMM





Some of my favorite columns by my fellow SleuthSayers have been those that give us a sneak peek into the creation of the mystery stories they've published. I suppose it makes sense that I would like that kind of thing--I'm also a sucker for those little behind-the-scene "bonus" features included on most DVDs. I enjoy finding out where scenes were filmed and who else was considered for the roles and how the screenwriters got their ideas in the first place. Trivia galore.

So . . . what I thought I'd do today is talk about my short story in the January/February (current, at least for a couple more weeks) issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It's called "Crow's Nest," and is a standalone tale about an old guy who gets involved by accident in a conflict between a bunch of local gangsters and a couple of amateur criminals. Bottom line is, it's about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which is, by the way, a pretty good definition of commercial fiction.


Character stuff

Quick setup: The "hero" of this story isn't a hero at all. Amos Garrett is a regular guy, a retired farmer who lives with his wife out in the boonies and doesn't have a lot of thrills in his life, which is just fine with him--until he stops his truck one day to help a young lady with a flat tire and no spare and a dead cellphone. Afterward, there's more than enough excitement to go around (or I hope there is). Robbery, murder, lies, betrayals, revenge, etc.

One of the things I wanted to do with this story was feature an older protagonist. Amos is pushing seventy-five--older than I am, but not by much--and so is his wife, and they live high on a hill in a house that's fairly ordinary except for one thing. It has a railed platform on top that allows an unobstructed view for miles around. They use it as sort of a patio, and call it their Crow's Nest, like the perches on the masts of tall ships where sailors watched for whales, or enemy vessels, or dry land. In this story, it comes in handy for something else.

Amos is an uncomplicated guy. He drives an ancient pickup, goes fishing and hunting now and then, owns an old fifty-caliber buffalo gun that he inherited but hasn't fired in years because the recoil hurts his shoulder, and still likes to go to cattle auctions even though he's long since sold all his cattle. He's also old-fashioned in his thinking: he loves his wife, he helps those in need, and he believes in trying to do the right thing.

The other protagonist (heroine?) is a woman named Wendy Lake ("Sounds like an apartment complex," she tells Amos, when they meet), and she IS complicated--sweet and meek at times and scary-tough at others. I won't say too much about her because she's the basis of most of the twists and turns the story takes--but I will say she's the exact opposite of Amos. He's old, she's young; he's local, she's an outsider; he's calm and cautious by nature; she's not; he lives pretty much by the rules; she doesn't. The POV alternates between these two for the entire story.

Plot stuff

As has been discussed often at this blog, writers get their initial ideas from a lot of different places, and those starting points usually fall into three categories: settings, characters, or plots. I usually begin with the plot, partly because I think story is more important than anything else and partly because the plot just seems to be the first thing that pops into my head. Then and only then do I come up with characters who I hope are interesting and settings that I hope are convincing and appropriate. Lots of folks do it the other way around--characters first, or settings first. Different strokes.

In the case of this story, my first glimmer of an idea came from a movie I watched years ago, an Australian "western" called Quigley Down Under. It won no Oscars and maybe didn't deserve any, but it was a riproaringly good story in terms of action and excitement. It had a great cast, a great plot, a great score, a great setting, and one scene in particular that stayed with me long afterward.

Picture this. American-in-a-strange-land Matthew Quigley, played by Tom Selleck, has been beaten senseless by the villain's men and carted off into the outback, to be left for dead. He and a young lady (Laura San Giacomo, if anyone remembers the TV series Just Shoot Me) are dumped unconscious from a buckboard in the middle of nowhere, and the two henchmen climb back into the wagon and prepare to leave. As Captain Kirk would say, the situation is grim.

Then Quigley comes to, lures one of the bad guys back down off the wagon, and--still lying down--kills him with a hidden knife. Thug #2, thankfully smarter than he looks, sees this and takes off in the wagon alone, headed away across the flats, but (also thankfully), Thug #1, now dead, was carrying Quigley's Sharps long-range rifle when he got stabbed, so our hero, trying to clear his head, wipes the blood and sweat and dirt from his eyes, loads the gun, crawls into position, props the three-foot-long barrel of the Sharps on the dead body of Thug #1, and takes careful aim. Meanwhile, Thug #2 is going hell for leather, flying across the desert, scared to death and leaning forward in his seat and looking back over his shoulder and whipping the horses as hard as he can and getting smaller and smaller and smaller in the distance. Knowing that he'll have only the one chance and knowing that if his bullet doesn't hit its tiny target Thug #2 will get home safely and report what happened and a small army will come back and kill him and his lovely still-unconscious companion, Quigley takes his time and squeezes off his shot and blows T#2 right out of his wagon seat, half a mile away. Heavy sighs of relief, fading music, end of scene. All is well.

So, using that as sort of a launch pad, I built a present-day plot whereby the young Wendy gets rescued from her car troubles by Amos Garrett, and he takes her home with him to call for roadside assistance. But of course the power is out at the house and so is the landline and she stays the night as the guest of Amos and his wife, and since Wendy says she and her brother are gun collectors Amos shows her his old .50-caliber Sharps--the one that buffalo hunters used in the Old West--and lets her have some target practice out back before supper. She's a surprisingly good shot. The next morning when phone lines are repaired she makes her call for assistance . . . but of course she isn't exactly who she claims to be (who is, in a mystery?) and she didn't call who she'd claimed she called, and the two people who come for her aren't car-repairmen and they definitely aren't friendly, to either her or the Garretts. A lot happens from that point, and part of it involves a long-range shot by Wendy with the buffalo gun, with time running out and everybody's lives hanging in the balance. (Sorry that preview ran so long.)


I should mention here that the scene I remembered from the movie resulted in less than one page of the twenty-one pages of my story manuscript--but it did serve as a starting point, the tiny match that lit the fire. It happens that way sometimes.

Theme stuff

If pressured, I guess I would say there are several "themes" featured in this story--crime doesn't pay, lend a hand to the needy, the end can indeed sometimes justify the means, there are varying degrees of good and evil, love is more important than money, villains should get what they deserve, and so forth--but I admit I don't usually give much thought to illumination and life-lessons in fiction. I just try to tell an entertaining story, and if there's something to be learned form it, fine; if there's not, I might've at least saved you from half an hour of network TV, and believe me, that can be a blessing. I've never understood writing instructors who say you must come up with the theme first, before you start writing. My feeling is, don't waste time worrying about that. If you write a story and it turns out good, then it'll have a theme.

One more thing. One kind reader told me the other day, via email, that she liked my foreshadowing of a couple of things that happened near the end of this story--one of them involved an early view of several old mailboxes on the same post, something you see a lot in rural areas of the south, and which turned out to be meaningful later. I appreciated her noticing that, because I love doing that kind of thing in a story. Some of my writer friends seem to think foreshadowing is hard in short fiction because the stories aren't long enough for it to work. That's not true. It just depends on when and how you do it.



And that's all, folks. Thanks for indulging me. If you happen to read my story, I hope you'll like it. If you read it and don't like it, hey, maybe you'll have learned something not to do in your own stories.

Two things I know for sure: (1) I'm grateful that EQMM liked it, and (2) it was a lot of fun to write.


See you in two weeks.



01 February 2020

Literary Trivia, Recycled




Since I was in a reminiscing mood the other day--and since I was having trouble coming up with an idea for today's column--I took a look at what I'd posted exactly ten years ago at the Criminal Brief mystery blog (the predecessor to SleuthSayers). Oddly enough, my subject that day was one I was discussing with a friend just last week: trivia about writers.

I have taken the liberty of re-posting that piece of nonsense here. You'll see some things that might be a bit off, including my mention of a couple of authors in the present tense who have since died and at least one research mistake (Christie did NOT kill off Miss Marple in Sleeping Murder, as my source said she did)--but I hope you might find a few interesting facts here. I know one thing for sure: our odd fascination with trivial details will always be around. 

Anyhow, here's that old column. Where'd all that time go . . . ? 


INSIDE INFO, by John M. Floyd

Saturday, January 30, 2010

(Yes, I know this isn't EXACTLY ten years ago--but it's close.)




I like trivia. I always have. I think it's fun to discover little-known and often useless facts about the people and places and things that share our world. Who knows, maybe it's fun because it is useless: the pursuit of meaningless information is more like play than work, and we have plenty enough work in our lives.

Stalking the rich and famous

Apparently I'm not alone in my fondness for unimportant details. We all know how the general public loves to get the skinny on celebrities and their antics. There seems to be no end to the number of fans who want to know what J-Lo wore to her premiere last night or what kind of cereal George Clooney eats for breakfast.

I can understand that, in a way. I like finding out that Sinatra was the producers' first choice to play Dirty Harry, and that E.T.'s voice was really Debra Winger's. But I'm also interested in another area of trivia: writers, and their backgrounds and habits. Because of that, I keep an eye open (both of them, occasionally) for little tidbits that shed more light on the sometimes secret lives of authors.

The quirks of Shakespeare

Here are some of those pieces of information that I've picked up and stored away in notebooks over the years. I can't remember where I found most of them, but at least a few came from a book called Writing the Popular Novel, by Loren Estleman. He calls them "Fiction Facts":


- At one point, Mickey Spillane was the author of seven of the ten best-selling novels of all time.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald kept track of his plotlines by pinning the drafts of his chapters up on his walls.

- When J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel, she typed three separate copies because she couldn't afford copying fees.

- Ian Fleming named his main character after reading a book called Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond. He liked the name because he considered it dull and bland and therefore appropriate for a secret agent.

- While serving as president of Anderson Manufacturing, Sherwood Anderson abruptly walked out of his office one day to pursue a career as an author (good for him!). Also in the "odd exit" department: Years later, Anderson died from peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick hidden in an hors d'oeuvre.

- Agatha Christie, who was convinced that others might exploit two of her main characters after her death, killed them off in two books--Jane Marple in Sleeping Murder and Hercule Poirot in Curtain--and arranged to have them published posthumously.

- Jack London once ran for mayor of Oakland, California, on the Social Party ticket; Upton Sinclair once ran for governor of California.

- In 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a 50,000-word novel called Gadsby without ever using the letter "e."

- The prolific John Creasey is said to have written his first published novel on the backs of more than seven hundred rejection letters.

- Jack Kerouac mounted a continuous roll of teletype paper above his typewriter so he wouldn't have to crank in new sheets.

- Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's literary heritage: a number of Bonnie's poems were accepted and published in newspapers in 1933, while she was eluding the FBI--and a letter from Clyde to Henry Ford, praising the Ford as a getaway car, is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

- When asked what one of his stories meant, William Faulkner once replied, "How should I know? I was drunk when I wrote it."

- Erle Stanley Gardner dictated his books orally.

- Arthur Conan Doyle was an ophthalmologist; since it didn't pay particularly well, he took up writing only as a way to make ends meet.

- Frankly, my dear, Margaret Mitchell wrote the ending of Gone With the Wind first and wrote the opening only after the book was accepted for publication, ten years later.

- Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain liked to write lying down, Ben Franklin and Vladimir Nabokov often wrote while in the bathtub, and Lewis Carroll and Ernest Hemingway (after injuring his back in a plane crash) wrote standing up.

- Rescued at the last moment: Tabitha King retrieved Carrie from her husband's wastebasket (the Kings were almost starving at the time), and the son of Leo Tolstoy fished the discarded manuscript of War and Peace out of a drainage ditch.

- Elmore Leonard writes everything in longhand, on yellow legal pads.

- Six-foot-six Thomas Wolfe also preferred to write standing up, using the top of his refrigerator for a desk.

- Charles Dickens's dream was to be a comic actor. Thankfully, he wasn't very good at it and decided on another career instead.

- J. D. Salinger sometimes avoids interruptions by writing in a concrete bunker near his home.

- It is said that Hemingway's simple, terse style came from the fact that he had memorized the King James version of the Bible and could recite it by heart.

- Stephen King wrote the first pages of Misery in a London hotel at a desk that had belonged to Rudyard Kipling.

- Switching horses in midstream: Janet Evanovich started out writing romances, Elmore Leonard started with Westerns, Lawrence Block started with erotica. And both James Dickey (Deliverance) and James Harrison (Legends of the Fall) published poetry long before they published fiction.

- William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) got the idea for his pseudonym from a guard, Orrin Henry, who befriended him while he was serving time in prison for embezzlement.



You get the idea: writers are a different breed, and writing itself is a strange occupation. But, as Stephen the Kingster once said, "It's better than having to pay a psychiatrist."




Just as recycling a long-ago column is better than having to dream up a new one. (I promise I'll post one next time that hasn't been previously driven.)

One more piece of trivia, in the where-has-the-time-gone department: Fifty years ago tomorrow, I signed on with IBM, fresh out of college, and stayed there 30 years. Great jumpin' Jiminy.

A final note: In the comments following this original post, that smartaleck Leigh Lundin asked if I could write my next blog post without using the letter "e." My response was: "Of cours I will." (But I didn't. Mayb nxt tim.)

Have a great February.





18 January 2020

Writing for Fun





As mentioned in two of my earlier posts at this blog, I'm not one to stray far from my comfort zone in my writing, and I also don't care much for New Year's resolutions, but--at the urging of my publisher, Joe Lee--I'm going to try at least one new thing in 2020.

A quick background note: In the spring of 2006, it was Joe's idea (he owns and operates Dogwood Press here in Mississippi) to put thirty of my previously published short mysteries together in a hardcover collection called Rainbow's End and Other Stories. Thankfully, that book sold well enough for a second printing, and since then Joe's small, traditional press has published six more books of my stories--as well as the work of eight other writers. Another idea Joe had, back in 2015, was to veer away from my usual story-collections and produce a softcover book of fifty of my lighthearted tales with the mysteries in the front of the book and the solutions in the back. That project, called Fifty Mysteries (let's hear it for appropriate titles), was great fun to put together, and has sold well also. I think its success was due to (1) its "puzzle" format, (2) its humor, and (3) the fact that all of its stories feature two familiar characters from my longest-running series--all of which were reasons I thought it might not work. The point is, when Joe has a brainstorm, I listen.

So, what was this latest idea? To publish a book of my poetry.

A what?!

You heard right. Over the past 25 years I've sold poems to more than 100 different markets, including Writer's Digest, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Farm & Ranch Living, Mystery Time, Wordplay, Futures, Satire, Grit, The Lyric, Writers' Journal, Mobius, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, Capper's, The Mystery Review, and so on. But be aware . . . this is not the deep, profound, life-changing poetry you might find in prestigious literary journals. I'm not a contemporary poet and I noet. This is easygoing, humorous, Ogden Nash-style verse whose sole purpose is to put a smile on your face, and maybe even make you Laugh Out Loud and slap ya mama. The kind of thing that a lot of readers--and editors too, thank God--seem to like. (If you're at all interested, here's a SleuthSayers column I did about Nash and light verse, several years ago,)

The title of this unusual (ad)venture is called Lighten Up a Little, which is also the title of one of the included poems and might, I think, be good advice for all of us. The book will contain 300 lighthearted poems I've published in the aforementioned markets. Some are long (up to four pages) and many are short (as few as four lines), and all are an exercise in rhythm and rhyme and wordplay, because I love that sort of thing. As for subject matter, some of the poems are crime-based, but others cover everything from kids to sports to medicine to politics to movies to animals to technology to writing. The book is scheduled for April 2020.

Note: When the decision to publish was made and Joe and his wizards had started working on the layout, I sat down and drew a little cartoon I thought might work for the cover. I then scanned it and emailed it to my friend Chuck Galey, who's a professional illustrator, and asked him if he knew of any online coloring programs I might use to insert color into my dull-looking black-and-white drawing. Chuck responded by coloring it himself and sending it back to me. Boy, does it help to know the right people . . .


Here's an excerpt from my introduction:

"The following poems, grouped in a dozen categories of 25 each--and most of which are capsule-sized--may be ingested separately or in gulps of several at a time. They were designed to provide temporary relief from everyday stress and fatigue, but seem to also be effective in treating insomnia.

"To those who seek enlightenment, inspiration, and/or insights into the Meaning of Life . . . well, you might want to look elsewhere."

Which is true. No psychology or angst or navel-gazing here. Since I like movie comparisons, this is more of a Blazing Saddles than a 2001. And in case you're wondering what in the world I'm even talking about, here are a few really short examples of the contents:



A WILD ALLI-GATION

The wife of Mean Willie LaBrock
Disappeared off the end of their dock;
Willie claimed that a gator
Just swam up and ate her
But that sounds to me like a croc.


NEVER TOO LATE

"You're Al Capone?"
He said: "That's right."
"You're dead, I thought."
He said, "Not quite."
"Then you must be--"
"I'm 103."
"So you're retired?"
"That's not for me."
"But how do you--"
"Get by?" he said.
He pulled a gun.
"Hands on your head."


LOVE IS BLURRY

Thought not legally blind, Nate was badly crosseyed
When he married Big Lucy, a mail-order bride;
"Get some glasses," friends urged, but he figured, well, hell,
It might not be too smart to see Lucy too well.


PURPA TRAITOR

When Purpa's flights were smuggling grapes
Its king escaped in vain;
The Purpals found His Majesty
Aboard a fruited plane.


SOUTH OF SAUDI

If the country of Yemen
Were governed by Britain,
Their gas would be petrol,
Their dresses tight-fittin'.
And sports fans could watch,
For the price of a ticket,
Arabian knights
Playing Yemeni cricket.


A BOLD ASSUMPTION

"Since I'm quite debonair, I don't travel by air,"
Leonard bragged, from the helm of his yacht;
A storm came the next day and blew Leonard away--
I don't know if they've found him or not.


THE BOOK DOCTOR

When they're edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?



So there's a preview. If you're tired already, be forewarned: there are 293 more of these in the book. Some are silly, some are (I hope) witty, and some are just observations about people and places and situations in our workaday world. I doubt Maya Angelou or Robert Frost would've felt threatened by this masterpiece--but I can also tell you I had a great time writing it.

I'm hoping those who read it (release date April 23!), will feel the same.





04 January 2020

Short Memories: 2019 in Review


Happy New Year, everybody! Since this is my first post for 2020, I figured I'd use it for a review and wrapup of my writing in 2019. For some reason I wrote fewer stories, and published fewer stories, than I did the previous year--but it was still fun.

I won't bore you with a long list of what I read this past year--I did consume just as many novels and stories as I did in 2018--but I want to mention a few books that stood out. I truly enjoyed The Deserter (Nelson DeMille), Cari Mora (Thomas Harris), Blue Moon (Lee Child), The Institute (Stephen King), Cemetery Road (Greg Iles), The Boar (Joe R. Lansdale), and Full Throttle (a collection of shorts by Joe Hill).

On the writing side, I wrote 22 new short stories in 2019 (about half the number I produced the year before). The only things notable about that is that most of them this year were much longer stories--I haven't been writing as many mini-mysteries as I used to--and that not as many had local, southern settings. I'm not sure why, on either count; the stories just took a little longer to tell, and the settings happened to be the ones that popped into my head and stayed there.


Statistics 

I had 26 stories published in 2019--eight appeared in anthologies (some by invitation, some by open-call
submission) and 18 in magazines. Of those 26, 19 were to paying markets, 13 to repeat markets, and 13 to new markets. And, if it matters, 22 were to print publications and four to online pubs. Genrewise, two were fantasy stories, one was science fiction, three were about deception not connected to a crime (what do you call that?), and the other 20 were mysteries--although a few of those could be considered cross-genre. Of the 26 total, 18 were original stories and eight were reprints. Settingwise, 12 took place in my home state of Mississippi and the rest were set elsewhere, including the Middle East, Alaska, Texas, Wyoming, and the South Pacific. And I still seem to be publishing a few series stories: nine of this year's stories were installments in two different series and 17 were standalones.

One other story was released in mid-December 2019 ("Crow's Nest," in EQMM) but I didn't count it since that issue's date is Jan/Feb 2020.

On the nonfiction side, my not-so-short article "Short and Sweet" appeared in a book called How I Got Published and What I Learned Along the Way by Camden Park Press in September, and I wrote 26 columns here at SleuthSayers.

As for rejections, I had 24 this past year. That was actually low, for me. Over my so-called career, I've had more rejections from more different places than Carter had little pills, and I remain unable to predict which stories will fly and which will crash. What can I say? You buy your ticket and you take your chances . . .


2020 vision

In the "upcoming" category, 16 more of my stories have been accepted but not yet published, and 21 have been submitted and have not yet received a response (in other words, I hope they're upcoming). Already-accepted stories are waiting backstage at AHMM, EQMMBlack Cat Mystery MagazineToughSherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, etc., and several anthologies. No genre-diversity here; all of those forthcoming stories are mysteries.
On the subject of other genres, my eighth book is scheduled for release in April, and it's far different from anything I've done before, or that my publisher's done. Stay tuned for more on that in my next SleuthSayers post, in two weeks.

One of my stories was also optioned to a movie production company in L.A. last year. Fingers are crossed.


How about you?

Was 2019 a good year, writingwise? What are some of your success stories? What and where did you publish this year? Novels? Shorts? Other projects? Mostly magazines? Mostly anthologies? What's forthcoming?


One more thing. To any of you who've read my stories, and to the editors who acquired them, please accept my sincere thanks. To be allowed to continue to do something that's this much fun is a true blessing.

May all of you have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2020!

21 December 2019

Get Thee Away, Thesaurus!





How many times have you heard it? All of us write too much.

Alas, this doesn't mean we write too often. It means we write too many words. Certainly in our first drafts, and sometimes in later drafts as well--and one of the ways to make those drafts readable is to cut some of the words out.

Coco Chanel once said, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory." Probably good advice--and overwriting is worse than overdressing. Before your story or novel manuscript leaves the house, you need to look at it and remove a lot of accessories.

The trick, of course, is to know what to take out and what to leave in.


Size does matter

Here's something else you've probably heard. We write (and speak) too many BIG words.

I'm a firm believer that you can sound dumb, even if you're not, by using big words--and you can sound smart, even if you're not, by using simple language. (Of Faulkner and Hemingway, can you guess who I'd rather read? Even if I am from Mississippi.)


Police spokesmen do the big-word thing a lot. I heard the following on our local TV news the other night: "The two motorists exited their vehicles, at which point the first individual discharged his weapon, the other individual responded with gunfire, and both sustained fatal wounds." In other words, they got out of their cars and shot each other dead. I wish they'd just say that and get it over with.


The K.I.S.S. method

No matter how much you'd enjoy showing off your wide vocabulary, and no matter how proud your
mother would be if you did, here are some words (not all of them big) that you probably shouldn't overuse. Especially in dialogue.

Instead of: utilize               say: use
                  frequently               often
                  inquire                     ask
                  myriad                     many, or countless
                  avocation                occupation, or job
                  perhaps                   maybe
                  audacious               bold
                  eschew                    avoid
                  domicile                   home
                  frankly                      honestly
                  apropros                  appropriate
                  irregardless             regardless
                  cognizant                 aware
                  inebriated                 drunk
                  per se                       really
                  tranquil                     calm, or peaceful
                  erroneous                 wrong
                  plethora                    a lot (see myriad)
                  umbrage                   offense
                  elucidate                   explain
                  sans                          without
                  taciturn                     silent, or reserved
                  inundate                    flood
                  coiffure                      hairdo
                  milieu                        most anything besides milieu

The same goes for phrases, if you like shortcuts.

Instead of: shrug your shoulders    say: shrug
                  nod your head                        nod
                  stand up                                  stand
                  sit down                                  sit
                  I, personally                            I
                  in point of fact                        in fact

This kind of thing isn't a huge wordsaver, but it can help streamline your manuscript.


Synonym mania

It's impossible to talk about "writing tight" without including a few words about dialogue attribution. I'm not rabid enough to say you should never use anything but "said" as a speech tag, but I do think it works better than all the others. Now and then, usually when judging fiction contests or reading first-timers' manuscripts, I come across something like "he vociferated," or "she retorted," or "he expostulated." Don't do that. If you do, you'll have the reader thinking about the writing, and the writer, instead of about the story, and you'll have your submission coming back to you in next week's email. Or tomorrow's.

Unless you occasionally want to have a character moan, or call, or blurt, or shout (all of which work fine, in moderation), just use "said" or "asked." They're both transparent words, and the reader's eye will skip right over them--and that's what you want. The accompanying dialogue, if done correctly, will usually tell the reader how the words are spoken. If you write, "The back yard's on fire," she said, the reader's smart enough to know it probably wasn't whispered.


Sense and sensibility

On the subject of dialogue, it should sound the way people really talk. Or at least reasonably so. I was watching an old western on TV the other night, and a ranch hand shouted to his pardners (I kid you not), "Come quickly!" The Grammar Sheriff would be pleased, but I'd bet the house and farm that nobody in the Old West, except maybe a schoolmarm, ever used the word quickly, especially when things are happening quickly. To be convincing, he shoud've said (the screenwriter should've written), "Come quick!"

Here's another no-brainer: Don't use a lot of corporate buzzwords in ordinary speech or writing. For a while, when I was with IBM, every meeting I went to included words like synergy and paradigm and empowerment. Those tedious, eye-rolling words are seldom heard now, and good riddance.

Personal observations

This is getting away from the main topic, but here are a few words and phrases (some spoken, some written) that I've come to dislike:

No problem -- Almost every waiter/waitress says this, when I thank him/her for something. I know there's no problem. How about "You're welcome"?

Amazing -- The most popular, and misused, adjective in the free world. If you introduce someone as "my amazing boyfriend" and you're not Lois Lane, you should stop doing that.

All about -- A guy on TV the other night said he's all about the environment. And a political candidate awhile back said she's all about law enforcement. Good grief.

I'm like (when used to mean "I said") -- Unless I'm writing teenager dialogue, I'm like, "I don't like 'I'm like.'"

Alright -- Writing "alright" is not all right. It's two words. I've been told this gives English teachers a mild fit.

Everyday -- Same deal. Unless it's used as an adjective, it's two separate words.

Awesome -- I know it's here to stay, but Jeez Louise. The Diamond Head crater is awesome. Your favorite restaurant, not so much.

Stunning video -- How many times have you heard news anchors use this term to entice viewers? I've found that they're usually half right: it's video.

Reach out to -- Am I the only one tired of this cliche? Unless your character is in quicksand, substitute "call" or "email" or just "contact."

Give 110% -- Ballplayers and actors and salesmen cannot give 110%, no matter how many times their coach or director or boss asks them to.

I could care less -- Enough said.

You know -- I'm finally, you know, almost finished, and I'm glad you hung in there, you know, to the end.


P.S.

What's your feeling, about this whole tight-writing business? What about realistic dialogue? Do you have any pet peeves, with word usage? Is it fairly easy for you to weed out the chaff when you're rewriting? How about everyday speech? Do you find yourself using bigger words than you should? Is your thesaurus still on your desk, or in a Jurassic Park paddock with the other -sauruses (-sauri)?

"Alright, I'm like, 'We're done here,'" he ruminated perspicaciously.



Have a great Christmas.









07 December 2019

More Experiments





In last week's column I talked a bit about experimental writing, and gave as an example one of my recent stories, which was told in such a nonlinear way almost the whole thing flowed backward. In that post I mentioned (and most of the readers' comments agreed) that trying new writing techniques can sometimes pay off, not only in sales but in the enjoyment of writing these "different" kinds of stories.

The more I thought about that, the more I looked back through my old stories, trying to remember other times that I'd broken or at least bent the rules of storytelling. For what it's worth, here are thirty examples that I found:



"Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, 2018) -- A single story consisting of three different mystery cases and three different crimes.  (This was an installment in a series, so I felt a little safer trying something like that.)

"The Home Front" (Pebbles, 1995) and "Command Decisions" (The Odds Are Against Us anthology, 2019) -- Two stories told only in the form of letters mailed between characters.

"Life Is Good" (Bouchercon 2017 anthology) -- A story told in three scenes about three separate characters, each in that character's POV. All three scenes have similar beginning lines and similar ending lines. (If you've read it you know what I mean.)

"Careers" (AHMM, 1998) and "Radio Silence" (new) -- Two stories told using only dialogue.

"Benningan's Key" (Strand Magazine, 2012) -- A 4500-word story using no dialogue at all.

"Denny's Mountain" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A 20,000-word mystery written in two parts, and sold and published as two separate entities.

"In the Wee Hours" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A story that takes place entirely in a dream.

"Mission Ambushable" (flash fiction contest, 2008) -- A 26-word story told with each word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. (The link is to a 2013 SleuthSayers post about this story.)

"The Willisburg Stage" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A Western horror story.

"On the Road with Mary Jo" (EQMM, 2019) -- A 4000-word story in which almost half the dialogue is from an Alexa-like device in a self-driving car.

"A Stranger in Town" (Amazon Shorts, 2006), "Over the Mountains" (Dreamland collection, 2016), and "The Miller and the Dragon" (new) -- Three very long stories told only in verse, reminiscent of Robert W. Service's poetry style.

"Lucy's Gold" (Grit, 2002) and "The Donovan Gang" (new) -- Two stories about passengers inside a stagecoach. (The link to "Lucy's Gold" is to a reprint of that story in Saddlebag Dispatches, 2018)

"Christmas Gifts" (Reader's Break, 1998) -- a story about passengers inside an elevator.

"The Red-Eye to Boston" (Horror Library, Vol. 6 anthology, 2017), "Business Class" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2015), and "Creativity" (Mystery Time, 1999) -- Three stories about passengers inside an airplane.

"The Barrens" (The Barrens collection, 2018) -- A children's fairy tale, with witches and monsters.

"Perfect Crime" (Woman's World, 2014) -- The only story in my longest-running mystery series that's told from the villain's POV. This was more risky than experimental. I was surprised they published it.

"The Midnight Child" (Bouchercon 2019 anthology) -- A story told in reverse.

"Dreamland" (AHMM, 2015) -- A present-day mystery/fantasy story using characters based on Robin Hood and his men.

"Mum's the Word" (Flashshot, 2006) -- A 55-word story using only dialogue.

"The Music of Angels" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2018) -- Sort of a romance story whose three main characters have the first names of our oldest son's three children. (This story was written for them; I think they liked it.)

"Dentonville" (EQMM, 2015) -- A story that includes the killing of a pet--something I don't like, editors don't like, and readers don't like. But this pet is a devil-dog whose death is justified (think No Country for Old Men) and necessary to the plot. The story also includes a seven-foot-tall woman, so it's different in several ways.

"Mythic Heights" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A mystery using nursery-rhyme characters: Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, etc.

"An Hour at Finley's" (Amazon Shorts, 2006) -- A story told in three equal parts (scenes), with each part "titled" with the name of its POV character.



I admit that these aren't stellar examples of experimental writing, but all are far different from the way I usually write, and--again--all of them were a lot of fun to create.

Having said that, I want to mention once more that almost all my stories are mysteries told the usual way--linear, past tense, first- or third-person, traditional beginning/middle/end, etc. I'm not as adventurous as my characters. I am, however, fond of inserting plot reversals if possible, not only at the end but throughout my stories--because that's something I like to encounter when I read the stories of others.


To continue my questioning from last week: What are some of the rule-breaking stories and/or novels you've written? Are you working on any, currently? When you do write "experimentally," do you know it ahead of time or do you discover, as you write, that doing things differently might be better? Can you give some examples, and maybe even some links to any that might be available online?


Thanks for indulging me, on all this. See you in two weeks.







30 November 2019

A Story in Reverse




I have always admired writers who are willing to take risks and try new techniques and venture out of their comfort zones. That's hard to do, and I respect them for it. Then again, I also admire people who compose classical music and carve ice sculptures and paint frescoes on the ceilings of cathedrals--but I don't try to do those things, and wouldn't be able to if I did.

As for writing, well, most of my short stories are traditional, past-tense, first- or third-person, once-upon-a-time fiction, the kind of stuff I like to read. I usually leave the stream-of-consciousness, surreal, hyperbolic, slipstreamy exercises to those who are comfortable with that kind of thing, and who--at least supposedly--know what they're doing.

But . . . now and then, once in a blue moon, I find myself clipping on a bungee cord and trying something new. My most recent attempt to wander off the grid resulted in a story I placed in the 2019 Bouchercon anthology, Denim, Diamonds, and Death (Down & Out Books). My story is called "The Midnight Child," and involves the robbery of an East Texas bank by a team of four seasoned criminals. The "different" thing about this story is that it has a nonlinear timeline. Nothing quite as weird as movies like Memento or Pulp Fiction (both of which I loved, by the way), but at least unusual.

Here's what I mean. My story consists of five scenes, the first of which is set at 5:30 p.m., when the team of thieves has already completed the heist and has gathered at a remote spot to divide the loot and go their separate ways. The second scene, though, takes place an hour earlier, at 4:30, when the team commits the crime and makes its getaway. The third scene is even earlier, at 3:40, as they're sitting together at a bar, going over last-minute plans and getting ready to leave and head down the street to the bank. The fourth scene is at 2:55, as they kill time at a nearby motel before driving to the bar. The fifth and final scene jumps ahead to 5:40, and picks up at the point where the first scene left off.

If you think that doesn't sound too interesting, I agree. It doesn't even sound like a story I might want to read. What happened, though, is that this crazy time structure allowed me to do some things in that first scene that needed further explanation--sort of a reverse foreshadowing--and by rewinding to a point an hour earlier and then continuing to back up in time, I could make those things clear, and eventually explain why everything was working out the way it was. Then, in the very last scene, only after these connected flashbacks cleared up most of what was going on, I was able to conclude with what I hope was a satisfying ending.

I had never seen things done quite that way before, but that was one of the reasons I found myself wanting to try it. As it turned out, "The Midnight Child" was great fun to write--a lot more fun, I think. than it would've been if it had been told in chronological order. I hope it's fun to read.

Will I ever do this again, with other stories? Possibly. If it seems that might be a good way to spin the tale. Certainly not every story would lend itself to this kind of writing. One thing I don't want to do, and that I believe some authors are guilty of, is to write a story that's different just to be different. I once read a novel written without ever using the letter "e." It was an interesting read (not one occurrence of "the" in the entire book), but it was interesting mostly because I wanted to see how such a thing could be done. It added nothing to the story itself. It seemed more gimmicky than innovative.

Another example: Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men--and The Road too, if I recall correctly--without using any quotation marks to designate dialogue. In my opinion, both were fine books (especially No Country), but not because of that piece of experimental style. I don't think the absence of quotation marks hurt the narrative, but I also don't think it helped. I guess it was memorable, though; I sure remember it. Maybe that was its purpose.

What about you? Have you, in your own fiction, played around with different storytelling techniques? If so, do you think your efforts were successful? Did you enjoy the process? Have you read stories or novels that broke these kinds of rules, or seen movies experimentally filmed? Did you like them? Would you try something like that in your own work, in the future?

Maybe this is all moot. Maybe all art is an experiment, and all artists are innovators.

As for me, call me irresponsible, or just stubborn . . . but I usually prefer the old way.