Showing posts with label Kristin Kisska. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kristin Kisska. Show all posts

11 September 2020

Share the Love



Always remember. Never forget.
 ~ September 11, 2001 ~


*********


Hi. My name is Kristin Kisska, and I am a book-aholic.

By book-aholic, I mean that I love all things bookish: shopping for books, the smell of books, the heft of a book in my hands, the satisfying turn--or swipe--of a page to start one-more-chapter-before-I-go-to-bed kind of books.

By design, I don't even know how many books I have in my possession. I have three different to-be-read piles all triaged by the amount of guilt I'd quash if I read them before any others, a collection that I keep proudly displayed of authors I've met, and my signed books. And then there's the pile of books that have been passed along to me. Sure, I also have an e-reader loaded with  good, unread content vying for my attention, but there's something special about a stack of paper ready to transport me to another world.

But my biggest (and growing!) piles by far are the books I've already read. My bookshelves would agree as they groan with each new addition squeezed onto the double- and triple-stacked mounds and even crammed over top, too.

Normally, when my piles take up too much of my floor's real estate, I'll haul a box of books over to my local library to donate so that they can sell them in their next fundraiser. But--no surprise--things aren't exactly normal these days.  My library has been closed these past six months due to the pandemic, and even though they are offering limited access to their collection, they are not accepting donations.

What's a book-aholic to do now that I have extra time to read?

Option A. Let my book piles invade every nook and spare corner of my home in a manner that would inspire Marie Kondo to host a decluttering intervention.

Option B. Pack up my books in shopping bags, then ding-dong-ditch them on my quarantining neighbors' front steps. They need entertainment too, right?

*** Or, better yet  ***

Option C. Drop my already-read (and sanitized!) books off at a Little Free Library.  Why?  Glad you asked.

In most areas of the United States, local libraries and schools are closed, and way-too-many people are experiencing financial hardships from layoffs and/or reduced income. Purchasing books is a luxury many in our communities may not be able to indulge in for the foreseeable future. People of all ages still appreciate entertainment. What better way to spend free hours than in a good, time-treasured paperback.

Share the love. Share the adventure.

If you loved a particular book you plan to donate, add a sticky note to the cover saying why. Even if you didn't enjoy the book and could barely eke through the first few chapters before giving up, it could become someone else's favorite read.

In case you haven't already noticed these dollhouse-looking structures planted in neighborhoods and school grounds, you may be surprised how many are nearby your space.  Here is a link to the Little Free Library sharing box map: https://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/ . Especially if you are donating books during the pandemic, please follow the CDC's sharing guidelines, which can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/index.html .

But what if you live in an area without a Little Free Library nearby? You can open one yourself.  Instructions are on their website. Or you can take a page from best selling author, Michelle Gable's playbook and host your own temporary free bookshop right in your own front yard.  PS - Dog not included.

Are you a crime or mystery author? Use your local Little Free Library network to increase your readership. If you write and have extra copies on hand of your novels or anthologies, consider strategically placing one or more in your neighborhood and share the news on social media, like author Tessa Wegert did. Include a bookmark with your website, or even a hashtag. A few fresh reviews, photos of your book in the wild, and the publicity may be just the boost your platform could use while in-person book events are discouraged.

What do you do with your already-read or extra books?

PS ~ Let's be social:


21 August 2020

Travel Bug


You always want what you can't have.

When it comes to this old adage, I'm no exception. There's a lot that we can't have right now:
  • Hugs.
  • A morning spent writing in a cafe surrounded by the cheerful din of other coffee-drinking patrons.
  • The concert-on-the-lawn that I had tickets to attend tonight, but is now rescheduled for August 2021.
  • Browsing the book collection inside my local library.
  • Even a day so normal, that before last March I would've found it downright boring. Now, I'd consider it blissful.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one missing the old ways. Am I right? But, do you know what I really miss most?

Travelling abroad.

Back in my take-on-the-world twenties, I was bitten by the travel bug. Big time. There was something about wandering unknown-to-me streets, meeting new people, eating exotic meals, and exploring a country with my backpack, a map, colorful currency notes, and my dogeared multi-language translation dictionary that gave me a rush. I thrived on the adventure.

Four continents, thirty-seven countries, and countless foreign cities, towns, and villages later, I'd collected so many border-control stamps, the American Embassy in Prague added pages to my passport. Those were heady days.

Then came grad school back across The Pond, a mortgage, and kids...you know the story. My urban-trekking days became a thing of the past. I'd traded schlepping my backpack for a diaper bag.

Until...I started writing suspense fiction.

While I didn't fully resurrect my globe-trotting days again (I wish!), I've learned to virtually immerse myself in a new culture without leaving my town. I nerd-out on combing through satellite images of foreign cities, watching subtitled/dubbed movies, checking out documentaries, eating--and sometimes even attempting to cook--the traditional foods, reading travel books, blogs,  fiction written by local authors, and regional history books to learn historical context and evolution. I've listened to language-on-tape lessons and interviewed people from there and friends who recently traveled to my setting.

For the most part, I've conducted my travel research with a potential crime story in mind, usually contemporary. A few years ago, though, I wanted to write a story depicting the intoxicating days of Prague Spring, which restored freedoms to an oppressed people. It didn't last long. At midnight on August 21, 1968 (exactly fifty-two years ago today!), 5,000 Soviet tanks rolled across the borders to occupy then-Czechoslovakia and reinstate hard-line communism. The Czechoslovakians took to the streets to protest. Unsuccessfully. It would take another twenty-three years before they would finally free themselves from Soviet rule.

Despite having lived in Prague for three years and cultivating an understanding of a people who had suffered generations of oppression, I had much to learn about the circumstances surrounding Prague Spring. I'd only been an infant that summer of 1968, so even my Czech peers didn't have a living memory of the invasion or the soul-crushing aftermath.  So, I dug in hard to learn as much as I could. In all of my Prague Spring research, two videos I found online were particularly influential in helping me shape my story:


Thus, my short story of historical suspense was born. It was Romeo and Juliet set amid the crushing events that ended Prague Spring.  "Czech Mate" was published in Malice Domestic's MYSTERY MOST GEOGRAPHICAL (Wildside Press, 2018).  You can read my story here.

My current crime fiction research is taking me to Italy and Russia.  Where would you like to visit (virtually or in real life)?


PS ~ Let's be social:


31 July 2020

Dying Message


Earlier this month, fellow SleuthSayer Joseph D'Agnese blogged about USA's founding father and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe's famous last words, "I am murdered!" before he died from having been poisoned.

In my humble opinion, as far as last words go, Wythe won.

So, over mugs of coffee a few mornings ago, when my crime writer friend, Josh Pachter, first mentioned the use of "Dying Message" as a literary device, I wanted to know more.

Take it away, Josh...

KK: Can you explain the "dying message" trope for us?

Well, sure! But let me start by explaining why Kristin is asking me this question.

In mid-July, she drove down to my new home outside Richmond, Virginia, to pick up a piece of furniture my wife Laurie and I no longer needed for her daughter's first college apartment. I made a pot of coffee and, while Laurie teleworked, Kristin and I sat out on our new deck and talked. I don't remember exactly how it came up, but I asked Kristin if she was familiar with the old "dying message" trope, she said she wasn't, I explained it...and her eyes lit up. "Can I interview you about this for SleuthSayers?" she asked.

So here we are.

I suspect that many of the Sayers of the Sleuth are already familiar with the dying message, and some are probably far better versed in its history than I am, but, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say on the subject.

Ellery Queen may not have invented the concept of the "dying message" clue, but Fred Dannay and Manny Lee--the cousins who wrote as EQ--were certainly its most active proponents, and many of their novels and short stories rang changes on the concept.

Here's a basic description of how it works:

Person A murders Person B and leaves the scene. But--sacre bleu!--Person B is not dead yet, after all, and regains consciousness long enough to want to tell the police who killed him. Unfortunately, there's no working phone at hand, so Person B can't simply call the police and tell them who did the dirty deed.  There is, however, a piece of paper and a pen, so Person B leaves a cryptic note, identifying his killer.

"But," you say, "why a cryptic note? Why doesn't Person B simply write Person A's name?

Ah, well, because, despite the fact that he's dying, Person B has the presence of mind to realize that person A might return to the scene of the crime--and, if she does, she'll see the piece of paper with her name on it and destroy it.

And that's the "dying message" trope, resulting in a story the heart of which is the protagonist's mental struggle to figure out the meaning of the cryptic clue.

Far fetched? Certainly.

Realistic? Perhaps not.

But I'm reminded of something my buddy Les Roberts--the author of 20+ novels featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich--once did.  In one of Les' books, Milan trails a suspect to a Monday-evening performance of the Cleveland Symphony. When the book came out, Les received hundreds of letters from irate Clevelanders, pointing out that the Cleveland Symphony  doesn't play on Mondays. Les printed up a form letter he sent back to every complainer: "The Cleveland Symphony might not play on Mondays, but my Cleveland Symphony plays whenever I damn well tell them to."

His point? This is fiction, folks, and in fiction an author can do whatever the hell he wants to do. He is the puppet master, and the puppet master gets to pull the strings.

So Ellery Queen wrote lots of dying-message stories, and the question of whether or not such a thing would ever happen in real life is frankly irrelevant.

To keep the device from going stale, the cousins eventually began to come up with variations on the theme, such as oral dying messages (in which only part of the victim's dying words are heard, or the victim's last words are misunderstood, or the victim mispronounces a key word or words) and the "accidental dying message."

I'll give you an example.

In "GI Story," which first appeared in EQMM in 1954, Clint Fosdick is murdered, and it's clear that he was killed by one of his three stepsons: Linc Smith, Woody Smith, or Wash Smith. Before Clint expires, he scrawls the letters "GI" on a piece of paper, but all three of the Smith Brothers--:::cough:::--are former soldiers, so the message could apply equally well to any of them.

Ellery, however, finally realizes that Clint had no intention of leaving a cryptic message. In fact, "Fancy verbal acrobatics are the pleasant preoccupation of detective fiction," Ellery says, poking fun at his own trademark trope. "In real life, they don't happen...Clint Fosdick, in writing those two letters...was trying to do just one thing: name his killer."

The three brothers, Ellery realizes, were named after American presidents--Abraham Lincoln Smith, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and George Washington Smith--and the dying man was beginning to write the word, "GEORGE" when death took him immediately after he completed the down stroke of the second letter of his murderer's name. Et voila! 


KK: Have you used the "dying message" trope yourself, Josh?

Why, yes, Kristin, as a matter of fact I have!

My second published story--"E.Q. Griffen's Second Case," which originally appeared in EQMM in 1970 and will be reprinted in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which I co-edited with former SleuthSayer Dale Andrews and which will be published by Wildside Press later this year--is a dying-message story, in which a guy is murdered outdoors and pulls loose a chunk of the tarry stuff that sort of grouts sidewalk panels together and writes a clue to the identity of his killer on the sidewalk.

After Dale and I co-edited our original Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, 2018), I started writing a series of pastiches of EQ's "Puzzle Club" stories, and the first three of them are all dying-message stories: "A Study in Scarlett!" (EQMM, May/June 2019), "The Adventure of the Red Circles" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020), and "The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" (EQMM, forthcoming).

I also had two dying-message stories appear in print in 2018: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Murder" (Mystery Most Geographical, Wildside) was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and "50" (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2018), in which my E.Q. Griffen character returns, finished second in the magazine's Reader Award balloting. You can download and read both of those stories for free at this link.

Dale, by the way, has published  four Ellery Queen pastiches in EQMM, and all four of them are dying-message stories. His latest, "Four Words," will appear in the Sep/Oct 2020 issue, on sale August 13.

And for those who'd like to read more about the "dying message" trope, there's an excellent discussion at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, and another (filled with spoiler-protected examples) at Fandom website.


KK: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat, Josh.  Oh, and by the way, check out this little gem I found while preparing my post...a signed copy of our co-contributed Malice anthology.  C'est magnifique!


Josh Pachter is an author, editor, and translator. More than a hundred of his short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has edited and co-edited a dozen anthologies, including The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020) and The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (forthcoming from Down and Out Books in 2021).  His translations of stories by Dutch and Flemish authors appear regularly in EQMM. Earlier this year, he received the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and became the first person to win both the Golden Derringer and a competitive Derringer in the same year.

PS ~ Let's be social:

10 July 2020

Sleepless In Seattle?


I'm curious. Do you live in or near a big city? Maybe NYC or LA? If so, do you have a strong opinion about fireworks right now?

And by *fireworks* I don't mean the Independence day, everyone cheering when they light up the sky variety. I mean the every-thirty-minutes-keeps-you-up-all-night kind of fireworks.

Are you exhausted?  Cranky? Confused?

Have you called the [insert: police, fire department, congressman, shrink, other authority] to complain and hopefully make it stop so you can go back to sleep?

One thing's for sure, complaints are way up in 2020 versus this time in previous years.

Lucky for me, from my sleepy suburban vantage point, we've only had a few incidences of late-night pyrotechnics that could probably be attributed to beer-induced July 4th warm-ups. But I understand many, many friends and family members residing in larger cities across the USA have been singing the insomnia blues for weeks. And still are.

New York City ~ Chicago ~ Los Angeles ~ San Francisco ~ Boston ~ Denver ~ Philadelphia

Hmmmm, a modern-day mystery to be solved. Whodunit? And maybe even more compelling, whydunit?

Color me--a writer and reader of crime fiction--invested.

For the past few weeks, I've scoured social media feeds, googled news articles, watched YouTube interviews, and checked in with friends who live in or near those cities. Word from my daily scrolling is that these all-night fireworks aren't being hailed as celebratory (Independence Day traditional and amateur shows notwithstanding), as much as ominous.

I ruled out the run-of-the-mill illegal fireworks shenanigans from collectors who are bored with the pandemic's shelter-in-place orders, because too many cities were being inundated simultaneously across the country and the onslaught was so relentless.

Were said pyros honoring the front line workers who still battle against the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite varying levels of lock downs?

Are they resulting from the Black Lives Matter protests? Or counter-protests?  I ruled this theory out when I learned that fireworks sales spiked two weeks before George Floyd's murder.

Are they some other kind of coordinated protest?  I steered clear of the mounting conspiracy theories ranging from the fireworks displays covering up actual gunfire and a government attacks, all of which flirt with paranoia.

Even weeks later, no one seems to know for sure, nor has any group claimed responsibility. If only we knew who and why, then authorities could attempt to assuage the onslaught. For now, we are a captive, involuntary audience.

And then it hit me...

As a writer who lives and dies by generating suspense in my fiction, I'm reluctantly impressed with these faceless antagonists. They hooked me with their nocturnal coordinated attacks (minus the loud explosions, because kids, pets and those suffering from PTSD are in hell). I can't stop researching and questioning.

But isn't that what we crime writers strive for with every story we write?  To keep our readers in suspense so they can't sleep at night for wanting and needing more information? To follow every stray clue to somehow solve the impossible riddle? To ultimately find relief in the answers.

As they say, the suspense is killing me.  Do you have any theories about these  fireworks?



PS ~ Let's be social:

19 June 2020

Instant Expert


Prevailing advice to writers--be they newbie or seasoned-- is to write what they know. So, what's a crime writer to do?

Let's be honest, when was the last time you held up a bank? Shot someone at point blank? Solved an arsonist's attack? Tested the effects of poison? Foiled a villain hellbent on world domination?

Well, it's 2020, so I guess anything could be possible in our current state of crazy, but for most of us, I'm guessing the answer is never.

Me, too.

But--in my humble opinion--not being an expert in something is no excuse to not to write about it. Here are a few ways to get a leg up on experience:

Become a method author.  Want to know what would happen if a character ran out of a police precinct at full tilt?  Give it a try. Want to know about shoulder kickback from firing a certain gun? Mosey on down to your local firing range and reserve a lane. Want to do donuts in your car? Find an empty parking lot, throw on a helmet, and skid your heart out. You get the idea. If the activity is legal, go for it.

Caveat ~ consider giving someone a heads up before you try something even a little bit sketchy.

Location, location, location. Does your setting exist? Consider (re)visiting it. The best way to get a place's sensory vibe is to visit it, ideally during the time of day/year when you plan to feature it in your fiction.

My (unpublished) contemporary suspense novel is set at the University of Virginia during the deathly quiet of spring break. I'd planned to write a chase scene through Alderman Library's stacks, so when I visited UVA's grounds, I videoed myself running the exact path my main character would run around the floors crammed with shelves of old books, restocking carts, wooden carrels, and mini-stairs to access other half-floors. I figured out how my main character would encounter and use certain obstacles to her advantage to escape the antagonist's clutches.

Bonus ~ ask a local to give you a tour. If you're lucky, you'll find out out unique lore or details that will surprise (in a good way) even readers who know the setting well. In Alderman Library, my guide  took me to see a massive boulder that had been preserved in a tucked-away basement utility room.  Who knew? Not me, and I'd frequented the library during my four years as an undergrad student at UVA.

Interview an expert. Chances are, if you ask around, you can bank on six-degrees-of-separation to find those in the know. Make connections to build a resource network that includes an approachable police officer (though they might be preoccupied these days), a lawyer, a medical professional, a mechanic, a journalist, and a psychologist. Check in withe fellow crime writers to see if they'll share relevant experts to add your virtual Rolodex whenever you can. And when you tap into their knowledge, don't forget to thank them with a beverage of their choice and a mention in the acknowledgements section of your book.
Scattered Quotes

Read primary sources. When I wrote my short story of suspense, "Czech Mate," I was at a distinct timing disadvantage as the historical event I was depicting--Prague Spring--occurred while I was an infant. But I found some invaluable journal posts on international blogs with moment-by-moment accounts of how the Soviet invasion progressed and shared the authors' personal experiences as the tanks rolled in and the Czechs took to the streets to protest. This boots-on-the-ground insight was both personal and relevant, and I was able to use it to craft the emotional and historically accurate feel of the game-changing political event.

When in doubt, Google it. Writing a street car chase? Check out google maps using their satellite view to see what landmarks and details your character will zoom by. Have a character who is a medical patient? WebMD.com offers symptoms of a wide range of medical disorders, diseases, and injuries. Need help analyzing the blood spatter your novel's victim left behind? Check out this Introduction to Forensic Science YouTube video <here> before engineering your crime scene. Or need technical details so your novel's forensic pathologist can determine your victim's time of death? This tutorial <here> itemizes how a body decomposes after death can help you accurately set the stage. In the age of information, the answers are out there somewhere. But be sure to vet your sources before relying too heavily on them.

How do you become an instant expert when you write crime?


PS ~ Let's be social:

29 May 2020

Zero Dark Thirty


I have a confession to make.

Eleven weeks into our weird safe-at-home reality, and I've barely scratched the surface of my (admittedly) ambitious quarantine To Do list. Way back in mid-March, I had such grand plans with all the extra time on my hands.
   ~ Finish revising my WIP novel.
   ~ Draft a short story for an upcoming anthology
   ~ Read the TBR books that threatens to overtake my nightstand.
You may even remember my debut SleuthSayers post <here> wherein I suggested several productive writerly activities.

Did I listen to myself?  Nope.

As March blended into April, my day job commitments dwindled along with the tanking economy. I found myself with even more unstructured time available for writing.

Did I tick anything off my To Do list?  Double-nope.

Processing the pandemic seemed all-consuming. Instead of revising, I devoured a constant stream of COVID-10 news updates. I watched in horror as New York hospitals overflowed with patients. Instead of writing, I sewed masks to donate to frontline staff who were desperate for PPE. Instead of reading, I helped my kiddos with their online schooling.  Don't even get me started on Zoom-fatigue or strategizing about our family's once-per-week stealth grocery shopping adventures.

Honestly, I didn't think fiction--even the dark kind we crime-hounds write about--could get any weirder than our post-apocalyptic reality.

Then came the murder hornets.

Something weighed heavily on me, beyond the underlying anxiety from our crazy new normal. About a month into our quarantine, I had an ah-ha moment.

I missed writing.

For me, not only has writing always been my link to sanity, but it can be an escape from my day-to-day worries. Without it, I felt a little lost. But since my quarantine time seemed to be occupied from sunrise to way past sunset, how would I carve out a routine dedicated to writing?

The answer hit me in the form of my good ol' writerly friends at #5amWritersClub (a.k.a. my writing tribe).

In case you're not familiar with #5amWritersClub, it's an informal support group of early-riser writers on Twitter. If these pre-dawn writers could be stereotyped, I'd say they tend to be self-deprecating coffee-aholics who cheer each other on through missed alarm clocks, writers block, life's hiccups,and of course, chasing words.

How does one join #5amWritersClub?
Fortunately, it's easier than hitting snooze when your alarm
goes off.  This informal group works on a drop-in-when-you-can basis. Over the years, I've participated when my daily writing time vanished, usually when my kids' schools were on summer or winter breaks.  Here's how:

  1. Join Twitter. Have an account?  If yes, then you're all set to roll.  No? Just go ahead and setup your free account and Twitter handle. Don't forget to upload a profile photo.  Need help? Step-by-step instructions can be found <here>
  2. Tweet. Sometime between 5am and 6am in your time zone, Tweet a check-in note.  You can wish people good morning, mention your project, something motivational, or even complain about accidentally sleeping through your third alarm.  No pressure, just be sure to include the hashtag #5amWritersClub in the Tweet so other group members can find you.  Bonus points - add a humorous or coffee-related gif video clip to your Tweet.
  3. Write. Log those words. This is your golden hour.
  4. Like. Once or twice during the hour, hop back on Twitter to like other #5amWritersClub Tweets from that morning.  Pro tip -- if you're new to Twitter, this is how you will find lots of other writers to follow.
  5. Friday donuts. The group's tradition is to celebrate T.G.I.F. by sharing virtual donuts. Since the pandemic started, some members have even met virtually on Zoom on an occasional Friday.
  6. Done At the end of your hour, there's no need to report back or check out, but fee free to like a few more #5amWritersClub Tweets to support others in your same trenches.  And don't forget, the next time zone to the West's members will be checking in behind you.
Since rejoining #5amWritersClub, I've gotten my writing mojo back.

With even a few new words on the page each day, endorphins would rush through my psyche in a feel-good wave. In a world that was getting weirder by the day, writing was something I could control. I was creating again.

I've even checked off one of my To Do items, drafting the new short story.

Progress on several fronts!


What have you been doing in our New Normal to bolster your writing?


PS - Let's be social:

08 May 2020

Deconstructing a Narrator


A few years ago, a writer friend forwarded me a call for submission for an eclipse-themed mystery anthology. Though my previous fiction writing focused on thrillers, this time I would venture outside my comfort zone, into a new-for-me sub-genre of mystery.

I tried my hand at writing the oh-so-trendy psychological suspense. And by psychological suspense, I mean that my story would be told by an unreliable narrator. Rather than have my narrator lie to the reader, my goals was that she (a desperate mother) legitimately believed she was not only in the right, but that there was no question in her mind that her twisted actions were morally justified.

After countless agonizing rewrites, I finally locked in on a royal flush of techniques to nail my narrator in my first ever attempt at psychological suspense.  The result was my short story, "To the Moon and Back," thus far the darkest piece I've ever written.

I was thrilled (still am!) that Kaye George, the anthology's editor, accepted my short story for DAY OF THE DARK, which was published by Wildside Press and released a few months before the 2017 solar eclipse.



As a newbie psychological suspense author, I invited Kaye into the virtual hot seat to objectively assess the effectiveness of the techniques I used to pull off the unreliable narrator in my story.

If you'd care to ride shotgun--pun intended since the story involves a road trip to see the total eclipse--you can read "To the Moon and Back" online <here>.


#1 . Voice. To pull off psychological suspense, I needed to immerse the reader inside my narrator's mind. But for some reason, writing in first person POV wasn't intense enough. So I decided my (unnamed) narrator would deliver a monologue, sometimes by thinking and sometimes by talking to herself, to her daughter, and to outsiders. 

Kaye - This worked extremely well. I think it was probably difficult to do the progression from kind of kooky babbling woman, at first, to...other aspects. The first alarm bell rang for me when she explained away the crowbar to her daughter. Then didn't have her purse with her.

#2. Timing. I kept the time span of the story to a minute-by-minute correlation between both the reader's and character's experience during the road trip. In effect, the entire story is encompassed in one scene (driving the car on a lonely back road in the middle of the night) lasting about twenty minutes. That said, I did use flashbacks.

Kaye - As I said above, I admire the development of this character and the way you revealed her to us, bit by bit by bit.

#3. Engineered perception. Rather than plot the sequence of events, I plotted the ideal beats for a reader's experience. I wanted the reader to make the following progression:
  • First quarter - This character is normal but quirky
  • Second quarter - Okay, she has baggage, but I understand why.
  • Third quarter - Wait, I think she has a couple screws loose.
  • Fourth quarter - This lady bought a one-way ticket on the crazy train years ago.
Kaye - No wonder it was done so well!  You planned this out meticulously. I started out liking her because she was a garrulous ditz and I know a lot of those. I become one myself sometimes. You also develop the daughter, or un-develop her, as we go along. That gets more and more alarming.

#4. Embedded crime. (No spoilers!) Within the psychological suspense genre, I needed to solve some kind of mystery. But instead of the crime being a product of my narrator's flaws, I wanted it to be a morally-justified solution that fit naturally within her warped view of reality.

Kaye - Total success! And that was revealed in baby steps, too. I admire this story so much and am so glad you sent it to my submission call.

#5. Generate empathy. Through this emotional journey, I wanted to leave the reader torn between right and wrong. To understand the pain this narrator had experienced in such a heartbreakingly unfair turn of events. By the end of the story, I'd have hoped the reader would reflect, what would I have done? 

Kaye - As I said above, I started out sympathetic to her. I don't think I ever entirely disliked her. I do think I understand her emotions and her actions, given what she was going through. BRAVA on this accomplishment!  I just reread the whole thing and still love it.

Thank you, Kaye, for revisiting my contribution to the eclipse-themed anthology. If you would like to know more about Kaye George, her novels, and DAY OF THE DARK, please visit her website <here>.


Have you written any psychological suspense?  What tips and tricks can you share to create an unreliable narrator?


Fun fact - Kaye arranged all twenty four stories in the DAY OF THE DARK anthology according to their location on the eclipse's actual Path of Totality across North America. Creative, eh?  Since my story was set on a road trip from Virginia to Greensboro, South Carolina, "To the Moon and Back" was the nineteenth story.


PS - Let's be social:
Twitter @KKMHOO
Facebook - Kristin Kisska
Instagram - @KristinKisskaAuthor
Website - KristinKisska.com

28 April 2020

For the Love of Malice


In the spring of 2001, I was taking my first mystery-writing workshop. My instructor, author Noreen Wald, told us—all eight of us, I believe—that we had to go to Malice Domestic. I didn't even really understand what Malice Domestic was, but I knew I wanted to write mysteries, so if Noreen said I had to go, I had to go.

That was the beginning of my love affair with mystery conventions. Over the years I've been to Sleuthfest once and to Bouchercon nine times, but Malice is the convention I never miss. It's a place where I feel at home, among friends who love traditional mysteries, many of whom I now consider family. This year was to be my twentieth Malice, and not getting ready to drive to Bethesda on Thursday for the start of the convention just feels wrong. I'll miss the dinners and the panels—as the former program chair, I always have to plug the panels—and I'll especially miss the hugs. Remember when we all weren't afraid to get within six feet of one another, nonetheless to hug?

But just because Malice is canceled this year doesn't mean that we can't still celebrate the traditional mystery this week and the people who write and read them. The Agatha Award voting will be held later this week (links to read the nominated short stories are below), and the winners will be announced in a live stream Saturday night. The Malice board also will be announcing next year's honorees (who will be sharing the stage with the wonderful people who were supposed to be honored this year, in what I understand might be a supersized Malice), as well as the theme for the anthology to be published in the spring of 2021. I believe the Agatha board of directors will be sending out more information about all of that very soon.

And that brings me back to getting into the Malice spirit. I was talking last week with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor about it and how we could use my blog post today to do it. Art wisely suggested that since one of the great things about Malice is it allows readers to learn about new writers, it would be wonderful to have this year's Agatha short story finalists tell you, our SleuthSayers readers, about some great up-and-coming short story authors. I shared the idea with the rest of our fellow finalists, and they all were in faster than you can read flash fiction.

So, without any further ado, here are five short story writers whom we five nominees admire. I hope you'll check out their work.

Art Taylor, talking about Kristin Kisska (who recently joined our SleuthSayers family)

I admired Kristin Kisska's fiction before I knew that she was the one who wrote it—literally, since her name didn't accompany that first story. "The Sevens" was a blind submission for the 2015 Bouchercon anthology, Murder Under the Oaks, which I edited. Set at the University of Virginia in 1905, "The Sevens" stood out for its intriguing plot and its rich sense of both place and historical detail. It became Kris's first published story, and as editor, I was thrilled to introduce this tremendous talent to the mystery world. Since then, Kris has published short stories in several collections, including two Malice Domestic anthologies—Mystery Most Geographical and Mystery Most Edible—and Deadly Southern Charm from the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters of Sisters in Crime. Checking her website as I write this, I found a more recent story I'd missed: "Prelude" in Legends Reborn. Score! And even better news: Kris just signed with a literary agent for her first novel. Save me a place in line for this next debut—book-length this time!

Shawn Reilly Simmons, talking about S.A. Cosby

I first met Shawn (S.A.) Cosby when I was invited to read at a Noir at the Bar event three years ago in Richmond, Virginia. All of the stories that night were good, but Shawn's was uniquely memorable—he writes gritty southern noir woven through with glittering threads of humor. Since that night in Richmond, Shawn and I have appeared together at N@TB events many times, and have downed more than a few cocktails together at Bouchercon in St. Pete and Dallas, where he won the 2019 Anthony Award in the short story category. He's one of the most upbeat and nicest guys in the mystery world, and each new story he writes brings that unique flair that is his alone. Shawn's newest story is "The King's Gambit," which will appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in June, and his novel Blacktop Wasteland will be published in July by Flatiron Books. It's described as Ocean's Eleven meets Drive with a southern noir twist, and it's recently been optioned for film.

Cynthia Kuhn, talking about Amy Drayer

I had the good fortune to meet Amy Drayer at the Colorado Gold conference, and she immediately impressed me with her smart, engaging perspectives on writing in general and mystery in particular. After she joined our Sisters in Crime chapter, I read her fantastic work and was even more impressed. Amy's writing is compelling, witty, eloquent, and thought-provoking. Her published short stories include "The Clearing" in False Faces: Twenty Stories About the Masks We Wear and "Honorable Men" in Shades of Pride: LGBTQAI2+ Anthology. "Schrodinger's Mouse" is forthcoming in Wild (Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers). She has written short fiction in genres ranging from horror to fabulism, literary flash to pop fiction. The first book in her wonderful Makah Island Mystery series, Revelation, also came out in March.

Kaye George, talking about Joseph S. Walker

Joseph S. Walker came to my attention when he submitted a story, "Awaiting the Hour," for my own 2017 eclipse-themed anthology, Day of the Dark. The story was stunningly good, and I was amazed I'd never heard of Mr. Walker before. I've certainly heard of him since. I gave a couple of stories from that publication to Otto Penzler, and he mentioned Joseph's in his annual publication honoring the best of mystery short stories. Joseph went on to win the Bill Crider Prize at Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas, then the Al Blanchard Award at New England Crime Bake. His latest published fiction is "Etta at the End of the World" in the just published May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Barb Goffman, talking about Stacy Woodson

It seems appropriate for me to end this column talking about Stacy Woodson because I met her at Malice Domestic in 2017, when I served as a mentor/guide to Stacy and fellow Malice first-timer Alison McMahan. Since then Stacy has become one of my closest friends, not only because of our shared love of Mexican food (Uncle Julio's forever!) but because she is as passionate about short stories as I am. Everything she writes showcases not only her raw talent but also her heart. I was honored to edit her first published story, "Duty, Honor, Hammett," before she submitted it to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It not only ran in the magazine's Department of First Stories in 2018, but it went on to win the magazine's annual Readers Award, only the second time in history an author's first published story took the top honor. Stacy has since gone on to be named a top-ten finalist for last year's Bill Crider Prize at Bouchercon, and she's placed a number of stories in Mystery Weekly, Woman's World, and EQMM, where her story "Mary Poppins Didn't Have Tattoos" will appear in the July/August issue. Stacy's most recently published story is "River" in the anthology The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell. "River," like so many of Stacy's stories, gives a window into her experience as a US Army veteran. Given Stacy's insatiable desire to learn and grow as a writer, I have no doubt you'll be reading much more from—and about—her in the future.

I hope you've enjoyed learning about these newcomers to the crime short-story field, who are already wowing readers. Please consider checking out their work. There are so many independent bookstores that could benefit from your business, especially during this pandemic. The stores might be closed, but many are still mailing books out.

And before we go, to those of you who were registered to attend Malice Domestic this year and who either transferred your registration to next year or donated your registration payment to the convention, it's nearly time to vote for the Agatha Awards. The electronic voting is going to begin soon (tomorrow or Thursday, I expect). It's not too late to read the short stories that are nominated for the Agatha. They are:

  • "The Blue Ribbon" by Cynthia Kuhn, published in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible
  • "The Last Word" by Shawn Reilly Simmons, published in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible
  • "Better Days" by Art Taylor, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Just click on the titles. Happy reading, and I hope to see all of you next year at Malice!

17 April 2020

Hack This


Manipulating time, space, characters, and settings are several of the logistical elements fiction writers juggle while revealing their story.

A story's minutia may not be as challenging to manage when an author writes chronologically. However, when the structure is more complicated, such as bouncing back and forth in time or by telling the story through multiple point of view characters, keeping track of details such as who did what, when and where can be tricky. How did the crime unfold? At what point did which character know which clue?

If you're lucky, any mix-up made will be passed off as a red herring. If not, you risk unwanted confusion, killing suspense, drawing the reader out of the story, or potentially spoiling a twist.  Savvy readers will call you out on your goofs every time.  Ouch.

What's a detail-challenged mystery writer to do?

Whether you are embarking on a new project or already revising, here are a few hacks that have helped me keep my writerly ducks in a row.

Write chronologically. I'm a chronic Plotter (except for the one novel I attempted to Pantster my way through, but I'll save that fiasco for another post). No matter how I envision the structure unfolding, I always write my first draft of any story chronologically. By doing so, each character--by default-- will never know more than what I've already revealed in the story/backstory. It also helps to keep my insider plotting information from seeping out too soon.

Color-coded sticky notes. I've written two (not yet published) novels and several short stories, which all utilized a time-hopping before/after narrative. Before and after what, you may ask? Usually some traumatic event.  In on particular novel, I braided three point-of-view characters on this before/after sequence and quickly learned I was juggling more than just a story-line. As you can imagine, each character's emotions, voice, and perspective, changed substantially before and after said event. Only a few chapters in, I soon realized that keeping track of six different voices was chaotic ambitious.

What did I do? I resurrected a favorite time-honored analog technique--sticky notes and a long piece of yarn. In this image of my dining room table, the horizontal blue yarn represented the novel's traumatic event (in this case, the death of one of the POV characters), all the notes above the yarn represent chapters occurring after said event, and all the notes beneath the yarn occurred before.  No surprise, each POV character has their own color (blue, orange, or yellow), and on the face of each note, I list the chapter's primary plot developments.  Here's my hack: I numbered each sticky note in their alternating before/after chapter sequence that I expected for the final draft, but then reordered them chronologically (all the *before* sticky notes followed by all the *after* ones) to finish writing my first draft.  Voila!

Graph Paper Timeline. In my work in progress thriller novel, the historical narrative spanned four generations of Slovak women surviving world wars, German occupation, and communist oppression. Even though I wrote the scenes chronologically, setting a fictional family among the first world atrocities of the twentieth century, I needed to be extra careful remembering which character had a living memory of current and past events. This time, my dining room table wasn't long enough for all the sticky notes I'd need for a one hundred year guide.


Instead, I taped together several pieces of graph paper. Each square represented one year, segmented off in five-year intervals.

Below my horizontal black timeline are all the European historical events I felt relevant enough to impact my characters' (fictional) lives. Above the line are the lifespans of my novel's primary characters (each is assigned a different color), which identified their major milestones (birth, marriage, children, death).

Finally, I drew vertical black lines intersecting my fictional and non-fiction events, one per historical chapter. This way, I was able to keep track of what current and historical details my characters would have known at any give chapter. Anything to the right hadn't happened yet. I found my timeline hack to be especially helpful during my not-so-linear revision process.

While nothing beats a good editor, fact-checker, or critique partner, creating scaffolding for your story can help you manage the unwieldy business of building a fictional world.

What writer hacks do you lean on to keep track of details?


PS – Let's be social:

27 March 2020

Our New Normal



    ***    I don't remember exactly when I met Kristin Kisska. She's one of those people I happily see every year at Malice Domestic, someone who loves mysteries as much as I do. Getting together at Malice with friends like Kristin is like attending a big family reunion. So I was delighted to start doing things with her outside of Malice, including being in two anthologies together, FIFTY SHADES OF CABERNET in 2017 and DEADLY SOUTHERN CHARM in 2019, and having the occasional lunch in this little town we found that's halfway between our homes in Virginia. Kristin writes suspense, has had several short stories published, and is also working on a novel. I'm thrilled to welcome her as a new member of our SleuthSayers family. She'll be blogging with us every three weeks. Take it away, Kristin!
                                                                                                            ~ Barb Goffman


Thank you for the kind introduction, Barb. I'm thrilled to join the SleuthSayers' ranks.

I didn't set out to make our upside-down world my debut post topic. But as I stared at the draft of my original post, all my writerly brain could process was the haunting image of Italians serenading each other in unison from their balconies.

Isolated. Empathetic. Vulnerable.

A fraction of a heartbeat later, the source of their angst was no longer confined to their charming corner of Earth. No one needs me to rehash how our new reality escalated to the point of flipping our world on its axis. New terms have invaded our day-to-day vernacular: exponential growth, social distancing, quarantine, self-isolation, flattening the curve, triage, and pandemic. Do you feel as if we're living a dystopian thriller yet?

As a crime fiction author, I've always craved extended stretches of uninterrupted hours to draft whatever my muse inspires. The darker the scene, the better. With restaurants, bars, schools,  gyms, sporting and cultural events, closing, the world as we know it ground to a halt. Now that I seemingly have endless batches of time, I can't concentrate for more than a few minutes. My muse has apparently self-isolated away from me as I obsess over following COVID-19's lightening fast, stealth invasion.

Apparently, I'm not alone.

Most of us can agree, Plan A is to finish that gosh darned novel (novella? short story?). But no writer needs to add personal guilt on top of the world's crazy. People have varying levels of distress from losing control. While so much of this global health crisis is out of our control, if you and your family are safe, healthy and stocked with food and necessities to hunker down for the time being, then join me, take a break from the news, and let's together take back control of what we can influence. We can tee-up our writerly careers for the post-virus world, or at least until your muse decides to inspire you again (if she is visiting you at the moment, congrats! Go forth with Plan A and write).

For the rest of us still in shock, here are a few suggestions for a productive Plan B:

Journal. We are collectively experiencing a global crisis. Record your thoughts--the good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly--while you are hyper-aware of these events. How frequently are you oscillating between the highs and lows? What surprises are you noticing in the news and your social media feeds? Are you experiencing conflicting emotions? What methods are you using to cope? These notes will be both therapeutic now and could make for a compelling and relatable character sketch for later.

Spring Clean. By now, your home's walls have squeezed ever closer, and you may even have a household of "work colleagues" where once there was silence. Fling open those windows and let in some fresh spring air. While you're at it, deep clean your writer's cave. And by deep clean, I mean dust off (sanitize?) and organize both your paper and digital work space. Don't forget to spruce up your author website with updated books, bios, and check all your links. Oh, and be sure to back. up. your. files.

Connect. We've all experienced the constant stream of news updates, social media memes, and reactions ranging from denial to panic. Take a break from that madness to connect with other writers and readers. Also, if you are active on Twitter (a.k.a. the watercooler for authors), check out the shiny new hashtag, #WritersInQuarantine, which is where many are now meeting every Friday evening.

Learn. What is your window of concentration?  Half an hour? Before you binge the umpteenth comedy on Netflix, watch a Ted Ed video on http://ed.ted.com/. A link to a list of hundreds of topics on their playlist can be found here. An hour? Demo a free Massive Open Online Course (a.k.a. MOOC). Pro tip--search the word *forensic* on Coursera.com and you'll find dozens of lectures that might re-pique your passion for solving crimes.

Book promotions. For the love of all things noir, please pause any scheduled push-posts, especially on Twitter.  Hitting the right tone is critical, and right now, the audience is anxious on many levels. Best case scenario, any book promo post that feels robotic will be ignored as noise, but more likely you'll risk being muted or unfollowed.  Now is the time to engage organically– emotionally– with individuals across your platform.  I can't stress enough, connect at a human level, not with a sales agenda. If, and only if, it makes sense in the greater conversation, drop a link to your work.

That said, be ready to hop on unique marketing opportunities as they arise, such as this book blogger submission call (see Tweet to the left) for debut mystery authors. Interested? contact Stephanie directly on Twitter @bookfrolic or by email (stephanie <at> bookfrolic.com). Her offer is still available.

Separately, Author Stephanie Storey (@sgstorey) Tweeted that she is also offering to interview authors (all genres, including mystery and crime fiction) who've had to cancel new release events due to coronavirus. You can message her through the contact page on her website, StephanieStorey.com/contact.

Pay it forward. The world is stuck at home and craving entertainment as a distraction. During these strange times, take the cue from the A-list museums, opera houses, Broadway, and even some of our bigger-named bands, and drop one of your ebooks (or some other digital content) for free.  Be *that* artist. Your readers will be grateful and remember how you offered them an easy escape from these daily stresses. Have you already gifted the world with a free ebook? Thank you! Drop a link in the comments below for other SleuthSayer blog readers to find and enjoy your work.

Keep up with publishing news.  It may have been overshadowed by the global crisis this month, but not all publishing productivity has stopped. Don't get me wrong, many people are worrying-from-home like a lot of us. But just this past week, some literary agents have Tweeted asking authors for more queries and announcing that they've signed new clients. Acquisition editors publicized that they are offering book contracts. BookEnds Literary Agency's president and founder, Jessica Faust gave her behind-the-scenes insights into How Publishing is Operating in the Time of Corona in her blog post here. Also, be sure to follow Publisher's Marketplace for all the deal news.

Read. Whether you are executing Plan A or Plan B, keep reading.  Support our crime fiction sisters and brothers and venture out to experience other genres. Read local authors, indie authors, and traditional best sellers. Tackle your To Be Read pile--yes, the towering one on your nightstand--with gusto. Go ahead and add new titles to your list. But be sure to leave a review of the books you read on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and link to your social media pages.

Hopefully soon, we'll all stop singing the Coronavirus Blues, and our world will revert back to something more recognizable. Until that glorious day, what is your go-to Plan B?



PS – Let's be social:

16 October 2015

Bouchercon Honors


By Art Taylor

The last few weeks have been, for me, nearly complete blurs—between events at the Fall for the Book Festival a couple of weeks back and Bouchercon in Raleigh last week and then a return to campus at George Mason University this week for classes, student conferences, and a backlog of grading.

...all of which is to say that the deadline for my column here snuck up on me a little.

It maybe seems inevitable that I'd want to write about Bouchercon today, still in the afterglow of what was a magical weekend in a half-dozen ways—and I do, but maybe not for obvious reasons.

To say that Bouchercon can seem star-studded for us mystery fans may be an understatement (and all of us are fans, writers and readers both). I was amazed how often I passed one literary luminary or another in the elevator, in the hallway, even in the restroom—humbled by the chance to chat with so many of them—and it's a joy to have so many opportunities to reconnect with old friends or to make new ones among the writers and readers in attendance. I'll admit as well that it was nice to be in the spotlight a couple of times myself—presenting this year's Derringers, participating in a couple of panels, winning an Anthony, though nerves and other feelings complicated some of those occasions. But looking back over the weekend's events, there's one moment that strikes me as pure, unadulterated pleasure and pride, and it's that moment that I want to zero in on here.

Kristin Kisska and me (standing on tiptoes)
On Saturday morning, my own schedule included two events: the new author breakfast, where folks with first books could share something of their work, and the panel and signing for Murder Under the Oaks, this year's Bouchercon anthology, which I was honored to guest edit and which features a couple of my fellow SleuthSayers contributors too: B.K. Stevens and Rob Lopresti. In between those morning's events, I ran into another of the anthology's contributors, Kristin Kisska, in the hallway. While I was just wearing jeans and a shirt, she was smartly dressed, and I made a joking remark about suddenly feeling woefully informal.

"Well, this is a special occasion for me," she said proudly (or something like it). "Today is my first day as a published author."

I could've hugged her. In fact, I think I may have. (Did I emphasize that word blurs enough above?) While I knew that the anthology marked a debut for a couple of authors, I'll admit that I hadn't thought about all that the occasion meant, hadn't thought to put it in those terms. Somehow, I'd simply skipped past the thrill of it all.

Kris was one of two authors in those same circumstances; Karen E. Salyer was the other—and interestingly, both of them were drawing on aspects of Virginia history for their stories. Kris's tale "The Sevens" looked back toward a significant moment at the University of Virginia and drew on her professed love of secret societies. And Karen's story, "Childhood's Hour," looked at the early life of Edgar Allan Poe, one of her own prevailing interests as well. Both tales struck me as stand-outs—and the fact that these were first-time publications added an extra layer of distinction. Having them in an anthology with bestselling authors, Edgar Award winners, a multiple lifetime achievement honoree, and more—needless to say, that's some distinguished company in which to be making a debut.

Talking about our own writing...no matter what, there's always a layer of awkwardness about it for authors. These days, marketing may be an unavoidable part of the business, but I anticipate that most of us remain squeamish about the process—vaguely uncomfortable at best.

Championing the work of others, however—that's nothing but pleasure.

Giving back to the community isn't just part of what we do as authors, what we should do; it's key to being a worthwhile member of that community in the first place. And feeling that I'd been some small part of the process that brought Karen and Kris into print, into the public eye—the process that brought all of the anthology's contributors a venue for their work and a fresh audience, whether for the first time or the hundredth—that's what will stick with me well beyond last week. It's truly the purest honor I could ask for.