Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

03 August 2022

To Protect the Innocent, and Other Reasons

About a decade ago at a mystery conference a friend told me about an anthology he had been invited to write a story for.  Hmm, thought I.  I could create something for that one.

Instantly I had an appropriate story idea (and that's the way it always works, kids, ha ha).  I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the title and a one-sentence summary.  I believe I even wrote down the last paragraph.

Now as it happens, the editor never invited me to submit for that book.  And that's fine.  You can't ask everyone to the dance.

But I wrote the story and since then it has been looking for a happy home.  No luck, until Maxim Jakubowski announced he was going to edit a book called The Book of Extraordinary Femme Fatale Stories.  

Jakubowski is a well-known author and anthologist in Britain. Back in the nineties I had stories in two of his books (and am very fond of them, since one earned me my only Anthony Award nomination, and the other got me my first recognition from Publishers Weekly).  So I figured I might have a chance.

"The Dance of Love and Hunger" is narrated by a young man who is not the brightest and a bit too malleable.  His friends already talked him into a jail sentence.  Now he has fallen in love with a beautiful musician and when both of their families have financial troubles... well, stuff happens.

I originally set the story in Bellingham,WA, where I live, but the story is just so  bleak I couldn't bear to impose it on my lovely city, so I changed the names to protect the innocent.  Bellingham was named for one of the people involved in George Vancouver's expedition to the Northwest, so I magically changed it to Broughton, an officer on the ship.

Cornwall Avenue drifted east on the English coast and became Devon Avenue.  Indian Street turned into Treaty Street.  Which brings me to an interesting anecdote, because Indian Street also changed its name in real life.

Back when I worked at the university library I spent some time on the search committee.  One day it was my duty to drive a candidate to campus.  He was actually an alum of the school but had been out of town for several years.

The streets in this neighborhood were: Forest, Garden, High, Indian, and Jersey.  But when we reached the appropriate corner he said "They changed the street name." 

"That's right," I said.  "Indian Street is now named for Billy Frank, Jr.  He was an important Native American leader in the state."  

We drove for another block and then he blurted out: "But now the streets aren't in alphabetical order!"

"I know!" I said.  "Why couldn't they find a Native American who's name began with I?"

Something only a librarian (or someone with OCD) would even notice.

"The Dance of Love and Hunger" made it into The Book of Extraordinary Femme Fatale Stories, which was released on July 26.


20 July 2022

Doing the Math


For months I have had a fragment of a story idea kicking around my head.  Just something I knew I wanted to write about someday.

Then on May 23rd it blossomed into a complete plot.  I started writing and finished the first draft on the 29th.  So it took me a week.  That's pretty fast for me.

And that led me to do the math.  Brace yourself.  All that follows is based on my most recent five stories in each category mentioned below

From the time I start writing a story to the day I am ready to submit it to a publisher turns out to average 635 days.  (I hasten to point out that I am working on many stories at the same time.) So I will be ready to send the story in or around September 2025.

The first market I send it to will probably be Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Based on past experience they will hold it for 49 days and then reject it (zero out of the most recent five).  So now we're in November.

I will then ship it to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It will sit there for 385 days, and they will then accept it, in December 2026. (Four  out of the most recent five).

Eventually I will get a contract for the story.  I will sign it and send it back and then I will get a check. The contract/check process for my last five stories averaged out to 73 days after the story was accepted.  Based on the length of this current tale, it will probably be for about $300.

Roughly a year later my story will be published.  So the story I conceived in May 2022 will, if everything goes well,  finally see the light of day in the spring of 2027.

As somebody said, it's a slow way to get rich.

Believe it or not, the working title of the  story is "Was That So Hard?"


06 July 2022

Choose Somebody's Own Adventure

A few months ago I woke up in the middle of the night and asked myself: "Whatever happened to adventure stories?"

Yeah, I know.  Other people dream of snakes eating their own tails, thereby revealing the structure of benzene.  But this is what I get.  Blame a faulty imagination. 

But let's talk about adventure as a genre, and then maybe I can get some sleep. Wikipedia quotes Don D'Ammassa in the Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction:

An adventure is an event or series of events that happens outside the course of the protagonist's ordinary life, usually accompanied by danger, often by physical action. Adventure stories almost always move quickly, and the pace of the plot is at least as important as characterization, setting and other elements of a creative work.

Of course adventure stories flourished for a long time - think of Dumas, Stevenson, Scott - and were a staple of the pulp era.  But while other genres from that period are still flourishing (mysteries, science fiction, horror, romance) or at least hanging on (westerns), the adventure story per se seems to be a vanishing species.

In books, that is.  It survives in movies. (How old is Indiana Jones in his next adventure?)

There has always been overlap between the adventure story and other genres.  Elizabeth Peters's brilliant Amelia Peabody novels are considered mysteries but many of them have little to do with crime-solving. See The Last Camel Died at Noon for a pure adventure tale.

One recent (starting 2007) stalwart example of the genre is the Ethan Gage series, created by William Dietrich, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who was a professor at the same university where I worked for many years.  Gage is a classic rogue character, a yankee gambler and world traveler in the Federalist era, trained in the science of electricity by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself.  Based in France, he is constantly involved with Napoleon who can scarcely decide whether to send him on another dangerous mission or shoot him as a possible American spy.

Gage's journeys take him to Egypt, the Holy Land, the Great Lakes, and even Haiti.  And they are a lot of fun.

But taken together the works of Peters and Dietrich may give us one hint why the adventure story is less popular today than it once was.  These books are set in the past and mostly in lands that, to American/European eyes, seemed wild, unexplored, and (as a person of that time might say) primitive.  There are not so many of those lands left in the present day, and even writing about the past authors run the risk of being accused of colonialism or even racism.  If your villain is Asian are you re-creating Fu Manchu?  

You can finesse that problem, perhaps, by having your hero battle a civilization on another planet, instead of another continent, but now you have changed genres.

All of which brings up a related topic, which may earn me some complaints, but here goes.

There is a popular BBC mystery series called Death in Paradise which has been running for more than a decade.  It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie.  It is a commonwealth country and a Scotland Yard detective is assigned there.  And remarkably enough, this White, English-trained cop with no knowledge of the island's people, customs, or geography  is always able to solve murders that baffle the mostly Black locals.  Not problematic at all!

The show tried to dodge that bullet by making the hero a classic English eccentric - the only man on the island who wears a suit and carries a briefcase, for example.  This makes sense: you can't expect the local constabulary to outsmart a Sherlock Holmes-type genius.

But that actor left and they brought in another Englishman with a different set of eccentricities.  I quit watching the show after that but I hear they have had four different stars, all White Englishmen.  Maybe next time they make a switch they should bring in a Black copper.  

That would be a new adventure, so to speak.

29 June 2022

The Powers That Be

At the risk of sounding unAmerican, I have never been a big fan of comic books or graphic novels (with one notable exception). 

Superhero movies don't do much for me either.  In spite of that I think I have seen a dozen of them, and half of those were about Batman.  (Yes, I know he isn't a superhero.  But he is, of course, the World's Greatest Detective.)

I believe I have only seen one superhero movie in a theatre, and that was by accident.  The film I came to see broke so I agreed to see Superman II instead.  Didn't much care for it.

But a few years ago I was thinking about the public's love for such characters and an odd thought popped into my head: What if someone thought they had a super power?  Well, that might be interesting.

Of course, it would have to a pretty minor super power.  If you thought you could fly or become invisible you would soon be disillusioned.  After some thought I wrote this opening:

When Randolph was six years old, he discovered he could control gravity.   

Not completely, of course.  He couldn’t make things fall up, or even hover in the air.  But once something started to drop, he could influence its direction.

He figured this out one rainy day when his mother told him that, no, he couldn’t go outside, so he should find something to do and stop complaining or she’d give him something to complain about.

Randolph had sat by the window, looking into the street, and noticed a drop of rain poised on the glass.  It began to slip and he thought: Go to the left.

And it did, shimmying down to the far end of the pane.  So he could do that.

The rest of the story follows our hero (?) through his life.

Is Randolph delusional or does he really have a form of psychokinesis?  That is one question that lies at the heart of "The Lord of Falling Objects" in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, on sale now.

The other question is of course: Why does this story belong in a magazine for crime fiction?  Read it and the pieces will, ahem, fall into place.

15 June 2022

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sophocles, and I

 I have a rather unusual book beside me as I write this, courtesy of Flame Tree Publishing.  They are a British firm that publishes beautiful volumes, including their Gothic and Fantasy line.  The latest example of that series is Chilling Crime Short Stories which features nine original stories plus tales by Poe, de Maupassant, Dickens, Sophocles (an excerpt from Oedipus Rex), Sir Thomas More (about the princes in the tower), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and... me.

Rather daunting company, that.

Before I move on some of you may be wondering what Fitzgerald wrote that qualified for this volume.  Well, the new book includes the entirety of The Great Gatsby.  This might shock "mainstream" readers who think of it as one of the great American novels, but the fact is you can't reduce the plot of that book to a single sentence without outlining a classic noir novel.  

But forget about Fitzgerald; let's talk about me.  They reprinted my story "The Present" which appeared originally in The Strand Magazine.  I had read that Flame Tree was looking for stories that would fit the theme of Chilling Crime so I submitted the story and they bought it.  

This was not the first time I have been reprinted.  I also successfully submitted two stories to a now-dead story-publishing site called Great Jones Street. I point this out because submitting  is not the way things always work in the world of reprints.

For example, last year, Barb Goffman reached out to me, wanting to republish my story "Shanks Gets Mugged" in Black Cat Weekly.  I was happy to agree.  As I have said before, being paid for a reprint feels like getting away with something.

The first time a publisher approached me about reprinting my material it was an Italian firm.  I had just won an award and they thought they might be interested in publishing my winning book in Italy.  (I assume my Sicilian surname was a factor.)  I told them that my winning work was a short story but I did have a novel available.  I sent them Such A Killing Crime, about murder in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Music Scare of the early 1960s,  and they wound up publishing it under a wonderful title that translates Folk Crimes. 

A few years later I received an email from an author who had been contacted by the same publisher.  Suspicious, she did her research and saw my name among their works.  She asked: Is this a scam?  I replied that if it was it was one of those rare scams where they pay you.

More recently my book Shanks on Crime was translated into Japanese with a title that Google tells me translates roughly as Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer.  O-kay.  That one sold so well that the publisher decided to produce an otherwise uncollected set of my stories with the English title The Red Envelope and Other Stories and the Japanese title (according to Google) Solve Mysteries on the Holidays at the Coffeehouse.

Since then several writers have asked me how to get their books published in Japan. I told them the process is simple: Open your email and find a note from Tokyo Sogen asking if you would like to sell them the Japanese rights.

Simple, yes.  I never said it was easy.

But the most delightful experience I have ever had with a reprint had to be the two books below, both of which contain "The Street of the Dead House," originally published in nEvermore!

The only downside is that in order to have a story reprinted you first have to write it, so I better get to work.  Can't let Dickens and Poe get ahead of me.

12 June 2022

From the Memoirs of a Private Detective

This piece appeared in Smart Set Magazine in 1923. -Robert Lopresti


by Dashiell Hammett

 1. Wishing to get some information from members of the WCTU in an Oregon city, I introduced myself as the secretary of the Butte City Purity League. One of them read me a long discourse on the erotic effects of cigarettes upon young girls. Subsequent experiments proved this tip worthless.

2. A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.

3. House burglary is probably the poorest paid trade in the world. I have never known anyone to make a living at it. But for that matter few criminals of any class are self-supporting unless they toil at something legitimate between times. Most of them, however, live on their women.

4. I know an operative who, while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track, had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.

5. Three times I have been mistaken for a prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.

6. Taking a prisoner from a ranch near Gilt Edge, Mont., to Lewistown one night, my machine broke down and we had to sit there until daylight. The prisoner, who stoutly affirmed his innocence, was clothed only in overalls and shirt. After shivering all night on the front seat his morale was low, and I had no difficulty in getting a complete confession from him while walking to the nearest ranch early the following morning.

7. Of all the men embezzling from their employers with whom I have had contact, I can't remember a dozen who smoked, drank, or had any of the vices in which bonding companies are so interested.

8. I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.

9. A detective official in San Francisco once substituted "truthful" for "voracious" in one of my reports on the grounds that the client might not understand the latter. A few days later in another report "simulate" became "quicken" for the same reason.

10. Of all the nationalities in hauled into the criminal courts, the Greek is the most difficult to convict. He simply denies everything, no matter how conclusive the proof may be; and nothing impresses a jury as a bare statement of fact, regardless of the fact's inherent improbability or obvious absurdity in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

11. I know a man who will forge the impressions of any set of fingers in the world in the world for $50.

12. I have never known a man capable of turning out first-rate work in a trade, a profession or an art, who was a professional criminal.

13. I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.

14. I know a deputy sheriff in Montana who, approaching the cabin of a homesteader for whose arrest he had a warrant, was confronted by the homesteader with a rifle in his hands. The deputy sheriff drew his revolver and tried to shoot over the homesteader's head to frighten him. The range was long and a strong wind was blowing. The bullet knocked the rifle from the homesteader's hands. As time went by the deputy sheriff came to accept as the truth the reputation for expertness that this incident gave him, and he not only let his friends enter him in a shooting contest, but wagered everything he owned upon his skill. When the contest was held he missed the target completely with all six shots.

15. Once in Seattle the wife of a fugitive swindler offered to sell me a photograph of her husband for $15. I knew where I could get one free so I didn't buy it.

16. I was once engaged to discharge a woman's housekeeper.

17. The slang in use among criminals is for the most part a conscious, artificial growth, designed more to confuse outsiders than for any other purpose, but sometimes it is singularly expressive; for instance, two-time loser--one who has been convicted twice; and the older gone to read and write--found it advisable to go away for a while.

18. Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become adept in a day.

19. In 1917, in Washington DC, I met a young lady who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.

20. Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value.

21. The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.

22. I know a forger who left his wife because she learned to smoke cigarettes while he was serving a term in prison.

23. Second only to “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is “Raffles” in the affections of the daily press. The phrase "gentleman crook" is used on the slightest provocation. A composite portrait of the gentry upon whom the newspapers have bestowed this title would show a laudanum-drinker, with a large rhinestone-horseshow aglow in the soiled bosom of his shirt below a bow-tie, leering at his victim, and saying: "Now don't get scared, lady, I ain't gonna crack you on the bean. I ain't a rough-neck!"

24. The cleverest and most uniformly successful detective I have ever known is extremely myopic.

25. Going from the larger cities out into the remote, rural communities one finds a steadily decreasing percentage of crimes that have to do with money and a proportionate increase in the frequency of sex as a criminal motive.

26. While trying to peer into the upper story of a roadhouse in northern California one night--and the man I was looking for was in Seattle at the time--part of the porch crumbled under me and I fell, spraining an ankle. The proprietor of the roadhouse gave me water to bathe it in.

27. The chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem facing the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.

28. I know a man who once stole a Ferris wheel.

29. That the law breaker is invariably sooner or later apprehended is probably the least challenged of extant myths. And yet the files of every detective bureau bulge with the records of unsolved mysteries and uncaught criminals.

01 June 2022

Today in Mystery History: June 1

Today we have the 11th episode in our continuing celebration of the history of our field.  Enjoy.

June 1, 1879. Freeman Wills Crofts was born this day in Dublin, Ireland. He was a railroad engineer and an interest (or obsession) with railroad timetables showed up in many of his novels.  (Monty Python did a sketch I can't find on Youtube which is clearly a parody of  Crofts.)

June 1, 1923.  An important day indeed!  The issue of Black Mask with this date featured Carroll John Daly's story "Knights of the Open Palm." It is the first appearance by Race Williams, who is recognized as the first hardboiled private eye character.

June 1, 1929.  Thriller Magazine featured "The Judgement of the Joker," apparently the first short story to feature Lesley Charteris' immortal character Simon Templar, alias The Saint.

June 1, 1934.
Dime Detective featured "The Corpse Control" by John Lawrence.  It stars New York private eye Cass Blue.  Kevin Burton Smith said the Blue stories were "all rendered in pulpster Lawrence's trademark first person, over-boiled prose style, full of gunflights and plot holes."

June 1, 1950. Michael McDowell was born in Enterprise, Alabama.  He co-wrote several mystery novels with Dennis Schuetz under the name Nathan Aldyne.  He also wrote a very weird series of detective books about Jack and Susan, who never age.  He is probably best known for a non-mystery screenplay: Beetlejuice.

June 1, 1959. Sax Rohmer died in London.  Born Arthur Henry Ward, he became famous for inventing the ultimate sinister Oriental, Dr. Fu Manchu.  For obvious reasons, his works are not held in high regard today.  Ironically (?) he died of the Asian Flu.

June 1, 1968.  Not really mystery, but maybe mystery adjacent?  On this date Patrick McGoohan's  fascinating, infuriating, spy-science-fiction-sui-generis-none-of-the-above TV series, The Prisoner, made its American debut on CBS.  It looks dated today, but it was a stunning piece of storytelling for its time.

June 1, 1969.
The front page of the New York Times Book Review  was a rhapsodic review of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novel The Underground Man, crafted by famous screenwriter William Goldman.  It was supposedly a deliberate attempt by editor John Leonard to promote his favorite mystery writer to bestseller-dom and recognition as a major mainstream writer.  The review achieved at least the first goal. 

June 1, 1991.  The publication date for The Summer of the Danes, Ellis Peters' eighteenth medieval mystery featuring Brother Cadfael.

June 1, 2021.  The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey's third novel of 1920s India, was published.  It was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery.

18 May 2022


Two weeks ago
I wrote about my adventures at Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque last month.  Those of you who read my column regularly, if such there be, know that that will be followed with my favorite words of wisdom from the con.  As always, I have removed all context to make things more interesting.  Enjoy.

 "There's always someone in the audience who asks about writer's block.  Who volunteers to be that person?" - Reed Farrel Coleman

"Wasn't the world better when it was better for me? Spoiler alert: No." - Catriona McPherson

"I don't start writing chapter one, page one, until I have about ten thousand words of notes."  - Mick Herron

"I wanted to write a book that would be Speed with canoes." -William Kent Krueger

"What the reader wants is not always what the reader needs." -Glen Erik Hamilton

"I've been the eye candy for Torrey House Press." - Scott Graham

"I do the research after I've written the book." - Catriona McPherson

"I'm interested in sharing the things about human beings that make me glad to be a human being." -Thomas Perry

 "I'm a New York Times bestselling author because I buy a lot of my own books." - Reed Farrel Coleman

"I've had people say 'I could read a whole novel in that voice' and I think 'My God, I could never write whole novel in that voice.'" - Amy Drayer

"It looked more like a breakdown than a career move." - Catriona McPherson

"I am addicted to semi-colons. I can hardly write a text message without them." - Mick Herron

"I talk to myself constantly, and I didn't know that until my husband started working from home." - Jamie Mason

"I can always win a contest of who has the most useless dissertation." - Catriona McPherson

"If I could I would write an entire book with a group of people locked in a room being unpleasant." - Mick Herron 

"I may have a tendency to be a preacher, but I don't like being preached at." -Karen Keskinen

"Overreacting in advance saves time later." - Catriona McPherson

"When you're writing a short story you need to distill a character to a single sentence." - Raquel V. Reyes

"Patience is one of the hardest parts of writing." -Amy Drayer

"Someone once said 'You're plots are just this side of ludicrous' and I thought 'Challenge accepted." - Catriona McPherson

"Part of why you write is to find out what you think." -Thomas Perry

"Writing a series about a lot of characters is like there's already a ghost novel waiting." - Mick Herron

"No crying on the yacht." - Catriona McPherson

"I like to think that not all my characters are needy all the time" Laurie R. King

"I love the time when I've finished a book and no one else has seen it so I can live the lie that it's great." - Jess Lourey

"People say that in the past racism was acceptable.  It never was. It was just acceptable to some White people." - Catriona McPherson

"I spent my first Bouchercon behind a potted plant." -Tracy Clark

"I'm barring anyone from saying 'I'm just a reader.'" - Catriona McPherson

"If you want to write about another culture, fall in love with it a bit." - Tori Eldridge

"It's quite easy to work out who the mole is in Wind in the Willows." - Mick Herron

"If you want to visit 1920s Scotland, just go outside.  It's still there." - Catriona McPherson

"I'm basically an evil man." -Thomas Perry

"It's important for children to read widely, not just the good stuff.  Quantity is important at that age." - Mick Herron

"A word of advice: Don't Google nun's underwear." - Catriona McPherson

04 May 2022

The Tribe Gathers in Albuquerque

The last big event for the mystery community before Covid was Left Coast Crime 2020 in San Diego.  It was shut down on the first day.

The first big event in the after-we-hope times was, appropriately enough, also Left Coast Crime, this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was there.  It was lively and, I think, bigger than usual, because as one writer told me, it was the first gathering of the tribe in so long.

The first time I heard the mystery community referred to as a tribe was in 1993 when Donald E. Westlake was named a Grand Master by the MWA.  During his speech at the Edgars Banquet he said "You're my tribe!"  And so we are.

So let's talk about some of the highlights.  If you find yourself at an LCC in the future (like in Tucson, next spring) there are a few special events you don't want to miss.  One is the Author Speed Dating.  Twenty tables are set up and fans pick one and stay while forty authors make their way from table to table.  Each author has two minutes to explain why you should definitely buy their book and not all the other trash that's being promoted.  (Well, nobody says the last part.)  I have been on both sides and I can tell you it is much more fun being a listener at these things than a talker.  (Imagine giving the same elevator pitch 20 times in a row.)

Another treat is the New Author's breakfast where rookies  have a very brief moment to talk about their debut works.  I came away with a list of half a dozen books I wanted to check out.

The table hosts.

And then there's the Awards Banquet. I was lucky enough to host a table with the inimitable S.J. Rozan where we attempted to entertain seven guests while the food somewhat slowly appeared (more about that later).

The award winners, by the way, demonstrate one of the exciting trends we are seeing in our field: the increase in diversity of authors (and I hope readers). 

I moderated a panel on secondary characters, which gave me a chance to introduce Bonnar Spring, Greg Herren, Karen Odden, and (ahem) this year's MWA Grand Master Laurie R. King.  That was fun.

I was also on a panel on short stories.  As a major supporter of the brief mystery I was thrilled that there were three panels on that subject - and all were well-attended.

This weekend was my first opportunity to listen to Mick Herron who is flying high since Apple TV just premiered a series based on his Slow Horses spy novel series in April.  Literally true: When I heard that Gary Oldman had been cast as the main character I signed up for Apple TV, just like that.

Members of the Short Mystery
Fiction Society met for breakfast.

Herron was interviewed by editor Juliet Grames, who said that since Sir Mick Jagger had sung the theme song for Slow Horses they were obviously best buds now and needed a clever couple name.  Herron suggested The Micks, logically enough.    

The committee that ran LCC did a great job against, let's face it, an extreme degree of difficulty.  Covid kept some people away, made changes to seating arrangements, and probably accounted for some of the problems with the conference facility.  The hotel actually changed its name a week before the con, making finding it a bit exciting, and the staff seemed both undersized and undertrained.  Calling down for service felt a bit like, to steal a line from Don Marquis, dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo.  (When we went down to check out there was literally no one visible on the large ground floor. We strolled behind counters and into offices looking for people for about five minutes before someone showed up.)

But perhaps the biggest adventure came after the con when we filled our swag bags with tons of books we had picked up and walked them a few blocks to the Post Office.  We bought an official USPS carton, filled it with our treasures, sealed it with the official USPS tape and mailed it off.

It arrived a week later, and here you can see the contents.  What you cannot tell is that at least ten books had vanished from the box.  On the other hand, a bag of cheap Easter candy had been added.  I don't know whether that had belonged in some other damaged package or some postal clerk included it by way of apology.

Interestingly, some of the missing volumes were books I wrote and took to the con in hopes of selling (some did sell, I hasten to add).  Apparently nobody at the post office could guess that multiple copies of books written by Robert Lopresti probably belonged in the box that was addressed to Robert Lopresti.  

Hooray for insurance.  

But enough whining. It was great running into a lot of old friends and making new ones.  They had a lot of interesting stuff to say and next time I shall regale you with my favorite words of wisdom.  Till then, stay tribal.

20 April 2022

Common Senses

  A decade ago I wrote a story called "Shooting at Firemen," inspired by some events in my childhood.  Because one of the characters resembled my sister Diane Chamberlain I sent her a copy before submitting it for publication, to make sure she was okay with it.  She was, but besides being my sibling she is also a bestselling novelist, so naturally she had a few suggestions.

And the one that I remember best was this: I had written a story about a twelve-year-old boy set in 1967 and never mentioned music.  

Well, duh.  I put in some references to hits of the day and sold the story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (July/August 2015).

But since then I have always tried to remember the advice offered by some writer (not, I believe, my sis): Your story should connect to all five senses.

Sure, you will describe what your characters are seeing.  But have they heard any sounds besides dialog?  Music, car noise, bird calls?  What do they taste or smell?  When they sit down, how does the fabric of that chair feel?

A few months ago I set a story in the Peloponnese and so I found myself trying to remember what the Lousios Valley smelled like.  (In brief: woodsy.)


Of course, you can put in too much detail about this (as you can with any other element) of the story, but a little of it can make things feel more real to the reader.

And let's not stop with five senses, shall we?

 No, I am not referring to the sixth sense, unless we are about to enter a Bruce Willis movie  (And don't get me started on non-paranormal fiction in which a person miraculously and accurately senses that they are being watched.)

But here are some other senses I found listed on various websites:






Proprioception.  (Where your body parts are in relation to other body parts.  It is how you can touch type.  It is also what cops are testing when they ask a possibly intoxicated person  to touch their nose.)

Thermoception.  (Heat and cold.)  



You probably include many of these in your fiction without giving them a second thought.  But when you are trying to add depth to a story, you might run down this list and learn more about what your characters are feeling.

06 April 2022

Finding Your Story A Forever Home

 I have a new story out this month and I thought would try something different: taking you along the path that led to its eventually finding a publication.  The path turned out to be quite different than I thought it was when I began writing this piece.

Back in 2017 I got an idea for a story.  Here is the log line:

The Witness Protection Program sends a minor criminal to Indiana and orders him to keep quiet, make no waves, because mobsters want him dead.  But someone is stalking his beautiful neighbor....

Truly, our protagonist has a dilemma on his hands.

When I finish a new mystery story my first target is usually the Dell Magazines: Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock.  I generally try EQMM first even though I have much better luck with AHMM (3 sales versus almost 40) because Hitchcock takes about four times as long to make a decision as Queen.  (Of course, if a character has appeared in AHMM before I send it there first.)

But as it happens, I did not go the Dell route this time.  By 2019 I had the story ready to send (I rewrite a lot). But then a new contest was announced: the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction.  Entries were supposed to be set in Bill's home state of Texas so I shifted my action from Indiana to the Lone Star State and  sent it in. 

I didn't win.

Fair enough.  Bouchercon was also producing an anthology so I submitted my story to that.

Strike two.

Logically I should have now sent the story to EQMM, but I had a memory lapse and thought I had already gone the Dell route  before switching it to Texas.  So, I shifted my poor protagonist back to Indiana (he must have been tired of packing and unpacking) and shipped it to a different magazine.

Which rejected it.

Again, if I had checked my records, which I do keep scrupulously, I would have noticed that I  hadn't sent the stories to the Dell twins, but I didn't.  The story went into the file of the Great Unpublished, where it sat until last year.

That's when I saw that Jack Calverley was looking for stories for an anthology.  I have worked with Jack before: in the early days of podcasting he ran an outfit called Crime City Central.  They did an audio version of one of my stories, which you can hear here.  (Hear hear!)

Jack was working on an anthology to be titled Death of a Bad Neighbour: Revenge is Criminal.

Hmm.  There in my files was a story about neighbors (or neighbours... Jack is British.)  I didn't think it was a perfect fit (I assume Jack was mostly getting stories about X being mad at Y who lived next door and so X planned to do wicked deeds against Y) but I have found over the years that sometimes a tale with a tangential connection to an anthology theme will sell at least partially because it is different than the other stories received.

But notice the subtitle.  Revenge is implied in my story but I don't think the word actually appeared in it.  That was an easy fix; I made the revenge theme explicit, and I sent it in.

And lo and behold, "Lambs and Wolves" finally found a happy home.  It is the lead-off story in the book, out this week. 

Unanswerable question: If I had remembered to send the story to EQMM or AHMM might it have been purchased there?  We will never know.  But I am delighted that it landed in a book with stories by some of my favorite writers.  And oh, a really great cover too.  

Whether my fictional story has a happy ending you will need to read to find out, but this nonfiction one worked out great. 

16 March 2022

Insert Block Pun Here

  I am delighted to have a story in Issue #11 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and I would like to say a few words about the author who inspired it.  You might even say my tale is a homage to him.  "Rip-off" is such a judgmental word.

Lawrence Block is one of our most versatile crime writers.  He has won an obscene number of Edgar Awards for both novels and short stories (plus the Grand Master Award).  He produces gritty P.I novels about recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder, and frothy comic capers about burglar-bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr, not to mention gonzo tales of foreign intrigue starring Evan Tanner, who literally can't sleep and fills the endless hours working for lost causes.

And then there's Keller.

John Paul Keller is an assassin with, well, definitely not a heart of gold, but let's call it a rich inner life.  In his first appearance, the Edgar-winning short story "Answers to Soldier," the native New Yorker visits a small town in pursuit of a target and falls in love with the place.  In other tales he adopts a dog, hires a therapist, and pursues multiple other hobbies.  And there is always stamp collecting, the expense of which keeps him hard at the deadly grindstone.

I think of him as the antithesis of Parker, the burglar invented by Richard Stark (actually Block's friend Donald Westlake), who seems to have no life outside of his profession at all, not even a first name. Yes, he has a girlfriend, but other than that he seems to spend all his time smoking and gazing out into the dark night.  Even Westlake admitted to wondering what he did with all the money he stole.  Oh, and he probably kills more people in the average book than Keller.

But let's get back to our hit man.  In the novel Hit and Run Keller finds himself living incognito in New Orleans, claiming to be from Wichita.  "Sooner or later, he thought, someone familiar with the place would ask him a question about life in Wichita, and by then he hoped he'd know something about the city beyond the fact that it was someplace in Kansas."

When I read that my writerly instincts lit up.  What would happen if someone responded to that introduction by saying: "I grew up in Wichita!  Which neighborhood are you from?"

Well, Keller being Keller we know what would happen.  The happy Kansan would suffer an immediate and tragic accident.

But not every shady character is as fatal as this guy.  

In my story Larry (not Block) goes to a dinner party  and meets Matt, new to the neighborhood.  Matt explains that he is from Topeka.

“I love Topeka," Larry replies.  "Spent most of a year there a while back. Met my wife there.”

Matt immediately changes the subject.  Hmm...  Later Larry tells his wife: "I don’t think he knew Topeka from Tacoma.”

And Larry becomes obsessed with learning Matt's secret, if indeed he has one.  But secrets, of course, can be dangerous...  

You may wonder: why Topeka instead of Wichita?  Because "The Man From Topeka" scans better as a title, of course.

I like to think my story has a Block-ian feel to it.  But that's for you to decide.

And finally in honor of Gary Brooker, the voice and composer of Procol Harum, who died last month: