Showing posts with label Malice Domestic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Malice Domestic. Show all posts

20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice


My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.

GOT IT?

I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”

IT WAS, WAS IT?

It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”

THAT THEN?

Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”

HAD ENOUGH?

I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”

13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

12 May 2017

Two Writers—And a Third in the Making?


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Art Taylor

Earlier in our Family Fortnight series, Brian Thornton asked his wife Robyn to contribute a post about being married to a writer—a terrific and insightful essay all around, ending with Robyn inspired to start writing herself. I'd already planned on getting my wife, Tara Laskowski, involved in my post, but in our case, Tara and I are both long-time writers—which at times may seem double trouble (more on that below!) and at other times may give us at least glimpses into what the other person is going through, whether that's a burst of creative energy (needing time for ideas to play out, for the imagination to indulge itself) or a stroke of self-doubt (needing support and encouragement).

Art and Tara at Malice Domestic, April 2016
Tara and I first met at George Mason University, where we were both working toward our MFAs in creative writing. We were in fiction workshops together, sharing and commenting on our respective stories, and it was our mutual admiration for one another's work that led first to friendship and then to more. Since graduation, we have both been very fortunate with the generous attention our writing has received, especially in more recent years—and even recent days. Since my last post here at SleuthSayers, my story "Parallel Play" won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and in recent weeks, Tara's collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize and her story "The Jar" was named by Wigleaf among the top 50 flash fiction stories of 2016. We're grateful on all counts, of course, but while friends and acquaintances have sometimes complimented us how how easily we seem to navigate being writers alongside managing day jobs and raising our son Dash, the truth is that behind the scenes... well, let's get straight to the interview.

Art Taylor: We talk sometimes about navigating our various day-to-day roles and responsibilities, but too often that “navigation” seems more like steering a foundering ship through tempest-tossed seas. (This sentence is, of course, the most creative writing I’ve done in a while.) Can you give folks a glimpse into our writing processes? How do we accomplish things as two writers in the same household, parenting a five-year-old and more? 
Tara Laskowski: I don’t know. How do we? Do we actually accomplish anything? Sometimes I feel like we are super-hero bad-asses. Other times I feel like we are fumbling and failing. I suppose that’s part of your tempest sea, right? The up-and-down motion of the waves. Sadly, I get really seasick, so this isn’t boding well for me…

Ok, writing process. Well, you have the summer and winter breaks in between classes to do massive crunch time writing since the academic year provides a challenge. I have a 40-minute train ride to and from work each day to try to fit in my work. I guess that’s how we’ve been managing it, with a few luxurious-seeming writing retreats and an occasional “I need an hour to do this thing” on the weekend request. It all feels very piecemeal at times, but it seems to be working for us, right now anyway.
Earlier this week here at SleuthSayers, Melissa Yi wrote about her children telling her, “Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us” and “You’re always on your computer.” Do you get those questions or feel that pressure as well? And if so, how do you deal with that—by which I mean both deal with the question and deal with it internally, emotionally, etc.?
Oh yes. That is a horrible guilt. Every time I pick up my phone to check something with Dash in the room, I hear the "Cats in the Cradle" song start playing in my head. That is a constant struggle. So much of what we do is device-related. It's not even just writing—although I often suffer from "novel head" where I'm working on a scene or thinking about a character while going about my normal daily life. If I have a second, I usually am reminded of something I need to put on our grocery list (which is on my phone) or someone I need to email back. Or we're talking and we can't remember who wrote that song or what the weather is going to be like the next day. The worst thing Dash ever utters to either of us is "Come play with me!" when we're doing something on our phone or computer. I think we try with varying degrees of success to put the phone away, but it's definitely not something that either of us has figured out how to conquer. Would you agree?
I would—and you’re right that it’s not just writing but everything. I still remember a small epiphany back during those first couple of years, when I was teaching online classes and evening classes so I could take care of Dash during the day. I had ended up in a middle of a tense series of emails with a student complaining about a grade, and I felt this urgency to keep responding. Even though Dash and I were out at a playground and Dash was pulling at me to pay attention to him, I kept peck, peck, pecking at my phone and—and suddenly I realized that the email could wait and that in the long-run this student wasn’t going to remember me or the class, but that the little boy in front of me…. well, short-term, long-run, he was the one who meant the most. I put the phone away, and these days I put it away each evening until after Dash is in bed, just to keep my attention centered.

Shift in focus now. The year that Dash was born, I read a story—a Derringer Award finalist—that was about the abduction and then return of a child, and even though references to abuse were only hinted at instead of explicitly depicted, the story was nearly crippling to read. And yet, not long after that, I wrote a story myself that was about a child in peril and a parent’s determination to protect her son and about the anxieties of parenting in general. How has your own writing or your reading changed since Dash was born?

I am a huge horror fan. Before Dash, I’d watch pretty much any horror movie, even the torture porn (though it was never my favorite). After Dash, that changed dramatically. I still love the genre, but I can’t read or watch anything that involves kids or even something very domestic (think Funny Games). I trend more toward the supernatural scares now, I guess. Part of it is just some parental instinct, I think—you can’t help but project yourself on the things you watch/read, and you certainly cannot bear to think of your child being in harm’s way. But more than that, I’ve realized how senseless some of the kid stuff is in horror. It either seems like a cheap device to get an emotional reaction out of the consumer, or it is just badly done.

I’ve also found that I write more about kids now that I have one. I was always hesitant to put children characters in my writing because I didn’t think I knew them well enough—knew how they thought, acted, etc. (See my above gripe about this being badly done.) But now that so much of my life is interacting with these little people, I feel like I have a slightly (slightly!) better understanding of how they work. And that is: they never want to brush their teeth, they never want to put on their shoes, they never want to take a bath, they never want to get out of the bath, they never want to go to sleep, they never want to get up in the morning. So they are, basically, just like me.
Dash at his first writing conference:
Bay to Ocean, Maryland, March 2016
I can’t recall if it was after I'd been away at Malice Domestic one year or after Bouchercon, but I do remember the evening that we caught Dash sitting up in bed, his stuffed animals arranged in a semi-circle in front of them, and each of them with a book tucked next to them. “We’re at a conference,” he told us, when we asked what he was doing.

And then there was the time he tried to explain to his preschool teachers that he’d been at a book launch over the weekend, and he got frustrated when they didn’t understand the phrase. (“You bought a book and then had lunch?”) How do you think it impacts Dash’s life to have two writers as parents?
I think Dash will either completely embrace reading and writing as his life or he will rebel against us and do something completely, utterly different. I do not care. I mean, I care a little; obviously I’d like for him to be a lit geek. But as long as he has a passion for learning and creativity in whatever form that takes—computers, math, fine arts, dancing, video game design, dinosaurs, baseball—I’m cool with it. I hope that in seeing how passionate we are about our craft, Dash will understand the importance of keeping at something even when it’s difficult, even when you fail sometimes. That’s all I ask.

14 April 2017

Interview with Martin Edwards, Malice Domestic's Poirot Award Winner


What has struck me most about Martin Edwards, whenever I've been fortunate to spend time with him, are his kindness, generosity, and modesty—qualities which continually understate his truly monumental accomplishments.
Martin Edwards
Just in the past year, Edwards won the Agatha, Edgar, and Macavity Awards in the U.S. and the H.R.F. Keating Award in the U.K. for The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, but while this landmark book alone might be enough to earn that adjective "monumental" I used above, it's only part of Edwards' story. He's published a dozen and half novels, including two series set in Liverpool and the Lake District. He's published more than 60 short stories, and he's been honored with both the CWA (Crime Writers' Association) Short Story Dagger and the CWA Margery Allingham Award for his short fiction. He's edited 30 anthologies (and counting!), and he advises the British Library's Crime Classics series, republishing both novels and anthologies of classic stories (published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press). He's the president and archivist of the famed Detection Club, and he's the chair and archivist for the CWA as well. And he keeps up a lively blog on fiction, film, and more at "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?"

Oh, and seems like he accomplished most of this in his spare time, since he's also had a long legal career. 


In two weeks, Malice Domestic will celebrate Edwards with this year's Poirot Award, honoring outstanding contributions to the mystery genre. I can hardly imagine anyone who deserves the award more.

In advance of that, Edwards indulged me with a interview—while traveling and via iPhone!—a few quick questions touching on each area of his distinguished career.

Art Taylor: At last year’s Malice Domestic, you won an Agatha Award for The Golden Age of Murder, and this year, you’re returning as the Poirot Award honoree, with that same book  among the cornerstones of your contributions to the genre. Other than awards, what’s been a particularly memorable moment in the reception the book has received?

Martin Edwards: I worked on The Golden Age of Murder for many years, thinking few people would share my enthusiasm. Of all the many gratifying responses, I treasure the review in The Times by Marcel Berlins, one of our leading and most respected reviewers. Modesty forbids me to quote it here. But not to include it on my website!

[Editor's note, overriding Edwards' modesty: The Times wrote that "Few, if any, books about crime fiction have provided so much information and insight so enthusiastically and, for the reader, so enjoyably... No other work mixes genre history, literary analysis and fascinating author biographies with such relish.”]
 
Is there more ahead in your work as a historian?

Yes, this summer will see publication of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, a companion to the British Library's amazingly successful series. It's a book I'm very proud of.


How do you select books for the British Library's Crime Classics series, and has there been a title that you’ve been particularly proud to reintroduce into publication?

I act as consultant to the British Library and make endless suggestions about books, but they make the decisions. I'm very pleased about many of the reprints but writing a new solution to Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case was a particular joy.

[Another editor’s note: A joy for this reader as well!]

John Dickson Carr has said that short fiction is the natural form of the detective story. What special place does short story hold for you in the mystery genre? What  do you value most in a short story—and what are your own goals and challenges in writing your own short fiction? 


Short stories are wonderful! Sherlock and Father Brown were at their best in the short form, and today it remains a great vehicle for a mystery (as you have shown, Art!). A great short story grips from start to finish with no wasted words or longeurs.

One of the pleasures of short story writing is the chance to experiment, to take risks that might seem too daunting in the context of a novel that could take a year or more to write. I wrote short stories set in the countryside before moving from a Liverpool-based series to one set in the Lake District, and that apprenticeship did help. In between finishing one novel and starting another, writing a short story or two can offer a welcome change of pace, and get you in the mood to start another long haul. And there are some things you can do in short stories that you simply can’t do (or at least I couldn’t do) in a novel. One example is a very short story I wrote in the form of an extract from the index to a book. Another is a story called "Acknowledgments" which takes the form used by authors when they include acknowledgments in a book; except that in this story, things take an unexpected turn....


While you’ve obviously been busy in many directions, your fans are waiting for the next novel! What’s ahead for the Lake District Mysteries? (And really, where do you find time to do all that you do?)


I am working on a different kind of novel at present but after that it is back to the Lakes! I hope to continue to mix fiction and fact as a writer. I love both. As for time, well, life is short. I want to write as much as I can but most of all I want to write as well as I can. The awards have been hugely encouraging and the Poirot award is a great honour for which I'm truly grateful. I hope to repay that honour by writing the best books I can—and as a novelist I think the best may yet be to come. We'll see!


IN PERSONAL NEWS (Back to Art)


I'll close out this post with a bit of news about my own work. Last week, I learned that my story "Parallel Play" from Chesapake Crimes: Storm Warning, already a finalist for this year's Agatha Award alongside fine fiction by fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens, has also been named a finalist for this year's Thriller Award for Best Short Story—and I'm in good company there too, with a slate that includes Eric Beetner, Laura Benedict, Brendan DuBois, and Joyce Carol Oates! The winner will be announced at ThrillerFest in New York in mid-July—and I'll be making my first appearance at that conference as well, keeping fingers crossed, of course, and toes too, let's be honest!

In the more immediate future is Malice Domestic itself, April 28-30 in Bethesda, Maryland, and here's my schedule below for that weekend.
  • Opening Ceremonies • Friday, April 28, 5 p.m.
  • Welcome Reception & Anthology Signing for Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical (as part of editorial selection committee) Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
  • Panel: “Make It Snappy: Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” with Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, and B.K. Stevens, moderated by Linda Landrigan • Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m.
  • Agatha Awards Banquet • Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m.
Looking forward to seeing folks in Bethesda in just a couple of weeks!

11 April 2017

The Curse of 2013


Like poor Rose at the end of Titanic, clinging to a piece of wood in the frozen Atlantic Ocean, using the last of her strength to blow a whistle to attract rescuers who've missed her, then weakly, hoarsely yelling, "Come back! Come back," I find myself wishing some people would come back too.
Well, my wishes are about fictional characters, but they feel like real people to me. And they've all been missing since 2013.

With less than two weeks until Malice Domestic (a wonderful fan convention held every spring in Bethesda, Maryland, honoring the traditional mystery), I find myself thinking about mystery characters I wish would come back. I'm not talking about characters created by authors who have died--there's no way they're coming back, not in their original author's form, anyway. And I'm not talking about characters whose authors regularly put out a new book every year or so. This column is devoted to characters whose authors seem to have moved on or are taking too long of a break (in this devoted reader's perspective).

With respect and love, I wish the following authors would get a move on:

Stephanie Jaye Evans

I'm starting with you, Stephanie, because you're scheduled to attend Malice Domestic, and I want you to be prepared. I am going to hound you at the convention, begging and pleading for more stories in the Sugar Land Mystery Series about family man and Texas minister Bear Wells, who becomes a sleuth. Here's what one reviewer said of Stephanie's wonderful first book, Faithful Unto Death:

“Praise be! A new series with a soul, a heart, and a down-home Texas twang. Preacher Bear Wells is an entirely original sleuth and author Stephanie Jaye Evans is that real rarity: a debut writer with dead-on dialogue, winning characters, and—mirabile dictu! —nimble plotting.”   — Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author of the China Bayles mysteries

Faithful Unto Death, was a finalist for the 2012 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Stephanie has a great second book in the series, Safe From Harm, which came out in 2013. For four long years I've been waiting oh so patiently, hoping for more. Please, Stephanie, may I have some more?

Chris Grabenstein

Chris, I know your heart--and your time--belong to middle-grade readers. Between writing books with James Patterson (how can I get in on that gig?) and writing your own extremely successful books for kids, you don't have time anymore for your mysteries for grown-ups. (I was going to write that you didn't have time for your adult mysteries, but that has a completely different connotation.) But I wish we could add more hours to the day because I miss your John Ceepak mysteries. Oh, heck. Let's be honest, I long for them. Yes, I admit it: I have a crush on your character John Ceepak, and given how long it's been going on, I feel comfortable saying it's not going away.

Ahhh. Ceepak. A cop with a moral code. A decent, generous, wonderful man. If I can't have this romance in real life, come on, Chris, let me have it on paper. Please! I long to return to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and investigate more cases with John and his partner, Danny Boyle. Sure, I could re-read the eight books in your Anthony Award-winning series, starting with 2005's Tilt-A-Whirl and ending in 2013's Free Fall. But it's been four years since the last book. I need more. Please, Chris. Just give me a little more.

Sara J. Henry

Sara, Your first novel, 2011's Learning to Swim, was nominated for a gazillion awards (and won the Anthony and Agatha awards for best first novel as well as the Mary Higgins Clark Award). It deserved every bit of praise. I loved Learning to Swim so much that I told practically everyone I knew in 2011 about it. I gushed, Sara. Gushed. It was disgusting. So you can imagine how happy I was to read the 2013 follow-up, A Cold and Lonely Place. I love watching your main character, reporter Troy Chance, as she struggles to right (and write) wrongs. Your books have been described as "compulsively readable," and I agree wholeheartedly. I long to be compulsive again. On behalf of your fans, give us more Troy books, Sara. Please please please.


Julia Spencer-Fleming

Unlike a lot of authors, you usually have a new book come out every two years instead of annually. And that's okay. When someone writes books as good as yours, you can take any reasonable amount of time you need between books. But come on, Julia. We're both nonpracticing lawyers here, so we know there are limitations to how far you can stretch the meaning of the word reasonable, and I think we've hit the limit. It's been four agonizing years. I need more Clare. I need more Russ. I need more murder in the Adirondacks.

I remember how taken I was with the small town of Millers Kill, New York, when I came upon your first book, In the Bleak Midwinter. It has one of the best opening lines ever and a hell of an engaging plot. My love for the town grew over the series' eight books. Despite all the murders, it seems like a lovely place to live. I know others agree with me. Your books have won practically every award out there. Your latest book, 2013's Through the Evil Days, can't be the end of the series. I need to know what happens with Clare and Russ and ... Well, I'm not going to ruin it for people who haven't read the book yet. But you know what I'm talking about, Julia. Come on. Please don't leave me hanging. I need more.

2013

And that leaves me with wondering what the heck was going on in 2013 that made all these wonderful authors hit the brakes. Could it be a coincidence that all of them haven't had a new book out since then (or, for Chris, an adult book)? We mystery writers don't believe in coincidence. So there must be a reason. Are you all working on a big book together?! No. That would be too much to hope for. Is there a curse going on? No, I don't believe in curses either. ... Well, I'm out of ideas. So I'll just have to end this blog with my plea one more time. Get plotting, get typing, and get publishing, people. In the immortal words of Oliver Twist: Please, sir (and ma'ams), I want some more.

PLEASE.

*****

While I have your attention, in case you missed earlier posts: the Agatha Award will be given out in six categories during the Malice Domestic convention at the end of this month. I have a short story, "The Best-Laid Plans," short-listed in the short-story category. The competition is pretty fierce. Fellow SleuthSayers B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor are up for the award, as well as authors Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read about all five of the nominated stories by clicking here, and you'll also be able to click through to read the stories themselves. I hope you'll check them all out and read before you vote. (I'm also blogging today at B.K. Stevens's blog, analyzing my thought process behind the first two pages of "The Best-Laid Plans." I hope you'll stop by there too. You can read that post here.)
  
Once you finish reading, it's time to start packing. I'm looking forward to seeing so many of you at Malice Domestic in two weeks. (Stephanie Jaye Evans, this means you!)

21 March 2017

Be They Sinister or Sleuthy, Seniors Have a Place in Short Stories


Looks can be deceiving. No one knows that better than people who try to slip something past you. Con artists. Murderers. And sometimes even wide-eyed children and little old ladies. When you appear nice and innocent, folks will let you get away with murder.
I've written before about using teenage girls as protagonists. They work well as evil-doers or crime-commiters because no one suspects them. They're young and peppy and can come across as sweet if they try. They're also fearless and their brains aren't fully developed, so they'll do stupid things few adults would. Today, I'm going to focus on the other end of the age spectrum: the senior set. (I know some people don't like that term, but I mean no animus, so please bear with me.)

Imagine you come home to find your house burglarized, with your files ransacked and your computer--with all your notes--stolen. In real life, you'd call the cops, never thinking you personally could find the culprit. It could be anyone. But things are different for fictional Amateur Sleuth Sally.
Sally knows she's been investigating the arson death of poor Mr. Hooper, who owned the corner store. So with the neighbors leaning on their porches or whispering in small groups on their lawns, watching the police spectacle (it's a small town so there's spectacle), Sally goes outside and studies her prime suspects in the arson murder and her own burglary: those very same neighbors.

Is the culprit Oscar, the grouchy guy in the green bathrobe across the street who puts out his trash too early in the morning? Sally heard he owed Mr. Hooper money. Or is it Maria, the skinny lady who works at the library? She lives two doors down, and Sally has heard she spends time with Mr. Hooper when Mrs. Hooper is away on business--or at least she used to until Mrs. Hooper put a stop to it. Or was it Mrs. Hooper herself, the betrayed spouse? Sally has lots of questions and suspects, but she never stops to think about kindly Katrina, the grandmother who lives next door. Surely a woman who bakes cookies and serves as a crossing guard couldn't have done in Mr. Hooper.

You all know. Of course she did. And Sally Sleuth's failure to recognize that appearances can be deceiving will almost be her undoing. (Almost. This is a cozy novel I'm outlining, so Sally must prevail in the end.)

But things don't always tie up so neatly in short stories. In short stories, the bad guy can win. Or the ending can really surprise you. Or both. And kindly Katrina could end up pulling one over on Sally Sleuth. I've made use of this aspect of short stories in several of my own, particularly my latest two.

Everyone loves
cabernet

In my newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," seventy-year-old Myra Wilkinson is in her final week of work. She's retiring on Friday after working for forty-five years as a law firm secretary, forty of them for the same guy, Douglas. But as her final day looms, Myra isn't as excited as she anticipated because Douglas has chosen Jessica, a husband-hunting hussy, to replace her. Jessica doesn't care about doing the job right, and this is bothering Myra to no end. Then something happens, and Myra realizes that Douglas has been taking her for granted. So she comes up with a scheme involving Douglas's favorite wine to teach Douglas a lesson and reveal Jessica for the slacker she really is.

The beauty of the plan is no one will see Myra coming. On the outside she's kind and helpful. She calls people "dear." As one character says, she's "the heart of this department." Myra's nice on the inside, too, but she also has sass and a temper, which come into play as she hatches her scheme and it plays out.

Another great thing about Myra is she's known Douglas for so long that she knows his weaknesses, and she makes use of them. (This reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character says of God, "Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, he knows everything.") The older a character is, the more knowledge she'll have--information she can use against others.

Towanda!
An older person like Myra also might be willing to throw caution to the wind, seeing she's made it so far already. (That reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in which Kathy Bates's middle-aged character is cheated out of a parking spot by two twenty-something women, one of whom says, "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster." Kathy Bates goes on to repeatedly ram her car into the the other woman's car, then says, "Face it, girls. I'm older and have more insurance." Granted Kathy Bates's character wasn't a senior citizen, but she had reached the point where she wasn't going to just take things anymore.)

Anyway, so what happens to Myra and Douglas and Jessica? You'll have to read the story to find out. You can read "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" in the new anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was
published last week by Koehler Books. It includes seventeen stories of crime and wine and is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book. Most of the stories are set in Virginia (where most of the authors live). Why is a book of wine mysteries set in Virginia? Well, our great commonwealth has a thriving, but perhaps not well known, wine industry. We hope to change that.

Getting back to seniors, Myra isn't my only recent senior character. In my story "The Best-Laid Plans" Eloise Nickel is a mystery writer, a grande dame of her profession, and she's being honored for her lifetime achievement at this year's Malice International convention. (Does this convention's name sound familiar? Good.) It's too bad for Eloise that the convention's guest of honor this year is Kimberly Siger, Eloise's nemesis. Then, to make matters worse, a few weeks before the convention, Kimberly insults Eloise in Mystery Queen Magazine. Eloise isn't going to take that, so she plans to make Kimberly suffer during the convention. Because she's known Kimberly for many years, Eloise knows Kimberly's weak spots. And because she's thought of as a nice, aging lady, she figures no one will suspect her of any nefarious doings. Do her plans work out? Read "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out. This story, published in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional,  is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. It's available on my website: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html

So, fellow mystery authors, when you're thinking about your next plot and want a bad guy or gal who can hide in plain sight, think about a senior citizen. The same goes when you're devising your sleuth. A bad guy may not spill his guts if thirty-something Sally Sleuth is nearby, but he certainly might if Grandma Greta is. He thinks she's so innocuous, he won't see her coming--until she pulls a gun on him.

Do you have a favorite character--good gal or bad--who's a senior citizen? Please share in the comments. We can never have enough good short stories and books to read.

07 February 2017

A Good Mystery Writer is like a Magician


Kids have long known that if you want a specific toy for your birthday or Christmas, you need to start dropping hints early. Picture Ralphie, the star of the movie A Christmas Story, telling everyone who'll listen that he wants a Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range-model air rifle. (He needed to start dropping hints early just to get the whole name out.)
You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Kids who grow up and become writers still love dropping hints. They're just more subtle about it. Think about the movie The Sixth Sense. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen this movie, dear Lord, stop reading and go watch it right now before returning here. You're welcome.) Haley Joel Osment gave the film's big secret away when he looked right at Bruce Willis and told the audience, "I see dead people." But the film was written so well that the viewer likely (hopefully) didn't get the hint until the big reveal at the end.

As a writer, it can be a lot of fun to drop in hints designed to fly right past the reader, knowing that when the story's secret is revealed at the end, the reader will say, "Ohhh, I should have known," because the clues were all there if only the poor reader had noticed them.

And that's really such an important part of writing mysteries--acting like a good magician, distracting readers from the clues that are right there on the page so the readers can be surprised at the end.

I was reminded of this point last week while watching a rerun of Modern Family. The TV show isn't about crime or mystery, but the writers must read them. In the episode titled "The Alliance" (season eight, episode eight), the story starts with members of the large extended family casually talking about where they all could go on a big family vacation. The vacation discussion is portrayed as background music. Something mentioned and then forgotten as the real meat of the episode begins. But when you get to the end, you realize there's been a long con going on, and the clues were buried right before the viewers eyes in multiple scenes. It was so much fun to realize I'd been tricked. And then the writers took it a step further and showed how they fooled you with each clue. Excellent writing!

Of course there are a lot of good examples of writers who hide clues right before your eyes. If you're a movie fan, you might want to check out Screenrant.com. They have a page where they discuss The Ten Best Movie Clues You Totally Missed.

And, last but not least, are books and stories with well-hidden clues. One story in which I successfully hid the clues (at least I think I did) is called "Ulterior Motives," which came out a few years ago in an anthology named Ride 2. All the stories involved cycling. Mine was the only mystery--and actually the story had two mysteries. The central plot revolved around a teenage girl who volunteers for a political campaign and is threatened. Who's behind the
threats is the main mystery (as well as whether the campaign is successful), and I hid some clues along the way addressing those questions. But there's a second mystery in the tale, one buried so well--again, I hope--that the reader doesn't even realize the mystery is at work until the end. Early in the story it's mentioned that a quirky burglar is at work in town, going into people's homes and taking small items, then leaving them in the homeowners' mailboxes. Who is the burglar, and why does he/she act so oddly? I had fun burying those clues. Although it was a bit disconcerting when I read one review that showed the reviewer hadn't recognized some of the clues, even at the end. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Can you hide a clue too well? Maybe.

In a more recent story, "The Best-Laid Plans," I drop some details along the way foreshadowing what's to come. The main character, Eloise, writes cozies. Her antagonist, Kim, writes edgier mysteries. The characters' personalities match the mysteries they write. So when Kim insults Eloise publicly just weeks before they are both to appear as honored guests at a mystery convention, it makes sense that Eloise responds with a plan of revenge--a cozy plan. How does it turn out? I don't want to ruin it for you. But bear in mind that the characters' personalities affect their habits and how they deal with stress, so if you read carefully enough, you might be able to see where the story is going. But the ending should still take you by surprise. The story was published in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. You can read it at my website. I'm honored that this story is currently a finalist for the Agatha Award, up against tough competition, including from two of my fellow SleuthSayers, B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor, as well as from writers Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read all the stories online. Head on over to the Malice Domestic website, where the story titles are links either to the stories themselves or a way to buy them.

So, what's your favorite movie, TV show, or book with hidden clues and why? Let's all add to each others' to-be-read/watched list.

27 December 2016

The Best Protagonists Resolve to Take Action


by Barb Goffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 September 2016

Anthologies Everywhere


Today is the last day of the week-long Fall for the Book festival, based at George Mason University with events in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland. I've worked with Fall for the Book for many years in various positions, and my contributions this year were primarily focused on a few of the mystery and suspense programs throughout the week. Thursday night, for example, I moderated a panel of writers from the local Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, including Maya Corrigan, Dan Fesperman, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and David Swinson—part of an evening that also included a talk by Lyndsay Faye, author of Jane Steele.
Earlier in the week, on the festival's official opening day, I moderated another panel with members of three regional chapters of Sisters in Crime: Donna Andrews, Diane Davidson (half of the team co-writing as Maddi Davidson), Maria Hudgins, and Heather Weidner. Our topic there was anthologies, since these three chapters are now behind two series of anthologies: the Chesapeake Crimes books, including most recently Storm Warning, from the Chesapeake Chapter, and two volumes of Virginia is for Mysteries from the Central Virginia Chapter and from Mystery by the Sea, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter.

That chat was terrific, I thought, and emphasized both the benefits of anthologies from various perspectives and the responsibilities inherent in producing those anthologies.

On the first point, maybe the benefits are obvious. From the reader perspective, anthologies offer the chance to sample a variety of authors in a single book—find which you like and pursue their works further. From a writer perspective, anthologies offer the reverse—the chance for exposure to more readers—but also the opportunity to work as part of a larger community of writers, often a wide-ranging community, from veterans to first-timers; and on that latter point, beginning authors get the chance to experience in microcosm the entire process of publication, from editorial feedback and revision, to the book launch, to the marketing beyond.

The behind-the-scenes on that process is where the responsibilities come in: from ensuring an objective and professional selection process (perhaps relying, as the Chesapeake Crimes series does, on different judges each book to select stories) to maintaining a solid editorial review of each entry (both at the global level and in terms of copy-editing) and then to overseeing the publication itself—and making sure the publisher stays properly on top of things.

Much of this is often on a volunteer basis, of course—with the Chesapeake Crimes series, neither the authors nor the editors receive monetary compensation, and proceeds benefit the chapter itself. But the other benefits maybe far outweigh the questions of royalties: in terms of a nice publication credit, good exposure, and a renewed sense of literary citizenship.

Thinking about the panel, I realized that over the last few weeks, I've been in the midst of a good bit of anthology news—and grateful for it.

Back at Bouchercon in mid-September, I was thrilled to accept the Anthony Award for Best Anthology on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, including my fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens as well as 19 other contributors: J.L. Abramo, J.D. Allen, Lori Armstrong, Rob Brunet, P.A. De Voe, Sean Doolittle, Tom Franklin, Toni Goodyear, Kristin Kisska, Robert Mangeot, Margaret Maron, Kathleen Mix, Britni Patterson, Karen Pullen, Ron Rash, Karen E. Salyer, Sarah Shaber, ZoĆ« Sharp, and Graham Wynd. (A good cause here too, with proceeds benefiting the Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina, host of last year's Bouchercon.)

Then just this week, Malice Domestic announced the stories accepted for the upcoming anthology Murder Most Historical, and I was proud to have been a member of the selection committee there, along with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson. Contributors there include: John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O'Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

And early next week brings the publication of this year's Best American Mystery Stories anthology—a dream come true for me, since editors Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler have included in this latest edition my story "Rearview Mirror," the opening section of my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. Fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti also has a story there—"Street of the Dead House"—and we're both in find company, alongside the likes of Megan Abbott, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard, among many others. Can't wait to see the book myself!

And all this doesn't even begin to mention the anthologies that I picked up and perused at Bouchercon itself, including the new Bouchercon anthology Blood on the Bayou, the ultra-lush collection In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the just-released Sunshine Noir, in which "seventeen writers from around the globe tell of dark doings in sunny places."

Plenty to celebrate here, and plenty of good reading ahead too.



29 April 2016

Murder Most Conventional: Interviews About The New Malice Domestic Anthology


By Art Taylor

As this post is published, Malice Domestic is already underway in Bethesda, Maryland—three days (plus!) of the best in traditional mystery. There are many highlights of the weekend ahead, including celebrations of this year’s honorees: Katherine Hall Page earning a lifetime achievement award; Victoria Thompson as guest of honor and Linda Smith Rutledge as fan guest of honor; Hank Phillippi Ryan as toastmaster; an Amelia Award for Douglas Greene; a Poirot Award for Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald; and a remembrance of the late, great Sarah Caudwell. Several of our SleuthSayers here are in the running for Agatha Awards, including both Barb Goffman and B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens in the short story category—for “A Year Without Santa Claus?” and “A Joy Forever,” respectively—and Bonnie again for her YA novel Fighting Chance, and I’m honored that my own book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, is a contender for Best First Novel honors. (Good luck to us all—and a second dose of best wishes to Bonnie, who recently broke her arm and won't be making the festivities herself!)

Another highlight of this year’s Malice is the return of the Malice anthology—this one with a focus on conventions themselves. Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional is presented by Katherine Hall Page and features 22 original stories and one reprint, including stories by Marcia Talley, Neil Plakcy, Victoria Thompson, John Gregory Betancourt, Su Kopil, Kate Flora, Charles Todd, Gigi Pandian, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Frances McNamara, KB Inglee, Kathryn Leigh Scott, KM Rockwood, L.C. Tyler, Nancy Brewka-Clark, M Evonne Dobson, Ruth Moose, Rhys Bowen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons. Our own SleuthSayers are among this batch of honorees too, with B.K. Stevens’ contributing “What Goes Around” and Barb Goffman doing double-duty both as a contributor with “The Best-Laid Plans” (the stories were chosen by blind submission) and as one of the editors, along with Verena Rose and Rita Owen—with Barb focusing on developmental and line editing.

Last year I edited the Bouchercon anthology Murder Under the Oaks, and one of the great joys of that process was working with first-time writers, so to celebrate the new anthology, I’m interviewing Marie Hannan-Mandel, author of “The Perfect Pitch,” and Eleanor Cawood Jones, author of “Killing Kippers”—two authors making their debuts as traditionally published authors—and also talking to Barb about her experiences editing the project and working with these two writers in particular.

Before the interview then, a couple of quick introductions:

  • Raised in Ireland, Marie Hannan-Mandel now lives in Elmira Heights, NY. She is an assistant professor and chair of the Communications department at Corning Community College. She was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger award in 2013, longlisted for the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story award in 2014, and received an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction award competition in 2014. Her short story “Sisters, Sisters” will appear in Adirondack Mysteries 3 in 2016.
  • Eleanor Cawood Jones got her first writing job as a reporter with the Kingsport Tennessee Times-News and now work as a marketing director and freelance copywriter in Northern Virginia. Her independently published short story compilations include A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Tales of Murder and More and Death is Coming to Town: Four Murderous Holiday Tales.
  • In addition to her own success as a short story writer—including the Macavity and Silver Falchion Awards—Barb Goffman also has a distinguished career as an editor, including both the new Malice anthology and the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series, the newest book of which, Storm Warning, was just released.
And now on to the interviews—with Marie and Eleanor up first!

Tell us a little bit about your stories “The Perfect Pitch” and “Killing Kippers,” and given the anthology’s theme, how did your own experience with conventions—maybe Malice in particular!—inform your characters or your plot?

Marie Hannan-Mandel
MARIE HANNAN-MANDEL: My story is set at an inventors' convention in Maine where the first person narrator from New York City has come to persuade the hot-shot inventor leading her workshop to support her product. When a crime occurs she hopes that if she solves it the inventor will be so grateful he will back her.  I have attended many conferences and there are always representatives of various "types" in attendance--the pushy ones, the painfully shy ones, the beautiful ones whom everyone defers to, the famous, and the stalkers who are hyper-focused on getting to know the presenters. I tried to represent this mixed bag of people in a crime setting.

Eleanor Cawood Jones
ELEANOR CAWOOD JONES: Although not a single character in "Killing Kippers" is real, I did actually get snowed in at a casino-hotel many, many years ago where there was a clown convention going on. I was frankly astonished that clown conventions existed and the whole experience was distinctly surreal. So though the memory of that time is fuzzy, when it came time to come up with a crime-most-foul in a convention setting, that herd of clowns bulldozed their way to the forefront when I sat down to start writing. This is not your father's Stephen King clown story, although there is a clown front and center. I'm only sorry I didn't attend any clown panels while I was there. I think I could have been a great balloon-animal artist.

"Kippers" is written in first-person drunk from the perspective of a narrator who is not normally much of a drinker, which made room for some off-the-wall observations and interactions along the way. If pressed, I'd call it dark humor. And it's not just about murder, it's about life and joy and sadness and unusual friendships found in unexpected places.

Malice Domestic celebrates the traditional mystery and the book cover copy explicitly calls these cozy mysteries. How do you define those terms traditional and cozy for yourself, and how did that determine your approach here? Do you usually write in the traditional/cozy vein?

MARIE HANNAN-MANDEL: To me, cozy or traditional mysteries are those that focus on the gentler side of crime fiction. I'm not interested in gruesome description or detailed forensics. My focus is on the characters and why they do the things they do. I enjoy humor and try to use it where I can.  I almost always write what I consider cozy stories.

ELEANOR CAWOOD JONES: When I think of traditional and cozy I picture Miss Marple and some steaming tea and a paneled drawing room. I like to sit down in the comfort of my own home and go there to figure out with Miss M (or Poirot or any number of others) to enjoy the atmosphere of a whodunit. This applies to any number of settings, of course. Strange, but all the traditional mysteries I have read and no two are alike. They are comfortably familiar yet unique. But there's a certain feeling and mindset that goes along with reading one, and that's what traditional and cozy mean to me. Also, they are less violent and bloody than say, a traditional thriller, and thus considered less disturbing. For that reason, I wanted a milder, more bloodless plot and crime for Kippers, and though not a locked room setting, at least a self-contained area.

With that said, I do write some traditional mysteries, but I like to break rules. Some of my characters might just get away with it and I like to tamper with the definition of a bad guy—not everything is black and white and sometimes I find myself rooting for the villain. I also am extremely interested in motivation and personality of characters, and although plot is king I like to write about interesting people—even if they are only interesting in their own minds. Everybody has a story and everybody has a button just waiting to be pushed. I like to push the buttons of my characters and see what happens. So I stray into the thriller side but cozy is my home.

Finally, how did you celebrate the news when you heard that your stories had been accepted?

MARIE HANNAN-MANDEL: I took a walk on the beach in Ireland and skipped through the sand.

ELEANOR CAWOOD JONES: Best feeling in the world. I sprang up from my couch and walked around the house in circles, making celebratory shouting noises and trying to hold still long enough to text a few people who have been over-the-top amazing in their encouragement and support. Then I ate off that news for a week! All my favorite restaurants. Writing is fattening.

And now to switch perspectives on all this—a quick chat with Barb Goffman from the other side of the desk.


Barb, you’ve served as an editor here and also for several volumes of the Chesapeake Crimes series. Have you seen any differences in working with first-time authors or authors early in their career versus those who are veteran authors?

BARB GOFFMAN: While I'm happy to work with all authors, I love working with new and newer authors. Newer authors' stories often need more work than stories written by more experienced writers, but newer authors often are quite enthusiastic about doing revisions (sometimes several drafts) and taking advice that allows their stories to shine. I love helping them transform their stories from good to great.

More veteran authors can sometimes be less open to editing. Because they're more confident in their skills, if they like what they wrote and think it works, they might be willing to let issues slide. And that is their prerogative. But the best authors, no matter how experienced, are open to at least considering if there's a problem to fix. I've found that if I give a detailed explanation about why I have a concern about something, most authors—be they new or established—will try to address the situation.

Thinking about the anthology on the whole, what was it about Eleanor’s and Marie’s stories in particular that stood out as distinctive or memorable, or what can readers expect from the contributors by these two new voices on the mystery scene?

BARB GOFFMAN: Marie has a great, funny voice and has crafted an interesting puzzle with strong clues. In her early drafts, she had some inconsistencies and logic problems that distracted me when I read the story. When I pointed them out, she enthusiastically dug in and fixed them. The result is a much stronger story. With the logic issues resolved, Marie's voice really gets the chance to stand out. I hope everyone will take the time to read this story. It's a winner.

Eleanor's story is also very funny. (I write funny stories so perhaps that's why this element stood out to me in both stories, but I think it's something everyone will enjoy.) It takes skill to make a story involving death funny, and Eleanor does it. I also loved that she set her story at a clown convention. That's imagination at work. And, like Marie, Eleanor has a strong voice. Her first draft had a bit too much detail, but once that came out, her dialogue and internal monologue was able to really shine, making her story one readers will remember with a smile.

Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional is available at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and is also for sale at Malice Domestic this weekend. A special signing by the contributors in attendance will take place at the opening reception, Friday, April 29, 9:15-10 p.m.