Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts

28 November 2023

Reading for Gems

Some of the many
reasons Michael doesn’t
have much time for
pleasure reading.
Last year, 120 short stories appeared in projects I edited or co-edited. I’m on track to edit or co-edit projects containing a similar number of stories this year, and I have projects in the works that should have me working with a similar number of stories each year for several subsequent years.

For every short-story manuscript I read that ultimately sees publication in one of my projects, I read at least two that don’t. So, reading for entertainment and pleasure has almost disappeared because I now read a significant amount of unpublished fiction.

And I’m becoming jaded. A few years ago, when I wasn’t doing as much editing, I had time to work with stories that showed potential, and I could work with writers who showed potential but hadn’t made the leap to regular publication. These days, I’m looking for stories that are as close to publication-ready as possible.

That means I’m doing fewer open-call projects (as a percentage of total projects). (The Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir anthology series remains open call and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, when it reopens to submissions at some indefinable date in the future, will also be open call.) Instead, I’m mostly working with writers who have proven they can deliver on-time and on theme, and who have proven themselves easy to work with through the revision and/or editing process.


I’ve been involved in several discussions recently where it has been clear that writers don’t understand all that editors do. They see “editors” as people who fix spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and maybe point out plot holes and faulty story structure.

That’s part of what they do. In fact, if it’s an editor hired by the writer, that may be all they do.

But an anthology or magazine editor does much more than that. When working on an anthology, editors develop the concept and pitch the idea to a publisher (or work with an organization or publisher who presents the concept to the editor), determine how to obtain content, work with writers to ensure that content fits within the concept, prepare manuscripts for publication, and proofread galley proofs and/or page proofs. (FYI: No one produces galley proofs these days.) A magazine editor—especially the editor of a small-press magazine—does much the same.

In short, an anthology or magazine editor—especially those working with smaller presses—is often a concept generator, acquisitions editor, development editor, fact-checking editor, line editor, copy editor, and proofreader all rolled into one.

While doing all of this, editors maintain records, ensuring they know what stage each manuscript is at; maintain contact with writers to ensure all deadlines are met; and maintain contact with the publisher’s staff to ensure all deliverables are on time and in the correct format.

Editors’ responsibilities continue after publication. They may be involved with marketing and promotion, and a good editor ensures the work they publish is considered for all appropriate awards and best-of-year reprint opportunities.


What compensates for a decreasing amount of time for entertainment and pleasure reading is finding story gems in the submission queue, regardless of whether the stories were solicited via an invitation call or unsolicited via an open call, and then shepherding those stories into the world where readers can find them.

Knowing I played a small part in entertaining readers when these stories appear more than compensates for all the reading pleasure time I’ve given up.

Got Milk?”—a blog post about how Temple’s great uncle was indicted for his involvement in the Louisiana Milk Strike of 1947 and how my father-in-law’s research led me to write “Spilt Milk” (
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023)—was published at Trace Evidence.

07 November 2023

Road Trip!

I insert myself into Hico.

I have a story due to an anthology editor by December 31. For the past several months, I have been writing and researching what I thought was a great story. Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more the story read like a term paper with dialog; the more I researched, the more I realized the two ideas I was trying to merge mixed as well as oil and water.

This morning, Sunday, November 5, I threw in the towel. I needed a new concept, a new set of characters, a new setting, and a new plot. And that meant:

Road trip!

Several years ago, Temple and I discovered we could generate stories—sometimes just general concepts but more often rough plots with characters and important background details—while I drive and she takes notes. Sometimes the resulting story is primarily mine, sometimes it is primarily hers, but most often it is a healthy mix of both our ideas. When we return home, I enter her handwritten notes into a Word document and write the story.

Backroad driving is better for story generating than driving on interstate highways, and we live in a part of Texas where there are several interesting small towns within a one- to two-hour backroad drive.

(Our previous road trip generated two story ideas—one, our first official collaboration, for an anthology, and another that has no specific market in mind.)

But our road trips are for more than story generation. They allow us to unplug from the world around us, to avoid having household chores demand our attention, to escape the siren song of other distractions, and to stay connected to each other.

For this morning’s trip, we selected Hico, where we lunched at The Chop House in the Midland Hotel, walked around the shopping district, and then stopped for handmade chocolates at Wiseman House.

The result was an enjoyable day spent together, a story that should meet the anthology requirements while utilizing much of the research I’ve already done, and, as a bonus, this SleuthSayers post.

I call that a win.

My story “Spilt Milk” appears in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Later this week, I’m attending Crime Bake. If you see me there, please introduce yourself.

17 October 2023

Daddy, Where Do Anthologies Come From?

“Daddy, where do anthologies come from?”

“Did you ask Mommy?”

“She told me to ask you.”

“Sigh. I knew you would ask this question someday, Little Writer, but I really hoped you’d be older. What happens is that a would-be editor spends alone time wrestling with his muse—”

“Like you and Mommy wrestle sometimes?”

“Not…exactly. We’ll discuss that kind of wrestling when you’re much, much older. Anyway, one day, about nine months after the would-be editor wrestles with his muse, the Stork of Inspiration arrives with a diaper in its beak, and inside the diaper is a nascent anthology: a concept, a catchy title, or something more.”

“Why does it arrive in a diaper?”

“Because sometimes the ideas are shi—aren’t very good and must be disposed of in the file of ideas-never-to-be-used.”

“But the good ones, the healthy ones, what happens to them?”

“That’s when the would-be editor starts feeding the anthology.”

“What does an anthology eat?”

“Writers, usually a dozen or more before it’s fully grown and is released to find its way in the world.”

“Can I edit an anthology someday, Daddy?”

“Oh, Little Writer, not everyone is experienced enough or responsible enough to edit an anthology, and that’s why you should always use protection when wrestling with some muse you pick up in the bar at a conference, especially when it’s likely to be a one-idea stand. But maybe someday, when you’re ready and you’ve developed a long-term relationship with your muse, you, too, can edit an anthology.”

“Oh, Daddy, I think I would like that.”


Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment (Down & Out Books, released September 2023) was a twinkle in my eye long before the Stork of Inspiration delivered an anthology diaper to my doorstep.

Anthology editors sometimes ask writers to commit to a concept before they pitch the concept to a publisher, and a great many years ago—so long ago I no longer have the original dated email, but likely in the mid-2000s based on some sketchy notes I made at the time—Robert J. Randisi asked if I would contribute to Club Noir, an anthology “to feature stories of night clubs in their heyday. Think of Nick & Nora Charles, martini glasses, hat check girls, cigarette girls, band singers like Frank Sinatra and Helen Morgan… and crime.”

After I told him I was quite interested, I wrote most of an opening scene featuring a cigarette girl and a private eye, made some additional notes, and stuck everything into a file to await word from Randisi that the anthology was a go.

Word never came.

In the late 2010s, while cruising through my idea file, I stumbled upon the barely started manuscript of “Cigarette Girl,” liked what I read, and started noodling with it. I completed the story in April 2020, sent it out to and, by late 2021, received it back from the two top short mystery fiction markets.

By then I had edited a handful of anthologies for Down & Out Books, so I pitched Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment, an anthology of private eye stories set during and just after the end of prohibition. (This is only the second time I have created an anthology specifically to utilize one of my own stories. The first was Small Crimes [Betancourt & Company, 2004], which included my story “Dreams Unborn,” a story that was my first to be included in the Other Distinguished list of The Best American Mystery Stories.)

I invited several writers with whom I had previously worked and a few I knew but with whom I’d not previously worked to contribute and, well-fed by fourteen writers, Prohibition Peepers was released to the world last month.

Contributors include Susanna Calkins, David Dean, Jim Doherty, John M. Floyd, Nils Gilbertson, Richard Helms, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Leigh Lundin, Adam Meyer, Penny Mickelbury, Joseph S. Walker, Stacy Woodson, and me.

Leigh Lundin created a cool book trailer for Prohibition Peepers. If you’ve been following his SleuthSayers posts, you know all about it. If not, watch it here:

01 October 2023

Banned in Florida

Prohibition Peepers cover
Gorgeous cover!

A new Michael Bracken anthology has just launched, Prohibition Peepers. In coming weeks, I intend to blab incessantly about it.

My story, ‘Dime Detective’, features a slightly atypical private detective in the final days of 1932. After civilization had been drawn into WW-I (1914-1918), North Americans were hit with the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1920). Morals activists turned the temperance movement into a national-forced abstinence mandate, resulting in the Volstead Act and 18th Amendment, banning drinkable alcohol.

God wasn’t finished with America. The Great Depression set in (1929-1939), overlapping Prohibition (1920-1933), the Dustbowl (1931-1940), and the build-up to WW-II (1939-1945). Those twenty-five years (1914-1939) leading up to the Second World War were rough, but in some ways, the 1930s remains one of my favorite eras.

Sparked in the 1920s, musical creativity exploded in the following decade with the swing era, the landscape of the big bands. That music sticks with us today, works such as Louis Prima’s ‘Sing! Sing! Sing!’ (1936), famously covered by Benny Goodman (1937) with Gene Krupa and Harry James. Japanese love that piece. Few people today know Glenn Miller’s famous ‘In the Mood’ (1939) originally began life as ‘Tar Paper Stomp’ (1930) by Wingy Manone, which spawned numerous spin-offs. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, the Dorsey brothers, and Cab Calloway, not to mention wah-wah specialist Clyde McCoy. What an era!

Mechanical beauty: The late 1920s and 1930s saw some of the most beautiful motorcars ever built. Packard, Bugatti, Mercedes SSK, Bentley, and the ACD group– Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg, combined sweeping form with function.

And of course it was an era hard-boiled noire and mystery lovers revere.

Booth Tarkington

Most Famous Novelist Unknown Today

Generations X, Y, Z can’t be criticized when the most famous author of the 1920-30s, Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), descended into oblivion after his death. He is one of only four novelists to win multiple Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (along with William Faulkner, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead). His best known work, The Magnificent Ambersons, (1918) won the 1919 Pulitzer, and was made into movies at least three times, one directed by Orson Welles.

Considered the most important author of his time with a number of works turned into films, Tarkington, along with James Whitcomb Riley, Meredith Nicholson, and George Ade, formed what has been described as an Indiana Golden Age of literature, only to fade into obscurity with the advent of WW-II.

The author created an inverse image of the infamous George Amberson Minafer in a 11-year-old boy named Penrod. His friends group is multiracial, certain to get Penrod books banned and burned in Florida schools. The choice of names was fraught: Sam, Herman, and Verman, a nickname to arouse the ire. Tarkington couldn't foresee his vision of an expanded racial universe could be tarnished by a careless, offhand choice of nicknames.

Penrod is a cross between Tom Sawyer and Dennis the Menace, who, along with his pals, might have influenced the Little Rascals / Our Gang franchise. As a book-devouring child chomping through our thin school library, I discovered the series: Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and Penrod Jashber. The first two books were mostly short stories, the third more of a novel. The latter featured him playing private detective.

Is there any wonder I thought of Penrod when Michael asked us to write a private eye story in the prohibition time frame?

In my story, Penrod Jasper (the surname comes from my grandfather) is twelve as is Sam… actually Samantha. She has a touch of my niece and I fell in love with her. She’s outspoken, trusting, fearless, and won’t back down for any reason. I’m also fond of one of my gangsters, a hulking, not-so-bright muscle named Ferd. And there’s Queenie… Discover them for yourself.

Penrod detective office frontispiece

Enscribed in Black and White

I had the opportunity to read a few stories prior to publication and one unintended factor struck me– this book will be banned in Florida. Each story I read, mine included, dealt with not merely race relations, but race and relations.

I interpret it as our small way of telling rising racial supremacists that we reject their world. Most of us want to live and love in peace and prosperity, kindness and consideration.

In future articles, I’ll be talking about the following:

  © 2023 Prohibition Peepers


26 September 2023

Be Careful What You Wish For

Hanging out at
Bouchercon San Diego.
I swore I would never edit an anthology of “crime fiction inspired by the songs of —.” That’s Josh Pachter’s lane. He’s created several excellent anthologies with this premise, and I’ve contributed to four of them: Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Buffet, Billy Joel, and the Beatles. Other editors have also ventured into this lane, and I’ve contributed to some of them, as well: an Alec Cizak anthology inspired by the songs of Waylon Jennings and a Sandra Murphy anthology inspired by songs of the 1960s. I’ve also been invited to two more inspired-by anthologies I’ll name later if my stories get accepted.

But last Wednesday (September 20), while driving home from an out-of-town dinner with Temple, I thought of Aerosmith’s song “Janie’s Got a Gun” and knew it would make a great anthology title. When I returned home, I did a quick search on Amazon and Google to see if anyone had done an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the songs of Aerosmith.

I couldn’t find any.

So, at 8:51 Wednesday night, I posted this on Facebook and X-Twitter:

Has anyone produced an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the songs of Aerosmith? “Janie's Got a Gun” would be a great title. You a publisher? Hit me up, maybe we can do this.
I expected a few people to say, yeah, that would be cool.

Instead, the post blew up on Facebook. By the time I shut down for bed at 10:22, I had a publisher and several potential contributors. When I awoke Thursday morning, I had more potential contributors than the anthology could possibly accommodate.

By Saturday morning, after swapping a handful of emails with the publisher—overall word count, number of stories, deadline for submission, potential release date, etc.—we had a handshake deal. I wrote contributor guidelines and sent the information to all the interested writers.

A few dropped out after seeing the guidelines and the due date for delivering stories to me, leaving sixteen writers to fill sixteen slots. By Sunday afternoon, every slot had been filled. About half the contributors are writers with whom I have previously worked, many of the rest are writers I am familiar with in one way or another, and a few are new to me.

Putting this project together ran contrary to my established process. I usually have a plan, and I stick to the plan. This came together unexpectedly and quickly, and it’ll be interesting to see how well the anthology turns out.

So, look for Janie’s Got a Gun: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Aerosmith on November 8, 2024, the anniversary of the song’s release.


Though I have written and edited nonfiction and have written fiction in multiple genres, writing and editing short crime fiction has become my raison d’être.

For much of the last year, Temple and I have been exploring ways to give back to the community of short crime-fiction writers. We considered everything from scholarships to new-writer awards, and each time we ran up against potential barriers, among them: Who would manage these? Who would ensure the scholarships or awards were presented appropriately? And how does presenting something once a year to a single writer each time benefit the community as a whole?

We had no answers.

Then, Stacy Woodson entered the conversation. Temple could not attend the Edgar Awards with me this year, so Stacy became both my guest at Edgar-related events and my guide, getting me from New York to North Bethesda for Malice Domestic, and we spent a fair bit of time discussing what Temple and I were hoping to do.

The upshot from all our conversations was that one of the best ways to recognize and advance short crime fiction and its writers is by increasing publishing opportunities. What many writers want most is to be published. What many writers want second most is to be paid.

Over the following months, we brainstormed various ways to make this happen. Starting a magazine or a publishing company from scratch, while a beautiful dream, seemed impractical. I have years of experience on the editorial side, Stacy has experience with logistics, and Temple has organizational skills, but all of us lack experience in the business side of publishing.

As a small start to increasing opportunities for writers, Stacy and I developed two anthology concepts. I have edited or co-edited several projects for Down & Out, and I have co-edited one for Level Best (Murder, Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology, coedited with Barb Goffman, due out in 2024). So, we pitched one anthology to each publisher, and both anthologies were greenlit.

Then came Bouchercon San Diego.

Remember the advice I gave earlier this month in “Make Time for Meet-Ups”? Well, Stacy, Temple, and I met-up with many people during the convention, including Shawn Reilly Simmons of Level Best Books. Stacy spent much more time with Shawn then we did, and she organized a post-Bouchercon Zoom call where we discussed, among many other topics, how Stacy and I could work with Level Best to create more markets for short crime fiction.

The upshot? Stacy and I now have an agreement to produce several anthologies for Level Short, the new anthology imprint from Level Best Books. See the press release for more details.

Giving back by creating opportunities—that’s one of the best ways to support the community.

The extra workload is also a reminder to be careful what you wish for. You might get it!

“Neighbor Boy” appears in
Unnerving Magazine 18.

Queer Bait (Book 2 of the Men in Love and Lust series) was released by Deep Desires Press.

Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment was released yesterday by Down & Out Books. Contributors include Susanna Calkins, David Dean, Jim Doherty, John M. Floyd, Nils Gilbertson, Richard Helms, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Leigh Lundin, Adam Meyer, Penny Mickelbury, Joseph S. Walker, and Stacy Woodson.

15 August 2023

Of Trains and Life Without Walls

I first encountered Hugh Lessig’s writing when he submitted “Last Exit Before Toll” to Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, and I’ve worked with him on several other projects since then. Additionally, I had the honor of reading prepublication proofs of Fadeaway Joe (Crooked Lane Books), and I believe itll be a strong contender for best debut novel of 2023.

— Michael Bracken

Of Trains and Life Without Walls

By Hugh Lessig

Hugh Lessig
I was intrigued by Robert Lopresti’s Aug. 2 post “Hobo Blues” because it combines two of my favorite subjects:

  • Trains.
  • People who go through life without four walls and a roof.

I can’t connect the two as well as he did, but I’ve somehow managed to incorporate both of these personal fascinations into crime stories, including my debut novel, Fadeaway Joe, releasing August 22.

Why trains? My grandfather, a railroad engineer, was killed in 1926 in a head-on collision of two trains in New Jersey. Thanks to a Facebook group dedicated to the rail line, I found the original accident report and a map of the crash site. He died on a nasty curve and made the front page the next day.

My grandfather was a complete unknown to me. No photos of him survive, and my own father was only 3 years old when the accident occurred. I can only imagine what he was like, and that’s what I did.

My grandfather was in my head while writing “Peace Train,” my contribution to the first volume of “Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties.” In this case, a train running through eastern Pennsylvania in the 1960s represents a fading industrial power, as trucks and the interstate highway system overtake the flow of commerce. In “Peace Train,” the locomotive is also a getaway for an abused kid fleeing the draft during the Vietnam War. The story centers on the P.I. hired to find him, a hard-bitten World War II veteran who wrestles with the ghosts that followed him home from Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The runaway knows exactly where to jump the train: a long, winding curve just before a bridge. The engineer is not a character in this story, but I always imagined my grandfather in the cab, taking his time, watching the curve. In this make-believe world, someone would relay the message that he needed to pull into a side track because another train was speeding the other way from New York. He’d come home that night to my grandmother and their eight children.

Why hoboes? This one is a bit harder to explain.

Today we don’t have rail-riding hoboes who travel to far-off job sites or simply seek a different place to live. As Lopresti cites in On The Fly, these men proved pivotal—if underreported—in influencing culture, politics and music of the era, not to mention their practical contributions to farming and industry.

If we don’t have hoboes in 2023, we certainly have the homeless. Is there a comparison? That’s tough. The homeless population of today defies a blanket description. Some are homeless for a short period. Others are chronically homeless and depend on shelters.

Still others experience a hidden form of homelessness. Instead of riding the rails, they “couch surf” with friends and relatives, or live out of their vehicles. They may even hold down jobs during this time, and their fellow employees may be none the wiser about their sparse living conditions.

I spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and began reporting on homelessness toward the end of my career—oddly enough, when I picked up the military beat. Veteran homelessness was a problem in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which has a heavy military presence.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed homeless veterans of all types. Many battled drugs, alcohol or mental illness. Some, like that P.I. in “Peace Train,” dealt with post-traumatic stress.

I also met a few—not many—who tolerated or even favored the homeless lifestyle.

To be clear, these were not hoboes of the 2020s, on their way to some adventure or escape. And they didn’t become homeless by choice. But they found solace in their fluid world and didn’t want to go back to four walls and a roof. Maybe they put their best face forward for me, a newspaper reporter, to hide their fear or to rationalize their existence. But reporting gives you a pretty good BS detector, and I believed them.

Which brings me to Fadeaway Joe, my debut novel from Crooked Lane Books.

The main character is Joe Pendergast, an aging mob enforcer who suffers from early-stage dementia and is abandoned by his longtime boss, a man he considered a brother. Joe vows revenge, but early in the story he meets 22-year-old Paula Jessup. She’s on the run from labor traffickers, having freed a woman from their clutches. She needs protection, and her plight gives Joe a higher purpose than personal vengeance. With a clock ticking inside his head, he begins to wonder about his legacy. What will he be remembered for? Maybe helping Paula straighten out her life is more important than personal revenge.

Paula is homeless. She’s living out of her car, a vintage 1975 Chevy Nova. Her closest friend runs a homeless shelter for women. She’s tough and independent, extremely nosey and a total pain in the ass to Joe, who isn’t accustomed to dealing with strong, independent women who talk back.

Homelessness gives Paula a hard edge. It’s essential to her character, but it does not define her life. I found this to be true of homeless people I’ve interviewed over the years. They are deeper and more complex than a shadowy figure holding a cardboard sign at the exit ramp.

Many have extensive work histories and job skills. Shipyard welders. Truck drivers. I once met a former city hall employee who served as a source for a news story. He was living on the street.

How quickly can people become homeless? It’s downright scary. If you live paycheck to paycheck and develop an expensive health problem, you’re in trouble. Then your transmission goes kablooey and you can’t drive to work, which leads to a lost job. (This last one is all too common. Can’t drive, can’t work.) You can’t pay rent and stay with friends or relatives until they get tired of the routine.

Homeless people can also be resourceful. Years ago, I met a homeless guy who handed me his business card. He somehow saved up enough cash through panhandling to print a few, and he cleaned yards, garages or houses. He left those cards in laundromats, grocery stores, pretty much everywhere. I always wondered what happened to him. Maybe he got back on his feet.

And maybe he’ll be in a crime story one day.

25 July 2023

New Three-Book Series

SleuthSayers readers know me primarily as a crime fiction writer/editor, and some remember me as the “King of Confessions” because I wrote several hundred stories for magazines such as True Confessions and True Story. I’ve written extensively in other genres as well, and a new, three-book series collects many of the short stories I wrote about men in love and lust.

My first professional short-story sale was to a children’s magazine back in the 1970s. The next two professional sales were to a men’s magazine, so I’ve been writing adult material during my entire career. In addition to non-fiction and pictorials, the adult magazines published fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, suspense, and science fiction, as well as straight-forward erotica.

When the rise of the internet hastened the collapse of the adult magazine market, written erotica went mainstream, and several book publishers stepped in specifically to address the underserved LGBTQ readership. During the 2010s, publishers such as Alyson Books, Bold Strokes Books, Bruno Gmünder, Cleis, StarBooks Press, and Xcite pumped out short story anthologies for gay readers, and I contributed to many of them, writing for well-respected editors such as Winston Gieseke, Richard Labonte, and Neil S. Plakcy.

Among other publications, my stories appeared in Best Gay Erotica (2013), Best Gay Romance (2010, 2013, 2015), Best New Erotica 4, Ultimate Gay Erotica (2006), and the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthologies Show-Offs and Team Players.

As so often happens in publishing, the market changed in the late 2010s. Markets I had cultivated ceased to exist, and editors moved on. So, as I have done several times before, I shifted the focus of my writing and carried on.


A few years ago, an editor I had worked with on other projects announced his publishing company’s intent to launch an erotica line, so I pitched a collection of my gay erotic and romance stories. He liked the idea. When we realized how many stories could be included, the project grew from a single collection to a trio of collections. Then Neil S. Plakcy agreed to write introductions for all three volumes of the series.

Unfortunately, just as the first of the three books was being released, the publishing company was sold. The new owner immediately cancelled the erotica imprint and cancelled my publishing agreement.

Deep Desires Press, with whom I had previously worked on two smaller projects, came to the rescue, and recently announced that Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and other electronic editions of all three collections are available for pre-order and that paperback editions will also soon be available.

The Men in Love and Lust series includes All-American Male, nineteen stories about men of all ages; Queer Bait, twenty stories about men on both sides of the law; and Sporting Wood, nineteen stories about men at work and play.

These collections aren’t for a general readership, so I’ve not included cover images nor any links. If you’re interested, they aren’t difficult to find.

04 July 2023

Writing Dialog

Happy Independence Day!

Summer is a great time for reruns, so today I present “Writing Dialog,” which has been published in several places and is both a short story and a lesson in writing dialog. Enjoy. — Michael

Writing Dialog

“Dialog is difficult to write,” I said.

“Why?” An attractive young writer, eager to learn the secrets of my success, sat across from me. This wasn’t the first time we’d met to discuss writing.

“Because it must be realistic without being real.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, um, I’m not sure I can explain it, but—let’s see—real people, like, they stop and start and, um, they st-stutter and talk in run-on sentences. Or incomplete sentences. And they don’t always think before they, um, open their mouths and stuff. You know?”

“That was bad.”

“Wasn’t it, though?” I said. “I hear people talking like that every day.”

She leaned forward. “So how do you make dialog realistic without being real?”

I considered for a moment before continuing. “Take out the fluff. Don’t start sentences with ‘well.’ Eliminate the ‘um’s and ‘er’s. Eliminate throwaway bits such as ‘by the way.’”

“That sounds easy enough, but that can’t be it. There must be more.”

I reached across the table and patted her hand. She didn’t pull away. “There’s much more, but perhaps we should order a drink before continuing. You game?”

After she said she was, I called the waiter over, ordered a pair of frozen margaritas, and watched him walk away. Then I continued. “That was a good example.”

She appeared bewildered. “Of what?”

“Of knowing when to write dialog and when not to.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I could have written, ‘I called the waiter over. He introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Bob. I’ll be serving you today.” “Hi, Bob,” I said. “What will you have?” he asked. “Two frozen margaritas,” I told him. “Is that all?” “Yes, Bob, that’s all,” I said. Then I watched him walk away before I continued.’”

“That wouldn’t have advanced the plot at all, would it?”

I smiled. She was beginning to understand. I said, “Not at all.”

“Anything else?”

“Avoid long blocks of ‘dialog’ where a single character does all the talking. Once a character has said more than three consecutive sentences, you’re in danger of writing a monolog or a soliloquy. Even worse is when each of your characters speaks in long, uninterrupted blocks. That creates alternating monologues.”

“That was four sentences.”

“You could have interrupted me and broken it up a bit.”

“No,” she said. She licked salt off the rim of her glass. “I like listening to you.”

I liked what her tongue was doing but I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted. I had much more to teach her.

“The info dump should also be avoided,” I told her, ”especially in dialog.”

“What’s an info dump?”

“An info dump is when the author needs or wants to convey information to the reader and chooses to do it in a block of text rather than parceling it out in bits and pieces as the story progresses.” I took a sip from my margarita and realized she’d already finished half of hers. “It’s especially bad when one character tells the other character something they both already know.”

“Give me an example.”

“As you know, we’re sitting in the bar of Bonita’s, a place you once described as your favorite Mexican restaurant. Bonita’s was opened in 1910 and is still owned and operated by the same family. It started as a hole-in the-wall and has grown significantly since then. What makes Bonita’s unique is that the founding family—the Fitzpatricks—are Irish. It’s the best place in town to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.”

I saw a twinkle in the young writer’s eye. Maybe it was my charm. Maybe it was just the alcohol. “I did know all that. So why did you tell it to me?”

“Info dump.”

“Will it be important later in the story?”

“I doubt it.”

She caught the waiter’s attention and ordered two more frozen margaritas. I had barely finished my first one when he arrived with the fresh margaritas.

“What else?” she asked.

“Avoid blathering.”

“What’s blathering?”

“When one character asks a question that can be answered simply, but the second character uses it as a jumping off point to ramble on and on.”

“For example?”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jo,” she said. “I was named after my uncle Joe, but my parents dropped the ‘e’ to make my name feminine. My uncle Joe was a cool guy. He taught me to hunt and fish. Well, my uncle Joe and my Dad did. They took to me to Clauson’s farm every summer. The Clausons were my mother’s cousins. My mother never went out there with us. She liked to stay home. She said she enjoyed having a little time to herself. She—” The young writer stopped and looked at me. She had beautiful blue eyes. “I’m blathering, aren’t I?”

I smiled and repeated something she’d said earlier. “I like listening to you.”

This time she reached across the table for my hand and our fingers entwined. Then she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and looked deep into my eyes.

I cleared my throat. “Of course, most of these rules can be broken if the story warrants it. Sometimes you need a character who stutters or one who blathers. But just one.”

She stroked my palm with the tip of one finger. “What else?”

“Always have a good line to exit the scene.”

Jo lowered her voice. “And what do you have?”

I already knew her answer, but I asked because it was the best way to end the scene. “Would you like to go to my place and see my manuscripts?”

23 May 2023

In Search of the New Normal

Stacy Woodson, Michael, and David Dean
at the Ellery Queen’s Readers Award
presentation. (Photo by Ché Ryback)

During the past seventeen-plus years, I developed a less-than-optimal schedule for writing and editing.

Each morning Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; all-day Tuesday and Thursday; and occasional evenings and weekends on concert days, I drove downtown to my part-time job as marketing director of a symphony orchestra. I spent afternoons Monday, Wednesday, and Friday editing a bi-monthly gardening magazine and a weekly gardening newsletter. Editing anthologies, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Black Cat Weekly, as well as writing short fiction, SleuthSayers posts, and the like was shoehorned into evenings, weekends, and moments stolen from my other commitments.

Until recently, working sixty-plus hours each week was the only way to accomplish all of these things and was “normal.” After leaving the symphony, I need to establish a new normal.

Terry Shames affixing Michael’s name badge
before the Edgar Awards banquet.
(Photo by Aslam Chalom)

I spent my first week in New York and Bethesda, attending the Edgar Awards and Malice Domestic. These were highly invigorating, but not part of a “normal” week, and I returned home pumped and ready to dive into my new schedule, whatever it might be.

My commitment to the gardening magazine and the gardening newsletter remains, so I’m still devoting Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons to them. Because I’m already spending these half-days editing, I decided to devote the entirety of M-W-F to editing, and have spent my first few weeks reading submissions to Black Cat Weekly and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 5, reviewing the publisher’s copyedits to Prohibition Peepers, and developing a rough schedule to ensure I meet my editing commitments.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to writing. So far, I’ve finished and submitted one story, think I’ve resolved a problem with another story that’s been vexing me for years, have been fussing with a story a co-writer and I have kicked back and forth a few times, and have written this post.

Moderator Deborah Lacy, Michael, Carla Coupe,
Linda Landrigan, and Josh Pachter
on Short Stories: Magazines & Anthologies
panel at Malice Domestic.
(Photo by Neil Plakcy)

Though I’m still doing some writing and editing during evenings and weekends, I’m able to spend more time with Temple, and we’ve been doing a few things we’ve not had time for prior to now, such as making a last-minute decision to attend a Marc Cohn concert and planning an upcoming trip on the Texas State Railroad.

So far, this schedule is working.


Do you have any idea how many time-consuming errands and how many household tasks one can self-generate to prevent sitting at the computer?

So, how about sharing some tips with me: How do you schedule your writing time? How do you avoid procrastination? And, how do you ensure quality time with your significant other?

I recently appeared on the Central Texas Life with Ann Harder podcast, discussing, among other things, four stories that were nominated for awards last year. It’s available on YouTube and wherever podcasts are available.

I’ll be presenting two sessions at the Between the Pages Writers Conference June 9-11 in Springfield, Missouri: “Editorial Sausage,” a behind-the-scenes look at how short story anthologies and fiction magazines are put together, and “Plot Stories Using a Decision Tree,” how using well-developed decision trees can generate multiple stories. Learn more about the conference and the other speakers here.

02 May 2023

In Search of the Perfect Office

My office on day one of my return to full-time
freelancing. I didn't even bother to
straighten up.

If you are like several writers I know, your writing space is an afterthought. It’s the kitchen counter, one end of the dining room table, your lap in the living room, a large closet with a desk shoved into it, or the corner of a multipurpose room you share with family members often engaged in distracting activities.

If you’re among the luckier writers, you have a room designated as your office. It’s an attic space, a room in the basement, or a bedroom once used by your now-grown-and-moved-away child.

Regardless of what the actual space is (or was before you laid claim to it), it likely has been furnished on a catch-as-catch-can basis. You found the desk at a yard sale and the filing cabinet at a discount office supply store. The bookcase came from Aunt Marge’s house and the chair with the wobbly wheel had been thrown out by your employer when they redecorated some muckety-muck’s office. In short, you’ve made do.

But what if you could gut your writing space and start over? And what if money were no object? What furniture would you choose, what equipment would you want, and how would you arrange the space for maximum comfort and efficiency?

These are questions Temple and I have been wrestling with ever since we decided I would return to full-time freelancing. We have been poring over office-furniture websites, examining photographs of other writers’ workspaces, and trying to determine exactly what I need and want.

There are limits to what we can do, of course. We can’t change the location of the window, the closet, or the door, and it’s unlikely we could reroute the HVAC vent. And no matter how big we dream, there likely will be a limit to how much we can spend.

In fact, this weekend’s purchase of an office chair may have blown the entire budget. After much research and a test sit, we ordered a Herman Miller Embody chair, an ergonomic chair consistently rated among the best office chairs for those sitting long periods.

For now, though, on day one of my return to full-time freelancing, nothing has changed. I haven’t even taken time to straighten things up before diving into the pile of work on my desk.

So, because we’re still in the planning stage, how about giving us some advice about furniture, fixtures, and office equipment? Or just share your dreams about what your office would look like if you could gut it and start over with an unlimited budget.

I look forward to learning about your experiences and your ideas.

11 April 2023

Story Mining

I don’t often write about the genesis of my stories because I often don’t know or don’t remember much about how they came to be. My stories don’t exist, and then they do.

On the other hand, “Denim Mining” (scheduled for publication in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine), has a distinct, three-part path from concept to finished story.


In early 2019, I read several articles about the value of vintage blue jeans—especially Levi’s—and how collectors scour abandoned farms and mines looking for denim treasure. Particularly significant finds can be worth several thousand dollars, as CNN reports in an October 13, 2022, article about a pair of 19th century Levi’s found in a mine shaft that sold for $87,000. Silver mines in Arizona, California, and Nevada seem to be particularly good locations to find vintage Levi’s. I printed hardcopies of some of the articles and made a few notes about a possible story, and stuck everything into a file folder.

Not long after that, I read some articles about silver mining in Texas, and was fascinated to learn that Franciscan friars discovered and operated several silver mines near El Paso, Texas, around 1860, concealing the mines when they feared they would lose control of them to the Jesuits, and that several silver mines operated in Texas well into the 1950s and sporadically since then. Of particular interest was Jim Bowie’s lost silver mine near Menard, Texas, which legend says may contain a billion dollars’ worth of silver.

So, I began writing a story about two men—one an assistant professor of Texas history who believes he has identified the locations of several abandoned and forgotten Texas silver mines—who go in search of vintage denim.


Around this time, Bouchercon announced the theme of the 2019 anthology, Denim, Diamonds and Death. So, I wondered what might happen if my denim-mining duo stumbled upon a cache of diamonds in one of the silver mines. I made more notes and wrote more bits and pieces of a story, and then...nothing. I returned to the story repeatedly, well past the deadline for the Bouchercon anthology. I figured out how the diamonds came to be in the mine, and I sort of knew what I wanted to happen, but the story wasn’t progressing. It had no ending.


I rarely discuss stories-in-progress with other writers, but mid-summer 2020, I posted something here about having a few stories that had hit brick walls. Fellow SleuthSayer Leigh Lundin offered to look at one of them, and I took him up on his offer. He read what I had written and made several suggestions—an important one having to do with weapons of the past—that broke down the wall and allowed me to bring “Denim Mining” to a satisfying conclusion.

One interesting note is how I structured this story. Most of my stories are linear, with one event happening after the other. “Denim Mining,” though, alternates between the past and the present. The scenes from the past tell the story of how the diamonds wound up in the mine while the scenes in the present tell the story of how the diamonds are discovered. In a sense, “Denim Mining” is two separate stories woven together, but what happens in the past clearly impacts what happens in the present.

For those of you who like to track these kinds of stats: “Denim Mining” was submitted to AHMM on 8/20/20, accepted 7/29/21, and will be published in the May/June 2023 issue.

Released yesterday: More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties (Down & Out Books), the sequel to last year’s Groovy Gumshoes. This rollicking romp through the sixties features stories by Michael Chandos, Wil A. Emerson, Jeff Esterholm, John M. Floyd, Nils Gilbertson, Wendy Harrison, Dave H. Hendrickson, gay toltl kinman, Lynn Maples, Jarrett Mazza, John McFetridge, Robert Petyo, Graham Powell, Bev Vincent, Joseph S. Walker, Stacy Woodson. If you haven’t already read the first volume, why not order both?

14 March 2023


I’ve been MIA for my last three SleuthSayers posts, with friends Andrew Hearn, Stacy Woodson, and Sandra Murphy filling in for me. That’s because life events prevented me from writing beginning the day after Christmas and lasting through much of February (more about that in a moment), and my friends, when I told them what had happened, took up the slack. I hope they know how much I appreciate their help, but I also know that I could have asked any of several dozen other writing friends and had the same result.

Temple’s father, who been undergoing treatment for leukemia, took a dramatic and unexpected turn for the worse the day after Christmas. A pair of emergency room visits and a follow-up with his oncologist during the following two weeks led to a hospice referral and an estimated life expectancy of one to two months. The estimate was wrong. Eight days after the referral, on Friday, January 13, James Lincoln Walker passed away in his own home, in his own bed, in the presence of his daughter and granddaughter.

In addition to the emotional devastation that accompanies the death of a loved one, we were faced with the daunting and ongoing task of sorting through my father-in-law’s life. There are bills to pay, paperwork to review, furniture to disburse, personal items to sort through, and all the other responsibilities large and small that became Temple’s upon her father’s passing. We are only now out from under the worst of it, and I am only now catching up on all the projects that went on hold for two months. Luckily, and thanks to help from friends and tolerance from editors, publishers, and clients, I’ve not missed any deadlines.


For the past seventeen-and-a-half years, I have worked part-time as the marketing director for a professional symphony orchestra. Post-pandemic the marketing position changed, and I found the time devoted to it at odds with my freelance writing and editing. Temple and I spent much of last summer and fall discussing when might be the best time to take my leave of the symphony. Though the increased writing and editing commitments and opportunities coming my way were pushing us toward a decision, her father’s passing reminded us how little time we may have left, and it gave us the last  push we needed to set an end date.

I’ve worked too long and too hard to reach this point in my writing career, and it’s time to take advantage of every opportunity. So, my last day with the symphony will be Friday, April 21. The following week I travel to New York for the Edgar Awards ceremony and then to North Bethesda, Maryland, for Malice Domestic. When I return home, I will, once again, be a full-time freelancer.

I was freelancing full-time when I took the symphony as a client—that relationship changed when I officially joined the staff—so freelancing fulltime is not new. What is new is that I’m not doing it alone. I was single the last time around. This time I have Temple with me for the ride, and having someone who understands and supports what I do will make the transition back to fulltime freelancing much smoother than it otherwise might be.

So, 2023 began with a significant upheaval in our lives with the passing of Temple’s father, and our lives will continue to transform with my imminent change in employment.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings.

28 February 2023

Guest Post: Failing Up

I’m uncertain when I first met Sandra Murphy, but I am certain that we’d crossed paths online for many years before we met in person at the Dallas Bouchercon in 2019. Before we met in person, though, our writing careers intersected in an unexpected way: I posted a smart-alecky remark on Facebook that I wanted to become the James Patterson of short story writers by collaborating with other writers to increase my productivity. Sandra called my bluff and offered to give it a shot. Since then, we’ve finished and sold five short stories, have one in progress that shows great potential, and have a few more that, while not actually dead, are clearly on life-support. Here she explains how her non-writing failures have led to her writing successes. 

— Michael Bracken

Failing Up

By Sandra Murphy

Sandra’s love of learning new things—in this
case learning to create things with mixed
media—has inspired many of her stories.

I speak Spanish and Chinese. I love to dance. As a kid, I signed up for all kinds of after school lessons—swimming, piano, ballet, tap, and baton twirling. In adult education classes, I learned to make a meringue Christmas tree, spinach quiche, and the paper frills that go on a crown rib roast. Such a variety of skills and yet, they all have one thing in common.

I am astonishingly bad at all of them.

Four years of high school Spanish and I can ask what’s your name, how much does this cost, and what is the location of the bathroom. In Chinese, I can let you know, I am tall. There is no doubt that these are not my native languages. To my credit, I never harmed anyone with a misguided baton toss. There was an incident with that quiche and too much Tabasco sauce which apparently reaches fiery levels after baking.

As for as dancing, I have no rhythm and cannot hear the beat except when the Bee Gees are singing. So far, I’ve not harmed anyone on the dance floor either. There’s still time.

I was reminded, double-digit years ago, how much I enjoy the written word. It was also pointed out, I wasn’t limited to reading. I could write as well. Rather than writing well, I scribbled an untold number of articles and stories that will never see the light of publication. As soon as an editor could stop laughing at my pompous attempt to sound like my idea of a writer, an instant rejection would have followed.

I kept writing. There was a short romance story where my main character was deemed to be a stalker rather than a nice guy, chatting up a nice gal. My mystery had no hook, dragged along at a pace compared to that of a snail with a limp. I wrote descriptions of weather, scenery, and characters, just to see if I could.

Surrounded by other writers, I got better. And I began to notice how often my fictitious alter ego used my real-life experiences to tell her stories.

Despite not being able to roll my r’s or sing a tune, I do speak fluent Dog. After years of pet sitting for dogs as small as a three-pound Pom and as large as a 250-pound mastiff, I’ve learned to not just listen to the canine voice but to respond in kind. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a cocky, some might say conceited, Jack Russell Terrier turned up as a drug sniffer in an early story, titled “Arthur.” A mama cat and her litter of four kittens made their debut during Hurricane Harvey, in “Lucy’s Tree.” Denali, a large, rowdy pup of indeterminant parentage, introduced a lonely woman to a shy man. When her ex assumed he was welcome to return, Denali showed him the door, literally. “Denali” is in the Dogs and Dragons anthology. Dogs just run full tilt into my stories, skid to a stop, and refuse to leave. Good dogs!

Cooking bloopers were brought to light in “The Chicken Pot Pie Fiasco,” “The Tater Tot Caper,” and “Bananas Foster.” I swear, I’ve never set anyone on fire with a flaming dessert in real life. I’ve been more into nuking than cooking from scratch since that Tabasco incident.

My unintentionally non-profit business of creating jewelry for drag queens meant time in their dressing room before a performance. Details of those eye-opening visits turned into scenes in “The Exterminator.”

When the words become rowdy and uncooperative or worse, go on break, I resort to playing online gin rummy with avatar Bill, who I suspect cheats. If a couple of games doesn’t set my creativity free, I move on to YouTube videos. My favorites of late are mixed media demos. The artists use paint, junk mail, and expired credit cards to make art. I can’t say I understand it but watching them layer odd bits into a finished piece makes me think of how words on the page, in the right order, layered with emotion, bring a story to life.

In “The Mixed Media Mess,” published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, issue #13, one of the main characters is a mixed media artist, the other a writer who has a Corgi in her book. Once again, my life oozed into my writing.

I may never hear the beat in music, but reading a story aloud at writers group, I hear the cadence of my words.

In one instance at least, I got rhythm.

In St. Louis, Sandra’s enthusiasm and love for bright colors, textures, and shapes, far outweighs her talent for mixed media. Raised by a mother who could turn canned biscuits into hockey pucks, Sandra managed to win the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year award in her senior year of high school. Luckily, it was a written exam.

She’s editor of Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the ’60s (Untreed Reads), and her story “The Mixed Media Mess” appears in the just-published Black Cat Mystery Magazine #13.


07 February 2023

Guest Post: I’m Stuck—Now What?

Filling in for me today is Stacy Woodson, a writer I first met at Malice Domestic in 2018. I was participating in Malice Go Round, a form of speed dating where pairs of authors move from table to table every few minutes pushing their latest project to several interested readers. I was on break when Stacy arrived. There were no seats available at the official tables, so—in violation of the rules!—she sat with me at the break table and I learned she had just sold her first story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Stacy and I have since crossed paths at several in-person and virtual events, and she has contributed to several of my projects, including the recently published Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3 and the forthcoming More Groovy Gumshoes.

Learn how she overcomes those inevitable moments when she gets stuck.

— Michael Bracken

I’m Stuck—Now What?

by Stacy Woodson

The ideal solution.
When it’s time to write, I light a scented candle, put on classical music, sit at my computer and the words flow through my fingertips. I’m a vessel for story. It’s euphoric.


That’s a load of crap.

At least for me. (I do envy people who can access story this way.) My process is messy, don’t-look-behind-the-curtain-Wizard-of-Oz kind of messy. I need an interesting character, thrown into an interesting situation. I need to know the ending and the twist. Without the twist I’m dead in the water. And when I’m writing I’m constantly saying to myself: give the reader a reason to care.

A HOT MESS—that’s my writing process.

As you can imagine, I’m often stuck. Not blocked. (Yes, I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in writer’s block.) But I do believe in getting stuck. And recently (six months ago, recently) I started being mindful of things I do to get unstuck—thanks to Becca Syme and her Intuition Series.

So, I created my own personal “stuck list,” a list of things that have helped me get unstuck. It’s a list I continue to update. (And yes, there are some things on there that we’ve all heard before like: take a shower or a long walk.) But it has other things that I think are unique that work for me, and I hope some of them work for you, too. So here it is. My stuck list in all its messy glory:

Can’t figure out how to start.

First the initial frustration hits: OMG I can’t start. Why can’t I start? What is wrong with me? The candle is lit, the music is playing. (Just kidding. I promise, I’m not on that hamster wheel again.) But seriously, I was having one of those moments a few months ago. Frustrated, I turned to my shelf and opened a book by an author I admire and read the opening paragraph. Then, I opened another. Five books later, I turned to some of the short stories I had written. I read those openings, too. And then I felt it. (I’m an intuitive writer. I outline [sort-of] and chase a feeling [always]—tone, vibe, a way to hear the voices of my characters. I told you, I’m a hot mess.) After reading those openings I was able to start.

Can’t move forward.

People say write ahead—pick a scene that comes later and write it. This doesn’t always work for me. Often, I am a linear writer. I need the momentum of the story to carry me to the next scene. But I always know the ending before I start and sometimes writing the scene with that twist gets me there. “The Retirement Plan” worked that way. I wrote the ending when I was blocked (I mean stuck) and then I was able to write the missing pieces.

The household chaos.
Things still need to marinate.

I say all the bad words. Then, I take a walk or a shower or go to the box. (In the CrossFit world that’s a fancy way of saying gym.) Sometimes my subconscious just needs time to work on the story. There are times I do more research and look at pictures. When I wrote “The Rose” I looked at dozens of pictures of Honky-tonks and watched a documentary about the Broken Spoke. It helped me hear the voice, feel the vibe, and access the story.

Plot isn’t ringing true.

More cussing. Especially if I’m halfway through the story. (I served in the Army. Cussing is a reflex for me. It’s like breathing.) When I’m done verbally purging, I start asking questions. Are the stakes personal enough? What happens if the protagonist fails? And do I care? If I can’t move forward still, I go to my resource folder. (Thank God for great craft articles and classes and blogs.) I read and use this information to brainstorm how to fix it. Click here for one of my favorite posts at The Write Practice on stakes.

Can’t figure out the twist.

This happens during my “sort-of-outlining” process. I have that interesting character in that interesting situation and then I have NOTHING. No twist. And all the frustration. Then comes… all the Facebook. Because that’s what I do when I get stuck. Instead of going to my list, I click over to Facebook. Don’t click over to Facebook. It suuuuuucks you innnnnnn. My phone rings or the dog barks (thank God, again), and I realize that I’ve disappeared into the void for an hour. Then, I regroup and go back to my trusty resource folder and look at lists I’ve made about twists—generic and specific examples. When I read a story, especially short fiction that has an interesting twist, I write them in a journal so I can go back and study how the twist was executed. I look at articles that I’ve collected, too. Click here for one of my favorites from Screencraft.

Can’t hear the character’s voice.

I started creating a list of characters that resonate with me from television and film, and I watch snippets of their performances so I can hear their voice and feel their vibe. (I DON’T use their words. This has nothing to do with their dialog or their story.) I’m simply trying to access who they are during their performance. If I’m looking for a troubled vet, I often watch Huck from Scandal. I need a crusty mentor character, I watch Lloyd from Yellowstone. A chatty gossip, anyone from the movie Steel Magnolias. No impulse control, Daisy from Bones. Someone bigger than life, Effie from The Hunger Games. (Yes, my viewing choices are diverse.) There’s a tenor and cadence in how these actors deliver their lines that I can harness when I’m writing dialog.

The uncredited assistant.
Don’t care about the character.

I’ve created an interesting character in an interesting situation, and I have the twist. I start writing—and I don’t care. Ugh. I’ve done all the things. The story gods should reward me, right? Wrong. After the cloud of profanity passes, I look at the emotional stakes in the story. Are they strong enough? (This goes back to my personal give-the-reader-a-reason-to-care-mantra.) Does the story feature important relationship characters? Does it feature pertinent interpersonal conflict? Are the emotional stakes tied to plot stakes? Questions I’ve hijacked from Kim Weiland and her amazing blog Helping Writers Become Authors. Click here to read her article on emotional stakes. (I’m a total Marvel nerd and LOVE this one.)

My in-case-of-an-emergency-break-glass person.

If I’m still struggling, first, I complain about the story to my husband. We brainstorm in the kitchen. Sometimes it works. (He helped with the twist in “Armadillo by Morning” which will appear in a future issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.) Often, unfortunately, I’m still stuck. But it’s not a waste of time. Even without an answer or way ahead, verbalizing the story (external processing) helps because I’ve considered and discarded other ideas, and this keeps the creative juices flowing. I try chatting with friends in my writers group (shout out to The Royals), bus stop moms and dads, my CrossFit friends on the sunrise squad. (Sometimes Barb Goffman gets a call, too.) And when all else fails, I turn to a story coach. It’s true. I have a story coach. She’s like my own personal story therapist. When I’m really blocked (I mean stuck), I call Dawn Alexander. Which results in a session where I tell her everything. And she looks at me over Zoom, smiles, and says—have you thought about this? Then, I love her and hate her all at the same time because she’s usually right.

Can’t focus.

The kids are too loud, the dog won’t stop barking—but I can’t leave the house. The frustration! So, I put on Brown Noise. Not White. Brown. I read an article about Brown Noise (how the sound blocks out other sounds so you’re less distracted) and tried it. I’m hooked. In fact, I have it playing right now. More on the science behind Brown Noise here.

Click here if you want to take Brown Noise for a test drive.

Phew. So that’s my stuck list, for now, anyway. I’m sure I will continue to get stuck, and my list of hacks will continue to grow. What works for me, may not work for you. Still, I hope there’s something here that’s helpful. Do any of you have a stuck list? What works for you?

Stacy Woodson ( is a US Army veteran, and memories of her time in the military are often a source of inspiration for her stories. She made her crime fiction debut in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories and won the 2018 Readers Award. Since her debut, she has placed stories in several anthologies and publications—two winning the Derringer Award.